Jón Páll Sigmarsson – 4 WSM Titles
In terms of iconic figures of World’s Strongest Man, one person, over twenty years since his final victory, still stands alone. Jón Páll Sigmarsson remains perhaps the most recognisable of all WSM competitors, and his performances and personality have ensured that he has retained a place in the minds of all fans of strongman. Sigmarsson was the first man to win four WSM titles, passing the previous best of three by his great rival Bill Kazmaier, in 1990. With Jón Páll however, statistics only tell a partial story, as he was the very epitome of ‘larger than life’ both in and out of competition. His interviews were witty and candid and his competitive performances were littered with exhortations to the Norse Gods, interaction with the crowd and an unpredictability that kept rivals and spectators alike on their toes. Whilst he was a vocal competitor, with tremendous self-confidence, he had a generosity of spirit which ensured that he was not perceived as conceited. This was typified in his responses to both victories and losses in which he would generally be the first to recognise the efforts of his adversaries.
Athletic, tall, blond and handsome, the Icelander was an instant hit at WSM. That is without even mentioning his strength. Like his compatriot who followed him at WSM, Magnus Ver Magnusson, Jón Páll had a background in powerlifting. Sigmarsson was the European powerlifting champion in 1983, and took bronze in the World championships in 1981. He was also a winner of the Nordic, Scandinavian and Icelandic powerlifting championships and broke the European deadlift record on numerous occasions. Add in his Highland Games performances, an Icelandic Weightlifting title and his stints as the Icelandic bodybuilding champion, and his versatility was plain to see.
Jón Páll’s WSM debut in 1983 coincided with the first time that WSM had left the USA, with Christchurch in New Zealand as the host. Sigmarsson duly won the opening event, the newly introduced ‘Fergus Walk’, shouting at himself, the crowd and anyone who would listen, as he progressed around the oval track. From this initial performance, it was clear that Jón Páll had ‘it’, an unquantifiable something that would go on to make him a huge success for the remainder of the decade. His cry of ‘LOOK AT THIS!’ during the overhead Rock Lift was not a request, it was a demand made of the shocked spectators as he balanced the 121kg rock on his head before successfully pressing it. Two more individual victories followed in the Wool Hoist and Loading Race, and he ended in second place, 1.5 points behind the winner Geoff Capes. Their paths would cross again at WSM over the next three years, with a rivalry that was a defining part of this era of WSM. Added to his runner-up spot in 1983, he was also voted as the ‘man/personality of the contest’, scooping £1000. No-one disputed that he had been exactly that.
He was loud, with an exuberance that he maintained throughout his career and he put it in the simplest of terms when he stated that ‘I go a bit crazy when I compete. I have to.’ Over the years, many pieces of ‘innocent” apparatus found themselves on the receiving end of some Sigmarsson craziness following an event that hadn’t gone to plan. Calmness would then reign again, as if the genie had been put back in the bottle, as he signed autographs and chatted to spectators between disciplines. If 1983 was the year in which he showed the WSM faithful what he could be capable of, the 1984 edition saw Jón Páll make the next step and topple the reigning champion. With the freezing temperatures in Mora, Sweden posing no problem for the Icelander, he won the opening three events (Truck Pull, Caber and overhead Rock Lift). After that start he maintained his lead, finishing with 57.5 points from a possible 64. What is possibly the most striking image, and one which ranks as one of the greatest WSM moments took place after the arm-wrestling. When Sigmarsson defeated Capes and secured the title, he stood arms aloft and bellowed ‘The King has lost his crown’. As the years have passed, it has become another phrase that will be forever associated with the four-time champion.
With two WSM contests behind him, Sigmarsson resumed his tussle with Capes in 1985. Swapping the snow of Scandinavia for the seafront location in Cascais, Portugal, the contest was ultimately between Capes, Jón Páll and the Dutchman Cees de Vreugd. It was here, that another of Sigmarsson’s famous utterances was heard. In response to someone in the crowd who referred to him as an Eskimo, the Icelander paused before his Deadlift and retorted ‘I am not an Eskimo, I am a Viking!’ Long before Svend Karlsen took on the mantle, JPS had ‘Viking Power in abundance. The placings were reversed from Sweden however, and Capes regained the title, 1.5 points ahead of Sigmarrson. As a reminder that he had not forgotten the year before, Capes declared that ‘The King is not dead!’ Jón Páll was gracious in defeat, but he was firm in the belief that he would take the top spot a year later.
WSM remained in Europe, with Nice on the French Riviera taking on the host role. The pattern of the previous two years continued unabated as the Englishman and the Icelander vied for the title. Jón Páll, regardless of his affable personality was stung by his loss in Portugal and was at his explosive best here, taking four wins and regaining the title from Capes. This was Geoff’s last WSM appearance and a new foe appeared for Jón Páll, but a familiar one to all WSM fans; the legendary Bill Kazmaier.
For the only time since 1977, WSM was not staged in 1987. Sigmarsson, Capes and Kazmaier did meet however on a number of occasions. The most notable of these was the three-man contest labelled as ‘The Ultimate Challenge’ or ‘Pure Strength’ at Huntly Castle in Scotland. Jón Páll came out on top, winning eight out of ten events. This formed the backdrop to what would be an epic WSM encounter the following year, as ‘Kaz’ was invited back to compete following a six year absence. Bill, still smarting from the fact that he never actually lost the WSM title described Jón Páll as a ‘paper champion’. The Icelander replied that he had defeated Kazmaier at Huntly Castle and would make him ‘eat his paper’.
