The Greatest of Them All - Apollon
by Ed Theriault
At Professor Desbonnet’s
In the center of the floor was a dumbbell – not an ordinary dumbbell, but the Professor’s famous “challenge” bell: it weighed 226 pounds and its handle measured 2 3/8 inches. One of the three men in the world to have lifted this ponderous weight from the floor was John Grun Marx. He now showed off his prowess.
Lifting the dumbbell and standing up with it – first with one hand, then the other – Marx grinned at his giant of a friend, who watched curiously. “Yes, Louis – no one else in the world can do this – NO ONE!”
Louis grew red in the face while the other athletes in the room smiled broadly. Like a huge jungle cat, the big man leaned forward as though to spring, and his hands opened and closed like a lion’s straining claws. “Stop playing with that thing, John,” he muttered, “and we’ll see if no one else can do it!”
Marx, looking innocent, put down the dumbbell and moved away. “All right, Louis – try it, but be careful.”
With almost a roar, the big man pounced on the dumbbell. Grabbing it with his right hand, he yanked it from the ground. Did he stop at the hang position: No. Did he pull it to his waist? No. He rammed the massive weight all the way over his head in a one-hand snatch – but because he did not dip under it, the bell flew out of his hand and over his shoulder, to land with a splintering crash ten feet behind him!
John Marx had accomplished his purpose. He knew that, when aroused, his friend Louis Uni, better known as Apollon – could perform incredible feats of strength. What the big fellow had done this time was one of the greatest exhibitions of gripping power ever witnessed. No man had ever done anything equal to it.
Which, along with other evidence, makes this 250-pound Frenchman the greatest strength athlete of all time in my book. Here is the rest of the evidence:
Louis Uni’s fabulous career began at the age of fifteen when, already an immensely powerful lifter, he took to the professional ranks. This was in 1877, and he did the usual rounds of carnivals, circuses and the equivalent of out night clubs. Anywhere that a crowd could gather was a proper place for a strength act, and during these first rugged years, the mighty Apollon learned a lot. He was active until the late nineteen-twenties. During the later part of his life he played the part of a sea captain in a movie.
When only sixteen, Apollon gave promise of his stupendous powers by snatching with one hand a thick-handled dumbbell weighting 170 pounds. In most of these snatching movements, Louis did not dip under the weight, which means he could have doubtless done much more with proper technique. The way he handled the Desbonnet dumbbell indicates to me that, with an International barbell, Apollon would have been capable of a 250-pound one-hand snatch. If you doubt this, read on.
The best way to determine the strength of a man is to compare his feats with those of his contemporaries, since it is they, with similar equipment and conditions, that he would be lifting against. It is ridiculous to compare the old-timers with lifters of today unless the modern strong men use similar equipment and perform the same lifts as did the former greats.
Consider the snatch again, one of Apollon’s favorite lifts since it enabled him to take advantage of his enormous gripping strength. In 1889 when he was at the height of his powers, he became involved with another challenge bell, this one belonging to Andre Brandelli and weighing 278 pounds. Brandelli, meeting Apollon, scoffed the bigger man’s vaunted strength; no one else, he said, could clean and jerk his 278 pound barbell – not even Apollon.
Again goaded to the limit – as he always was when challenged – Apollon stepped up to the ponderous barbell and snatched it !
One of the French giant’s best performances – and one of the very best of all time – took place in 1892 during a theatre bill. During one of the performances, a group of German strong men, the Rasso Trio, arrived in force and publicly announced that they intended to take away the title of “World’s Strongest Man” which Apollon had by now earned. The individual “Rasso” who was to do the taking was named Godfrey Nordmann – and as he bulled his way down the aisle to the stage, he appeared big enough to do it.
With the Trio looking on with amused smiles, Apollon began his act. He was flushed with the excitement of the open challenge, and prepared to defend his honor with every means at his command. Drawing his friend, Batta – an “immortal” in his own right – aside, Louis told him to prepare one of his special barbells so that it was much heavier than usual. “Take the 143 pound bell and fill it with sand,” he told Batta. Batta and Paul Pons, a famous heavyweight wrestler who was also helping Apollon during his act, did so, bringing the weight of the bar up to nearly 200 pounds.
Apollon said this was still too light. “Fill the two small spheres with sand also!” ordered the mighty one. (There were sometimes four spheres on early barbells). Then he went out on the stage.
Paul Pons, who had a sense of humor, suggested to Batta, “Why bother going out for more sand? Let’s put the solid spheres on the bar. The big fellow will never notice the difference!” Batta was a prankster himself, so the two slipped off the four hollow spheres and replaced them with four solid iron balls.
The bar weighed 341 pounds.
This monstrosity was rolled onto the stage where everyone including the three Rassos waited to see Apollon do something really noteworthy. Thus far he had merely been playing with lighter weights – although what was play for Apollon would have been impossible for most strong men. The Rassos were not yet impressed, however. Batta and Pons, tense with eagerness – and worry – prepared to exit in a hurry if it were found that Apollon suspected their trickery. He was not known to be a gentle man when annoyed!
They needn’t have been worried. As Pons had said in jest, “the big fellow” never seemed to notice that he’d been hoaxes! Grasping the vast barbell in both hands, he cleaned it with ease, then push-pressed it overhead! Then, holding it aloft, the fantastically strong Apollon passed his right hand to the center of the bar let go with his left. Next – and this would have been unbelievable had there not been so many reliable witnesses – Apollon raised his right foot from the floor; balancing himself on one foot, he let go of the bell allowing it to drop into the crook of his elbows! Then he tossed it up again, caught it and set it down.!
The three Germans, convinced this had been done with a barbell of, say, the 200 pounds that Apollon himself thought it was, came up and prepared to emulate the Frenchman’s feat. It was difficult even for the biggest, Nordmann, to lift the thing off the floor! In mute wonder, the three of them respectfully shook the hand of the world’s strongest man.
Probably the most famous lift of Apollon’s – and only because it could be compared directly with lifts made by modern strongmen – was his clean-and-jerking of an enormous barbell composed of two railroad wheels mounted on a thick bar-axle. This weighed 367 pounds, but was equivalent to a much heavier bell due to the thick handle – almost two inches – and its cumbersome size. Apollon cleaned this huge weight at every performance, it was said – and I believe it.
The massive hunk of metal still exists – and only three other lifters to date (1958) have ever managed to get it up. First was the French champion, Rigoulot, who did it in 1930. The second, John Davis, succeeded in
Each of these three champion lifters was able to clean and jerk over 400 pounds on a regulation barbell. It therefore is certain that Apollon, who could lift the big weight at will, and daily, must have been able to clean and jerk a simply colossal weight on a regular barbell. As has often been stated, the ultimate strength of this man was never recorded, and so will never be known. It is tantalizing to guess!