Sandow, Hercules and the Birth of Modern Weightlifting


While Eugen Sandow has long been been held in esteem in the lore of bodybuilding, fans of weightlifting have seldom seen the Prussian as a figure of great importance for their sport. This is unsurprising given that over the past half-century, Sandow’s image has become so integral to bodybuilding that the sport’s top contest, the Mr. Olympia, hands out miniature Sandow busts as trophies. Nevertheless part of Sandow’s fame, at least initially, came from his raw strength which he used to set records, wow audiences and defeat opponents.

With this in mind, today’s post looks at Sandow’s 1890 weightlifting contest with ‘Hercules’ McCann, a controversial bout during which the men’s weights measured to a tee, the first time such precision had ever been introduced to the growing sport. The contest can thus be seen as a pivotal moment in the evolution of weight lifting as a recognised sport in its own right.



Although recently arriving in England from mainland Europe, Sandow was already a star attraction in England by the time he faced off against Hercules McCann. Indeed the previous year had seen Sandow become the talk of the English sporting world following his defeat of the strongman Sampson in a series of strength feats. He was not however, invincible.

Owing to personal disputes, Sandow parted ways with his mentor and manager, Professor Attila in the aftermath of the Sampson fiasco. A decision which left the Prussian with few knowledgable friends in England. Illustrating Sandow’s naivety was his decision to accept  a weightlifting challenge in 1890 from Henry ‘Hercules’ McCann, who had spent several months goading the strongman in the press. Such mockery included McCann’s assertion that Sandow’s ability to bent press 250 pounds was a complete fabrication.

Following several spats in the English media, a match was finally agreed upon between the two performers, with some caveats…

First it was decided that an impartial panel of judges would be selected, including the Marquis of Queensbury whom many in the boxing community will no doubt know of. The judging panel were tasked with choosing a winner based upon the weight lifted and also the manner in which they were lifted, i.e. a combination of strength and form. For the first time in weightlifting history, the competitors weights were measured prior to each lift, which David Chapman argues can be seen as a precursor for the modern sport of weightlifting.

As an additional point of entertainment, Sandow made a wager prior to the event of one hundred pounds that he could lift two hundred and fifty pounds overhead with one hand, a feat he claimed to perform in each of his performances. This lift would be completed by Sandow, not in the contest itself, but rather as an added piece of entertainment for the audience.

The Contest


While Sandow proved successed in lifting the two hundred and fifty pounds overhead with one hand, his performance in the contest itself proved altogether less successful. In the first instance, Sandow was bested by Henry McCann in a one arm clean and press. Though both men lifted the same sized dumbbell (weighing roughly one hundred and seventy pounds), the point was awarded to McCann owing to his stricter form (Sandow had failed twice to lift the weight).

While the temporary setback seemed to rock the Prussian’s confidence, the contest’s second lift undoubtedly gave Sandow something of an advantage. The lift, a dumbbell press in which a weight was brought to the shoulders with two hands and then pressed overhead with one, had long been a feature of Sandow’s strongman act. Needless to say, Sandow’s experience shone through as the Prussian pressed two hundred and twenty-six pounds overhead, much to the dismay of his opponent. So incensed did McCann become that he vehemnetly protested against Sandow’s technique, arguing that the weight should be brought to the shoulders with one hand and not two. When the judges dismissed his concerns, McCann, somewhat unsportingly, refused to compete in the event. By way of default, Sandow took a point to tie the event.

This pattern would continue for the next of the evening with McCann and Sandow trading points in the various contests. Remarkably McCann both declined to compete in the last lift of the evening, which many believed would hand the match over to Sandow.

As the judges went behind the stage to deliberate, the score was as follows:

Sandow: Four Successful Lifts from Six

McCann: Three Successful Lifts from Six

The Results


Given the lifts of the evening, it seemed clear to many in attendance that Sandow had triumphed that evening. A conviction which was shattered minutes after the event ended with the judges’ decision.

Stepping out on stage, the Marquis of Queensbury announced that McCann, and not Sandow were the victors of the night, although they were awarding Sandow a special £50 prize for his efforts that evening.

Cue boos from around the theatre as fans became more and more outraged. The chorus of discontent grew even louder when Sampson, the man whom Sandow had defeated several months previous, ascended the stage and declared Sandow the winner. This strange act of showmanship from Sampson helped fuel flames that Sandow had somehow been cheated. Nevertheless, the result stood, regardless of people’s opinions on the matter.


While the results of the Sandow-McCann bout were dispersed throughout much of the British Empire, the defeat seems to have done little to have dented Sandow’s popularity. Indeed, within the next five years, Sandow’s star had only risen higher owing to an incredibly successful US Tour. Coupled with this, Sandow had the satisfaction of defeating a number of McCann’s weight lifting records the following year in 1891, an indication perhaps that the Prussian was still sore about his loss. This was made evident in later Sandow biographies and instruction manuals which noted the traversty of his defeat to McCann.

McCann himself seems to have successfully used his victory as a means of promoting his own physical culture career for the next decade at least. In times of solemn contemplation he also had a rather jingoistic medal to admire, which was presented to him for defeating Sandow.

While the match itself was farcical in the extreme, the Sandow-McCann contest can nevertheless be seen as a seminal moment in the history of weightlifting owing to the decision to measure each competitor’s lifts to a tee. Though the decision to include measurements came about owing to the McCann’s public doubting of Sandow’s strength, a precedence had been set which in later years would come to distinguish the honest efforts of weightlifters from their dubious showman counterparts.


Chapman, David L. Sandow the magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the beginnings of bodybuilding. University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Kent, Graeme. The Strongest Men on Earth: When the Muscle Men Ruled Show Business. Biteback Publishing, 2012.

Roach, Randy. Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors. Vol. 1. AuthorHouse, 2008.

Sandow, Eugen. Sandow on Physical Training: A Study in the Perfect Type of the Human Form 1894. Kessinger Publishing, 2003.

Waller, David. The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman. Victorian Secrets, 2011.

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