Louis Cyr and Eighteen Fat Men
Montreal, Quebec 1892 -- Nothing could have prepared the thugs who roamed the toughest district of Montreal for the newest police recruit. Louis Cyr was a massive man and a virtual rectangle of muscle. At his peak, the fair-haired strong man had a 60-inch chest, 33-inch thighs and biceps that were two-feet around. When he confronted the underworld ruffians of Saint-Cunegonde, he had no weapon other than brute strength. "At first the arrested ones endeavoured to put up a fight," reported the Montreal Star. "Cyr, taking one under each arem and carrying the other in a vice-like grip in front of him, marched off to the station with all three prisoners off the ground." But lifting three men was a fractional display of Cyr's strength. In 1895, he back-lifted a platform holding eighteen rotund men weighing 4,337 pounds.
From birth,the Canadian Hercules seemed destined for big things. When he entered the world on October 10, 1863 at Saint-Cyprien-de-Napierville, south of Montreal, the eldest of the 17 Cyr children weighed an astounding 18 pounds. His father was a farmer of unformidable stature, but his mother was a statuesque six-foot-one. She could hoist two 100-pound grain sacks at a time. This was a feat that her fair-haired son (baptised Noe Cyprien) matched when he was 12 years old and abandoned all formal schooling to take his first job working in a woodlot.
The family moved to Lowell, Massachusettes when Noe was 15. Lowell was a textile centre and the bustling town attracted so many French Canadian workers that it became known as "Little Canada." In preparation for the trip, young Cyr learned English. His mother decided that he should have a name more in keeping with the Anglo-Saxon tongue and selected "Louis" in honour of the French kings. She also took it upon herself to apply her curling irons to his long blonde hair. Although his age would normally have precluded him from heavy work, Louis Cyr impressed the first foreman he met by hoisting a 350- pound roll of cloth. At the age of 18, he won his first strong man contest. He lifted a Perhceron horse on his back and was promptly declared the strongest man in Massachusetts.
At the celebration in honour of his triumph, Louis met a Melina Comtois, the wisp of a woman who took over the curling iron chores when she became his wife in 1882. Marie had also been targeted for courtship by another French-Canadian strong man, David Michaud, who had reigned as Canada's undefeated strong man for a decade. When Michaud challenged Cyr to a title match in Quebec City, it was said to be as much a challenge of romantic revenge as it was a desire to maintain control of his title.
The champion chose boulders as the challenge. They were marked with weights from 100 to 500 pounds, with one giant mass identified only by a question mark. Rain had created a muddly playing field for the two giants, but both were able to raise the 400-pound rock. The showdown came over the rock of questionable weight. When it was over, Cyr was victorious and the answer to the question of the rock's weight was 522 pounds.
Louis Cyr was formally designated the "Strongest man in the world" in 1896 when he confronted Swedish champion August Johnson in a competition that lasted more than three hours. "I can defeat any man in the world; but no man can defeat this elephant," Johnson is reported to have commented.
For all his strength, Cyr also had weaknesses -- the greatest being gluttony. From childhood, he associated food with physical power and his heroic eating habits became part of his legend. During a 23-month tour of England, the gentry were almost as impressed by his 20-pound a day meat capacity as they were with his ability to lift more than 500 pounds with the middle finger of one hand. Ultimately, diet proved the erstwhile Sampson's downfall, and by the age of 37 he suffered from Bright's disease and subsisted soley on a diet of milk.
In 1906, Cyr confronted his final championship. The debilitated, 300-pound 44-year-old met the challenge of superbly conditioned, 190-pound, 29-year-old Hector Decarie. Surprisingly, the two gladiators ended in a tie, after Cyr hoisted a 2,870 platform that Decarie could not budge. Then in a measure of grace, Cyr retired forever. One month after his 49th birthday, he died.
"He used power...nothing but power," wrote Ben Weider, the founder of International Federation of Bodybuilders, who spent his own Quebec childhood imitativng the feats of the legendary Louis Cyr. "What a modern coach could do with a man of his muscular power heaven only knows."
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