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Any student of expressions commonly used by Southern rural blacks would be familiar with the term "natural man." Here "natural" connotes many things—courageous, tough, potent, able-bodied and so on—but the central meaning is the possession of exceptional physical strength. Work songs, reels, ballads and spirituals tell about natural men such as Railroad Bill, Old Bangum, Samson, Stagger Lee and, of course, John Henry. In this context, "natural" suggests that a man is what he is in the same way that a full-grown lion or golden eagle or 300-year-old live oak tree is what it is. There's no falseness in any of them, no pretense, nothing but the full flowering of their own true nature.
In a different context, "natural" can refer to the training regimen of one who pursues his sport without the use of illegal ergogenic aids such as anabolic steroids. "What are you on now?" is a question one athlete often asks another these days. The answer may be, "I got off the juice last year. I'm training natural now."
But whether "natural" is used to modify "man" in the one sense or "athlete" in the other, it can unequivocally be applied to a 27-year-old powerlifter from Fort Collins, Colo. named Lamar Gant, who's very likely the world's best at his sport. Gant is a powerlifter—that species of lifting in which one does the squat, bench press and deadlift—so lavishly gifted that over the past nine years he has won nine world championships in the 123- and 132-pound classes without apparent recourse to the pharmaceutical support so ubiquitous in the strength sports.
He's one of only three powerlifters who have won nine or more world titles; the other two are 43-year-old Hideaki Inaba, a 114-pounder from Japan who has won 10, and Larry Pacifico, 39, of Dayton, Ohio, who has won nine at 198, 220 and 242 pounds. Inaba is still active, but his age should bring his era of dominance to an end within the next few years, and Pacifico has been beset by circulatory ailments that probably will require that he abandon the sport.
On the other hand, powerlifing cognoscenti believe that if Gant can maintain his interest in the iron, he could win at least 20 world championships before he hangs up his belt and wrist straps. His first came at age 18, when he won the 123-pound class at the 1975 world championships in Birmingham, England to become the youngest men's world champion in powerlifting history. His international debut, however, occurred two years earlier when he came out of nowhere—well, actually, Flint, Mich.—to place second at the worlds and give evidence of what was to come. Those of us who saw Gant lift that day were awed by his power and potential. Covering the event for a magazine called Muscular Development, I wrote:
"Another of the lighter lifters who deserves special attention was 16-year-old Lamar Gant. Little Lamar, at a bodyweight of 121 pounds, hoisted 500 pounds...easily in the deadlift.... On his 500, his long, slim arms appeared to stretch, making him look exactly like a tiny black Plasticman."
In the 11 years since then, Gant has traveled to dozens of countries, appeared on national TV, broken 26 world records and been the bane of sportswriters who routinely run out of superlatives in their efforts to describe his achievements on the lifting platform.
Gant's remarkable career began in Flint when his junior high gym teacher, powerlifter Randy Laur, tested him one day in the bench press and found that the 115-pound 14-year-old could bench more than the city record in the 123-pound class, even though he'd never tried the lift before. The astonished Laur then asked Gant to deadlift, and another city record was broken. At the time, Gant's favorite sport was wrestling, but when he discovered barbells, wrestling never had a chance.
"I did love those weights. Man, I loved them," Gant recalls, his basso booming improbably out of his 5'1" frame. His voice is remarkable not only in its depth and resonance but also in its volume and in a startling ability to reproduce a variety of sounds—animal, mechanical and, apparently, intergalactical—much as young Gerald McBoing Boing's did in the cartoons.
Gant continues: "I found a home when I found those weights. Man, I would never miss a training session. Never! I'd be shaking those weights around like some kind of bulldog. Boom! Boom! Those were some good days. I started training with Big Bill Stiff after a couple of months because he was the biggest, strongest man around. Coach Laur told him about me, and Bill asked me to work out with his weightlifting team. Big Bill! The man weighed 400 pounds!"