Stone Age Training
Arthur Hennig was born on April 28, 1878, in Leipzig, Germany. He dropped out of school at age 14 and, having studied Steinmetz stone sculpture, fashioned some weights out of stone and began training in his parents’ potato cellar. Also that fateful year, a gunshot explosion near his face during rehearsal for a play blinded him in both eyes; sight in his left eye returned, but not in his right eye.
At age 15, Hennig, along with his two younger brothers, Kurt and Hermann, conducted strength contests in the family’s backyard. Anyone age 15 or younger could compete for the two-and-a-half cent prize by defeating the brothers in some type of lifting challenge, or belt wrestling (Swiss belt wrestling consisted of each opponent wearing a belt with a ring attached at each side; the goal was to toss your opponent to the ground by grasping only the rings on his belt). The trio was never defeated and, once, to teach a lesson to a "dandy" who was arrogantly wearing fine clothes for a match, the brothers had prepared a mud puddle into which Arthur hurled the man.
Barbells were not employed in Hennig’s early training. He lifted mostly kettle-bells and ring-weights or dumbbells – all one-handed implements. Often, his bent-presses were done by tying smaller weights onto the ends of a solid barbell (thus making the lift more difficult); on occasion, weights fell off during the lift.
The bent-press, a lift 5’10" Hennig would become famous for, was a one-handed lift from the shoulder in which the body was bent away from the hand holding the weight while the non-lifting forearm was braced against its corresponding thigh. The weight was not elevated any higher; instead, the body was lowered until the lifting arm was straight, then the lifter had to stand erect to complete the lift.
Sandow Throws the Gauntlet
Hennig joined the Saxon Trio, so named by Arno Saxon (the stage name of Greco-Roman wrestler Arno Patschke). Hennig was henceforth billed as Arthur Saxon. The trio advertised this playbill challenge: "Arthur Saxon challenges [Eugen] Sandow or any other man in the world for any amount. A match can be ratified at the Sporting News office. Man and money ready." Sandow, very famous and, at 30, 11 years Saxon’s senior, was in the audience at the Grand Music Hall in Sheffield, England, on February 26, 1898. When the challenge was issued during the show, he jumped up on the stage to accept. It would prove to be a big mistake.
First, Saxon lifted a 110-pound kettle-weight to his shoulder, holding it there with only his little finger while a 160-pound man climbed over his back and sat on the weight. Saxon then bent-pressed the 270-pound total; Sandow refused to even try this stunt. Next, Saxon, using his whole hand, performed the same feat with a 180-pound kettle-weight and 188-pound Oscar Hilgenfeldt (the third of the original Saxon trio, in addition to Arthur and Arno) climbing atop it for a 368-pound total. Saxon did not stand erect, but did bent-press to arm’s length. Sandow, after testing the kettle-weight, declined to try to repeat the lift. Finally, Saxon bent-pressed a 264-pound barbell on his second attempt, standing erect. Sandow required five tries to get the bell to arm’s length but he could never stand erect, making it an incomplete lift. Sandow had been defeated by the young upstart.
Saxon began trumpeting his triumph over Sandow in his advertising posters. But Sandow’s contract required that he be billed as the "World’s Strongest Man," so he sued Saxon. Sandow won – he had gotten the 264-pound barbell to arm’s length, and the judge, being ignorant of the rules of the bent-press, declared that Sandow had lifted it.
By 1899, Saxon was famous in England and the rest of Europe, and he joined the Wirth Brothers Circus to tour South Africa. The Saxon Trio, sometimes composed of the three Hennig brothers, would eventually travel in many countries, including two tours of America with the Ringling Bros. Circus. . At one point, when Hermann was injured, strongman Joe Lambert filled his spot in the trio; the following season, a "false" Hermann Saxon, weightlifter Herbert Goethe, toured with Arthur and Kurt.
Tricks of the Trade
The Saxon Trio would often offer a cash prize to anyone who could lift the same weights that they lifted during the show. They would place their globe weights, sometimes partially filled, sometimes empty, in the lobby of the theatre where they were performing, and local strongmen would try them out, buoying their confidence and encouraging them to accept the challenge. Of course, those hopes would soon be dashed, as the bells were filled to full weight for the actual event.
Arthur Saxon often bent-pressed his two brothers in a special basket-like barbell as part of their act, Kurt sitting in one end, Hermann in the other. Each brother weighed about 165 pounds, so 330 pounds are accounted for, plus whatever the weight of the bar and baskets may have been – a conservative estimate would be a total of 360.
The Proving Ground
When famed Scottish strongman Donald Dinnie heard of Saxon’s claims, he refused to believe anyone could be that strong. Saxon, then 26, paid a visit to Dinnie in October 1904 and, using Dinnie’s weights, bent-pressed 340.5 pounds, thus gaining Dinnie’s support and praise.
Any Way You Want It
Saxon remains the record holder in the two-hands-anyhow lift. It involved using two separate weights, one in each hand. The heaviest two-hands-anyhow lifts were done using a bent-press for one weight. Then, while that weight was overhead, the lifter would bend down and grab a smaller weight, swing it up to his shoulder and push or jerk it overhead. The total of the two weights counted as the lift. Saxon’s best was reported at about 448 pounds (336 plus 112).
Defending the Record
Did Saxon actually bent-press 386 pounds? Yes, unofficially, in 1906. There were three witnesses and the weight was weighed. Indeed, all three Saxon brothers could get 400-plus pounds to arm’s length in the bent-press, but could not stand erect. Saxon, who, in adulthood, usually weighed 200-205 pounds, was the first man to bent-press 300.
Saxon died at age 43 on August 6, 1921 in Duisberg, Germany. Various sources have ascribed various causes of death, but the truth is uncertain. His gravesite, so far as is known, is not where it was originally reported to be. Perhaps World War II bombers altered the landscape in that part of Germany? We may never know.
Hall of Fame Inductees for 2007