The first WSM clash between the two men, in Budapest, did not disappoint. Kazmaier, even though he was six years older than his last outing at Magic Mountain in California looked in tremendous shape, and with focus and determination that was a defining characteristic of his. The two giants of WSM dominated the contest, winning seven out of the eight events (four of those to Jón Páll), with only Jamie Reeves breaking their stranglehold. After winning the Deadlift, Kaz stood with the weight still in his hands and announced that ‘This is strength’. For his part, during the Log Lift Jón Páll, thundered ‘HELLO KAZMAIER’, before he successfully pressed the 140kg log overhead. Bill simply went out and won the Log Lift with ease, strict pressing 170kgs. In spite of the tension between the two, when he was beaten by Kaz (who had also taunted Jon-Pall during the event) in the ‘Sack Race’ the attitude of the defending champion remained the same as ever. He said immediately afterwards that ‘It’s always hard to be beaten, but if a better man beats you then you have to take it and try harder next time. He added ‘I’ve no complaints.Why should I complain? I just lost.’
The penultimate event of 1988 WSM was the Weight for Height, and this proved to be the turning point of the contest. Kaz was an exceptional thrower of the ‘56’, breaking assorted records over the years, whilst Jón Páll was also adept at this. However, this particular event took place on a moving pier on Lake Balaton, which was a far cry from the Highlands of Scotland. Kazmaier was disorientated by the surroundings and his sixth place saw his one point lead turn into a four point deficit. Jón Páll took the win, and as he had done many times before, cried to the spectators ‘Do you want to see it? See it then’ before launching the weight over the bar for the winning lift of 16 feet 7 inches. Jón Páll then sealed his third title on the final event, the McGlashen Stones, loading all five stones and celebrating with a slalom between the barrels. WSM 1988 lived up to expectations and exceeded them in many respects, and Sigmarsson had shown that he was more than a ‘paper champion’. In the aftermath, the newly-crowned champion was magnanimous and admitted that ‘I am maybe the fastest strongman in the world, but I think Bill is the strongest on his feet’. Jón Páll had been hampered by injuries throughout the competition, and there were rumours that he would withdraw before the end. That he continued, in spite of the pain, was another insight into the character of Jón Páll, although he ended the contest in considerable distress due to the condition of both his arms and shoulders.
The rematch between 1988′s winner and runner-up in San Sebastian in 1989 was much anticipated, but Jon-Pall was under-trained having spent a large period of the year travelling and competing. He was also carrying a calf injury from a contest earlier in the year in Finland, which got progressively worse as the competition wore on. Luck was not on the Icelander’s side either when he broke his finger during the warm-up for the first event. Kazmaier himself picked up an injury during the first event, one of a number that he carried throughout the duration of the competition. England’s Jamie Reeves was a more than worthy winner however, and Sigmarsson was relegated to third behind the always consistent Dutchman Ab Wolders. As disappointed as he was, Jón Páll was quick to praise Reeves, whom he considered a close friend and a deserving victor.
1990 was Sigmarsson’s seventh and final WSM appearance. It was an historic one, with the man from Iceland surpassing Kazmaier and becoming the first man to win four WSM titles. It was far from straightforward however, with his main challenger, the giant American O.D Wilson performing exceptionally well. Jon-Pall trailed O.D throughout the whole contest, giving up 5.5 points going into the final event. Sigmarsson did manage to overturn this deficit, winning the closing discipline, but given its nature (200m ‘Hod Carry’) it was difficult not to feel sympathy for Wilson. The injured Jamie Reeves commented that it was ‘a cruel way to lose’, and half a point was all that separated the two at the conclusion. Ultimately though, the record books show that WSM history was made, and Jón Páll claimed win number four.
Jón Páll suffered a severe biceps tear in late August 1991 which rendered him unable to compete in Tenerife. His place was taken by his compatriot Magnus Ver Magnusson. Magnus Ver subsequently emulated Sigmarsson and became the second competitor to stand on top of the podium four times. With his own country hosting the contest in 1992, Jon-Pall was scheduled to appear but not having regained full fitness he withdrew before the start, and was replaced by Welshman Gary Taylor. He was in attendance though, offering support to Jamie Reeves whom he regarded as the favourite. He described Reeves as ‘the only man to have kicked my butt when I was fit’.
Tragically, that was the last time that Jón Páll was ever present at WSM. His untimely death in 1993 at only thirty-two years old was felt hugely throughout the strength world and far beyond.
Describing Jón Páll merely in terms of his WSM results is to only get a very limited picture of the man. His lasting appeal is centred upon the manner of how he achieved those placings, his relationship with the WSM fans and a character which elevated him into being a national hero in his homeland. The confrontations between Sigmarsson and Capes, and latterly Kazmaier are unquestionably defining points of WSM for many fans. There is little doubt that Jón Páll elevated the profile of WSM, as he became a focal point of it for many people. This is not to relegate Kazmaier and Capes to the role of supporting actors, as the reality is far, far from that. It is recognition, however, that Sigmarsson had the type of personality which meant that he would always find himself as the centre of attention. Sometimes the attention would be courted, other times less so, but regardless of that it meant that WSM had a figure in its midst who straddled the line between competitor and celebrity in many respects. Whilst his showmanship was an integral part of his make-up, if that had been all that he possessed then he would have been just another contender; a popular one, undoubtedly, but one of a number of others who were good strength athletes, but who would never be considered as a true great. The crux of the matter is that Jón Páll is a WSM icon and though his life ended prematurely, he remains a firm favourite in the minds of WSM followers