1977 — The First “World’s Strongest Man Competition”

Mostly everyone, whether a fan or not, has seen some footage of the World’s Strongest Man competition. It’s truly mind-boggling how powerful these competitors are. But many people don’t know that the first competition goes back to 1977, which bears little resemblance to today’s organized and well-planned event.

The 1977 competition had only eight contestants, and they could have named it “America’s Strongest Man” given that seven of the competitors were American. No one seems to know why they chose the eight men they did other than the fact that most were relatively well-known and quite strong.

The three-day event occurred at Universal Studios in California and was televised on CBS Sports Spectacular.

The Competitors

The smallest of the competitors and the only non-American was the 34-year-old, 5’5, 182-pound Franco Columbo from Italy. Columbo was a bodybuilder who won the Mr. Universe contest in 1971, Mr. Olympia in 1977, and again in 1981. Despite his small size, Franco was, perhaps, pound for pound, the strongest bodybuilder in the world.

He is said to have deadlifted as much as 750 pounds, bench-pressed 525 pounds, and routinely blew up hot water bottles until they exploded.

The 26-year-old Lou Ferrigno was also a bodybuilder, but unlike Columbo, Ferrigno did not lack size, standing 6’5 and weighing 278 pounds. Big Lou won the Mr. Universe title in 1973 and 1974 and placed second at Mr. Olympia in 1974. Ferrigno became well-known for his role as the “Incredible Hulk” in the popular 1970s television series.

The 200-pound 29-year-old Mike Dayton was Mr. Teenage America in 1967 and became a Kung Fu Master of Chi in 1976. Dayton also worked as a stuntman and did incredible feats of strength, such as tearing license plates and nickels in half and breaking out of handcuffs.

Next on the list is 36-year-old hammer thrower George Frenn. Frenn won a bronze medal at the 1967 Pan American Games and a silver medal at the 1971 Games. He broke the indoor world record in 1972 and qualified for the Olympics but had a disappointing performance. Frenn also competed in powerlifting in the 110-kilo/242 lbs weight class.

Bob Young was a 35-year-old offensive guard who weighed in at 284 pounds. He played in the NFL for sixteen years with four different teams. Young played in the pro bowl in 1978 and again in 1979 and made first-team All-Pro in 1979. Bob was the older brother of three-time world powerlifting champion Doug Young, and he used weightlifting to help him become one of the strongest men in the NFL.

1975 Topps Football Card from the authors private collection.

34-year-old Jon Cole was a three-time AAU National powerlifting champion, winning gold in 1968, 1970, and 1972. Cole was the first man to squat 900 lbs. The 256-pound Cole also competed a few times in Olympic weightlifting. Jon clean & jerked 430 lbs. and snatched 342 lbs.

Ken Patera, 34 yrs old, was a four-time National Champion in the superheavyweight division and was the first American weightlifter to clean & jerk 500 lbs. He won a silver medal at the 1971 World Championships. Big Ken represented the USA at the 1972 Olympics but had a disappointing result, although he did place third in the clean & press.

After the Olympics, Patera entered the world of professional wrestling and performed many amazing feats of strength. Patera weighed in at 286 lbs, down from the 320 lbs he weighed as an Olympic weightlifter.

Ken Patera in his days as an Olympic Weightlifter. Photo Credit: Bruce Klemens.

Bruce Wilhelm was the national weightlifting champion in the superheavyweight division in 1975 and 1976 and was voted as America’s best weightlifter in 1977. Bruce also placed 5th at the 1976 Olympics. The 326-pound 31-year-old Wilhelm was a former shot putter and the first American lifter to snatch 400 lbs.

It’s interesting to note that only two of the eight competitors were under the age of 30, with Ferrigno being the youngest at 26. George Frenn was the oldest at 36.

The Events (Day One)

The Barell Lift

Bruce Wilhelm emerged as the victor in this event, while Young, Patera, Columbo, and Frenn all tied for second place.

The Steel Bar Bend

The bodybuilders did well in this event as Lou Ferrigno took first place, and Franco Columbo won second. Powerlifter Jon Cole took third.

The Wrist Roll

This was another event the bodybuilders did well in. Mike Dayton won first place, while Franco Columbo and Lou Ferrigno tied for second. Ken Patera took third. Dayton paid the price for his victory and his refusal to wear gloves as he tore the skin off his hands, which hampered him for the remaining events.

Day Two Events

The Wheelbarrow Race

The Olympic weightlifters did well in this, as Bruce Wilhelm and Patera won first and second, respectively. Jon Cole took third place.

The Tire Toss

Ken Patera was the surprise winner, while the favorite George Frenn placed second. Bob Young won third place.

Tram Pull

The gross weight of the tram was 6,000 pounds. Wilhelm won this event, his third first-place finish. Bob Young took second while Patera came in third.

The Car Lift

Powerlifters Jon Cole and George Frenn were the favorites since the car lift was very similar to the deadlift. But Frenn tore a bicep and had to withdraw from the competition. Cole took second place as Lou Ferrigno was the surprise winner.

Day 3 Events

The Girl Lift — Squat

Jon Cole was expected to win this event since the squat is one of the lifts powerlifters do in competition, but he only managed a second-place tie with Franco Columbo. Bob Young made his brother Doug proud by winning first place. Bruce Wilhelm took third place.

The Refrigerator Race

Wilhelm won his fourth first-place finish while Mike Dayton finished second and Bob Young finished third. Franco Columbo was at a disadvantage in this event because of his short legs, and he tried to make up for it by running with the refrigerator. It turned out to be a costly decision as Franco’s leg snapped under the pressure.

The Tug of War

Only the top four contestants took part in this event. Bob Young squared off against Lou Ferrigno, and Bruce Wilhelm went up against Ken Patera. Ferrigno and Patera were eliminated, and it came down to Young vs. Wilhelm. Wilhelm emerged victorious, winning his fifth event and the overall competition.

1978 Strength & Health Magazine from the authors private collection. Photo Credit: Bruce Klemens.

Final Results

1st place — Bruce Wilhelm 63 ¼ points

2nd place -Bob Young 43 ¼ points

3rd place — Ken Patera 34 points

4th place — Lou Ferrigno 27 ½ points

5th place — Franco Columbo 23 ¼ points

6th place — Jon Cole 21 ½ points

7th place — Mike Dayton 19 ¼ points

8th place — George Frenn 10 points

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Mark Morthier — Old School Sports

I grew up in Northern NJ. I grew up in the 1970s. I was always a big sports fan. I enjoy writing about old school sports and weightlifting.