Iron History

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01/11/2003 Entry: "Apollon 1"

'Apollon' was the stage name used by two strongman performers: The J.C. Tolson, born on Jul 16, 1903 is not the one to whom we refer here. It is Louis Uni, aka Apollon (pronounced AP a lon) under examination.

In 1911, Professor Edmond Desbonnet, the founder of physical culture in France, published a book entitled: THE KINGS OF STRENGTH: History of All Strong Men From Ancient Times to Our Day. It is, of course, written in French, and has been translated by two Americans, working separately. Leo Gaudreau's finished work, he told me, was sent to Joe Weider many years ago, but has never been published. Leo died on Jun 1, 1990 at the age of 85, having been born Aug 9, 1904.

Here is an excerpt from Leo's letter to me dated Apr 9, 1986:

"Now for Les Rois de la Force. I have completed it and the MS. is in the hands of Joe Weider. My translation was done the hard way�I tried to hold to Desbonnet's original meaning. I am not a formally educated man. I have asked that not a word be changed but who knows what a publisher will do. I have no idea when it will be published�if ever! There are characters in the book that Anglo-Saxons never read about.


Very Best Wishes, Leo"

That manuscript sits in darkness, somewhere, having never been published.

The other translation, by David Chapman, who currently writes history for Ironman magazine, has been a work in progress for several years, and it pleases me in no small measure to have sitting on my desk as I type this, a draft of that translation which is described this way:

"This first unedited version of The Kings of Strength is presented to Joe Roark by the translator David Chapman in grateful recognition of his help and generosity over the years. May we always be good friends, amiable colleagues, and trustworthy historians" May we indeed!

Please keep in mind that any references I may make in this series on Apollon will depend heavily on David's translation of this book- and without access to the meaning of Desbonnet's book, my research into Apollon, who frankly is my favorite oldetime strength performer, would be hindered considerably. So thank you, David, for your kindness. By the way, David is working on his final draft and we will most assuredly inform readers when it is ready and how to acquire a copy, but this may be months away.

Desbonnet, after profiling many of the strength performers, concluded that two men stood above the field due to overall, multi-funtional strength capabilities: Louis Cyr, of Canada, who was about twenty-one months younger than Apollon, but who died in 1912, probably about the final year of Apollon's performing days, so Cyr died at age 49, sixteen years before that second super strong man, Apollon.

Louis Uni was born in Marsillargues, Herault, France on Jan 21, 1862. He died On Oct 28, 1928, and the only reference I have ever seen of his burial place attributes his resting place to Evreux, France. But a Frenchman named Amaury, who frequents the grip board discussion group recently journeyed to Evreux for the express purpose of locating the grave of Apollon. Here is his email to me:

"Hi Joe!

"I went to Evreux on Friday afternoon [Dec 20, 2002] and alas, came back empty-handed�

"The facts are plain: there is no Louis Uni buried in any of the four cemeteries of Evreux (South of Rouen, Normandy, France)! I hardly need to point out that I was bitterly disappointed when the janitor of the Saint Louis Cemetery told me the news after checking her files!

"Maybe Apollom died at Evreux but was buried elsewhere (well, we KNOW now that he is not buried in Evreux)?? Maybe the registry office could answer that?

"I don't know.

"I'm sure you're just as disappointed as I am!"

Indeed I am Amaury! And thank you for the kindness in attempting to locate the burial site of the greatest of the oldetime strongmen.

Apollon began his strongman career at age 15 (1877) and continued it until around 1912 when he was 50! His best and strongest period according to Willoughby was from 1889 to 1892 (ages 27 to 31).

He married twice, had three children and nine grandchildren.

APOLLON: One of the most helpful physical characteristics possessed by Uni was his hand size- a length of nine inches and a palm width of 4.7" His 6'3" frame carried various poundages through the years, ranging as an adult from 260 to 280 pounds. His wrist circumference was 9". His forearm, measured with the entire arm, including wrist, in a straight line, with clenched fist, but without goosnecked-wrist flexing (very important distinction) was about 16.5", which was, and remains today a monstrous size forearm when measured in this manner. Nonetheless, he was far from the magic, almost unattainable ratio of muscular forearm being twice his wrist circumference.

I am fully aware that other, larger, measurements have been attributed to Apollon- one other reference offering 17.75 instead of the 16.5 I just mentioned, and one offering that when the forearm was bent and goosenecked, a reading of 19.5" could be attained.

