When you think about Bill Kazmaier, perhaps the first thing that springs to mind is the eye-bulging, head-slapping, psych-up routines that propelled him to event win after event win, in what was arguably the most dominant period in World’s Strongest Man history. Or perhaps the menacing, finger-wagging, “You made a big mistake Webster, a BIG mistake!” Following his disqualification by referee David Webster, in the forward sausage hold at the 1988 WSM showdown? Or maybe the double rep he pulled of the winning weight in the 1981 WSM Silver Dollar Deadlift, just to prove a point to the crowd, his competitors and the referee, who had disallowed a previous lift (groundlessly, in Kaz’s view)? The point being: “I’m the strongest man who ever lived.”
Intimidating adjudicators and fellow athletes was stock-in-trade for a man who held three of the four super-heavyweight powerlifting world records and had the kind of physique that would stand-out even among the modern era’s giants competing for strength’s greatest title, and barely necessary, such was his superiority. In fact the gentleman on the receiving end of Kaz’s thinly veiled threat, David Webster OBE, described him as “the greatest American strength athlete of all time.”
Kazmaier was born in Burlington, Wisconsin in 1953. Holding school records in shot put and 100m sprinting, he was, unsurprisingly, a star footballer, playing at fullback for the university of Wisconsin-Madison, but eventually redirecting his incredible force of will to the pursuit of strength. Success came at a meteoric rate: a world IPF title in 1979 at +110Kg, just a couple of years into his powerlifting career. In 1983 he repeated that feat, this time in the +125Kg division. In 1981 he established a 1100Kg total that would stand unsurpassed for over a decade and in the same contest, he became the first man to bench press 300Kg, in just his t-shirt.
During this period he turned his laser-like stare on the newly-found World’s Strongest Man contest, placing 3rd in 1979, but serving notice to his competitors that their time was well and truly up. What better platform for Kazmaier to showcase his ferocious drive, mind-boggling power and unnerving personality? Terrifying pre-lift routines were contrasted with softly-spoken interviews that hinted at the depth of his self-confidence as he swept all before him. The longer-format finals were completely controlled by Kazmaier; in 1981 he won six of the ten events and defeated Lars Hedland by twenty-eight points. But for the organisers, wanting to expand the contest and give it a more international flavour, Kaz’s monopoly seemed a limiting factor and the fledgling sport’s biggest star was frozen out of the 1983 WSM contest and didn’t rejoin the competition for five years.
Returning to the fold in the late 80’s, Kazmaier lost out narrowly to Jon Pall Sigmarsson, who had assumed his crown in his absence, before bowing out of the sport for good following his 4th place finish in 1989. For one of only two men to have won three consecutive WSM titles (the other being Iceland’s Magnus Ver Magnússon), the obvious question is: what might have been? In the intervening years he won a bevy of titles, such as Pure Strength, Scottish Power Challenge and the World Muscle Power Challenge. Following his strength career he wrestled briefly and most notably, with the WCW, making numerous challenges to Lex Luger’s heavyweight world title. Gym ownership, business interests and motivational speaking thrived before ESPN took Kazmaier on as a presenter and commentator for the WSM contest. Today many strength fans will almost know Kaz best for his live emcee and television work, bringing his ever-present intensity and energy to a new generation of the sport’s followers.
As legacies go, there can be few to compare. Kazmaier’s achievements span two separate sports in which he was recognised as the world’s greatest in both. How would he fare in today’s era? The list of men who have surpassed his lifts, thirty to forty years after the event, is very thin indeed. And let’s not forget that many of his performances were carried out with rough-hewn, unbalanced logs, unwieldy implements, unbending bars and a lack of modern support gear. As a motivational speaker, Kaz would frequently address groups of young people in schools and YMCA’s across the country, helping them to lead healthier and more productive lives. “I can and I will,” was his mantra. What more fitting words could there be to describe a true legend of strongman?