The Sheffield Showdown – Saxon vs Sandow

by Thom Van Vleck

Arthur Saxon supporting his brother Hermann, who is seated on a kettlebell. To make the act even more difficult, Arthur is holding out another kettlebell with his other arm!

Al’s recent story on Sandow beating Sampson got me to thinking about another great old time strongman confrontation.  When I was a kid, my granddad Dalton Jackson (originator of the Jackson Weightlifting Club) told me this story.  My Granddad (or “Pop” as I called him) was a big fan of Arthur Saxon and always seemed to paint Sandow as the villain in his stories.  Pop often liked the guy that talked less and showed more and I think he thought Sandow talked a lot more than he lifted and manipulated situations to his advantage rather than winning with his strength.

Arthur Saxon was a master of the Bent Press, which is a USAWA lift and the rules for it can be found in the rule book.  At one point, Arthur laid down the challenge to Sandow, or any other strongman, that he could not be beaten in the Bent Press.  Money was involved and the honor to be called the World’s Strongest Man was on the line.

As Sandow was the older (around 30 to Saxon’s 19 or 20) and the more established performer at that time, Saxon’s claim was taken very seriously by Sandow.  On February 26, 1898 in Sheffield, England the Saxon Trio was performing, and when the challenge was laid down, Sandow jumped to the stage to accept the challenge.

As was the custom of that day, each strongman would pick a lift and go back and forth with the winner often being the man to beat the other at one of his “pet” lifts.  First, Saxon lifted a 110lb kettle bell to his shoulder and held it there with his little finger while a 160lb man climbed up his shoulders and sat on the weight.  Saxon then bent pressed both.  Sandow refused to even try this, and as Pop told me, “broke the unwritten rules of strongman feats”.  Saxon then, using his whole hand, took a 180lb Kettle Bell and 188lb Oscar Hilgenfelt, a member of the original Saxon Trio, in the same manner and bent pressed it, but did not stand erect with it.  Again, Sandow refused to try it!  Finally, Saxon Bent Pressed a 264lb barbell and stood erect with it on his second try.  Sandow, very fresh having passed up every feat to this point, agreed to try the lift.  I recall Pop painting Sandow as purposely trying to wear Saxon out before finally answering a challenge.  Even with this ploy, it took Sandow 5 tries to get the weight to arms length but he did not stand erect with the weight.  Saxon claimed victory, and in my mind, rightfully so!

Saxon began to use the event to promote his shows and the “sore loser” (as Pop called him) Sandow then took his only recourse, which was to sue Saxon in court since he couldn’t beat him on the platform.  Sandow, being the home country favorite and significantly better financed (seem not much has changed about courts….money wins!) won a decision after getting a witness to the event to say he lifted the weight and that even though he admitted he did not stand erect with it, he did not have to!  Pop made it sound like Sandow claimed he “could have” lifted it, but chose not to!  Now the impression I had was Sandow was not only a sore loser, but a cheater!  Further, Sandow cried foul that Saxon used a barbell loaded with mercury and that he had “practiced” with it and could counter the Mercury flowing in the bells and keep his balance. While Sandow struggled with the balance each attempt.  Either way, Pop told me that if you accepted a challenge, you didn’t cry foul later!

It was some time later I was reading a story on Donald Dinnie, the legendary Highland Games athlete that went 40 years undefeated in the caber toss.  Dinnie heard of Saxon, but refused to believe that Saxon’s claims.  In October of 1904, Saxon traveled paid a visit to Dinnie and using Dinnie’s weights, bent pressed 340.5lbs.  After that, Saxon had Dinnie’s support and praise.

Now, I don’t mean to ruffle the feathers of Sandow fans out there, I just wanted to convey the story of a great event in strength history and from the perspective of how it was told to me as a young boy by a man that lived not too long after the event transpired!   But truth be told, to this day, Arthur Saxon is my favorite!

