Sunday, September 14, 2008

Little Giants - Mac Batchelor

Gregory Paradise

Pierre Gasnier

Ike Berger

Little Giants
by Mac Batchelor

Have you ever seen a flea circus? There’s one in nearly every sideshow, and what the mighty flea can do has left many people open-mouthed since the first flea circus was ever thought up. These little giants are known to carry thousands of times their own weight! Ants can carry a lot of weight too. Next time you see some crawling along the ground, stop and watch them for a few minutes. Don’t be surprised if you see one carrying a leaf or a piece of bread hundreds of times larger and heavier. No – not all power giants are big!

Down the colorful road of strength have walked athletes of all sizes and descriptions. And not all of them have been “big” men. Many have been little giants, able to perform unbelievable feats of strength. And many have rightfully claimed the title of “World’s Strongest Man.

I’ve known several “small” men who have amazed everyone by performing spectacular strongman stunts.

Years ago a local newspaper called me to their main office to meet a man four feet tall, weighing 121 pounds. Sounds small, doesn’t he. Normally, I could lift him off the floor without straining a finger, but, hard as I tried, this little giant couldn’t be budged!

First I placed my hands on his limbs and then on his neck. I pulled, tugged and jerked, but I couldn’t move him an inch. The other men laughed at my surprise – and, believe me, I was surprised! This little giant possessed the secret of leverage. To lift him off the ground would have been about the same as a straight-arm raise of 700 pounds – which is physically impossible.

I won’t tell you how he did it. Amazing people this way was his livelihood, so I won’t give away the trade secrets he developed. But, with know-how and practice, even you could perform feats of leverage.

The next time I saw him, his show partner, the great Primo Carnera, was with him. He placed two chairs a little less than four feet apart, placed his head on one and his heels on the other, and stretched across them straight as a board, like a bridge. Then he asked Primo and me to step on his stomach! My mouth fell open as Primo stepped up and stood on his midsection. Almost in a daze, I did the same – and our human bridge didn’t budge at all!

There’s another stunt this man was able to do that I still haven’t figured out. This one didn’t involve any strength, but it did involve spectacular body manipulation. He stood erect as I placed my outstretched arm on top of his head. Then he walked a few feet away, and walked back under my outstretched arm, still standing erect. Doesn’t sound great? Well, here’s the surprise – this time he was many inches shorter!

I remember an exceptional French lightweight professional strongman who toured the United States about the time of Wilson’s administration, and who passed on in the twenties from old age. He wasn’t a big man, but he was very muscular, weighing about 130 pounds. This little giant was so impressive that many followers of the strength game argued that no athlete ever lived who could compare with him.

Being a forward, egotistical showman, he had no qualms about claiming himself “Strongest Man in the World.” This tiny dynamo of strength will be remembered by old timers. His name was Pierre Gasnier.

After seeing his performance, every onlooker was ready to believe the title he gave himself. I’m fortunate in having in my collection of rare photos a few shots of this master showman. I want you to notice his thick, short torso, his broad shoulders and his exceptional all-around arm development. His muscular legs weren’t too bulky, but they were shapely. Note the full length trunks that he wore to give his lower limbs a look of slenderness, compared with his upper body.

A master at breaking chains wrapped around his upper arms, forearms and chest, he had to keep his muscles in hard condition to prevent the metal from cutting into his flesh. Great chest expansion is an asset in chain breaking and extreme muscular contraction of the limbs is necessary to expand the muscles with enough power to snap the chain links.

A reputable lifter, he made his living at being a showman. Short waisted as he was, is elbow easily rested at the hip. This made him a natural for the bent press – raising a great amount of weight with one hand.

Pierre had an enormous stage bell which, as you can see in the photo, was almost as big as he was. It was hollow and could be loaded to a total of 236 livres. A livre weighs one-and-one-tenth pounds, so the bell was equivalent to about 253 ½ pounds!

