“YOU MAY NEVER EQUAL THE GRIP STRENGTH OF JOHN Y. SMITH WHO AT 160 POUNDS BODYWEIGHT AND IN HIS 40’S DEADLIFTED 450 POUNDS IN HIS RIGHT HAND AND 425 IN HIS LEFT BEFORE COMPLETELY DESTROYING HIS BACK WHILE LOWERING THE BELLS TO THE FLOOR AND AS A RESULT SUFFERED A MASSIVE STROKE RESULTING IN HAVING TO LIVE OUT THE REST OF HIS YEARS IN A DEADLIFT-ECCENTRIC INDUCED COMA” (BATCHELOR).
After several aborted attempts to conjure up a hyper-compelling opener for what might just be the granddaddy of all Baddest Mofos entries, I realized that no sentence I could possibly compose, even at my most hilarious, brutal, and eloquent, could possibly outdo the above quotation, which is entirely the reason behind this mind-blowingly brutal badass’s biography. What you are about to read is the story of a man who is equal parts Arthur Saxon and Popeye. A story that may make you rethink even bothering to go to the gym because there is no way you will ever come to within screaming distance of this man. This is the story of a man who didn’t start lifting weights until he was 30 and went on to pull ONE-HANDED DEADLIFTS OF 450 LBS. AND 425 LBS at a bodyweight of around 165… and AT THE AGE OF 60. 60 years old and he pulled more with one hand than most 20 year old on r/weightlifting of the same weight can pull with two, and is still only 95 lbs. off the two handed all-time world record in that class. Afterwards, according to arm wrestling and strongman legend Mac Batchelor, he suffered a massive stroke having destroyed his body in setting a world record in the one-handed deadlift and competing in the strongman competition with the largest attendance ever in the same week. I couldn’t find any corroborating sources for that claim, but Mac Batchelor doesn’t seem to be a man who spent a lot of time exaggerating, as he was busy crushing beer cans lengthwise between his thumb and forefinger. I can tell you this- John Y. Smith didn’t die until age 90, and in the 30 years between that competition and his death, there are no anecdotes of his exploits, which is interesting given the man’s yearly insane challenges, and a man who looks this goddamned ridiculous and crushes beer caps in this manner absolutely must be a reputable source… that or related to the most infamous and awesome criminal in history, Charles Bronson.
So here we have the stage set to tell a tale so preposterous I hesitate to even tell it, so vociferous will be the claims that the life of Mr. John Y. Smith is a tall tale. Nevertheless, here begins a story about a man whose strength exploits defy explanation and belief. A man who weighed between 160 to 170 lbs during the entirety of his competitive career, which didn’t even begin until he was in his thirties, and who won the largest strength competition ever held anywhere, before, or since.
A wise man once said, “writing is about verbs, not adjectives”, and that’s a lucky thing for me, because I’m running out of synonyms for “ridiculous” without even having even gotten into the meat and potatoes of this article. So, meet John Young Smith. I am not shitting you even a little bit when I begin this story with his birth, which was on an Austrian ship to a Scot and a German in Chinese waters in 1866, Smith lived out essentially his entire life on the high seas. In truly Dickens-esque fashion, Smith’s parents died within a week of each other when he was four years old. Orphaned and alone on the high seas, Smith basically just started working as a sailor as a toddler. That seems to account for Smith’s un-effing real hand strength, as if we spent time hauling rope, climbing rope, and lifting random odd objects on and off the boat, he’d have a pretty good base of strength on which to call when he actually started lifting… which was upon his retirement from work as a sailor at age 30. A year later, ONE YEAR INTO LIFTING, John Y. Smith picked up two barbells measuring a half inch larger in thickness than modern Olympic barbells. With a 220 lb. barbell in his right hand and a 200 lb. barbell in his left hand, HE ROCKED A 75 YARD FARMERS WALK. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, people, because that’ll never happen again to a person who’s only been training a year, and it will likely never happen at all with a guy who weighs between 160 and 170 lbs.