The Day Sandow Beat Sampson

by Al Myers

Sampson's advertising poster at the Aquarium

I enjoy reading about Old-Time Strongmen.  It is interesting learning about their training,  their show performances, and even their rivalries with other Strongmen.  You have to remember that there were no structured competitions for lifters to compete against each other in that day (late 1800’s and early 1900’s).   Often several Strongmen in the same generation would promote themselves as “the Worlds Strongest Man”, which logic tells us can not be true!  There can be only one. Today, this question is answered yearly, and with EVERYONE able to witness it on television, as the “Worlds Strongest Man” is settled amongst the best professional strongmen in the World.  Of course, the argument could be made that someone who didn’t compete in this Strongman Competition was stronger, but that it not the point.  The point is that this TITLE is crowned on only one man every year.

All Old-Time Strongmen made their living off of giving performances.  Their “strongman acts” usually involved feats of strength, mixed with a little theatrics.  The best performers were actors in every sense.  They would “build up” the crowd with their strength stunts, and once performed, the crowd would lavish them with applause and admiration. These guys knew how to sell tickets, and would do anything to “pack the house”.  One of their  ploys was offering “challenges” to other Strongmen – and put up wagers to increase the significance of the challenge. If no one shows – all the better, as these Strongmen would pump their chest and say everyone else was afraid to “take them on” and use this statement to back up their claim  as “the Worlds Strongest Man”. Sort of like winning by default.  But occasionally, a well-known Strongman would take another well-known Strongman up on “their  Challenge”, resulting in a make or break confrontation. Someone would win and someone would loss – thus the beginning of competitive weightlifting competitions.

This day happened on November 2nd, 1889 when the famous Eugen Sandow decided to take up Charles “Samson” Sampson on his challenge, and refute Sampson’s  claim as the “strongest man on earth”. To make a long story short, Sandow came out on top as he completed ALL of Sampson’s challenges, and was declared the winner.  This was one of Sandow’s most talked about victories over a rival strongman, but the details behind this dual are often left out with the mention of his “beating Sampson”.  I recently read Sandow’s book, Strength and how to obtain it, and Sampson’s book, Strength, and found many discrepancies between the two of them on their reports of this challenge.  The old adage, “there are two sides to every story”, is so true  in trying to re-tell this story.  I will try to do my best to represent the opinions of both Sandow and Sampson. Now on to the story!

Sampson was performing at the Royal Aquarium in London when this challenge was issued by him – 500 pounds of his money versus 100 pounds of the challenger, that the challenger could not duplicate  the feats used in his (Sampson’s) strongman act.  However, Sandow said Sampson was putting up 1000 pounds instead of 500, which in the end didn’t really matter as Sampson reneged on his payment, and Sandow had to settle with the Aquarium for a small settlement.  When Sandow’s manager, Professor Attila, notified Sampson that Sandow wanted to take up his challenge that evening, Sampson postponed it till the next Saturday evening.  Sandow said “Sampson wasn’t prepared to meet me” while Sampson said it was for promotional purposes. Thus the disagreements on the reflections on this challenge begins between the two of them.

The next Saturday evening the house is packed, with a reported 10,oo0 people in attendance. Standing room only. So full they locked the doors to prevent more people from crowding in (apparently there were no fire codes in those days!). When Sandow arrived 20 minutes before the challenge was to start he found himself locked out!  He kept trying to get in but the door guard had orders not to let anyone else in.  Finally the hour the challenge was to begin had arrived, and Sandow was still not present, as he was locked outside.  Whether this was done by intention of Sampson is uncertain, but when Sandow heard Sampson proclaiming to the impatient crowd, “Ah – see. He does not come! I thought he would not meet me!”, Sandow decided to use his brawn instead of his negotiating skills and broke the door down!  What an entrance that must have been!

