Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Oscar Matthes - Strength Magazine

Oscar Matthes, age 33

At 72

Oscar Matthes, The Miniature Sandow
from Strength Magazine

Strolling down the streets of Boston came a small man. He was not more than five feet in height and his appearance attracted no undue attention, until he passed in front of a “Y” where a group of young men were standing. Seeing him, one of them declared, “That’s Oscar Matthes!” Immediately the others, all curiously attentive, watched the little man pass on his way.

What does the name of Oscar Matthes mean to you? Probably just the sound of a name, but to all men who are deep into the lore of strongman sport, and particularly to old-timers, that simple name speaks volumes.

In idealizing foreign talent the American strength enthusiast often passes over his own countrymen, until he has become obsessed with the idea that only abroad do prodigies of combined strength and ability exist.

This I know is not so, for we have a wealth of home material that equals of outclasses many of the best foreign men, and among them we have no greater, no more outstanding character than the remarkable Oscar Matthes. His physical achievements seem even mote amazing when we consider that they were performed many years ago, at a time when the science of weight lifting was unknown.

I have often wondered to what height this mighty atom’s lifting records would have soared if he had the competition that exists today.

He first saw the light of day in 1863, at Lawrence, Massachusetts, and he was one of twins. Fate and nature seemed to have conspired against him, for as a child and a growing boy he was a fragile creature, puny, thin and undersized, and apparently the future had little to offer him.

Finally the realization of his physical condition and the full knowledge of the joys he was being deprived of made him rebel and he refused any longer to be resigned to weakness as his lot. Accepting life’s challenge, he stepped out for health and strength, and later, when the curtain rose on his first public appearance at the Lawrence City Hall in 1882, his beautiful physique amazed the spectators. It seemed hard for them to believe that this powerful boy of nineteen summers was the physical weakling of what seemed to be just the day before.

He opened his act with statuesque posing. Every posture, every movement was a poem. His graceful, gliding from one pose to another drew cries of admiration from the throng. A child of nature in its purest physical interpretation, his silent act was crammed with more suggestion, artistry more inspiring than that which a great orator’s performance might contain. He was as perfect in the art of the poseur as he was polished in his skill in handling weights. Fifty and seventy-five pound bells he juggled with remarkable dexterity and handled with ease throughout his entire act.

The occasion happened to be a benefit given to John Meagher, who was at that time the heel-and-toe walking champion of the world. Acting as the Master of Ceremonies was John L. Sullivan, then at his best, and there were many other distinguished athletes of that time present. His first appearance received great publicity.

The praise showered upon young Matthes from the spectators and athletic celebrities alike marked the turning point of his life and determined him on a professional athletic career.

He became a topic of conversation; but even those who remembered his debut on that occasion never dreamed of the part he was destined to play in the world of weights. He has been one of the corner stones in the American iron sport, carving for himself the title of “World’s Champion” in his bodyweight class, a title which has never been erased.

In height he is only four feet, eleven inches. This makes one think that after all, height means nothing in determining the qualifications of a man. In bodyweight he scaled at 108 pounds. You heavy chaps may raise your brows ad wonder what a man could do at that weight. Well, read what follows in this story. You will be surprised.

His remarkable development and the perfect control he displayed over his muscles placed him in high demand as a demonstrator for lectures on art and anatomy. The late Dr. Dudley A. Sargent of Harvard University was a great admirer of Oscar Matthes and often used him for his lectures. He made the statement that Matthes was one of the finest developed men he had ever seen. Such a tribute coming from the lips of Dr. Sargent, who probably has taken the measurements of more athletes than any other man, was the highest compliment that could be paid to a physical culturist of that time.

Every quality he possessed he owed to himself and to the persistence with which he applied himself to his training. He was greatly handicapped by being compelled to use the old-fashioned solid types of dumbbell and bar bell, which were in vogue at that time. The results he secured by such training are but another example of what a man can accomplish.

In dress, he presents the appearance of a schoolboy; but when he strips, he is a revelation.

At this time, Eugene Sandow was at the height of his fame and a writer who had seen Matthes perform, comparing the two in the Boston Sunday Herald of December, 1894, termed him “The Miniature Sandow.”

