Most readers will be familiar with the name of strongman Eugen Sandow. Born in Prussia in the mid-nineteenth-century, Sandow helped usher in the modern day interest in health and fitness. In fact, some scholars have argued that Sandow was the ‘father‘ of modern bodybuilding! What most people forget is that the strongman Sandow also fancied himself as a weightlifter. It was his weightlifting abilities which are the focus of today’s article. Specifically, it was his weightlifting losses that we care about.
Sandow the Strongman
In 1889 Eugen Sandow traveled to London to compete against a fellow strongman named Sampson. At the time Sampson advertised himself as the ‘world’s strongest man.’ Such was Sampson’s confidence that he even offered an open challenge to his audience every night to test his strength. Few people, if any, regularly took up this challenge.
Learning about Sampson’s challenge Sandow, and his mentor ‘Professor Atilla’, traveled to London to meet Sampson. We have already spoken about Sandow and Sampson on this website but a quick reminder never hurts. Over the course of two separate nights, Sandow defeated Sampson and his assistant Cyclops in a series of strength tests.
In the aftermath of the contest, Sandow became a sporting celebrity. British audiences were impressed with his strength and muscularity. This explains how, and why, Sandow was able to secure theater dates around London in the following weeks. Sandow may be the ‘father of modern bodybuilding’ but he achieved his fame as a weightlifter.
For the next decade, Sandow toured Britain and the United States. Although he made his money from music hall performances, and even wrestling lions, he also faced off against other weightlifters in competition. He wasn’t always successful either.
Sandow and Saxon
In 1898 a new group called the Saxon Trio began performing in Sheffield in northern England. The Trio’s leading star was undoubtedly Arthur Saxon, then in his early twenties. Part of the Saxon’s nightly shows included weightlifting challenges to the audience and other famous strongmen.
To create interest in their shows, the Trio also began issuing challenges to Eugen Sandow. This, it must be said, was a relatively common tactic at the time. Sandow was the biggest name in health and fitness. Challenging Sandow helped performers advertise their names.
Sandow rarely responded to these challenges. Because Sandow was famous for his strength, he risked damaging his reputation if he lost a weightlifting match. This time, however, Sandow decided to accept the challenge.
In front of a small Sheffield theater, Sandow and Saxon ran through a series of lifts to determine which man was stronger. The challenge included lifting a kettle bell to the shoulder, lifting members of the audiences and bent pressing a barbell. Remarkably Sandow declined to take part in the opening challenges and instead focused solely on the bent press.
Imagine his shock when Saxon beat him in that as well! For all the good Sandow did in the fitness industry, he was rarely gracious in defeat. It was not a surprise then that Sandow was furious when he learned that Saxon was advertising himself as the man who beat Sandow in competition.
The Court Case
In 1899 and early 1900, Saxon continued to advertise himself as the man who beat Sandow in competition. This could not have come at a worse moment for Sandow. At that time he was organizing his own bodybuilding competition and also trying to train British troops as part of the British war effort in the Second South African War.
There was also talk that Sandow’s training system may be introduced into British schools. In short, Sandow did not need any negative press. Someone claiming to be stronger than Sandow thus posed a big problem.
This is why, in late 1900, Sandow brought Saxon to court over his advertisements. It was not the first time Sandow had sued someone. During the mid-1890s, Sandow sued his former manager Professor Attila and before that, Professor Szalay.
Sandow’s court case against Saxon turned into a media circus. During the trial, Sandow claimed that the barbell Saxon used in competition was filled with mercury. Why did this matter? Mercury is a liquid which means that if a barbell had mercury in it, it would be very unstable. The liquid would move around the barbell during the lift.
Sandow claimed that Saxon knew this and had cheated. Saxon denied this claim but his case was weakened when a former member of the Saxon Trio, Arno Saxon, testified that Arthur was lying. Sandow’s legal team then argued that Sandow had, in fact, completed all the lifts successfully.
In fact Sandow had struggled to lock out the weights while Arthur had done so with ease. That Sandow was a famous strongman and Arthur was still relatively unknown likely helped Sandow’s case. In the end, the judge ruled in Sandow’s favor and ordered Arthur to stop advertising his victory.
The verdict came in late 1901, weeks before Sandow’s 1901 bodybuilding show.
The Sandow-Saxon court case showed what serious business weightlifting could be in the early 1900s. Although many physical culturists sided with Arthur Saxon over Sandow, Sandow nevertheless managed to maintain his reputation in the public eye with his victory.
In the end, Saxon stopped advertising his victory. Sandow stopped participating in weightlifting contests and the world of physical culture kept spinning round.
As always … Happy Lifting.