Bill Kazmaier (1953- ) is a powerlifter, strongman, businessman, and sports commentator who attained international fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s for his spectacular and versatile feats of strength. A native of Wisconsin, he came to Alabama in 1979 to participate at the National Strength Research Center at Auburn University.
William "Kaz" Kazmaier was born on December 30, 1953, the youngest child of William Bartholomew and Florence Louise Steinhoff Kazmaier, in Burlington, Wisconsin. He had one brother, two sisters, and a half brother. His father owned soda water bottling plants in Burlington and Kenosha. A star athlete in high school, he played football for two years at the University of Wisconsin before dropping out in 1974 to concentrate on lifting weights at the Madison YMCA. There, he learned the fundamentals of powerlifting and had what he called a spiritual awakening after reading a Bible verse in Psalms 40. With these revelations, natural strength, and intense training, Kazmaier rose to national rankings after struggling to earn a living as an oil rigger, a bouncer, and a lumberjack. At the 1978 Amateur Athletic Union national championships in Los Angeles, California, he squatted 782 pounds, bench pressed 534, and deadlifted 804 in the 275-pound weight class, which immediately placed him in the top rank of strength athletes. In 1979, he set a world record with a bench press of 622 pounds on the way to winning his first World Powerlifting Championship in Dayton, Ohio. That same year, he entered the World's Strongest Man competition in Studio City, California, placing third overall.
Kazmaier remained in southern California, although he struggled financially and was often homeless until Terry Todd, a kinesiology professor at Auburn University, remembering his extraordinary ability at the 1978 national championships, brought him to Auburn in 1979. There, he provided him with temporary living quarters, meals, and training facilities. Kazmaier aided the National Strength Research Center that Todd was creating with Auburn faculty Mike Stone, John Garhammer, and Tom McLaughlin. Several months after he arrived in Auburn, Kazmaier took a full-time job with Diversified Products in nearby Opelika, the largest barbell manufacturer in the world at the time; it was founded by former Alabama governor Forrest "Fob" James. In his position, he appeared in sporting goods trade shows and represented the company in powerlifting competitions.
After winning a series of international victories, he began to gain informal recognition as the World's Strongest Man over the next several years. In May 1980, his 633-pound bench press was one of 18 world records set at a "World Series of Powerlifting" event in Auburn, televised by CBS, and in January 1981 in nearby Columbus, Georgia, he set a three-lift superheavyweight total of 2,425 pounds that remained unsurpassed for more than a decade. In that contest, he recorded his lifetime best bench press of 661 pounds, twice his bodyweight. Kazmaier's powerlifting feats, capped off by his decisive victory at the World Powerlifting Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1983, are all the more impressive given that they occurred before the introduction of improved lifting gear that would boost competitive lifts by hundreds of pounds.
What brought Kazmaier his greatest fame, however, came from his victories in the World's Strongest Man contests in 1980, 1981, and 1982. He dominated the competition in multiple strength events conducted over several days that included log-lifting, truck-pulling, Playboy Bunny-lifting, refrigerator-carrying, and beer keg-tossing. At the 1981 event at the Great Gorge Playboy Club in McAfee, New Jersey, he carried and hurled twelve 167-pound kegs a distance of eight feet into a flat bed truck in under fifty seconds. One observer called it the greatest strength feat he had ever seen. With major television coverage and a sizable purse for contestants each year, Kazmaier's fame quickly spread to the general public.
Kazmaier also demonstrated his abilities at a number of Highland Games (which feature games based on traditional feats of strength in the Scottish Highlands) competitions that revealed his raw strength. In 1979, without any special training, he tossed a 560-pound weight a record 16 feet 2 inches over a pole-vault standard at the annual Braemar Gathering in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in front of 25,000 spectators, and he was the first strength athlete to lift the legendary 268 pound Inver (Manhood) Stone over his head. He would later become the first man to lift all five MacGlashen (Atlas) Stones. These events contributed to his finances and fame, as did his imposing physique, which well represented the public ideal of the world's strongest man.
Inspired by the legendary and multitalented Jim Thorpe, Kazmaier sought to transfer his talents to other sports, trying out for the NFL's Green Bay Packers in 1981 and also participating in World Championship Wrestling in the early 1990s but his attempts were thwarted by injuries and an inability to adapt to sports in which pure strength was not the most significant factor. Not only were athletes in his chosen sports prone to serious bodily harm, but his own training routine was extremely intense. In a typical bench press workout he might perform 160 repetitions with weights ranging from 225 to 550 pounds for a total workload of 66,950 pounds or nearly 33.5 tons. Furthermore the ballistic force with which he ripped weights off the floor put his body to the severest possible test. His career as a competitive strongman ended in 1990 with a loss to Icelandic rival Jon Pall Sigmarsson.
Meanwhile, with assistance from Diversified Products, Bill opened KAZ Fitness Center in Auburn in the early 1980s; the business closed in 2005. He then opened SWAT Gym in Opelika, also in Lee County. Both served as a place for him to train and as headquarters for Dynakaz Inc., which still markets fitness products worldwide. Upon retiring from competition in the 1990s, Kazmaier was hired as a commentator for the World's Strongest Man competition on ESPN, where he remains a popular figure.
Kazmaier considers his most important contributions to public life to be his work as a motivational speaker for 3D Sports Tech, for which he addresses as many as ten school and YMCA groups in a day. "I can and I will" is the message he conveys to inspire young people to lead healthier and more productive lives. His remarkable feats as an athlete serve to secure his credibility and celebrity status for youthful listeners and general public alike. Strength author David Webster called him the greatest American strength athlete of all time, and a 2008 poll of experts rated him as top superheavyweight lifter of all time and "one of the strongest men who ever lived." An Alabamian by circumstance rather than choice originally, "Kaz" has brought much favorable attention to a state already distinguished by its many sports heroes. He resides in Auburn.
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———. "The Return of KAZ." Powerlifting USA 12 (August 1988): 8-9, 87.
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