I’ll never forget the first time I met Jim Williams. It was a sunny fall Saturday at Bob Hoffman’s annual picnic in York, PA. in 1970. Hoffman, coach of the famous U.S. Olympic Weightlifting team and founder/owner of the York Barbell Company, invited the world’s strongest men to put on an exhibition for anyone who wanted free food and good company.
Jim Williams, one of the featured strongmen, had already gained national notoriety in Hoffman’s magazine, Strength & Health, as the first man to beat Pat Casey’s 600-pound bench press. I wanted to see this giant of a man in action.
Williams didn’t let me down. First, he was immense. Standing about six feet tall and weighing 340 pounds, his arms measured 25 inches and his chest expanded to 62 inches. But my eyes popped when I saw him step up on the platform, position himself on the bench, and knock off ten perfect presses with 500 pounds. That was his warm-up.
An easy couple of reps with 600 pounds followed the warm-up, and then he had a failed attempt at 665 pounds. About a year later, he eclipsed that mark with a successful lift of 685 and went on to become the first man in history to bench 700 pounds.
Pulling in Scranton
Commissioned by Black Sports Magazine to write an article about Williams, I drove to his home, Scranton, PA, and met him for an interview at the Y.M.C.A. A castle-like building with thick stone walls, Williams trained there with legendary powerlifter John Kuc in a weight room that resembled a dungeon. The two men threw around enormous weights that even today would win many contests.
For instance, Williams did reps in the deadlift with nearly 800 pounds, squatted for reps with 700 and benched 600 three times with ease. As an encore, he stood with his back against a wall and knocked off five perfect barbell curls with 225 pounds.
At the same time Williams was setting power-lifting records, a fellow named Bob O’Leary was promoting the then-new “World Arm Wrestling Championships,” an event he organized and held at the Scranton Y. In 1971, he encouraged Williams, who was world heavyweight powerlifting champion, to enter a special three-round match with the world arm wrestling champion, Moe Baker.
A standing-room-only crowd, made up largely of Scranton residents who knew Williams and were his fans, filled the hot, un-air conditioned gymnasium to witness the match. Fans endured four hours of grueling matches, all of which were sit-down contests at an old wooden table that didn’t have elbow pads or pegs. I pulled in that contest--notably, against Steve Stanaway, who won the 198 pound division--and remember my sore elbow.
Baker and His Sunglasses
In contrast to Big Jim, who paced the floor in anticipation of the match, Moe Baker was his usual relaxed, cool self. Right before his matches, he would flip his sunglasses up on his head and there they would reside until each match was completed. Baker, who had won the world crown the year before in Petaluma, CA, sat at the table and waited patiently.
Big Jim announced loudly to the audience that he was going to “Beat the World Champ and take his crown,” or something to that effect. The two men lined up, locked hands and Williams crowded Baker’s wrist with his enormous shoulder. I thought for sure Williams would shoulder press Baker’s arm to the table. But it wasn’t to be. Baker pulled Williams’ hand backwards and, using his enormous wrist power, quickly pinned his opponent.
Williams’ fans couldn’t believe what they had witnessed. And judging from his expression, Williams was shocked, too. Round two saw Williams put his right shoulder high on the table, which forced Baker’s shorter arm to lift and he lost on an elbow foul. The biased audience screamed its approval.
Round three was like the 15th round of a world heavyweight boxing match. Baker told me 39 years later that Williams “was the strongest man he had ever pulled…and if he had known what he was doing he would have been unbeatable.” But Williams’ inexperience saw him lose the final match to a man who was one of the best heavyweight arm wrestlers in history.
Williams and Baker went at it again in Scranton in 1972, and Baker won. But Williams kept pulling and won many regional contests. He also continued his power-lifting career and set records that stood for many years.
My fondest memory of Big Jim was walking with him along Scranton’s sidewalks after his workout at the Y. It seemed like everyone knew him…and waved or said “hi.” At lunch in a small restaurant frequented by locals, we hardly could take a bite from our sandwiches before someone would come by and ask for an autograph.
Jim Williams was a great arm wrestler…with a big heart.
Author: Jimmy Van Orden
Jim Williams and Jimmy Van Orden
Article about Jim Williams (click twice to see larger size)