Survival of the Strongest
It's a Monday night at the Gold's Gym at the Fuqua exit off 45 South, and Anthony Clark of Pasadena is inside, training with a little circle of powerlifters.
All of the powerlifters look impressive, but even in this assemblage of muscle, Clark stands out. At five-feet-seven and 325 pounds, Clark is almost square. His 60-something-inch chest (it's nearly as big around as he is tall) is webbed with the scar tissue of his stretch marks. His arms look approximately like railroad ties.
His face has a similar overabundance of detail. It's as if Clark were five people, including various races and both genders, packed into one body. He's half-Filipino, and half African-American, but his rich copper coloring and dreamy, heavy-lidded eyes suggest nothing so much as the South Seas. His lush and defined lips droop almost as dramatically as his eyes, and his hands are so broad that the tips of an average person's fingers can just begin to curl around the palm, which is coarse from years of lifting weights.
Lifting weights is something Anthony Clark does as well, or better, than anyone else in the world. Tonight, he's trying to work his way up to the 920-pound mark, a level he needs to reach in order to be on track in his training for an upcoming competition. On this evening, Clark is the center of the powerlifters' attention, and once he reaches the 750-pound mark on the squats, his companions begin wrapping his knees before every attempt. The wrap is so thick, and is bound so tightly, that Clark has to be pulled to his feet after it's fastened. Then a lifter climbs up on a bench behind him and tugs ferociously at his rubber suit, which consists of trunks and a halter top, beneath which he wears shorts and a T-shirt. With great difficulty, the suit pulls up over Clark's belly.
Clark looks entirely lost in his pre-lift mental routine. His relaxed body gives like a massive doll as his helpers yank up the
suit, then buckle the purple Reebok air-pump belt across his broad belly. After everyone steps away, the life comes back into Clark's big eyes, as if he's seeing the weight, now set for 850 pounds, for the first time. Someone slaps powder across his shoulders, and Clark then pours powder liberally across his hands. He steps up under the slightly arched bar, then lunges upward, slamming his shoulders into the bar as if it were a tackling dummy and he were trying to make the team.
There's a thud when he hits the bar, which doesn't move, and a grunt from Clark. He waits, looking into the mirrored wall in front of his face, but not seeing himself. Then he pushes upward, frees the bar from its rack and steps back.
His face is already trembling. The bar biting into his back simply has to hurt, no matter how much muscle he's piled on top of his bones. Clark says that at this moment it "feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, just like it was on Jesus."
His companions yell instructions at him -- "keep your head up, keep your back straight" -- as if they have to shout to be heard over the weight, which is no doubt roaring right behind his ears.
With a spotter at either end of the barbell, and one behind bending with him like a protecting shadow, Clark begins the descent that gives the "squat" its name, his whole body trembling, his face now shaking and contorted. He looks like he's going to explode.
Clark sinks so that his upper legs and butt are perpendicular to his knees and parallel to the ground. Then, encouraged and guided by his helpers, he drops another fraction of an inch. In competition, a lift won't count unless a lifter doesn't drop "below parallel."
Then Clark begins to rise, pushing up against the nearly half ton of weights on his shoulders. He shakes harder as he rises; he's clearly fighting the weight. Once straightened, he steps forward, lowers his head, drops the weight back on its rack, and then listens to the critique. "You need to get down lower," one of his spotters says. "You were leaning."
Clark doesn't respond. His face is still red as his body works to recover from the strain he just put it under. And watching this, I think: It's not easy being the World's Strongest Man.
The World's Strongest Man? That's a phrase that conjures up images of cheap carnivals and mustachioed sideshow attractions in leopard-skin wraps. But according to Mike Lambert, the soft-spoken and thoughtful-sounding editor of Powerlifting USA, it's not a joke designation. "Oh, they're very legitimate," Lambert says when I call his magazine's California office. "There's probably only 25 or 30 men who have ever bench-pressed 600 pounds," he adds, and Clark is one of them.
So why, I wonder, isn't Clark in the Olympics? And Lambert patiently explains the difference. Powerlifters and Olympic lifters do different events. Olympic lifters don't bench-press; they clean and jerk. Olympic events are more athletic and technical; powerlifting is just what its title claims.
So is Anthony Clark really the World's Strongest Man?
"You can at least argue the point," says Lambert. "The courts have ruled that the term is so vague that you can't sue over use of it. But he's definitely bench-pressed more than anyone else. Isn't that a good measure of strength?"
