Iron Age

A gathering of old-time strongmen is not for the weak of heart

The restless crowd of aging bodybuilders, former champion weightlifters, and old-fashioned strongmen becomes quiet. Terry Todd, a gray-bearded man with a soft Southern accent, is beginning a story about the time a few years back when he traveled to Nova Scotia to witness a performance by the great leverage lifter, Slim "the Hammer Man" Farman. nnn nnn nnn nnnIt was a sunny day, remembers Todd, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas, and Farman was scheduled to break

chains, bend steel bars, and perform other feats of strength at a fairgrounds in Bridgewater, located 50 miles outside of Halifax. But the noted strongman had other things on his mind: He longed to bend a four-foot-long, five-eighths-of-an-inch-thick piece of rebar on the bridge of his nose— to reconfigure it into the shape of a U. The maneuver had once been a regular part of the Hammer Man's act, and he yearned to reprise it for the large, 12,000-person crowd that day. To attempt it would be to defy a stern warning from his doctor— the feat would put tremendous pressure on his vulnerable neck and spinal column. Todd and others advised against the move.

"In the middle of the show he stopped, as if he was talking to himself," says Todd, speaking slowly, his audience rapt. "He reached down and out came the bar." Placing the imposing instrument— usually used to reinforce large slabs of concrete— on his pad-protected nose, the six-foot-six-inch, 230-pound Farman quickly yanked it out of shape. He was cut slightly and blood ran down his face. "It was sort of the essence of Slim— risk-taking, a willingness to go far within yourself," says Todd, his voice filling with emotion. "That's why he is Slim, the Hammer Man."

The crowd— attending the annual dinner of the Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen at the Downtown Athletic Club last month— bursts into a round of applause that escalates into a standing ovation. The 65-year-old Farman, who with his black suit, slicked-back hair, and dark goatee looks like an Old West lawman, shyly walks up to the podium to accept his award as an "Iron Game Pioneer." His acceptance speech is brief, thanking friends and family, with a special mention for his beloved mentor, the late Coney Island strongman Joseph "the Mighty Atom" Greenstein.

Farman does not, however, perform his signature act, where he slowly lifts two 31-and-a-quarter-pound sledgehammers— one in each hand— from the ground up into a vertical position, holding each tool only by the ends of their handles. "He did it last year," says Sam Katz, a writer covering the event for Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness magazine. "It's unbelievable."

Farman is one of more than 40 "distinguished strength stars" who have been honored by the association— which includes former Mr. Americas, Mr. Universes, Olympic weightlifters, carnival strongmen, health and fitness writers, and medical professionals— since the first dinner back in 1982. "Baseball players get together; boxers get together," notes 68-year-old Alex "Abs" Godo, who performs 500 sit-ups, while holding a 50-pound weight behind his head, four times a week. "Why shouldn't we get together?"

The event started as a birthday party for Siegmund Klein, whose Seventh Avenue gym, which he ran from the 1930s to the mid '70s, was a mecca for strongmen. After Klein's death in 1984, the group decided to turn the annual gathering into a celebration of the old-time greats of the iron game.

"We want athletes who were heroes from the past and who were drug-free," says association president Vic Boff, a former health-food store owner, magazine editor, bootleg boxer, and author of The Bodybuilder's Bible for Men and Women, among other books. The 83-year-old Boff has little patience with the pharmaceutically enhanced bodybuilders of today ("these steroid guys," he calls them disdainfully) and characterizes his members as "genuine" possessors of strength.

A serious man with a penchant for bluntness, Boff has an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject and boasts friendships with many famed strongmen. In the late 1930s, he attended so many performances of Charles "the Brooklyn Strong Boy" Phelan (it was said he could lift an elephant "with ease") at Hubert's Museum and Flea Circus on 42nd Street that the two became close friends.

When the John "the Monarch of Muscledom" Grimek enters the room, Boff quickly approaches and, with a few others, helps him to his seat on the far end of the dais. Named Mr. America in 1940 and 1941 and a frequent model for muscle magazine covers and advertisements, Grimek is perhaps the most revered member of the association.

"If you were to pick one guy who be the idol of more people in this room, it would be him," says Jan Todd, Terry's wife, who during the 1970s set 62 world and national powerlifting records and who for a time was considered the strongest woman in the world. "His was the body that they all aspired to." Though the 87-year-old Grimek recently underwent hip- replacement surgery and has difficulty getting around, his presence still gets people talking. "Oh my God," says one man upon seeing him. "It's John Grimek. The first Mr. America!"

Many of the 200-plus attendees have brought along old, plastic-covered copies of Muscular Development and Strength and Health magazines, some of which feature association members like Grimek, Jules Bacon (Mr. America 1943), Joe Pittman (10-time national weightlifting champion), and Ron Lacy (Mr. America 1957). Others possess yellowed newspaper clippings or worn and aging photographs. Godo pulls out a turn-of-the-century magazine article on British strongman Charles Vansittart— "the Man With the Iron Grip"— who would rip tennis balls apart with a quick flick of his wrists. "He was a hell of a guy," Godo notes.

And there are plenty of living legends in the room. Sitting not far from the dais is 93-year-old strongman Joe Rolino, a pupil in the 1920s of the Coney Island­based Warren Lincoln Travis, who once raised a carousel with 14 people on it and billed himself as the Strongest Man in the World.

"The new steroid freaks don't know anything about the old-timers," says the plain-spoken Godo, a sharp-nosed man who proudly opens his suit coat to display his famous abs and offers a wordless smile when he is complimented on their toughness. "You mention the Mighty Atom and they think it is an atomic bomb or something. They don't even know who John Grimek is. They don't know who Steve Reeves [the former Mr. America who played Hercules in the movies] is. It's an era gone by."

After speeches and award presentations, the strongmen and a few strongwomen (including powerlifting champion Ellen Stein) adjust their seats to get a good view of performances by up-and-coming strength stars. One of them, Dennis Rogers, is a nondenominational Christian minister with shaved head and wispy goatee, who runs the Muscles With a Message charity. A relative youngster at age 41, Rogers mixes his strongman act with gospel preaching. While MC Steven "the Mighty Stefan" Sadicario encourages the crowd to "think positive thoughts," Rogers breaks a six-inch-long, three-eighths-of-an-inch-wide bolt, rips in half (using only the thumb and forefinger of each hand) a copy of the Manhattan white pages, bends a 17-and-a-half-inch-long, half-inch-thick piece of steel into a U, and, for his finale, performs a complex feat involving two assistants, two beds of nails, and three hot-water bottles.

Everyone, including two-time Olympian and current WWF wrestler Mark Henry ("Compared to that, I'm a weakling"), is impressed. But, in the back of the room, Mike Greenstein, the 78-year-old son of the Mighty Atom— the celebrated performer who spent a lifetime breaking horseshoes and bending steel bars— shakes his head with a slight smile. "With all due respect, my dad would've run rings around 'em."

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