Guns & Glory: Becoming The Strongest Man In America

Inside the crazy world of the biggest, freakiest, most muscle-bound athletes as they compete for the title of Strongest Man in America.

One Friday afternoon in late September, inside the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center, two of the strongest men in the world, Brian Shaw and Mike Burke, sit behind a black curtain on metal folding chairs, stretching their calves, chalking up their hands, quietly getting ready for compe­tition. Though they are training partners and close friends, a certain terseness stands between them. At the end of the weekend, one of them will likely be crowned America’s Strongest Man, claiming a fat check and endless bragging rights, while the other will head home empty-handed.

After the day’s first two events, Shaw and Burke are locked in a virtual dead heat atop the leaderboard, with 12 competitors close at their heels. The third event calls for them to tow a car-size wheelbarrow across the floor, stopping at intervals to lift 330-pound kegs and dump them in the wagon. When the announcer calls Mike Burke’s name, he leaps to his feet and lumbers away toward the competition area. “Go get it, Burke!” shouts Shaw from the edge of the curtain.

At the shriek of a referee’s whistle, Burke bursts from the starting line. A former defensive end for the semipro Colorado Grizzlies, he moves with surprising quickness and agility given his hulking 6’6″, 335-pound frame. Effortlessly snatching up the first massive keg, he dumps it in the wagon and heads for the second. Here something goes suddenly and terribly wrong. As Burke tips the keg on its edge to get a solid grip, it slips, catching the tip of his middle finger underneath. Burke winces, pulls his hand free, and inspects the damage. The tip of his finger, from the first knuckle, has been nearly sheared off. Blood bubbles up from the wound, and through the mashed skin Burke glimpses the white of bone. In the crowd, his wife gasps.

Reeling, he takes a breath and goes back to work, heaving the keg into his wagon and heading for the finish line. It’s the worst injury he’s suffered in competition, but there’s too much on the line to stop now.

Brian Shaw and Mike Burke first met a few years ago at a gym in Fort Lupton, Colorado, north of Denver. Burke, 39, had torn his labrum in a football game, and while rehabbing his injury, friends introduced him to the sport of strongman competition and to Shaw, its brightest star.

Shaw, 31, is widely regarded as one of the strongest men ever to walk the Earth. Perhaps the strongest. At 6’8″ and 440 pounds, he moves with the power and grace of a polar bear. A former college basketball player, Shaw later became a strength and conditioning coach at Arizona State University. His freakish size and athleticism, combined with a studious drive to perfect his craft, have led him to two World’s Strongest Man titles. But Shaw is also known as one of the nicest guys in the sport, a gentle giant who shares his advances in technique with his competitors. “My theory,” he says, “is to let everyone in on what works and let the best man win.”

In the older, grizzled Burke, Shaw found his ideal student—a hungry, unflinching warrior with raw talent and an eagerness to learn. The two became training partners, working out together several times a week. “You can’t always be the top dog,” Shaw says. “If you’re the best at everything, you’ve got no one to challenge you and make you better. I know Mike can beat me. He makes me work harder to stay on top.”

In just four years, Burke has risen from a complete unknown in the sport into one of the world’s best. In 2012 he claimed his first America’s Strongest Man championship, and in August in Sanya, China—where Shaw had claimed another World’s Strongest Man title—Burke turned in one of the best showings of his career, placing fifth.

Photographed by Matt Nager | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014

Now, in Vegas, the stakes are higher than ever. Burke badly wants to retain his title. He’s finally mastered the few events that gave him the most difficulty in the past and feels that if he’s ever had a chance to beat Shaw, this is it. No matter how close they’ve become as friends, Shaw isn’t going to ease off the gas.

In past decades most everyone knew about strongman. CBS regularly broadcast the competitions, where football players, power-lifters, and bodybuilders hoisted cars to the delight of fans around the world. But after their TV deals dissolved in the early 2000s, strongman’s primary leagues split and suffered a series of bitter legal disputes that all but killed the sport. Now the American Strongman Corporation has begun its resurrection. Even getting Shaw to compete this year was a bit of a coup, as he’d skipped the past few America’s Strongest Man championships to concentrate on bigger, more lucrative competitions abroad.