Of course, if you had any real doubts about whether Pasadena's Anthony Clark was really the strongest man on Earth, you could simply read the side of his van, which I did the night I met him at Cafe Noche. Anthony Clark makes quite a first impression. Before you even see him, he's pulling up into the parking lot in his Batmobile of a Chevy Econoline Van with the words "World's Strongest Man" scrawled across its back two doors.
When Clark steps down from his van, he is such a conglomeration of effects that you have to look at him again and again, trying to assemble and make sense of his details. Across his chest hangs a gold cross that features both the body of Christ and the crucifix's crossbar as a weight-laden barbell.
I know this last detail because the World's Strongest Man is wearing a muscle shirt, which prompts the keepers of the Cafe Noche gate to send him back to his van for more clothes. When Clark gets within 50 feet of his van, he deactivates its alarm by remote control. "Disarmed," the van announces for all to hear. If he wanted he could start the engine up while standing here, then simply get in and drive away. Instead, Clark digs out a black leather jacket and returns shaking his head.
Clark seems ill at ease. Maybe it's because he's uncomfortable wearing a heavy jacket in the summer. Maybe it's because he's stepping from Pasadena into the reasonably haut monde of upper Montrose. Or maybe it's simply because he knows what sort of response he tends to generate from people who have never seen him before.
As we walk back to our table, where we'll break tostados with his representative/ agent/lawyer, the dapper Rodney Brisco, waiters step aside, and after Clark has passed they whisper, "that's the World's Strongest Man."
True, the waiters know this only because I had told them I was waiting to meet the "World's Strongest Man," but still, Clark's appearance can generate double takes from people who have no idea he bears such an august title. Indeed, despite his prodigious feats of lifting, and his utterly fascinating appearance, Anthony Clark remains nearly anonymous in Houston. That's a situation Rodney Brisco would like to change.
Over lunch, Brisco, who looks exactly like a man who would move in Denzel Washington's circle and who would be married to Alison Leland, the compelling widow of the late Congressman Mickey, discusses his client's most impressive feats of strength. Clark has the highest bench press ever recorded, and that's just one of the records that he'll be trying to break in the National Powerlifting Championships, a competition that's scheduled for Houston this weekend. But Brisco doesn't want to stop with setting more world records; he hopes that Clark will soon find his way into the movies, and into endorsements outside the bodybuilding products, such as Up Your Mass, that he currently promotes.
I look for a reaction from Brisco at the mention of Up Your Mass (the maker, Hot Stuff, also has a product called Up Your Gas, for when you really need extra energy), but he remains perfectly professional, perfectly poised, even when he asks Clark, "What's happened with the Enquirer?", meaning The National Enquirer.
Clark shrugs his behemoth shoulders and talks about the photo-shoot he's just done for the tabloid at Mattress Mac's. He posed hoisting a sofa with two of Mac's employees aboard.
"It should be out by now," Clark says. "I must have got bumped by O.J."
As he says this, Clark has his eyes turned elsewhere. He isn't unfriendly, but he does seem reserved as he discusses his powerlifting records, and when he shares some of his motivational thoughts. "A diligent man always gets his prize," he says with an emphatic, enigmatic arching of his eyebrows.
By now I know enough of Clark's story that I don't find this insight particularly remarkable. Clark was born in Houston to a Filipino mother and a black G.I. father, then was shortly thereafter taken to the Philippines, before being finally returned to Pasadena, where his parents' marriage dissolved. "I'll tell you the truth," Clark tells me at one point. "My dad was a womanizer."
Clark says he still loves his father, and that he felt torn when his parents divorced. Worse, he says that his father began to beat him. "He tied my hands together and hung me over a beam like a slave," he says. "Then he whipped me with an electric cord."
Clark eventually returned home, then tried three times to kill himself. "I tried to hang myself," he says. "That was the closest I came. I tried to jump off a ledge at St. Luke's, but somebody pulled me in. I tried to OD on my asthma medicine, but that only made me sick to my stomach." His father was never around, and his mother worked two to three jobs at a time, so Clark and his siblings had little supervision. Clark was picked on for looking so different, and maybe because in him the local boys simply sensed a weakling.
This had all happened by the time Clark was 13. That same year he heard about God's "unconditional love" at a religious crusade and decided to learn more. "I wanted to know," he says, "who can love you unconditionally?"