Two very important dignitaries  were appointed the judges by the Aquarium – Marquis of Queensberry and Lord de Clifford.  After inspection by these officials – the challenge began.  Sampson had to know that he was no match for Sandow involving barbell strength, as he chose these three challenges first- bending a pipe over his arm and leg, breaking a wire around his chest by chest expansion, and breaking a chain around his upper arm by flexing. Sandow repeated the first two with ease as he described, but with great difficulty as Sampson described.  The real drama occurred  during the third challenge. Sampson placed a chain  armlet around his upper arm and broke it by flexing his arm. However, when he gave a chain armlet  to Sandow with the exact same measurements Sandow could not get it over his arm as he was a larger man.  This was Sampson’s “ace in the hole” challenge as he knew it would not “fit” Sandow’s arm, and as he was proclaiming his win to the crowd  Sandow pulled an identical chain armlet from his pocket, only longer.  The judges looked it over and said it looked the same as Sampsons. Sandow even had a representative of the company present at the show that sold the chains. Sandow called him up to the stage,  and after this “expert” looked over the chain, he declared it was the same chain Sampson used. The judges HAD to agree  now in allowing Sandow to use his own chain.  Sandow then broke it with ease.  It seems obvious to me that Sandow had “scouted” out Sampson’s act and was prepared for everything.  Sampson latter said Sandow’s chain must have been specially made with a weak link, or he  had someone in the crowd “switch it” out for a weaker chain  as it was passed around for the crowds inspections after the judges inspection.  Sampson really thought he had Sandow on this one.  Now, getting desperate, Sampson produced a leather strap which he was going to break with chest expansion.  Sandow appealed to the judges that this stunt was not part of  Sampson’s act, as it wasn’t, and the challenge specifically stated it had to be a feat done in his act.  The judges agreed leaving Sampson speechless. At this point, Sandow seized the moment and demanded his money since he had met all of the challenges. Sandow quickly produced a 280 pound dumbell, took it overhead with one arm, laid down with it, and then stood up again.  Quite an impressive Full-Gardner Lift!  Sandow told Sampson if he or his sidekick Cyclops could do that feat he would let them keep their money.  Sampson, knowing he couldn’t, proclaimed, “I have had enough of this, It’s all humbug, I don’t call this fair play at all”.  He then went  to his locker room, leaving Sandow to the cheering crowd and  his well-orchestrated victory.  The good news is that this defeat didn’t end Sampson’s Strongman career, as he continued to put on shows for several years.  He even signed off in his book as “Still the strongest on Earth”.

Eugen Sandow’s Grip Dumbbell

by Al Myers

Eugen Sandow's New Grip Dumbbell. This dumbbell is on exhibit at the York Barbell Museum.

After reading Thom’s story last week about gripper training,  I wondered “what did the old time strongmen do for grip training before the modern day grippers were developed?” Several old time strongmen were known for their exceptionally hand strength – men like Hermann Goerner, Thomas Inch and Arthur Saxon. These guys primarily developed their gripping strength through the use of over-sized dumbbells and barbells.

Last fall when Chad and I toured the York Barbell Museum I was intrigued by a gripping dumbbell  I saw there developed and marketed by Eugen Sandow.  Sandow was famous for his herculean physique and posing abilities, and his ability to mesmerize a crowd with his show performances, but I  never thought of him as a “grip guy”.  So seeing this gripping device of his interested me even more!  In a way, it is more of a gripper than a dumbbell.

Sandow introduced the New Grip Dumbbell in 1899. Eugen Sandow had this to say about his New Grip Dumbbell, “This appliance is very simple. It consists of a dumbbell made in two halves, longitudinally separated about 1.5 inch from one another, the intervening space being occupied by a small steel spring. Whilst exercising, the spring is compressed by gripping the bell and so bringing the two halves close together, in which position they are kept until the exercise is over.  The springs can be of any strength, and consequently the strain necessary to keep the two halves together can be varied to any extent.”

Sandow also developed an instructional  course in how these grip dumbbells should be used, and sold “stronger” springs to increase the training resistance as one improved over time. He had six different designs of this grip dumbbell.  The easiest dumbbell was for children, with models expanding to the most difficult men’s dumbbell. At the time, the men’s model sold for $3 a pair, which was quite a bit of money in the early 1900’s.  Whether Sandow spent a lot of time training with his New Grip Dumbbell himself, or if it was more of a profitable business venture capitalizing on his name, is unknown.  It is definitely true that Sandow was way ahead of his contemporaries in his ability of self-promotion, and knew how to market himself for a profit.  Regardless, his New Grip Dumbbells were, in some part, the precursor of modern day grippers, and he deserves credit for that.

