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Since the days when the legend of Hercules first took shape, to the ancient Olympic Games where wrestling matches were used to determine the strongest man alive, mankind has always wanted to name one man the strongest above all others. As the centuries wore on, the methods for determining the strongest man grew more sophisticated, from the advent of Highland games to Olympic weightlifting.
Since 1977, the presumed strongest men in the world have gathered annually to compete in the World’s Strongest Man competition to determine who’s No. 1, with similar contests being held by the International Federation of Strength Athletes and at the Arnold Sports Festival.
Still, with all the various ways we’ve devised to determine who is the strongest of the strong, it seems we’ve managed only to create factions, each loyal to the top athletes in their sport or organization of choice.
Powerlifting fans might tell you that Ed Coan is, pound for pound, the strongest man who’s ever lived or that the far larger Andy Bolton is the overall strongest. Fans of the WSM competition might point to three-time winner Bill Kazmaier or five-time winner Mariusz Pudzianowski.
All of those men have a legitimate claim to being history’s strongest man, but really just one can claim ultimate strength. To figure out who that is, we’ve consulted a man whose name deserves to be included in every discussion regarding strength: Dr. Terry Todd. Todd isn’t merely the United States’ first national powerlifting champion, but also the first man to total 1,600, 1,700, 1,800, and 1,900 pounds.
He’s also the creator of the Arnold Strongman Classic, one of the most renowned strength historians in the world, and he and his wife are the directors of the world’s largest collection of physical fitness and strength memorabilia, the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas at Austin. We drew upon Todd’s vast collection and reviewed countless articles detailing the feats performed by men of all eras.
We’d like to make it clear that comparing athletes whose peaks came a century apart makes educated speculation a must. First, there’s the issue of chemical enhancement, something obviously not available to a Louis Uni. Second, Todd points out that during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, strength athletes didn’t so much train as give performances on an irregular basis.
The strength they displayed for gawking crowds was raw and untrained—and it was their performances that made them stronger, nothing systematic. In this light, we attempted to recognize not just recorded strength but potential strength as well. Call it a metaphysical leveling of the playing field.
Without further ado, we believe this list to be the most definitive of its kind.
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