What on earth, you may ask, is a muscular giant?
Very simple. Despite the fact that on a pound for pound basis the most efficient weightlifters have always been in the lighter weight classes, the general public and, indeed, most lifters themselves have always seemed fascinated by the big boys, the superheavyweights. There is something about sheer physical size that grabs the attention of the average man. Of course, size can be attained by mere obesity, but that’s not the kind of giant we’re going to talk about. A real muscular giant, in the neighborhood of 300 pounds or more, may carry excess fatty tissue, but to qualify as a bonafide muscular giant he should have great mounds of underlying muscle as well. The giants profiled in this article will all come from the post World War II era right up to the present, since by and large the kind of giants in question didn’t appear until this time. Great strongmen of the past such as Cyr, Saxon, Apollon, and Goerner were either muscular or 300 pound giants, but seldom both at the same time.
Unquestionably, the father of all modern muscular giants was Doug Hepburn of Canada.
Although handicapped by a shrunken lower leg caused by childhood polio, Hepburn nevertheless won the 1953 World Weightlifting Championships, defeating the great John Davis of the USA on sheer power and minimal technique. At 5′9″, Hepburn weighed close to 300 in his prime, and had powerlifting existed in those days, undoubtedly would have been a world champion. Hepburn was probably the first man to unofficially bench press 500 pounds and once actually took a shot at 600, although he tore a shoulder muscle and failed. As an amateur, Hepburn held the standing press record at 381 (back when the press was still a press) but became far stronger as a professional and eventually did 440.
He was considered the strongest man in the world for a few years, that is, until our next giant reached his prime.
Of course, I’m referrring to the great Paul Anderson.
Anderson was from the hills of Tennessee and in his early years trained mainly on the squat; in retrospect, this was a wise choice, for it gave him the basic strength to demolish all the official Olympic lifting records and many unofficial power records as well. At 5′9″ Anderson weighed around 330 – 360 pounds with 36 inch thighs and squatting power to match. He squatted 900 while still an amateur and later did a legendary 1200 as a pro. In all fairness it must be said that there is some question if the 1200 went past parallel. But the 900, done without wraps of any kind, was rock bottom.
Regardless, in my mind, Anderson’s most impressive feat was in the jerk press. Using a drive of the legs and then pressing the weight out, “Andy” made an incredible 565! To this day, it is quite possible that this lift has never been duplicated.
Although Anderson certainly carried some excess tissue, he was amazingly solid in his prime and probably had the heaviest hip and thigh structure of any lifter in history. He trained down to 300 pounds for the 1956 Olympics and actually had cuts in his thighs.
Many expected Anderson’s Olympic records to last for all time, but in a few years they were all broken by Russian Air Force officer Yuri Vlasov.
A colonel in rank, Vlasov fancied himself an intellectual and the glasses he wore while lifting did nothing to dispel this image. About six feet in height, Vlasov won his first world title weighing about 270, but eventually got his bodyweight up to 308 by 1964, at which time he looked for all the world like a Russian bear. However, at the Tokyo Olympics, he was beaten by an even bigger teammate, Leonid Zhabotinsky.
At 6′5″ and 350 pounds, Big Zhabo was the biggest man ever to step on a platform. In contrast to the reserved Vlasov, Zhabotinsky was crude in manners and always gave the impression of being a big happy kid.
An American contemporary of Zhabotinsky was George “Ernie” Pickett.
Pickett never touched a weight until he was 22. Not a naturally husky man, his normal bodyweight at his age was an emaciated 180, at a height of 6′5″! But the effects of heavy training rapidly filled him out and he got his weight up to a trim 310 in his prime. I saw Pickett on his way up at about 280 and was astounded that he actually looked skinny at this bodyweight, such a huge frame did he have. By the time he passed 300, most of the additional weight seemed to have gone to his arms and shoulders, and the now massive Pickett set several world records in the press.