There’s no doubt that Pierre was powerful, but some spectators did doubt some of his claims. Gasnier liked this because he was always ready to take advantage of and shock doubters. The more they doubted him, the more he boasted that he could put twice his bodyweight overhead with one hand. He often riled spectators in this way, and the more he bragged, the faster the wagers would pour in.

One day he got a fairly big crowd worked up. Pierre stood next to his stage bell, beaming with pride. “I can put this heavy weight overhead as quickly as you can bet that I can’t,” he boasted. The crowd mumbled, laughed, and some of them even sneered at him in doubt – and the money flowed! The wagers were in, the crowd grew restless – “Go on, let’s see you do it now,” everyone yelled out. Pierre just smiled.

He walked over to the huge bell and the crowd grew still. You could almost hear them breathing. They grew tense with excitement. Pierre reached down for the bell that weighed more than twice as much as he did, he took hold of the bar and rocked one end of it to his shoulder. The crowd gasped, the ladies in the audience sighed. He then placed his elbow on his hip, getting ready for the bent press. Mouths gaped open and the crowd was breathless as it waited for Pierre to snatch the weight up over his head. He didn’t move. The crowd became even more tense. Then, as relaxed as he could be, he smiled, merely bent over, and passed his head beneath the level of the bell!

The gamblers were much too stunned at what had happened to challenge him, so they paid him the money he had won. Technically, he did get the weight above his head and he did win the bet. No one ever bothered to bet him that he couldn’t put the weight overhead – at arm’s length.

In the annals of strength very few men have legitimately bent pressed double their bodyweight at arm’s length overhead. Arthur Saxon is generally recognized as the greatest of bent pressers, with a 371 lb. bent press at a 200 lb. bodyweight.

If we recall Saxon, we should also recall a great “little” Canadian – Gregory Paradise, a strength performer who lived in Nashua, New Hampshire. Before saying more about his fantastic bent press ability let me tell you a little about his rise to fame.

As a boy, and as a man, he was “small,” but he rose to heights seldom attained in the world of strength by men so small in stature. Men such as Paradise must have possessed blazing spirits to succeed when big men were at a high premium.

In his day, the physical culture magazines were blazon with photos of the mail-order professors of strength. This branch of correspondence was a veritable gold mine in post World War I days. The physique moguls, mostly located in the New York City area, quickly became millionaires and were able to offer lucrative prizes to those who won one of their contests. The winner would usually win a thousand dollars (a fabulous amount of money in those days) and all-expense paid trips across the country – paid by the physique contest sponsors.

Paradise signed up for and completed such a course, competing with the top physique stars, and was declared the winner of not one, but two American physique contests. Each grossed him $1,000 and he was brought to New York City and treated like a king. the leading physical culture publications were embellished with photos of him for months, and many poses continued to appear years after his climb to fame. The crowds roared with excitement wherever he went.

Gregory had such an exceptional physique that he could assume what might be called commonplace or conventional poses – and look tremendous! Not only was his muscular development excellent, but he was also super strong. Note his massiveness in the studio pose. Don’t let it jar you – even if he does look like a 200-pound Hercules – he weighed a mere 124 lbs. at 5 feet.

‘Tho not a chinning specialist, he found it fairly easy to chin himself with only the middle finger of his right hand. Most of the mail-order houses featured cable sets, as weights were too expensive to buy and ship, and the “professors” accumulated more wealth in this manner. Paradise was a leading adherent of cables. He could bent press 23 strands at one time, using any set of cables on the market. With arms fully extended forward at shoulder level, he would grip the handles of a heavy 10-strand cable set with his thumbs only, and stretch them to his side in alignment with his shoulders.

Shouldering two 100 lb. dumbbells, he would seesaw press them 10 reps each hand. His favorite exercise was the bent press and, in proportion to his bodyweight, he may have been the world’s greatest presser. With a dumbbell he could press 210 lbs. and his most spectacular lift was a bent press of 250 lbs. – over double his bodyweight! Always trim and in perfect form, he was a credit to the game.

No, not all physique and strength giants have been big men. Many have been little giants, and we can’t help looking at them with even more amazement than watching the mighty flea carry thousands of times its own weight on its back.

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