One wonders at his lack of push- he always lifted well within his limits, and would rarely approach his top shelf strength, lifting only enough to win, or enough to convince others that what they were observing was the best that could be observed. His training methods consisted not in systematic regimen, but more casual and sporadic training- one almost concludes he did not train much as an adult-other than using his performances as training occasions.

Terry Todd wrote in Muscular Development magazine Mar 1973 "Unfortunately, Apollon could only rarely be coaxed into trying anything near the limit of his strength. Only when goaded would he reveal the power of which he was capable." And David Willoughby offered in Ironman Jan 1975, "�He never 'trained in the systematic and long-continued manner adopted by present day aspirants in the sport of weightlifting".

But even this casual approach yielded him more mass than was carried by Vasily Alexeev.

As we examine Apollon and his various lifts, some thoughts should be refreshed:

1. The feats of his era often included one arm lifts, or lifts with two arms but with separate objects being lifted in each hand. The bench press was unknown (as were benches for this purpose), squats were not in vogue as they now are, gear, whether referring to internal or external aids (chemicals or cloth) were not allowed, and any strongman employing such tactics would have met with ridicule rather than approval.

2. Further, the styles of lifts have changed since the Uni unique days. Louis disdained dipping under a weight he was cleaning (and I am unaware that he ever continentalled a weight). He never pulled a weight to waist height and then thrust his body beneath it- his were more what today would be termed 'power cleans'-very little dip, very much strength. Even his snatches were high pulls.

3. Although plate loaded weights came into popularity during his career, so far as I know he never employed them in his public demonstrations. Arthur Saxon preferred training with plate loaded weights but used globes for his performances in many cases. In connection with this, some of the weights Apollon used were not balanced, that is, one end might have more weight than the other end, which of course, meant that extra wrist strength was needed to maintain level.

4. Apollon's hand size allowed him to use thicker bars with the same ease that a shorter handed man used regular size bars. For example: a man with a hand length of 7.5", as measured from tip of middle finger to first wrist line would find the circumference of the original Inch 172 pound dumbell had the exact circumference of 7.5" and would find that bell murderously difficult to elevate. But Apollon's hand length of 9" would be, of course, 1.5" of excess grabbing length as compared to a hand length of 7.5" on that same bar. (It would be as though the man with the 7.5" hand were grasping a bar of 6" circumference, or 1.91" diameter. Keep in mind the Apollon wheels bar had a diameter of 1.93", so Apollon's hand was three inches longer than it's circumference, which, again, for a 7.5" hand would be the same as a bar of less than 1.5" diameter. This should not be interpreted to mean that a hand length of 7.5" when encircling a bar of the same circumference, will find the middle finger tip and thumb tip touching. Far from it.

Please read that paragraph until you understand that Apollon's hand length removed many difficulties encountered by men of shorter hand length-that he SHOULD HAVE been able to perform many of the thick bar feats attributed to him! For Apollon to be on a level playing field with a 7.5" hand length dealing with the Inch dumbell, that is, the circumference of the bar matching the lifter's hand length, would have required Apollon to use a bar circumference of 9", or 2.86" diameter.

To digress for a moment: The purely fair way for lifting to take place in thick bar events is for the hand length of the lifter to measure the same as the circumference of the bar. Thus the above example where a 7.5" hand dealing with a bar diameter of 2.38" is in fact an equal playing field to Apollon using a bar diameter of 2.86. Put in other terms, for Apollon to use a bar circumference 1.5" less than his hand length (which is the original Inch dumbell) meant that someone with a hand length of 7.5" should be allowed to use a bar circumference 1.5" less than his hand length, or 6" circumference, which is 1.91".

I know this is tricky and thought provoking, but because it has not been fully examined before, many have not considered the full implications, and rather than understanding how such a hand size is an advantage, have instead simply doubted Apollon's strength.

For reference sake, here is the chart I composed for bar circumference and diameter, from our Extras section (click here).

This is, of course, very impractical in manufacturing terms, but very practical for each lifter to compose such a bar for home use. In this way the man with a 7.5" hand would be trying to lift the 2.38" Inch original dumbell, while Apollon would be dealing with a bar diameter of 2.86, which is half an inch thicker. [there is the factor of where the thumb is 'placed' on an individuals hand, because what really matters in a grip sense is the circle size formed by the lifters thumb tip and middle finger tip, which circle will be larger as the thumb placement on the hand is 'higher' or closer to the wrist.]

