The History of Dumbbells Part VIII

In our last installment, the father of modern bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow, and Professor Attila sought to take up Sampson’s challenge and win 500 pounds. Sampson, however, was able to talk his way out of the contest, and force Sandow to face his apprentice, Cyclops, instead. Ultimately, Sandow bested Franz “Cyclops” Bienkowski with relative ease, and subsequently pocketed 100 pounds. More importantly, however, he earned the right to challenge Sampson.

By the night of November 2, 1889, three days after Sandow beat Cyclops, news of the showdown had spread among London’s sporting circles. The face-off between the relatively unknown Sandow and the self-proclaimed “Strongest Man on Earth” resulted in large crowds packing the Royal Aquarium. Demand was apparently high as prices for tickets were cited at one pound all the way up to 50 guineas!

Finally, after palpable anticipation, the curtain rose and Sampson issued his challenge of awarding 500 pounds to any man who could replicate his feats. No one came forward, however. Twice more Sampson spoke to the crowd and reiterated his challenge with no response. Finally, perhaps as a mind game, or perhaps because there was too much of a crowd, Sandow burst in, surrounded by elites who were members of the National Sporting Club. The group was met with cheers from the crowd, and the challenge was on.

The judges agreed that Sampson was required to perform feats that were part of his regular exhibition. As such, he started with iron pipe bending. Using his leg, chest, and arms to slowly and steadily bend the pipe – and then straighten it – Sampson’s first feat was smooth and successful. Sandow, on the other hand, was apparently less versed in pipe bending. Although he completed the feat, he received no “style points,” as he was slower and looked labored and clumsy.

For his second act, Sampson fastened a wire rope around his chest. Knowing that the “trick” of the feat was to twist the ends of the rope together allowed Sampson to easily “break” it upon expanding his chest and ribcage. Again Sandow performed the feat, but only after a few attempts and taking instructions from helpful audience members. Though he had matched Sampson in each discipline, this was surely not the smooth start Sandow wanted.

Sampson must have felt confident, for he moved on to a trick in which he specialized: wrapping a small chain around his forearm and breaking it. So, he revealed a chain from his pocket, and offered another to Sandow. To the surprise of Sampson, however, Sandow rebuffed the offer and pulled out a chain of his own!

This was actually an interesting turn of events in the competition. Similar to many of the performing strongman feats, brains played as much of a role as brawn did in breaking the chain. In order to break the chain by contracting the muscles in the forearm, it was necessary for it to be a length that perfectly matched one’s forearm. In other words, the trick could not be performed without a tailored chain.

Cleverly, Sandow and Attila anticipated this trick, and a few days before the competition found the same man who made Sampson’s chains. Not only did they have one made that fit Sandow’s forearm, but they made sure the man was in attendance to verify that both chains were similar in all aspects other than their length.

After the chain maker and the audience inspected it, Sandow easily broke the chain. Sampson was outraged. He tried arguing his case to the audience, and then the judges, but no one sympathized. To make matters worse for Sampson, the judges declared that if Sandow could perform further proofs of his strength on his own, he would be named the winner.

While Sampson continued disputing the audience, the judges, and his competitor, Sandow performed what was becoming a trademark feat by lifting a man from the ground who stood up straight and stiff. Then he performed a number of feats with an exceedingly large, 150-pound dumbbell. Finally, Sampson took his cape and left the stage, thus indicating his defeat.

Sandow emerged victorious, but the story did not end there. Unfortunately for Sampson, a clause in his contracted stated that he would no longer be employed by the theater if he was defeated in one of his challenges. What’s more, he never paid Sandow the 500 pound purse for his victory. Sampson ultimately traveled and performed again, but his claim of being the “Strongest Man on Earth,” no longer followed.

Sandow’s reactions to his victory shed light on his motives. For a man who often entered into litigation when it involved his name and/or reputation, it’s interesting that he never brought Sampson to court to claim his prize. Instead, he accepted 350 pounds from the Royal Aquarium’s management. After entering a cab that was lifted by the excited audience and carried to his hotel, Sandow told reporters that he had no interest in a music hall career.

Before the night was over, however, he had signed a contract with Alhambra Music Hall in which he was to be paid 150 pounds per week. His actions suggest that although he wanted to make ends meet in the present, he had an intuitive understanding of the power of one’s reputation, or brand. Some might argue that contemporary strong men such as Arnold or Halfthor have used similar strategies.


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.

Dominic G. Morais. Summer 2013. “Branding Iron: Eugen Sandow’s Modern Marketing Strategies, 1887-1925.” The Journal of Sport History 40(2): 193-214.

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