The prolific and authoritative writer, Charles A. Smith, contributor to many muscle magazines and for a while Joe Weider's editor, regularly corresponded with me in his twilight years, once writing a letter to me saying how enthusiastic Terry Todd of the University of Texas (take a breath) had become over a "newcomer named Mark Henry."
Witnessed by many and reported directly to me by Vic Boff and David Webster OBE, Mark (or Marcus) Henry had succeeded in lifting overhead a replica of the famous Apollon wheels, for not one, but three repetitions -- a truly amazing feat of strength. Terry's prediction had indeed come true.
Because of their uniqueness, with the original residing in France and belonging at times to Louis Uni, Professor Edmond Desbonnet, and Marcus Landesmann of Austria, the Apollon wheels took more than a little organizing to become available to those in other countries wishing to attempt to lift them. The current replica, manufactured by Ivanko, will allow great access and opportunity to serious challengers, although I suspect Mark Henry's latest achievement will be safe for a while.
It is frustrating to be unable to discover any real evidence as to whether Louis Uni, who was born in Marsillargues, in southern France, on January 21, 1862 (he died October 18, 1928), and who adopted the name Apollon when he worked as a strongman in the famous Folies Bergere, ever did lift overhead the famous set of railway wheels and axle which bear his name.
Apart from Professor Desbonnet, the foremost authority on strongmen in his day, who is quoted as saying, "Uni lifted the wheels at every performance," no real proof can be obtained as to whether he actually ever lifted the cumbersome "barbell" overhead to arm's length.
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While most Iron Game historians agree Uni was capable of such a feat, possessing extraordinary grip, forearm and body power, at 6'3" and da muscular body weight of around 260 pounds, apart from old sources who simply quote Desbonnet, others suggest it is more likely Uni just deadlifted the near two-inch thick bar weighing 367 pounds or, at best, supported it upon his shoulders, spinning around like a carousel for showmanship.
To throw further doubt, Uni had another set of similar wheels which were lighter, weighing 260 pounds or 118 kilos. He also lifted these regularly. David Willoughby, in his book . . .
. . . suggests that Louis may well have deadlifted the heavier set and that there may have been some confusion between the two sets of "barbells."
Both sets Uni had obtained on forays into a local scrap yard in the 1890s searching for awkward objects to use in his stage act, a habit followed by many other strength athletes, including Warren L. Travis, Jefferson, and even Paul Anderson.
Perhaps he did lift the wheels. Willoughby recounts in iron Man,
Volume 17, No. 6, page 28 . . .
. . . that an old-timer who worked in the same circus as with Apollon had on occasion seen Louis clean and jerk a "proper bar-bell) weighing 380 pounds with additional 2 x 10 pound discs tied on, for a total of over 400 pounds. As for the wheels, perhaps not, but strongmen were to come along and prove without a doubt that the Apollon wheels could be lifted overhead.
So for a while, the myth of muscular might have persisted until another Frenchman, this time the extremely powerful pro weightlifter Charles Rigoulot (1903-1962) . . .
. . . nicknamed "Charlot," proved beyond all doubt that the Apollon wheels (and henceforth we are talking the heavier 366-367 pound set) could be hoisted overhead. Rigoulot, having decided in advance he was going to attempt the historic lift, spent considerable time and energy training to lift the wheels. Rigoulot, the first man to clean and jerk400 pounds, which he did using a special eight-foot long bar . . .
. . . certainly had the power to lift them, the Apollon wheels weighing, as mentioned variously in reports as 365, 366 or 367 pounds, or 166.5 kilos. The actual end wheels or "discs" were 26 inches in diameter, and the non-revolving axle or bar was almost two inches thick (1.93 inches to be exact), or six inches in circumference.
Thus the difficulty for him and all others who attempted to lift the weight was the actual "cleaning" or getting the bar to the shoulders.
However, on March 3, 1930, Charles Rigoulot, or "Charlot," did indeed clean and jerk the awkward set at the Wagram Auditorium in Paris in front of a hugely enthusiastic and patriotic crowd. His body weight was 225 pounds.
Rigoulot broke over 57 records in weightlifting over the years. He was a boxer and wrestler and loved fast cars -- a true all-rounder and popular sportsman.
With the Apollon wheels left to rest in their hiding place (Desbonnet's old gym) as a museum piece, it was not until September 13, 1949 that the world heavyweight amateur weightlifting champion John Davis . . .
. . . became the second (or third) man to lift the Apollon wheels overhead. This unique occasion, which can be seen on old tapes and films, took place at the Elysee Montmartre, with the French national coach M. Chapur organizing a weightlifting meet. By September 12th, newspapers and the radio were announcing the great strength event, and Rigoulot, who couldn't be there, sent his best wishes to Davis and promised John a trophy if he lifted the Apollon wheels.