So, please keep in mind when reading about some of the phenomenal lifts attributed to Apollon that he had a tremendous gripping-surface advantage, coupled with an immense amount of strength. Cyr's hand length was 7.75" so he had a disadvantage in thick bar when compared to Apollon.

Leo Gaudreau, writing in VIM magazine in Feb 1941:

"Unfortunately, all photographs of Apollon now in existence, are poor, furthermore, it is common knowledge among old-timers contemporary with him that he never swelled his chest or bulged his muscles to impress." He was prone to 'relaxed' shots in bodybuilding terms.

Leo continues: "To add to this difficulty, Apollon was not a weightlifter as we know them at present (competitive lifters or record holders). We must delve into the records that have been written by appreciative men of his time to know and understand a strength that was taxed to its limit only once."

Leon See's 1906 account of that incident is then offered by Gaudreau.. See attributes it to Apollon at age 26 [ 1887 ], and I quote the version as presented in VIM:

"One evening, Apollon had to give out with all his strength, and the modern Hercules accomplished a feat that in all probability would have defied the strength of the Hercules of mythology.

"A number of years ago he was performing in the music halls of Paris, and other big cities in an unique and impressive strength turn. He was 25 years of age. His musculature was incomparable, his enormous proportions unmatched, and he was further endowed with a head as shapely as his physique, suggesting great reserve energy, a phenomenon of power that capricious nature produces only once in ten centuries."

See then mentions he has seen Sandow, Cyclops, and John Grun but "none of these 'turns' was comparable to Apollon's" [turns means performances]

Then Gaudreau switches from See's version to his own version based on "the large amount of material I have studied". Gaudreau attributes this to the year 1889, not 1887. Chapman also accepts 1889.

"We are comfortably seated in the theatre and eagerly awaiting the rising of the curtain, the start of Apollon's act.

"There is inspiring music; the curtain goes up.

"The scene is an old castle wall, barely discernable in the gloom.

"I rapid heavy step is heard, and through an iron-barred gate we see a dark form approaching.

"It is the shadowy form of a huge man wrapped in a great cloak, obviously one intent on escape. The alarm is sounded, the guards are in pursuit, shots are fired. The heavy iron gate obstructs the way of the prisoner.

"So graphic is the scene that the audience imagines that it is witness to a real life happening.

"The desperate man grabs the gate and tugs at it frantically as he hears the cries of the guards.

"Time is precious.

"Madly he grasps one of the bars and by a tremendous effort bends it back. Through the opening we see a great bare arm, and arm as big as an average man's thigh. It is well proportioned from finger tips to shoulder, with great bulging muscles like intertwined ropes of various sizes.

"The audience is awed at the sight of such a limb.

"With another tremendous effort born of desperation, the bars are pried apart. The man's cloak partly opens by the effort, and we get a glimpse of a bare leg that can be compared only to the pillar of a temple�

"Now through the forced opening appears the prisoner's head, shoulders, arms, body. All are brought hastily, feverishly into concerted pressure against the cold, resisting metal.

"The guards are almost upon him-but too late, for his enormous body comes through the forced opening. The prisoner is free, leaving behind bent and twisted bars, mute evidence of his superhuman power."

That was how Apollon began his act. Before the next performance, a blacksmith would straighten the bars in such a way that Apollon could again bend them- this was after all, the start of his show, not the finish. This was the only dramatically 'faked' part of his act. As was customery in those days among some strongmen, Apollon allowed the public to have access to the barred gates before show time- probably in the lobby during the afternoon or early evening. Certainly no normal man could bend the bars open, and thus when Apollon did in fact squeeze through the bars the local strongmen who had tried to bend the bars in the lobby, knew they were witnessing true strength.

Gaudreau continues:

"On one occasion, the smithy, supposedly ignorant of their purpose, heated the bars to a red hot heat, and straightened them. Instead of allowing the iron to cool off gradually he poured cold water on the hot metal. This, as anyone informed on the subject can tell you, made the metal harder and consequently the bars were more rigid."

Apollon was unaware that the bars had been tempered in this way, and was expecting the usual amount of resistance.

"That evening the scene opened as usual and all went well up to the point where Apollon attempts to bend the bars. From this point we go back to Leon See's writings. In the company of Professor Desbonnet in a theatre in Lille [France], he saw Apollon's greatest feat of strength, and the translation starts as Apollon grasps the bars of the iron gate:

"His two powerful hands grasped two of the bars, and the formidable muscles of this Colossus produced their effort.

