• History of Strength Sports

Louis Cyr, the father of strength

A guest post from @stestrength (Titan Strongman)

When we see the sport of “Strongman” today, we see huge men barely able to fit on our TV screens lifting record breaking weight in breath taking stadium settings like you are about to witness a rock concert with barbells. The Strongman competitions in car parks, gyms and sports halls are slowly becoming a thing of the past as the sport continues to grow, but as the sport idolises the current and the up and coming it is important to remember the past, the Strongmen and Strongwomen that set the bar when it comes to physical strength, the roots to which our sport has bloomed to what it is today.

The legacy of Louis Cyr in Strongman is celebrated in many ways, from equipment, movies, paintings, statues and even the trophies that are handed out to the winner at The Arnold Classic Strongman competitions. His legendary feats of strength (some of which remain unbroken and unmatched to this day) are still a thing of wonder including the record breaking and world famous 'backlift' where he lifted 1,967kg ( 4,337lb).

Louis Cyr born Cyprien - Noé Cyr, October 10 1863 was a French Canadian Strongman who started to discover his gift of strength at the young age of 17. Working heavy jobs on farms and as a lumberjack his livelihood relied heavily on his strength and size and he even gained popularity for the amount of food he could eat in one sitting. Stories would spread all over northern Canada about his strength and enormous appetite. According to many notes one of the most popular stories from when he was a teenager was when he was walking home from his place of work when he came across a farmer who's carriage had got stuck in a ditch of a muddy path that the horse could not pull through; Cyr took this as a opportunity to demonstrate his strength and lifted the carriage out of the ditch with his bare hands giving it enough freedom for the horse to pull it out of the mud. News got around quickly in the village about the young boy's strength and soon Cyr found himself challenged in the test of lifting heavy stones quite similar to a Icelandic tradition known as the “Mans Stone”; if you could not lift the Mans Stone you did not receive the full mans pay. Louis was encouraged to lift the stones and in front of a small crowd, he began hoisting a granite boulder weighing 517lb, with a bear like stance he held on to the stone winning the feat of strength challenge and turning the heads of his town's people. This made waves among the towns and caught the attention of a promoter who convinced Cyr to do various shows and exhibitions to show of his feats of strength. The crowds came thick and fast as popularity of the Canadian Strongman grew but unfortunately the promoter secretly left with out a trace taking with him all the money Louis had earned over the months - leaving him stranded and broke. Louis would continue to perform his feats of strength but this time on the streets and in taverns to raise enough money for the train fare back home.

As the years went by a rivalry between Cyr and another Canadian Strongman called David Michaud began to grow. Promoters managed to pursued them both to meet in a small hall where Cyr and Michaud, who was at that time crowned 'The Strongest Man In Canada', would finally settle the score. Cyr wanted to prove that he himself was not only the strongest man in Canada but the strongest man in the world. Whatever Michaud lifted Cyr would do one better; Michaud would press a 72kg barbell with one hand above his head, Cyr would lift a 99kg barbell above his head with one hand, one finger deadlift, dumbbell snatch, clean and press and the famous boulder that was lifted from the ground weighing over 500lb. The feats went back and forth but Michaud, no matter how hard he tried, could not better the man standing before him and Cyr walked away victorious.

Louis went back to working various jobs putting his strength to good use wherever he could. When he made enough money Cyr, his wife and their daughter bought a tavern where he would perform various feats of strength for the customers, this was giving him new ideas for a travelling act The Troupe Cyr “Louis Cyr THE STRONGEST MAN THAT LIVED”; his wife would stand on a ladder and he would then balance the ladder on his chin, he would lift dumbbells with one hand that many people could not lift with two. When he started his shows he would purposely attract the “working class” those who worked as blacksmiths and farmers, those who new what it took to handle this kind of equipment and weight and even offered a cash prize to anyone who could out lift him.

Cyr would be advertised exactly how people saw him and how he saw himself “The World's Strongest Man” and people would be come into the theatres and circuses in huge numbers to see for themselves, and the stories would spread that he was not just an act but he was the real deal. Louis' fame grew and he found himself stuck between rival Strongmen and strength performers all claiming the same title as “The World's Strongest Man”. Louis Cyr's achievements had been well documented and publicized in the 'Pink Un' also known as the Police Gazette published by famous strength promoter Richard K. Fox. Fox would help Louis Cyr promote his feats during his tours through Canada, England and The United States and offered challenges and a prize pot of $5,000 to any Strongman who could beat Louis Cyr in the quest to find out exactly who was The World's Strongest Man. During his tours and exhibitions he encountered many Strongmen including Cyclops, Samson and Sebastian Miller, all who fell before the strength of Louis Cyr. One of the most famous challenges was sent to Eugene Sandow; despite Louis' best efforts, multiple attempts to meet with him and even adding a diamond studded belt to the winner even the great Sandow refused to stand toe to toe with Cyr.

When Louis accepted that nobody was willing to accept his challenges he took to the stage, to the centre rings of circuses and packed out theatres with more passion than ever, performing feats of strength that the public never thought would ever be possible almost like he was setting an example. Performing a single arm dumbbell bent press of 124kg (beating Sandow world record), lifting a platform on his back holding 18 men for a total of 1967kg commonly known now as the backlift, his famous one handed dumbbell snatch with 85.5kg, a one finger deadlift of 242kg; the challenge would always be left on the table for anyone who was brave enough to step up and beat him. The most famous feat of strength, a feat that would be talked about for years to come happened on the 1st December 1891 at Sohmer Park in Montreal; Cyr was working on the ultimate strength performance, something that everyone would be able to relate to. Most viewers and spectators can argue with weights and equipment and accuse any performer or showman of exaggeration, illusions and trickery and even Cyr would occasionally be accused of such things, but this time he wanted to show his true strength against four draught (/draft) horses. Now for those who do not know what a draught horse is, it is a breed of working horses that is capable of pulling the heaviest of loads; they can weigh anywhere between 1,400 and 2,000lb - they are huge, strong and magnificent animals. Louis Cyr stood before 10,000 people and resisted the pull of four draught horses, two on each side tied to heavy leather that would be looped through Louis' elbows. The horses pulled and pulled as hard as they could, the ground would be tearing up underneath the horses feet and despite grooms cracking their whips to encourage the horses to pull harder they simply could not pull out of Louis' tight hold.

From 1886 to his death in 1912 Louis Cyr was the greatest showman, a husband, a father and the strongest man that had ever lived, some even called him the 'Father Of Strength'. He did what many people thought was impossible, he set a standard to what Strongman means and what it takes to be one, he never gave up and he never saw any limitations to his strength. His legacy will continue to grow and inspire new Strongmen, Strongwomen, strength entertainers and performers all over the world.

My name is Ste Stevens and I am a Circus Strongman / strength entertainer and it is an honour to do this short piece on one of the greatest strongmen to have ever lived.

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