Davis warmed up with a variety of bells and weights, knowing that poundage-wise the wheels were in his power: Here's a guy who could clean and jerk 300 pounds when just sixteen; who deadlifted 705 pounds and made rep squats with 500 pounds when weighing under 200; and who, at Ed Yarick's gym, had made three reps in deep squats with 550 pounds, with no lifting suit or knee wraps.
Davis was already a legend and was to rule the World Weightlifting Championships for sixteen years. But the Apollon wheels were no ordinary weights. Tensely the audience waited, calmly chewing gum, advanced upon the giant wheels. He tried to clean them, only to let them drop to the ground; three times he failed because he just could not fix the bar at his chest (Davis had relatively small hands). So he reversed his grip, pulled hard and high, rapidly changed his hand grip in midair, nd jerked the bar overhead for a successful lift. He nonchalantly lowered the weight (actually dropped it and bent it) and blacked out momentarily to revive to the cheers of the crowd. Again the wheels had met their master.
Next on our list of successful lifters of the Apollon wheels is yet another U.S. weightlifter, this time the ever-popular world weightlifting champion Norbert Schemansky (photo at top), known in York as "Ski."
Ski and the U.S. weightlifting team members, which included names like Tommy Kono, Pete George, Clyde Emrich, nd Dave Sheppard, were on their way home from the World Weightlifting Championships in Vienna. They used Robert Cayeaux's gym in Lille, France seeking an opportunity to lift the Apollon wheels.
Note: More on this from Jim Murray, here:
Cayeaux had told Bob Hoffman the wheels remained in Desbonnet's basement ever since being lifted by Davis, so arrangements were made, and the wheels eventually arrived at Cayeaux's gym. Many people were present and expected Ski to make several attempts before success, as had previous champions before success, as had previous champions. To boost the event, Hoffman, in his account in Strength & Health, said, "Apollon, 6'6" (everyone else quotes Uni's height as 6'3") and 300 pound body weight, had never actually lifted this weight overhead as Davisand Rigoulot did."
After conventional warmups, Ski, who previously had increased his own world record in the clean and jerk to 425 pounds and had made a new world record total of 1,074 pounds, walked up to the wheels, and using a standard-style grip, cleaned and jerked the ponderous weights "with ease" -- NOT ONE, BUT THREE TIMES.
John Grimek reported the event in the December 1954 issue of The Bodybuilder . . .
. . . saying "Schemansky lifted the famous Apollon axle like a toy." Ski also did a continental clean and jerk with 440 pounds to show he was on form. Bob Hoffman, writing in the February 1955 issue of Strength & Health in "The Apollon Bell Meets Its Master" [page 15] . . .
. . . described Schemansky's exhibition of power and skill, how Ski cleaned thte axle using a conventional grip and a very high pull. Apparently the Frenchmen who witnessed Ski lift the wheels shouted, "He is greater than Rigoulot!" Praise indeed.
Norbert Schemansky weighed just 223 pounds.
Come recent times, with a resurgence of interest in old-time strength feats, challenge dumbbells and legendary weights, the Apollon wheels have come back into fashion. A special Apollon's Axle thick bar has been produced and marketed by IronMind Enterprises, in an effort to improve and increase awareness of grip power; and recently Ivanko produced a close replica of the original bar and wheels, minus the bend courtesy of John Davis.
So we come to the 2002 Arnold what's-his-name extravaganza of strength, The Arnold Classic, giving modern muscle men the chance to try their power.
Taking place in February 2002 at this competition, David Webster sent me the following results of those who attempted to lift the replica Apollon wheels.
First, Mark Henry (USA):
Mark made three complete "modern" clean and full overhead jerks, that is, without using the continental style, which means first lifting the bar to the waist belt, then re-dipping and then shouldering the bar.
A little more on that here:
Next came Mark Philippi (USA):
Mark managed one complete clean and jerk.
Third came Svend Karlson (Norway):
Two cleans, and did Brad Gillingham (USA)
Finally, still using the heavier bar (366 pounds), Raimonds Bergmanis (Lithuania) pulled the heavy Apollon wheels to the chest "numerous" times, but simply could not retain it at the shoulders to make the jerk.
Despite Andy Bolton's making three repetition deadlifts with 885 pounds, and Mark Henry "just" twice, Andy could not on this occasion lift the Apollon wheels, which proves it's more than back strength alone.
I wonder how Louis Uni would have done?
Louis Uni died in poverty; modern strength athletes can make thousands of dollars with one lift.
Perhaps Apollon did not lift the wheels, but he left a challenge fit for strongmen and an honorable legacy.
Body Weights of Those Who Lifted the Wheels
Louis "Apollon" Uni: circa 260 pounds
Charles Rigoulot: 225
John Davis: 215
Norbert Schemansky: 223
Mark Henry: +400
Mark Philippi: 300
With grateful acknowledgement to Professor Edmond Desbonnet, Charles Smith, Charlie Shields, Bob Hoffman, Vic Boff, David Willoughby, John Grimek, George Kirkley, Arax, and David Webster.
We reading this today would also like to thank David Gentle.
Enjoy Your Lifting!