"To his ineffable surprise, the usual things did not happen. He applied more pressure, but in vain, the iron was resistant.

"Without releasing the bars, he turned toward his wife in the wings, anguish written on his slightly low brow and with the unforgettable expression of a wounded animal, he exclaimed in a low choked voice:

"'I do not know what is the matter- I cannot pass'

"His wife believing him in a lazy mood, ordered him severely to hurry and apply more strength and proceed through the bars.

"So he applied himself to the task. All acting was forgotten, his huge cloak which embarrassed his movements, was thrown off his shoulders. Pressure was applied with all his power, the veins of his neck stood out like big blue ropes, it was terrifying.

"His efforts shook the whole scene, as if it had been in the path of a hurricane.

"Bit by bit, under his prodigious efforts, superhuman, the bars started to bend. In the theatre an unprecedented silence prevailed; the spectators held their breath; the only audible sound was the loud gasps from the depths of Apollon's enormous chest at every effort.

"The strong man, now maddened, was giving out for the first time in his life the extreme limit of power; he had now brought into proximity with each other two of the bars, his powerful hands grasped these and gave a great muscular contraction. When he released these bars they were touching each other.

"By forcing his shoulder at the expense of ugly lacerations, he was able to buttress his back against a bar and by applying pressure with concerted strength of arms and back the bars slowly bent and partly broke. Slowly, painfully, through an opening hardly large enough for his body, the giant's head, torso, and finally the entire body emerged.

"He had accomplished the greatest feat of strength of his career. Breathless, covered with perspiration, his great chest rose and fell like a bellows, and his breath was heard at the farthest corner of the theatre.

"He advanced to the edge of the stage, staggering slightly, eyes blood-shot, exhausted, he said simply: Behold there it is.

"When his weights were brought out, he was unable to lift them.

"A snatch of 176 lbs. went no farther than shoulder-height.

"His 176 lb. juggling weight was missed at first attempt.

"He advanced to the edge of the stage again and in breathless spasms said: Please excuse me, I do not know�what is the matter�I do not feel well�I am afraid to miss my tricks�and break the floor�

"He bowed, and with faltering steps, returned to the wings.

"The theatre remained silent. The audience, mute. Intuitively they realized that they had witnessed an extraordinary performance.

"Back stage, the athlete was sprawled in a chair, chin resting on his chest, his enormous forearms supported on his thighs were swollen to an enormous size. They must have measured nearly nineteen inches in this condition, and they had lost all regular shape."

Please notice what See wrote next:

"Apollon had a persecution complex, and it was his unshaken opinion that he had been the victim of the manipulations of a jealous rival.

In the Mar 1941 issue of VIM, Gaudreau recounts from Professor Desbonnet what happened after this:

"After leaving the stage Apollon went into such a rage that no one dared approach him. Even Professor Desbonnet who usually exercised a great influence over the strong man for the two-fold reason that Apollon was normally a person of docile character and because he placed great confidence in the Professor- the Professor, I say, thought it prudent now to leave out any talk of the evening's accident."

After midnight Desbonnet left Apollon and his wife, and they returned to their Hotel Bellevue apartment, where at ten the next morning Desbonnet, having determined that the blacksmith made a well-intentioned error, showed up to report that news to Apollon, but Mrs. Uni relayed that her husband had experienced prolonged nightmare's during his fitful sleep.

Desbonnet explained the mistake by the blacksmith, Apollon scolded his wife for not managing his stage props better, and one gets the impression that Apollon's anger had come from realizing that indeed his strength also had a limit - as did the strength levels of his fellow strongmen.

Though the above feat of bar bending strength is not measurable in any meaningful way, except that it drew Apollon to the edge of his strength for the only time in his career, it demonstrates the absolute extreme of that edge, and why, in most other lifts he demonstrated, he nestled in well away from that brutal border in a range of strength in excess of other men, but safely in his 'casual' zone.

PROBLEMS: The above version sets this tale in Lille, France. W. Parsley writing in Health & Strength Dec 1932 agrees that Lille was the location and the Variety Theatre specifically. But David Willoughby puts the incident at the Follies Bergere in 1889, when Apollon would have been age 27. Webster notes both versions but makes no choice in the matter. Obviously, it is unlikely that the bars were improperly tempered twice, and I cannot explain the discrepancy of location, except to say I side with Paris because the Hotel Bellevue was located there.

Later this month, Apollon part 2.