“One naturally expects a strongman to be a giant in size,” he wrote. “It does not necessarily follow, however, as proven by the case of Matthes, who is about the size and weight of a schoolboy. His appearance in street clothes would not impress one in the least, but stripped, his muscular development would call forth expressions of surprise and admiration. He accomplishes feats of strength which are more phenomenal, bodyweight considered, than those of any other strongman before the public.”

The sobriquet of “The Miniature Sandow” stuck to him throughout his entire career, and is the name by which he is best remembered today. He was a perfect pocket edition replica of the famous Sandow, and on sight one connected the two of them.

In April, 1895, Matthes and Sandow met. The meeting was most dramatic. Sandow had heard so much about the physical likeness of Matthes to himself that he became curious to see this American athlete, and he expressed keen desire to make an appointment with Matthes.

They came together in Sandow’s dressing room when he was appearing at the old Boston Theatre. Greatly impressed by the physical demonstration of Matthes, Sandow rolled a bell over to him and asked him to see if he could lift it. Matthes stepped up, quickly grasped the weight and put it overhead before Sandow and his manager, Mr. F. Ziegfield, realized it had happened. So astonished were they that they became silent. Placing the weight on the floor, Matthes asked how much it weighed. Then, on being told it was 112 pounds, he tossed it up with the left hand and placed it overhead just as easily as he had tossed it overhead with the right hand. It was a fine “clean” lift, being four pounds in excess of his bodyweight. Sandow was amazed and tried his best to induce Matthes to join his company and perform. Unfortunately, however, Matthes was unable to accept this splendid opportunity, much as he would have liked to have done so.

These men became great admirers of each other, and Mr. Matthes still loves to recall the many happy incidents of their acquaintance back in the days when Sandow enthralled the strongman sport.

Oscar Matthes was a very capable all-round athlete and excelled in the field events and wrestling; but his love for the weights claimed him forever as an iron man.

In those far-off days repetition lifting was very popular. That is to say, a lifter would take a certain poundage and see how many times he could raise it to arm’s length within so many minutes.

At this pastime, Matthes was also good, and some of his fine performances follow: Taking a four pound dumbbell he could put it up from the shoulder to arm’s length one hundred-eighty times in one minute, and a six pound bell, one thousand times in ten minutes. He could lift a twenty five pound bell one hundred-eight times, forty pound bell seventy times, fifty pound bell sixty-three times, sixty-five pound bell thirty-eight times, seventy-six pound bell twenty-six times, one hundred pound bell six times, one hundred-ten pound bell three times, and a one hundred-seventeen bell once; all of which lifts were performed in the single-arm push style. In the one-arm bent press he raised one hundred-forty-five pounds with the left hand, and one hundred-fifty-six pounds with the right.

These are all wonderful performances and prove the remarkable calibre of this little marvel; but beyond a doubt, his greatest feat was performed in the two hands anyhow. He first bent-pressed a bell on one hundred-forty pounds and then pulled in with the left hand a kettle weight of eighty-eight pounds, which he raised to arm’s length making a total of 228 pounds. at the time he made this performance, he scaled only one hundred-five pounds stripped, which means he lifted one hundred-twenty-three pounds in excess of his bodyweight. When you figure this out as we do today you realize the Matthes raised eighteen pounds more than double his bodyweight. Truly a stupendous feat! Matthes performed this lift several times in his career and thus became the first American to ever raise more than double his bodyweight in any style of overhead lifting.

Another marvelous feat performed by this mighty fellow was lifting a barrel weighing five hundred-thirteen pounds with his hands. He picked it from a platform eighteen inches high and carried it ten feet, then deposited it upon another platform two feet high. This stunt requires great all-round body power, while some estimation of his arm and shoulder strength can be gathered from his splendid one-arm side press of one hundred-seventeen pounds.

This lift is not a bent press, as many think it. It is a very difficult feat, performed by holding the arm off the side, then bending slightly sideways and pressing the weight to arm’s length at the same time. The legs must be kept straight and no aid can be secured from the body. It is a lift that few athletes can perform successfully. And yet Oscar Matthes, on this occasion, pressed ten pounds more than his bodyweight.

