The Top Ten World’s Strongest Men of All-Time
The Top Ten World’s Strongest Men of All-Time
Who are the greatest athletes in the history of WSM is a much debated topic. In any sport comparing competitors from different eras is fraught with difficulty and perhaps never more so than in a sport such as Strongman which has only been codified for around 30 years. Much in the same way as MMA developed from a coming together of esteemed practitioners from numerous martial arts to deliver dream match-ups, e.g. sumo vs. karate, kung-fu vs. boxing, as Strongman took its fledgling steps the sport brought together powerlifters, weightlifters, bodybuilders, athletes, arm wrestlers etc. to find the World’s Strongest Man. Today both sports have evolved to the point where all competitors are specialists in MMA or WSM, i.e. they excel at all aspects of their sport. It is, then, very difficult to compare Strongmen of only twenty five years ago with those of today; the learning curve has been so steep and the competition far more fierce. With all of this taken into account here, in reverse order, is my top 10 greatest Worlds Strongest Men athletes of the modern era:
10) Jamie Reeves
The tenth position on the list was a toss-up between Reeves and Vasyl Virastyuk. Whilst both won a championship and Virastyuk competed in a more competitive era it is difficult to fully judge the Ukrainian due to his self imposed exile from WSM to compete on the IFSA circuit. On Jamie Reeves’ day, though, he was truly superb. The problem is that his career wasn’t the longest and it was plagued with injury. If he had managed to stay fit Reeves had the potential to be top 5 on this list.
9) Svend Karlsen
A World’s Strongest Man Hall of Fame inductee, three time podium finisher and the 2001 champion, Karlsen had to make the top 10. For many fans of the sport Karlsen is a firm favourite due to his vibrant personality. It should also be noted that Karlsen had also been elite in the fields of bodybuilding and powerlifting before turning his attention to Strongman. ‘The Viking’ also competed in a highly competitive era. If anything prevents Svend Karlsen placing higher it could be argued that often he showed a degree of inconsistency.
8) Magnus Samuelson
Only one WSM victory prevents Samuelson from a higher position on this list yet sheer career longevity, including five top three finishes ensure his place in the top 10. Always the crowd favourite, Samuelson was still challenging competitively right up until his retirement in 2008 following his 13th World’s Strongest Man!
7) Geoff Capes
Bill Kazmaier describes Capes as the strongest athlete he ever met, but not the strongest man period and Kaz is probably spot on with this description. I think it’s fair to say that Capes wouldn’t have lived in the modern era of the professional, dedicated Strongman but in his era he was a true competitor. What he may have lacked in pure, gym built strength he made up for in athleticism. For someone who didn’t exactly look like he was built to run Geoff was arguably the most fleet of foot of all Strongmen in his era. If we agree that Strongman is a sport separate from powerlifting and its goal is to test all-round strength rather than just static, maximal strength in three contrived gym lifts, then Capes was a true Strongman. Whilst it could be argued that his first WSM victory was devalued by Kazmaier’s absence it should also be pointed out that he defeated Jon Pall Sigmarsson twice, and not many men can say that! Whilst he may have competed in a less competitive era he still made the WSM podium six times and thus has to be seen as the greatest British Strongman in history and well deserving of his seventh place on this all-time list.
6) Juoko Ahola
The Finnish two time World’s Strongest Man and one time runner up is arguably the most underrated Strongman of all time. Not only was he competing in a highly competitive era but he was also one of the smallest elite Strongmen in history. If Ahola’s career had been longer and he had won a couple more titles he would probably have placed second on this list. The literal definition of a ‘Pocket Hercules.’
5) Bill Kazmaier
During his prime, Kaz gave himself the title of ‘The strongest man who ever lived,’ and to that point in history he may well have been correct. Possibly only the legendary, brutally strong and highly versatile Paul Anderson might have been able to challenge Kaz to that title. In his three WSM victories (’80,’81 and ’82) he absolutely dominated and those three years alone would earn him an all time top 5 placing. There are however two key factors that prevent the three time champion from placing higher, namely his self imposed four year exile from World’s Strongest Man and the lack of competition in his era. It is very difficult to know whether his WSM comeback defeats in ’88 and ’89 were the result of age simply catching up with ‘The strongest man who ever lived’ or if, in fact, they were the first times he had come up against real competition. That said, do yourself an favour and watch the ’80,’81 and ’82 finals and see just how dominant Kaz was in his prime. He was truly awesome.