During this period, organized powerlifting was taking root, and its most muscular superheavyweight was the great Pat Casey.
Even before the advent of powerlifting competition, Casey was already the world’s greatest bench presser, doing around 535. Once it became official, however, he increased his bodyweight to a huge 330, and brought up his other lifts as well, setting world records in the squat and total. But Casey’s heart always lay with the bench press and he became the first man to officially make 600, a goal for which he had strived for years. Casey’s immense rib box and pectorals attested to his great benching power.
Back in Olympic lifting a giant U.S. lifter was making his mark on the world scene. His name was Ken Patera.
Patera was the first man ever to clean 500 pounds in a contest, even before Alexeev. At about 6′2″ and 330 pounds, Patera cleaned & jerked this weight in 1972 and later pressed even more (505). Injuries prevented him from lifting still more and today he is a successful professional wrestler.
In the early seventies, two legendary powerlifters emerged out of northeastern Pennsylvania. They were, of course, Jim Williams and John Kuc. Williams was nicknamed the “big black bear” with good reason, since at about 6 feet tall and 330 pounds, he looked frightening with simply enormous pecs and delts.
To this day, Williams remains the greatest bench presser who ever lived, having done an easy official 675 and nearly making 700 the same day.
John Kuc, on the other hand, although not as good a bencher, was the better all around powerlifter.
About the same height as Williams, Kuc got his bodyweight up to 320, won the world powerlifting championships and seemed destined to become the greatest superheavyweight of all time. But high blood pressure forced him to reduce his bodyweight, so instead he became the greatest 242 pounder of all time.
In 1970, an Olympic lifting legend burst upon the scene with his first of eight straight world titles. Of course, I’m referring to Vasily Alexeev.
Although at nearly 350 pounds, Alexeev’s most obvious physical feature was his huge belly, it is a mistake to dismiss him as merely a strong fatman. Viewed from the rear, or in clothes which hid his paunch, Alexeev looked bigger than a gorilla. But speaking of gorillas, the human being who came closest to looking like one was Alexeev’s chief competitor, Serge Reding.
Usually the shortest superheavyweight in the contest, the genial Belgian weighed up to 314, at a height of only about 5′8″. He was incredibly massive, especially in the chest, and relatively trim in the waist. A librarian by profession, Reding set numerous world records and seemed capable of beating Alexeev. But everytime he went head to head against “Uncle Vasily”, he seemed to choke and always lost. Sad to say, Reding died a few years ago under mysterious circumstances while in the Philippines.
While Alexeev was dominating Olympic lifting in the Seventies, Don Reinhoudt was doing the same in powerlifting.
Like Alexeev, the likable giant from upstate New York gained a little weight every year and eventually weighed 350 at 6′3″. Always a big man, Reinhoudt had the perfect bone structure for a superheavy and in his prime held all the world records in powerlifting. Although best known for his squatting ability, much of Reinhoudt’s weight seemed to be in the chest and shoulder girdle giving him an incredibly impressive appearance.
As the eighties are upon us, both power and Olympic lifting fans have a true muscular giant in their respective sports. I refer to Bill Kazmaier and Sultan Rakhmanov.
Quite interestingly, they are both about the same size, 6′2″ and 320 pounds. Both are apparent successors to living legends, Reinhoudt and Alexeev. Neither yet holds all the world records in his class, but most people feel it is merely a matter of time for both.
In appearance, Rakhmanov, the 1980 Olympic champ, has the larger thighs and calves, while Kazmaier, as befits a powerlifter, is larger in the chest and arms. Both have incredibly trim waists for 320 pounders. If I were forced to pick one as the most physically impressive, I’d have to go with Rakhmanov.
The Rock has a little better muscle shape than Kaz, actually shows a little definition when in top shape. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe a 320 man can have shape and cuts, but it’s true. The Russian Rock could have been one hell of a bodybuilder. As he gains in strength and size, he should continue to astound us as the greatest ”Muscular giant” of all time.