Another of his feature acts was called the “living Roman Column.” In this he seated himself on his partner’s shoulders, who held Matthes’ legs against his chest. Matthes would then bend backward until his hands touched the floor, and with both hands pick up a 125 pound bar bell. From this position he would assume an upright one, and raise the bell to arm’s length above his head. Finally, lowering it again he would bring it back, place it on the floor, and come up to his starting position. This is a most difficult feat, being a terrible strain on both men and requiring remarkable strength of the entire body.

He also performed a one-leg squat with eighty pounds in one hand and fifty in the other, an enormous test of leg strength. Just try it without any weights and get an idea of how difficult it really is to perform.

One time he came across some men struggling to up-end a huge barrel that had a total weight of seven-hundred-twenty pounds. To their utter amazement this prodigy of power stepped in and up-ended the barrel for them, using only one hand.

Tearing cards was another of his pet pastimes. He could tear two decks of cards in half at one time, and tore one deck into halves and then quarters. Nothing was too difficult for this little wonder to do. A perfect sportsman at all times, he is still what we would term “a prince of a man.” Always clean, straight and jovial, he is the respect of all who know him. Still as devoted to the game as he ever was, he is one of the most enthusiastic on the board of directors of the A.C.W.L.A. A man I greatly admire. I take my hat off to this gallant veteran, knowing that I have met a man. Big or small, I respect and admire them, if they have the goods and the sterling qualities that go to make up a true sportsman. These, I know, Mr. Matthes has.

His measurements are very interesting and explain why his striking physique earned for him the title of “The Miniature Sandow.
Neck 14 ¼ inches, chest 40, waist 28, hips 35, biceps 14 ½, forearm 12, wrist 6 ¼, thigh 21 ¾, calf 14 ¾, height 4 ft. 11 inches. His weight varied between 105 and 108 pounds, stripped. Such proportions for a man of his height and bodyweight are extraordinary and compare in proportion with any of the dimensions of men much larger than he.

Nowhere can a finer example of the small-boned man be found. With only a 6 ¼ inch wrist, he developed a beautifully shaped biceps that measured 14 ½ inches in circumference – every bit the equal of a man with a 7 ¾ inch wrist who acquires an upper arm of 17 ½ inches. As a matter of fact, Mr. Matthes’ 14 ½ inch biceps is much better in appearance than the majority of the 17 ½ inch biceps I have seen. It has a muscular definement, a clearer separation, and balances well with the contour of the triceps.

His 12 inch forearm is more unusual when compared with the wrist, and one can readily believe that the ligaments of his entire arm possess unusual strength. This is proven by his remarkable ability in lifting weights way beyond the best standard of men in his bodyweight class. Equally great is the development of his thighs and calves, as his ankle measurement id just as small in comparison as is his wrist. Mr. Matthes should be a fine inspiration for the man whom nature has endowed with a small bony structure. For as the little wonder has often said, “It is all up to the man himself. If he has the grit to persevere and consistently follow through in his training he is bound to see improvement before long.”

I agree with him thoroughly when he says that if one fellow would quit envying the other fellow’s fine physical proportions, and step out to secure results for himself, there would be a better standard of development.

In order to successfully carry out this plan, a body culturist may first know himself by understanding his body. By a personal survey of his own physical make-up he will learn his weak spots, both in strength and appearance, and by an intelligent application of systematic progressive training he will be able to bring the defective weak parts of his body up to par, thus making his progress toward all-round development much easier.

You will notice that as Mr. Matthes became older he grew stouter, but where will you find a man of sixty who can show such remarkable development and separation of muscle as Matthes shows in his latest photos? Particularly if this evident in the biceps and back muscles.

He tells me he feels like a man of thirty, and if it were not for his gray hair you would mistake him for such. He just radiates health and pep. He practices his exercises, but naturally in moderation compared to what he used to do. Still very active, and with the sparkle of youth in his eyes, he can still perform feats of strength that are truly amazing.

Oscar Matthes retired undefeated as the world’s champion and his records have not yet been surpassed at home or abroad. It gives me great pleasure to bring out of the past this miniature masterpiece, for it proves that it is not the material, but what is done with it that counts.

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