Still, to many of the strength-and-fitness fiends who pack the vast Olympia convention in Vegas, the strongman competition seems something of a sideshow. Shaw, Burke, and their fellow competitors have been relegated to the edge of the showroom floor, between a booth hawking energy bars and a stage sponsored by a protein powder, where two scantily clad young women pass out free samples while gyrating furiously to blaring hip-hop.

A buzz surrounds the world’s most famous bodybuilders as they strut shirtless around the con­ven­tion center. In the evening they’ll headline the sold-out Mr. Olympia competition. Meanwhile, the crowd cheering on the strongmen numbers in the dozens. In Asia and Europe, it’s a widely recognized sport with a ravenous fan base; dozens of men make a career out of training, competing, and hawking fitness products. Here? Not so much.

Photographed by Matt Nager | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014

As the sport has taken its punches in America, it’s the strongmen themselves who have borne the brunt of it. Though they are elite, world-class athletes, few can make a living from prize money and sponsorships alone. This weekend’s victor will take home $8,000, and Shaw is the only full-time strongman. Burke works construction. Carl Foemmel, from Wisconsin, runs a dairy farm. Local favorite Nick Best is a beer distributor. 

Bulgarian-born Dimitar Savatinov was a circus strongman, touring with Ringling Brothers. Some have careers you would never expect from guys so brawny: Mike Caruso holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology; Andrew Palmer, a red-bearded giant from Seattle, is a software engineer. What they all share is a deep devotion to the sport. For all of them, becoming America’s Strongest Man could mean leaving their day jobs behind and a full-time career in the sport they love.

In day one, Mike Caruso and two others tie for first in the Log Press competition, while Shaw and Burke tied right behind. As opposed to bodybuilders, who display bronzed, glistening physiques without actually demonstrating what they can do with their muscles, strongmen pride themselves on functional strength; each event is meant to mimic a skill set you might put to use in a job that depends on physical labor.

Next up is the Super Yoke, where each strongman is tasked with loading a 950-pound steel contraption onto his shoulders and waddling the length of the floor and back. For Nick Best the Yoke Run is a specialty. Bald, with a gleaming dome and an ever-present smile, Best looks like Mr. Clean, if Mr. Clean pumped iron 24/7 and grew a half-goatee. At 44, he’s the second-oldest competitor here. 

“I love seeing him do what he loves,” says his 11-year-old son, Dylan. “But I don’t like that he’s gone so much. And when he’s home, he’s usually too tired to hang out.”

There are other, more basic challenges for strongmen. As Best’s wife Callie explains, when someone is as powerful as her husband is, it can be difficult to modulate his own strength. “He breaks everything in the house,” Callie says. “He opens a cabinet and pulls the door right off its hinges. He sits on the toilet, and the seat breaks; I had to get him his own private cast-iron throne.” She goes on: “He can barely fit into my car. He can’t even hold a phone to his ear like a normal person; his biceps are too big. He has to hold it from the top, dangling it with two fingers so it can reach down.”

Best loads the massive yoke onto his shoulders, the whistle blows, and he takes off, face bright red with exertion. While others had to stop several times, collect themselves, and keep going, Best fights straight through, reaching the finish line far ahead of his compe­tition. “Not bad for an old-timer, right?” he says, winking. “Who knows—this old man could sneak in here and walk out with the title belt!”

Photographed by Matt Nager | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014

The next event is the Wheelbarrow Load and Carry, the one where the steel keg lashes Mike Burke’s finger. Gushing blood and surging with adren­aline, he snatches the keg back up, dumps it into the wagon, and lugs the sled to the end of the course. Amazingly, Burke still wins the event, and his victory vaults him into first place.