Eugen Sandow always knew how to inspire others in the benefits of exercise.  I want to conclude with Sandow’s testimony in which he gave in his “sales pitch” for his New Grip Dumbbells.  Sandow said, “the object of exercise is to rehabilitate the frame and give it the vigorous strength, the health and the grace intended by Nature, and so fit it to endure the daily task with joyous ease, and make the cup of life a perennial and refreshing draught, like the ambrosia of the Olympian Gods.  With these words I commend to you my new dumbbell.”

I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Friedrech Wilhelm Muller

by Dennis Mitchell

A classical picture of Friedrech Wilhelm Muller (better known under his stage name of Eugen Sandow).

Friedrech Wilhelm Muller was born April 2, 1867, in Konigsberg, East Prussia. His father was a German army officer and his mother was from Russia. He also had an older brother who was a professor at the University of Gottingen. Friedrech was an excellent student, and even though he described himself as a delicate child he grew to be quite proficient as a gymnast and was a good all-round athlete. His parents had hopes for him to enter the clergy.

After his father retired from the military, he went into the jewelry business. He would take young Friedrech with him on some of his business trips. It was on a trip to Italy, when Friedrech was ten years old, that he saw the sculptures of the Roman athletes. It was from these that he first desired to get physically strong and have a well developed body.

Even though his father had been an officer in the German Army, Friedrech left East Prussia to avoid military service. He could never return or he would have been arrested for avoiding his military obligation.

He made his living by being an acrobat in the circus. It was on his second trip to London, England that he met Professor Louis Attila. Attila saw Friedrech’s great potential and coached him, and taught him how to perform as a professional strongman. He learned so well, that Attila and he traveled together performing strongman acts in various theaters, music halls, etc. It was at this time that Attila thought that Friedrech should change his name, as was the custom of most strong men performers. One story is that he took his Russian mother’s name Sandov, ( the V being pronounced as a W) and became Eugen Sandow. They had a very popular and successful strongman act. After a while Attila returned to his gym in London and Sandow continued to perform alone.

Florenz Ziegfeld saw Sandow performing his strongman act a circus side show and hired him for his own carnival show. After a wile it became apparent that people were more interested in Sandows muscles than how much he could lift, and a “Muscle display performance” was added to his show.

There was a very popular strongman act in London at that time by the name of Samson and Cyclops. At every performance they would offer one hundred English pounds to any one who could duplicate the feats performed by Cyclops, and one thousand English pounds to any one who could beat any of Samson’s feats. Sandow returned to London and with Attila watched several of their performances. When Attila felt the time was right Sandow accepted their challenge and defeated them both. Sandow was not only a very good showman but was also a very strong and capable lifter, and his reputation was made.

In 1894 Sandow once again joined with Florenze Ziegfeld and performed at the World’s Colombian Exposition, in Chicago. The only exhibit more popular than Sandow was “Little Egypt”.

Sandow was married in 1894 to Blanch Brooks Sandow. They had two daughters.

There were many different claims made as to Sandow’s measurements. I will list the ones taken by Dr.Sargent of Harvard University: height, 5′7.25″, expanded chest,47″, waist, 32.75″, thigh, 23″, upper arm, 17″, and he weighed 180 pounds.

There were many conflicting claims about his strength. He did have an official bent press of 269 pounds and an unofficial lift of 280 pounds.

Sandow’s greatest contribution was that he inspired many people to be physically fit, and taught that the average person could improve their strength and the development of their body. He ran the Sandow Institute of Physical Culture and also published Sandow’s magazine of Physical Culture and British Sport.

Eugen Sandow died on October 14, 1925. Again, there were various accounts of what caused his death, but the one generally accepted was he broke a blood vessel in his brain while lifting his car out of a ditch after an accident.