Bill Kazmaier: The Strongest of All Time?


Discussions between strength fans often centre on the question: ‘Who is the strongest man of all- time?’ A host of names are bandied around including Paul Anderson, Louis Cyr and Zydrunas  Savickas, amongst assorted others. One other man whose name crops up with great frequency is Bill Kazmaier. In fact, he is very often the first name to be offered. There is a very good reason for this, as ‘Kaz’ has seen it all and done it all in his chosen fields, breaking records and achieving feats that have lived long in the memory.

Bill was the first man to take three WSM titles, which he did in consecutive years and in a commanding fashion. It is not resorting to hyperbole to state that during this period of WSM, Kazmaier was untouchable. He had static strength in abundance, with a background in powerlifting that he was able to transfer remarkably well into strongman. In terms of pure numbers, Kaz’s powerlifting credentials are impeccable. He won the American junior title and was also the senior champion on a couple of occasions. Add in two stints as the IPF Super Heavyweight world champion in 1979 and 1983 and a picture begins to emerge. What that doesn’t illustrate is just how powerful Kaz was in his prime. His list of powerlifting records is enviable, and includes numerous world bests in the bench press, as well as records in the deadlift and overall total. In terms of the bench, Kaz was the first man to ever press over 300kgs in competition back in 1981. Bill had the ability to turn on his best performances in contests, where they really counted, although for good measure in the gym he reportedly performed a 600lb bench for five repetitions. To add some symmetry, when Kaz accumulated his world record 2425lb total the man whose record he beat was also the man he succeeded as WSM champion, his compatriot, Don Reinhoudt.

Intensity is a word that is frequently used when referring to competitors in all manner of sports, and WSM has had more than its fair share of fiery participants. However, it is no exaggeration to say that Kazmaier was synonymous with intensity. In fact he personified it. With an imposing physical presence he had an appearance and demeanour that was quite probably worth points on the scoreboard before a weight was lifted or truck pulled. As a WSM competitor, Kaz was aggressive, snarling and growling, eyes and veins bulging, deferring to no-one and had self-belief in spades. His single-mindedness and focus were unequalled in his heyday.  He unashamedly tried to intimidate his rivals, going as far as saying ‘Any intimidation of others in battle was simply a part of being in the fight of your life.’

When Bill stated during WSM in 1982 ‘I actually think that I am the strongest man who ever lived’, this wasn’t just self-promotion fuelled by the adrenaline of competition. On the contrary, Kazmaier genuinely believed it, and why not?  The interviewer (Donny Macleod) seemed taken aback by the claim, and was speechless for a second, before repeating Bill’s words back to him, as if expecting him to qualify his claim. Kaz simply added ‘Yes, I’ll make that statement’. These were not idle boasts based on pure ego, as there was a clear rationale behind Kaz’s thought process. He was a student of strength and knew how well he compared to figures of the past who may have been touted as being the strongest men that the world had ever known. Kazmaier was an awesome sight to behold when at the top of his game. Static disciplines were devoured and his Log Lift world records (set on the old wooden logs which were often unbalanced and cumbersome due to their dimensions), established him as the premier overhead lifter of this era of WSM. He was far from slow on his feet either, and did not suffer from a lack of speed in spite of his huge frame.

Kazmaier’s competitive instincts were also legendary, with one often told story about him worth repeating again. Struggling for money as a young lifter, Bill entered a contest of a different kind; goldfish eating. With a top prize of $300 Kaz says that he ate one thousand of the fish, and took home the cash. His nearest rival ate under half that number, but Bill was a man of extremes. It mattered little if it was powerlifting, strongman, goldfish-eating or anything else, as his aim was to win, and to do it with authority.

Prior to his WSM debut in 1979 Kaz had the highest objective of all. That is, he aimed to ‘take the trophy, title and cheque.’ Although he didn’t manage to win on his debut, Bill finished in third place, narrowly failing to take the runner-up spot. It didn’t take long for his first WSM win though, as one year later he triumphed, leaving the rest of the field in his wake. Kaz took five wins along the way, and tied for first in another. The man in second place, Lars Hedlund was well over twenty points behind the victor. Of his three wins, Bill picks this as his personal favourite due to “the food, the surroundings (Great Gorge Playboy Club in New Jersey) and the outfits of the ‘Bunny Girls’!” Kazmaier’s approach to competition was based on ensuring that “everyone knew that I came to do business, and taking second place in an event was unpleasant and unbearable to me.” With that in mind, Kaz maintains that in spite of the fact that during the Squat he was under a clear plexiglass sheet, with ‘Bunny Girls’ sat atop it, he never even looked up once.

WSM in 1981 saw Bill in full cry once again, and he took five event wins, two second places, one third and a fourth. When quizzed in 2010 about this performance that year, Kaz gave an insight into his thinking and quest for perfection. He stated that “to this day I believe that with a little more (event) practice, I could have won all the events in 1981.”  He continues, adding that “at the peak of my career there was almost no event training. As a matter of fact, I didn’t need to practise the events. In that setting, it made for a much different competition than those of today. I simply made sure that I placed as high as I could in every event so that I could go last on the next event and watch what others did. By the time it was my turn I was schooled on the way to victory.”   His event wins included the Log Lift, Deadlift, Squat, Loading Race and Engine Race. The Deadlift and Squat in particular provided some memorable highlights. In the Squat, the rivalry between Bill and rival Dave Waddington (who also had a powerlifting background) reached fever pitch. Both men believed themselves to be the strongest in this discipline, and the PA announcer (Olympic gold medallist, Hal Connolly) perhaps did Waddington few favours by trumpeting him as the man to beat. This perceived slight served to motivate Kazmaier even more than usual (which was an achievement in itself) and when ultimately he triumphed with a winning lift of 440kgs, Bill announced to the crowd that ‘these legs, right here, are the strongest legs’. Given what he had just achieved, it was hard to dispute that fact. Whilst in the Deadlift, Kaz was untouchable. His winning lift on the ‘silver-dollar’ apparatus was 435kgs, and for good measure Bill pulled it not once as required, but twice! In terms of sending a message to his rivals, that was a very clear one indeed.