He started lifting weights shortly thereafter, and found the perfect outlet for his pain. It sounds cliched, almost a parody of the scrawny character who gets sand kicked in his face and then discovers Charles Atlas, but what might have been cliche for others was truth for Clark. He progressed rapidly as a weight lifter, and became a fine high-school football player at the same time. He chose weightlifting for its solitude, and at some point told himself, "I'm going to be the strongest man in the world." Not I'm going to be strong, or even I'm going to be a champion, but rather, I'm going to be the strongest man in the world. For a few years in his late teens and early 20s, Clark used steroids, then abandoned them because his blood pressure was rising, and he was getting irritable. All the while, he was moving up in the hierarchy of weightlifters, picking up a title here, winning a championship there. Then at one competition, as he lifted a barbell, it suddenly came to him that with that single successful lift he had reached his childhood goal. He was, at least as some measure it, the World's Strongest Man. And how did he feel at that moment? Clark pauses, and then says, almost with embarrassment, "It was as if a weight had been lifted."
But that moment didn't take care of all his burdens. It left a few behind, and even created a few new ones. Among those burdens is this: even Rodney Brisco admits that in the beginning he was skeptical about Clark's claim. When his son asked if his new client were really the strongest man in the world, Brisco responded, "There's a lot of men who want to call themselves the World's Strongest Man, but they don't want to be around when the real strongest man shows up."
My own skepticism about Clark's claim is reinforced when I step inside the place where he trains. The World's Strongest Man works out in a Pasadena gym that runs a summer special for students? The walls inside are covered with mirrors, so you feel like you're stepping into a fun house.
After a moment, I can distinguish the exercisers from their reflections. There are the bodybuilders, preening in a corner. There is the down-your-mass crowd pushing furiously against the pedals of their Stairmasters. And against one wall are Clark and his fellow powerlifters, some of whom will also compete in the upcoming nationals. Clark's companions are loading up his bar so that it curves up in the middle. Clark needs to hit the 960-pound mark tonight to feel that he's on track to defend his title, and, more to the point, to break his own powerlifting record.
Powerlifting is divided into three events: squat, bench press and dead lift (in which the lifter pulls a weight up to his waist, but no higher). The number of pounds you lift in each event is totaled, and the lifter with the highest score wins. So Clark's claim to be the world's strongest is based on raw numbers, not on his ability to lift the back of a Cadillac (though he has done just that). And he is the only man to lift over 2,450 total pounds in the three events. He has the highest bench press ever recorded -- 735 pounds -- and the weightiest squat -- 1,025 pounds. His combined score of 2,460 pounds is a record, and he wants to hit 2,500 in the upcoming Houston meet.
If he can total 2,500, and then go on to bench 800 pounds (no one has even attempted an 800-pound bench press, or at least attempted it and lived to tell the tale) in a September meet in Maryland, Clark is thinking of retiring, even though he's only 27 and still improving. Actually, he's thinking of retiring even if he doesn't meet his goals over the next month. Powerlifting is not a road to longevity. Most of Clark's predecessors as super-heavyweight champion have died in their 30s and early 40s. Among them was the late, great O.D. Wilson, who held the total lift record at 2,430 until Clark broke it three years ago.
Clark isn't a big talker between lifts. He pulls down his girdle-like suit, unwraps his knees and then retreats into his thoughts, looking up only when the two 13-year-old boys he brought to the gym approach him. Clark has a number of young friends whom he takes to the gym, to church and to simply hang out. One of the boys grins sheepishly and admits that, yes, he'd like to become a powerlifter, and that yes, Anthony is a good friend.
Now Clark is mentally prepared to try lifting his 960. The bar's been prepared by his helpers, and he hits it with more authority than he's shown at lower weights. He psyches himself by imagining the barbell as Christ's cross. I start to suggest that Jesus was a scrawny ex-carpenter who couldn't even carry his own cross very far. "Maybe you're Simon, the strongman who had to pitch in on Good Friday," I think, but then keep my sports theology to myself as I ponder Clark's efforts. Most of the time he hits a bar and it goes up; sometimes he hits a bar and it goes up, and then he and the bar come down again, hard. That happened to Clark once in a meet; he fell face-forward with 996 pounds on his neck. As the paramedics arrived, his companions feared he was dead, or at least permanently crippled. But within three hours he was back again, competing.
Back at Gold's Gym, Clark lies flat on his back, with 715 pounds resting on the bar above his face. After he's settled onto the bench, and his face has gone blank with concentration, his spotters lift the weight off its rack, their faces red and trembling with the effort. When Clark raises his hands to take the weight, he shows the most unusual aspect of his technique. He has his hands turned inward, with his fingers facing his feet rather than his head. No other championship lifter uses such a grip. Mike Lambert speculates that the traditional grip is "too confining for Anthony," in that it requires his hands be closer together.