That feat pretty much set the stage for what just became commonplace for him (and ridiculous for anyone else) strength accomplishments. Consider the following until we get to the shit that makes Charles Manson seem perfectly sane by comparison:
- David P. Willoughby, author of the The Super Athletes, claimed Smith was second only to the ludicrously strong Arthur Saxon in the bent press by bodyweight. Smith put up 275.5 pounds in 1903 at a bodyweight of 168 (Wilks of 88.08, compared with a Wilks of 106.71 for Arthur Saxon), but Willoughby claimed that due to the fact it was done with a dumbbell, the weight would be more like a 313 lb. bent press. Google that weird ass lift video if you don’t understand why, it’d be harder with a dumbbell than a barbell.
- He would routinely clean and press the 185 lb. thick handled dumbbell in the picture above for sets of three or more.
- Smith picked up 1,640-pound block of iron hand-and-thigh style and held it four inches off its platform.
- He overhead pressed a pair of dumbbells weighing a total of 225 lbs.
- Smith could deadlift what was essentially a deficit pull on a thick bar of 520 pounds (the bars were thicker, and the plates were smaller) at bodyweight of 160 lbs.
- He could hang by one hand from a rope while holding a 100 lb. dumbbell in his free hand.
- He could lift one of those old-school wooden barrels weighing two hundred pounds by pinch gripping the the steel straps ringing them.
- Smith could hang from a smooth-surfaced, one inch in diameter belaying pin with one hand while holding a 140 lb dumbbell in the other.
- Old-timey strongman superstar George Jowett claimed he saw a 60 year old Smith a perfect handstand using only two fingers and the thumbs of each hand.
So, there’s all of that- John Y. Smith was a bonafide badass, and although only 5’6″ and 165 lbs. in his prime, he was one of the greatest strongmen in the world in any weight class. By the time the world’s biggest strongman competition in history rolled around, however, he was 60 years old… and still ready to throw up both middle fingers and rock out. So, after being invited to the “Strongest Man in New England” in 1926, this sexagenarian had so few shits to give that he borrowed ten of them from a buddy and still showed up to the competition with his pockets empty, because this competition was huge and John Y. Smith was not about to be left out simply because he’d already exceeded the average life expectancy of the American male by 5 years.
When I say this competition was the biggest in history, it was a field of 34 competitors who went toe to toe in strength events in a series of elimination contests that were witnessed by a crowd of 5,000 people. The finals, held in front of a massive crowd of TWENTY THOUSAND PEOPLE on the Boston Braves’ baseball field, consisted of the following lifts:
- Two hands continental jerk
- Two hands continental press
- Two hands dead lift
- Right and left hands dead lift
The sixty-year-old Smith had set a world record right hand deadlift of 450 two weeks earlier, and he still managed to trash everyone in the field after a day of lifting and pull 415, which is beyond superhuman. Smith ended up clinching the victory by 15 lbs, and walked away… well, according to Mac Batchelor, limped away. Then had a stroke. Then spent the next 30 years in a coma, somehow, defying good sense, the odds, and probably leaving at least one bookmaker to lose his shirt in a Dead Pool. Nevertheless, that is his story. Go and tell the tale of John Y. Smith, a man who lived a life of legends, gave zero shits and 110% effort at all times, spat in the Grim Reaper’s eye, and who very well might be the baddest mofo to have ever lived.
… oh, and you might want to avoid hyper-slow eccentric portions of deadlifts, because they seem to have killed a man far, far tougher than any of us will ever be.
Christopher, Logan. John Y. Smith. Legendary Strength. 8 Nov 2013. Web. 30 May 2017. https://legendarystrength.com/john-y-smith/
Hoffman, Bob. How I bent-pressed 250 lbs (1938). Tight Tan Slacks of Deszo Ban. 30 Jun 2010. Web. 30 May 2017. http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2010/06/how-i-bent-pressed-250-lbs-bob-hoffman.html
Jowett, George. The key to might and muscle – (circa 1926) – Chapter 9 – The value of finger strength and how it is required. Natural Strength. 4 Apr 2011. Web. 30 May 2017. http://www.naturalstrength.com/2011/04/key-to-might-muscle-circa-1926-chapter_04.html
Ryan, Tom. Profile: John Y. Smith. Iron Game History. Feb 1990. Web. 30 May 2017. http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/IGH/IGH0101/IGH0101c.pdf
Willoughby, David P. The Super Athletes. New York: A.S Barnes, 1970.
Wood, John. The man with iron claw hands. Oldtime Strongman. Web. 30 May 2017. http://www.oldtimestrongman.com/strength-articles/john-y-smith-man-iron-claw-hands