Heading into WSM 1982 and with ‘Magic Mountain’ in California as the host, the pattern of the previous two editions continued and Kazmaier took his third title in succession. At the time of writing, only Magnus Ver Magnusson has also managed this. Bill was yet again the man who everyone looked to try and unseat. He made a blistering start, winning the first three events, and showing that he had lost none of his hunger for victory. Consequently, he took the lead at the earliest time possible and remained out in front for the duration of the contest. The outcome was an all too familiar one for the other athletes, and they were left to assess once again what they needed to do to topple the triple champion. However, at that time none of them knew that they would not face Bill again at WSM.

WSM 1982 marked the end of Kaz’s domination, as he did not receive an invite to compete again until 1988 in Budapest. His rivals of old such as Capes, Hedlund and Waddington were now gone, and Bill’s focus was on one man in particular: the Icelandic hero, Jon-Pall Sigmarsson. In Kaz’s absence Sigmarsson had collected two titles, had a huge following and was being said in some quarters to be the finest WSM champion ever. Kazmaier saw things differently and got his chance to take on the reigning champion in Hungary. From Bill’s perspective it is easy to see why he was irked. He had never lost the WSM crown that he last won in 1982 and had been deprived of competing at WSM against the man who now held ‘his’ title. Kaz had to look on from the sidelines, with a clear idea in his mind that he would have compared favourably against the contenders who had risen through the ranks during his absence.

Although Kaz and Jon-Pall had competed against each other in arenas outside of WSM, this was to be the first occasion where they would contend for the biggest prize of all. Twelve months previously Jon-Pall had comprehensively beaten Bill in the ‘Ultimate Challenge’ three-man event at Huntly Castle (with Geoff Capes as the other competitor). Conversely, Kaz had defeated Sigmarsson in 1987 at the Le Defi Mark Ten event in Canada, and also prior to WSM in 1988, at the World Musclepower Classic. The scene was set for an epic battle, and it turned out to be just that.

The two men traded event wins and a few insults along the way, but it was the Icelander who triumphed. The key moment was Kaz’s performance in the Weight for Height. It was a poor one by his own standards, with the pier setting on Lake Balaton affecting his normally consistent throwing of the ’56′. Given that Kazmaier had thrown 17 feet 6 inches at Huntly Castle and is said to have made 18 feet 3 inches in Aviemore in 1984, he was clearly affected by the surroundings. Jon-Pall won the event and then took first in the remaining discipline, clinching the title. It was not, of course, the result that Bill had hoped for. With hindsight, however, his performance was a quite outstanding one. Finishing in second place after being away from the WSM stage for six years may not have lived up to Kaz’s own tremendously high expectations, but the fact that he was so competitive spoke volumes about his mental strength. He had returned and made it seem, to a certain extent, as if he has never been away.

1989 was Kazmaier’s final WSM outing. As WSM fans waited eagerly for the rematch between Bill and Jon-Pall, they were both upstaged by Englishman Jamie Reeves who secured the victory. It was not to be the triumphant end to Kaz’s WSM career that he had hoped for, but a series of injuries in San Sebastian meant that he was nowhere near 100% fit. Given the state of his body during the 1989 event, merely finishing the contest was a notable achievement. All who were familiar with Kaz, however, understood perfectly that quitting just wasn’t in his competitive vocabulary.

Kazmaier is an undisputed legend of WSM. His three wins at the start of the 1980′s were achieved in a manner that made him seem invincible. Everything about him was extreme, from his actual lifting through to his mannerisms and personality. In competition he was the man to beat. For many of his rivals, merely taking an event win against Kaz was considered a great success, with the realisation (whether consciously or not) that the overall title was beyond them. To give an indication of Kaz’s dominance, each of his WSM victories was achieved in a manner whereby he took first place in the first event and did not relinquish the lead throughout. That in itself is a quite remarkable feat. To have done this on one occasion could have been passed off as fortuitous, but to have accomplished this three times was outstanding. This feat was not done by fluke, he was simply that talented. For Reinhoudt, Bill was a man who never said ‘I couldn’t’. He would get the job done, whether that meant competing with severe injuries (which he did often) pulling out record lifts through sheer willpower, or refusing to be beaten when the odds were against him.

Bill’s  absence from four WSM contests since his final win in 1982 means that he has three victories to his name, rather than challenging Sigmarsson, Ver Magnusson and Pudzianowski for four, five or maybe more titles. Whether he could have won more than his hat-trick can never be known, but it would take a brave person to bet against Kaz. Today he is a highly respected commentator on WSM for ESPN, and provides expert analysis on events for British television. His views on present day strength athletes and strongman as a whole are eagerly sought and he has a keen analytical mind when discussing these issues. Overall, for the vast majority of WSM fans the mention of his name is enough to elicit the response that ‘he is one of the best ever’. Praise doesn’t get much higher than that.

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