4) Zydrunas Savickas
Some will consider that ‘Big Z’ should be higher up the list. A two time World’s Strongest Man, three time runner up, six time Arnold Classic Strongman winner and the dominant player if IFSA during his self imposed exile from the World’s Strongest Man competition. He has also achieved these feats in arguably the most competitive era in the history of the sport. The difficulty comes in terms of how you define the sport of Strongman. Savickas has tended to fare better in the competitions which favour relatively static, incredibly heavy events over more fitness and mobility orientated ones; hence he has, for example, dominated the, stage based, Arnold Classic. If this is how you define the sport of Strongman then perhaps Zydrunas Savickas should be number one on this list but the World’s Strongest Man competition generally has not defined the sport in this way. If, however, he can add to his current brace of WSM titles then Savickas may well end up as the greatest Strongman of all time.
3) Jon Pall Sigmarsson
Sigmarsson takes third place on the list as much for his character and what he did for the profile of the sport as for his phenomenal achievements. Whilst he generally stood head and shoulders above almost all of his fellow competitors almost all the time, it is only fair to point out that the depth of quality in his era was not what it has been in the last ten or even twenty years. JPS was, however, possibly the one competitor from his era whom, with modern training methods, would still be highly competitive, perhaps even dominant, today. When others were struggling with the Atlas/McGlashan stones on their WSM debut, Jon Pall tore through them with the proficiency of a modern Strongman. Both as a showman and an athlete he was truly ahead of his time. With Jon Pall Sigmarsson there may be no World’s Strongest Man as we know it today.
2) Magnus Ver Magnusson
The four time World’s Strongest Man from Iceland takes the runner up spot on this list because he was dominant in an era when the sport was becoming increasingly competitive and the ‘Strongman’ had become an athlete in his own right. Challengers such as Manfred Hoeberl, Gary Taylor, Ted Van Der Parre and Gerrit Badenhorst pushed Ver Magnusson all the way and even overcame him on two occasions but like all warriors the Icelander fought back. Some would argue that he also retired in his prime, possibly out of respect for fellow four-time champion and countryman, Jon Pall Sigmarsson. Arguably the first of the modern breed of Strongmen and the second greatest of all time.
1) Mariusz Pudzianowski
To many the record holding 5-time World’s Strongest Man will seem like the obvious choice. On the other hand some Strongman aficionados will roll their eyes. As controversial as it may be, some will argue that Pudzianowski was the beneficiary of the split in the sport which took place in 2005 and resulted in athletes such as Vasy Virastyuk and Zydrunas Savickas competing for the IFSA promotion. Personally I don’t see it this way. At only 23 years of age Mariusz came 4th in his 2000 WSM debut and would return 2 years later to take his first title in Kuala Lumpur. Let’s be honest four of his five victories were total walkovers, including two easy defeats of an older and more experienced Savickas. We must also remember he was a very close runner up on two occasions. Pudzianowski was also renowned for his all round versatility; it was a shock if he ever placed outside the top 3 in any event. Furthermore, by 2009 Pudzianowski was recovering from serious injury, was in heavy training for his MMA debut and had only competed in two local warm-up events in his native Poland in which he was even defeated by athletes not fit to lace his lifting shoes. Savickas, who had now returned to the fold, was on the other hand touted by many to be the world’s strongest man in all but title. Even so, the five time champion would push Savickas all the way, narrowly missing out on the Atlas Stones. Much like Rocky Balboa, his defeat may have been his greatest victory and proof that the most decorated WSM competitor of all time is also the greatest Strongman of the modern era.
Notable mentions: Bruce Wilhelm is the only two time champion not to make the list. His victories were in the least competitive period in the competitions’s history. Vasyl Virastyuk’s achievements have been noted. On his day Janne Virtanen was a great competitor and a highly deserving champion in 2000. Gary Taylor and Ted van der Parre were both deserving champions yet, without being unfair, these victories were aberrations. Of those fine athletes that never quite reached the summit, Manfed Hoeberl, Gerrit Badenhorst and Riku Kiri all gave Magnus Ver Magnusson something to think about. In the modern era Brian Shaw is showing the potential to be a dominant, multiple champion and Mikhail Koklyaev also deserves a special mention as the only man in the world who is arguably world class in weightlifting, powerlifting and Strongman.
Written by Phil Nourse – Olympic Weightlifting Coach www.britishweightlifting.com and World’s Strongest Man fan.