April 10, 2011


The Legend of Big Rich (Allison Glock, April 8, 2011, ESPN The Magazine)

SIZE DOESN'T MATTER. That's one of the first things the strongmen tell you, even though most of them are large enough to have their size infiltrate their names. Like "Big Rich" Williams, 6'3", 410 pounds, the man with the marvelous hands. The hands themselves are average looking. Not the sort of things you'd note from afar, as you would, say, J-Lo's backside or Drew Gooden's beard. And, yet, despite their ordinary appearance, Williams' hands are the strongest in the world. Perhaps the strongest that have ever existed. And on this March afternoon, at the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, Williams intends to use those hands to show the world the power he holds, like a superhero, at the ready, in his palm.

It's just after lunchtime at the four-day expo of bodybuilding, arm wrestling and strongman contests, and the 32-year-old Williams is backstage, staring into a cinder block wall, head inches away. Other strongmen grunt and groan through warmup exercises, slapping Tiger Balm onto their sweaty bellies. Williams and six of his rivals are up next on the expo main stage, to take part in the second annual Mighty Mitts competition, a subset of the strongman event that centers exclusively on hand strength. Also known as grip, Mighty Mitts tests the skills of an intimate community of men who lift, hoist, pull, grab and clutch extraordinarily heavy items. It is equal parts freak show and athletic feat, having evolved from the carny tents where grip legends wrapped horseshoes into heart shapes and passed them out to swooning ladies.

As the minutes tick down to showtime, Mighty Mitts' most senior contestant, 61-year-old Odd Haugen, makes the rounds, catching up with friends. Williams doesn't join the conversation. Instead he sways foot to foot, growls, scowls, keeps his eyes on the wall. Finally, it's time: The grip guys are summoned onstage and introduced to a crowd of thousands. Then the first event begins. Using one hand, the men must hoist a 163-pound anvil by the horn and walk. The first few contestants can't even loosen the weight from the ground, their palms slipping uselessly as if they were tugging at a tree root. Haugen frees the anvil, carries it a little less than three feet and drops it to the floor like a Buick.

Now it is Williams' turn. He approaches the anvil, bends, wraps his right hand around the tip and lifts. He waddles the length of the stage, turns and waddles back. He does not rush. He carries the anvil like a lunch pail. He lets it slip at 60 feet, eight inches. That nearly doubles the world record -- the one he set last year. The crowd erupts. As they should. Because in all probability, they will never see anything like that again.

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Posted by at April 10, 2011 7:17 AM

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