Philippi's rehab went well, and he competed in Malta. Another top American, Phil Pfister, a 28-year-old fireman from Charleston, W.Va., did not compete, because he couldn't get time off from his job. A third relatively well-known U.S. strongman, Harold (Chief Iron Bear) Collins, a Native American from North Carolina, was not in Malta, but at 42 he wouldn't have won anyway. Collins is considered by his colleagues to be an extremely strong man but one who just won't dig deep enough to win—won't eat asphalt, which is WSM-ese for getting low enough to the ground to pull a bus, van or other multi-ton vehicle.
An American has not won the title of world's strongest man since '82, and there are several theories as to why. During the first WSM, at Universal Studios in Los Angeles in '77, Franco Columbu of Southern California, who at one time held the bodybuilding titles of Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia, dislocated his knee during the refrigerator race and sued TWI and CBS, among other defendants, claiming that he fell because the apparatus that held the refrigerator to his back had not been properly tested. Columbu, who was subsequently used as a poster boy for tort reform, was awarded just over $1 million by a jury in 1982. The first six WSMs were held in the U.S., but after losing the suit, Frank moved the event to various exotic locales where liability suits are rare, and U.S. competitors have not thrived.
Predictably, there are those who believe that life in these United States is too easy and that athletes reared in more hostile environments, such as Scandinavia, tend to be tougher. America's largest men do not, as a rule, gravitate to WSM. They gravitate to the weight room at Nebraska, whence they will one day emerge to sign NFL contracts befitting their shirt sizes. Nor is there much of a strongman tradition in the U.S. Bekilted Scotsmen can recite chapter and verse about the muscular tests of the Highland Games, on which WSM is loosely modeled, but the historical models for Americans are nail benders, cannonball-in-the-gut clowns and other circus performers. There is, however, one recent exception.
Bill Kazmaier, three times ('80 to '82) the winner of WSM, is the color commentator on WSM broadcasts, a hulking legend who still looms over the event. Kaz, 45, looks as if his body parts were forged in different machine shops and then carried to a place of assembly, where a huge granite head was set on a pair of comically muscular shoulders, onto which were grafted a pair of stevedore's arms, the process continuing down to two loglike legs.
"I had never seen such density of muscle," Scottish strength historian David Webster wrote of Kaz in his book Sons of Samson. "He seemed to have muscles in places that other people didn't have places."
"A few years ago he showed up for a broadcast," says Jamie Reeves, a British strongman who competed against Kazmaier many times and won WSM in '89, "and 10 guys took the first plane out because they thought he was in the field." After watching a replay of his commentary in Morocco last year, however, Kazmaier declared himself "a total slouch" and got back in shape. He talks coyly of a comeback.
Many people consider Kazmaier, who sells fitness equipment in Auburn, Ala., the strongest man who ever lived. One of those people is Kazmaier himself. His world-record powerlifting total of 2,425 pounds stood for 18 years, until suburban Chicago lifter Eddie Coan broke it by 38 pounds in December 1998. Kaz seems most proud of his accomplishments with dumbbells, particularly the one-handed press he made nine years ago with a replica of the Thomas Inch dumbbell, named for a celebrated British strongman. Only four men, says Kaz, had raised the thick-handled, 173-pound dumbbell to a deadlift position—standing up straight while holding the weight—before he did it on Oct. 13, 1990. He then became the first man to raise it over his head.
Strongmen have passed many a night telling tales of Kaz. Reeves marvels at the memory of Kaz's hoisting a 220-pound sack of sand and whipping through a 200-meter course in 42 seconds. Others talk about the loading competition at the '81 WSM during which Kaz grabbed full beer kegs weighing 168 pounds as if they were empty soup cans and tossed them into a truck instead of lifting and cradling them and waddling with them to the truck, as the other strongmen had done. "I made myself believe they weighed nothing," Kaz explains.
At the six WSMs in which Kaz competed (besides his three wins, he finished second in '88 and fourth in '89), he was a fuming, fussing menace to officials and fellow competitors. "If you want to rob a bank," says Kaz, "you start three fires somewhere else in town. Diversionary tactics. Create animosity around the event and anxiety in the competitors. I thrived on that." Kaz would hang out with the boys when the day was done, but there was a part of him that he kept hidden. Even his closest friends on the circuit didn't know until they were told recently that Kaz's cousin Dick Kazmaier won the 1951 Heisman Trophy as a Princeton halfback. Nor did Kaz ever talk much about his father, William, the source of his motivation.
"My father always told me I'd be nothing but horses—," says Kazmaier, who is from Burlington, Wis. "He used to wake me up at two in the morning to shovel snow, then make me shovel it again before I went to school. It's not natural to live a strongman's existence. It takes unusual motivation, a strange ear to hear that strongman tune. I had it."