But as he sits backstage, hand wrapped in a promotional T-shirt, the gruesome extent of the damage dawns on him. If he continued, Burke would risk losing the tip of his finger. The only thing to do is race to the emergency room, giving up on the chance to retain his title. “You’ll be all right, brother,” says Shaw as his friend packs up. “Just hang in there, get this treated, and you’ll be right back in the gym before you know it.”

Burke nods grimly. His wife has found a taxi to whisk them to the hospital. But before they depart he turns to Shaw and says, “Listen, don’t go easy on ’em. Let’s keep this title belt in Colorado.”

“You just hate to see this happen,” Shaw says later. “Mike’s the strongest he’s ever been. He deserved a shot at the title. As for me, I want to go against the best. And Mike’s the best there is.”

Shaw’s not the only one made glum by Burke’s injury. Other athletes are shaking their heads. Oddly, the strongmen seem more like teammates than opponents. They’ve forged close bonds over the years—they know one another’s families and share a deep appreciation for the rigors of their sport. Burke hauls beams around construction sites all day long, then works out with Shaw three times a week, plus all day Saturday. Just eating is a full-time job: They need five to seven full-size meals a day. “Think of how much time it takes to prepare and eat a single meal,” Shaw says, “then multiply that by seven. I wish I had my own chef!”

Finally, it’s time for the last event of the day, the Atlas Stones. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, strongmen gained renown from bending horseshoes, but as they began ratcheting up the scope of their feats—lifting refrigerators, dragging 18-wheelers—strongmen developed regulated athletic competitions to answer the question: Who among us is the strongest? The Atlas Stones is perhaps the simplest and most recognizable event in all of strongman. Competitors lift three granite stones of increasing weight—360 pounds, 390, and 420—and drop them over a bar at shoulder height.

Photos Courtesy of Davy Rothbart

Shaw watches as his opponents struggle with the rocks. Most manage the first one, but only Seattle’s Andrew Palmer completes the task on the second. He gives the third stone a valiant effort but quickly relents. “These guys are making this look way too hard,” Shaw says quietly. Last to compete, he makes quick work of the stones and yells in triumph. Then his face darkens, and he heads out of the ring to check on his friend.

On day two, Shaw comes out of the gate on fire, and by the final event he’s leading the field, albeit by a slim margin. 

The last competition calls for the strongmen to carry three heavy weights across the floor, deposit them into a metal sled, and then drag it the length of the course. In the final round, Shaw is paired against Savatinov, a large, squat man with a cool Ivan Drago–like bearing.

Over the course of the day, the crowds have swelled, and now several hundred people clamber to their feet to cheer, Burke among them. A whistle blows and Shaw dashes nimbly off the starting line, plucking the weights up and tossing them into his sled with a deafening clatter. Belting himself to the sled, he drags it backward with all his might. When he reaches the finish line, he lets out a yell. He’s completed the course in under a minute, seven seconds faster than Nick Best and 20 seconds better than the next closest opponent, putting the competition out of reach.

But instead of celebrating, Shaw hurries back across the course, where Savatinov is struggling. Shaw claps his hands, shouting, “Come on, man, you got this, let’s go!” Savatinov clenches his face and his sled begins to move, until finally he’s crossed the finish line.

ASC president Dione Wessels and vice president Mike Johnston come forward with announcer Jon Andersen to present medals to each competitor. Burke, in street clothes, claims 11th place (he beat three others despite competing in only three of the eight events). Shaw beams as he receives his trophy, the first strongman ever to hold the World’s Strongest Man and America’s Strongest Man titles at once. Burke steps over to congratulate him.

“That was a hell of a win,” he says. “But you know you got lucky, right?”

“How’s that?” Shaw asks.

Photos Courtesy of Davy Rothbart

Burke holds up his mangled hand. “No this,” he says, “no trophy for you. It was pretty close down the stretch.”

Shaw smiles. “If you’d stuck around, I would’ve gone a little harder.”

“True,” Burke allows.

“Tell you what,” says Shaw. “Heal up. We’ve got to get back in the gym. We’ve got some work to do.” 

Photos by Matt Nager | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014