Clark takes the 715 pounds, makes a whistling sort of breathing noise, lowers the weight onto his great belly, hesitates, then, after his companions have given the signal, forces it back up. His legs and feet tremble, but not uncontrollably, and he powers the bar steadily up into the hands of his spotters, who with great difficulty transfer it back to its rack.
Clark sits up and breathes heavily, his curls wet with sweat. "It's getting better," he says.
As I watch, I think back to my conversation with Lambert, when I'd asked him who would be Clark's major competition in the upcoming nationals. Lambert had pondered for a moment, then answered, "Anthony doesn't really have any competition. Thirty years ago there was a guy named Paul Douglas who was ahead of his time. It took years for his records to be broken. Now Anthony is like that."
The comparison would please Clark, I'd thought. He had told me that Paul Douglas was his hero and role model, especially in that Douglas eventually quit lifting to evangelize.
"If he's clearly the best," I finally asked Lambert, "are people jealous of him, then?"
"Not really," Lambert had answered, his voice soothing and calm, not at all like I imagined a powerlifting devotee's. "Anthony is a hero."
We're in Anthony Clark's dark van, rumbling around otherworldly Pasadena. As we turn into the scrubby and unfinished-looking town, an inspirational tape recorded by Les Brown thunders out of the speakers. Clark looks more relaxed today than I've ever seen him. He seems to have unclenched his Diego Rivera eyes and let me look in under the great arch of his eyebrows. Clark's body has become like a book or, better, a mural on which you can read his life. It's been a hard one. One friend says about him, "You can measure how big the trauma [of his childhood] was by looking at how hard he's worked to overcome it."
After a short drive, we pull into the President and First Lady health club where Clark's mother, Betty, a short, lively 52-year-old, runs the pro shop, which is adorned with pictures of her son.
She reminds him of how, when he was 12, she would look into his bedroom and find that he'd slipped out and walked the considerable distance to his father's house. "I forgot all about that," Clark says, sounding truly amazed. Clark says that he and his siblings "all have a lot of bitterness and self-hatred in our hearts," because of their upbringing, but that they nevertheless remain close, and love each other. As if to demonstrate that all this is so, he takes me to his two-bedroom apartment. His youngest brother moved in a year ago, bringing along his wife and baby, and has never left. So the World's Strongest Man has almost no space to live in. The apartment's carpet is bleak and stained, and everything feels crowded. A few nice pieces -- a black leather sofa and an imposing big-screen television -- dominate the living room.
More claustrophobic is Clark's bedroom, which is so full of trophies, books and magazines that it looks like it's closing in on him. He has a few girlie photos on its walls, but he's turned them around and written inspirational messages on their backs. One reads, "Don't Give Up. Don't Give In. Fight the Good Fight. Win. Win."
It's a relief to return to his luxurious van. "I see now why you need a van," I say. "This is your own space."
Tonight is one of the last nights that Clark will practice his squats before competing in the nationals, and he's got 1,003 pounds on his back. His face is shaking as if he were standing in a wind tunnel; his eyes bulge as if trying frantically to see a way out of their predicament. I'd like to ask if any powerlifter has ever lost an eyeball while doing a squat, but restrain myself. Clark's brother Larry, who is himself muscled up, stands behind Clark as the group yells instructions. "Keep your head up!" "Don't lean forward!"
Clark hasn't squatted 1,000 in a year, but now he bends, with his brother behind him, shadowing him down. He pauses at parallel, lowers himself another fraction, then slams up through the weight, the bar grinding into his back until he and the spotters have crashed it back into its place on the rack.
Clark is exultant afterwards. He is his own competition, and he is winning. In fact, this phase of the competition may be almost over. "I'm thinking about taking 'World's Strongest Man' off my van," he says. "That's not what's important."
And maybe it isn't, as his 1,000-pound squat wins him no special treatment. While he's talking to me, more obviously happy than I've ever seen him, his companions all leave. Just as Clark is about to hurry off, now late for an appointment, the gym manager shuffles over and semi-apologetically asks him to break down his weights. This strikes me as the equivalent of asking the world heavyweight boxing champion to make sure all the cups and gloves are put away, but Clark doesn't take offense. I help him unload one end of the barbell, then limp home with a sore back.
But my back hasn't begun to tighten up as we stand in the Gold's Gym parking lot, where Clark starts up his van from 50 feet. From a distance, I hear how its air-conditioning and stereo howl. Clark wants to keep enjoying his moment, but he has to force himself to hurry. "I'm going to be late," he says.
"Just tell them you're the World's Strongest Man," I suggest. "If you're late, it'll just have to be okay."
"I wish it worked like that," he answers, then climbs up into his singing van.