The History of Dumbbells Part VII

As discussed last time, Sandow was on his way to meet Professor Attila, his teacher, in London in order to challenge Sampson. Although challenging the performer seems relatively uncomplicated, Sandow would have to overcome a few obstacles before sharing the stage with Sampson. Fortunately, Sandow’s skills and savvy as a showman would be honed along the way.

Before Sandow and Attila could challenge Sampson, they felt they needed to establish somewhat of a reputation since Sandow was a relative no-name at the time. Thus, they visited the National Sporting Club (NSC), whose members took it upon themselves to lift the sport of boxing to a respectable level. There, Sandow performed an impromptu feat of strength for the members, many of whom held high-class positions in society, and lifted the biggest person he saw and placed him gently on a table. If this wasn’t enough to gain the favor of those who would support the challenge to Sampson, Sandow removed his clothing in order to display what was soon to become known as a perfect physique.

On the night of October 29, 1889, the entire Sandow camp, consisting of himself, Attila, and a group from the NSC, took their seats and waited for Sampson to issue his challenge. As soon as Sampson finished, Attila declared that he had a challenger ready at that moment. Sampson, unwilling to risk parting with so much money, pulled a fast one and stated that Sandow would have to first beat Cyclops before being eligible to challenge Sampson. He then gave 100 pounds to the theater manager to hold as a sign of goodwill. Sandow and Attila agreed to this change, although they were not happy, and Sandow’s posse took the stage.


Franz “Cyclops” Bienkowski

Dressed as a debonair gentleman, complete with a monocle, Sandow looked rather unremarkable as a challenger. After he ripped off his outfit, however, which was prepared to be forcefully removed, the audience resounded and Sampson and Cyclops squirmed.

The contest between Sandow and Cyclops began quickly. Cyclops started the first round by picking up a 150-pound dumbbell, then a 100-pound dumbbell, and pressing them both overhead. Although no small feet, Sandow replicated the feat, but pressed the 100-pound dumbbell twice, with seemingly little effort. Sandow won round 1.

Cyclops started the second round by jerking overhead a barbell weighing 220 pounds. Unfortunately for Cyclops, Sandow’s ability to put weights overhead was superb, as he was masterful at the bent press; Sandow bested the incumbent by pressing the barbell overhead with only one hand.

“Press on back” was the third test for the two athletes. Both men, starting with Cyclops, lifted a 250-pound barbell while their backs were on the ground. With three rounds over, the men from the NSC declared the contest over and Sandow the winner, as the effort he put forth was much less compared to Cyclops. This did not sit well with Sampson, who said that a true test of strength included some test of endurance, meaning that each test was to be performed over and over until one man failed. The audience erupted, as they had taken a liking to the underdog, and the representatives from each party argued back and forth.


Sandow performing the bent press in four images

Finally, the manager of the theater who held the 100 pounds of currency stepped in. He offered that Sampson suggest one last test to determine the winner. Sampson reluctantly agreed. Cyclops picked up a 150-pound dumbbell, then picked up a 100-pound kettlebell. He slowly bent pressed the dumbbell twice and then dropped it from overhead, causing a dramatic crash.

The audience hollered at Sandow not to attempt it as he had already won. He smiled in response, and picked up the 150-pound dumbbell. He then picked up the kettlebell. He performed one rep with the dumbbell, then two. Then he completed five more reps as the audience roared.

Sandow’s joyous crew left the theater 100 pounds richer. Although Sandow did not best Sampson that night, his performance would boost his reputation, making the upcoming contest a livelier affair than it would have been. Sandow was on the staircase to strength stardom.


David L. Chapman. 2002. Sandow the  Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding. (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press).

Caroline Daley. October 2002. “The Strongman of Eugenics, Eugen Sandow.” Australian Historical Studies 33: 233–48.

David Webster. 1976. The Iron Game: An Illustrated History of Weight-Lifting (Irvine, Scotland: Webster).