Why you should care
Power, we tell you! Power!
“Who’s the fat guy?”
It was me who was doing the asking, watching 17-year-old Gary Aprahamian roll into the Olympia Gym in Ridgewood, Queens, New York, in 1979. He was a little over 6 feet tall and about 380 pounds. Calling him “fat” made total sense. But then he loaded up a 45-pound bar with 810 pounds, shook out a hand towel and draped it over the back of his neck before ducking under it all and doing squats. Yes, plural. While the bar bowed under the weight, he did not.
So, yeah: “Fat.”
But for those with the eyes to see, Aprahamian was the spearpoint of a rebirth of a subculture’s subculture that had persevered since the days of the traveling carnival — and well before, if reports are to be believed. Along with books like the Bible and Greek legends about guys named Hercules, the strongman has never really left, even if fellow travelers have been picked off by Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, powerlifting and so on.
Aprahamian was only interested in any of that by way of passing. Though he name-checked the strongman troika of the Germans Hermann Görner and Arthur Saxon and, very possibly the strongest of them all, the French-Canadian Louis Cyr, he had bigger plans than the circus. And those plans had “legend” written all over them.
Bent over the back of the white Toyota Corolla … Aprahamian bowed his head and, on a count only he could hear, slowly burst into a kind of concentrated, muscled fury.
Which is how the only child of Armenian parents found his way into the Olympia. Founded in 1958 and one of the oldest gyms in Queens, the Olympia drew legit celebs — a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, the recently deceased Franco Columbu and more — and if proximity to greatness could make you great, Aprahamian was aiming to find out how much so.
Not like he had far to go. Before Aprahamian was out of his teens, his biceps were stretching the tape at over 25 inches, which is what got him in the Guinness World Records, while his chest measured more than 60 inches and his weight would eventually settle at 400 pounds.
“Come on … I want to show you something.” The amazingly limber and speedy Aprahamian, who had seriously considered football before he realized that fame is more often than not an individual measure and not a collective one, jumped off the platform and strode through the Olympia to the gym front.
“In the old days, guys who could do what this kid could do were filling arenas,” said gym founder Al Fives. “Gravity doesn’t lie.”
But now a retinue of believers and nonbelievers alike gathered at the bus stop in front of the gym. Aprahamian slapped his hands together and his chalky hands reached for the same hand towel he had used when squatting. But now? Now he wrapped it around the rear bumper of a parked Toyota compact. Aprahamian used to routinely bench press over 600 pounds, but this was something else.
Though the aforementioned Columbu famously moved a car in the film that broke Schwarzenegger big, Pumping Iron, he more dragged it. And Schwarzenegger called Columbu “the strongest man I have ever met.” Aprahamian was not interested in dragging anything. Instead, he said, ”I’m gonna lift it.”
Bent over the back of the white Toyota Corolla, towel on the bumper and chalked hands on the towel, Aprahamian bowed his head and, on a count only he could hear, slowly burst into a kind of concentrated, muscled fury. Like watching an atomic explosion in slow motion, he pulled the back end of the car off of the ground, money in the gathered crowd changing hands as the nonbelievers paid the believers. And then the friggin’ cherry on the top: Once the back end of the Toyota was off of the ground, Aprahamian curled it. Like the rest of us might do with a barbell, or while lifting a small child. Had I not been witnessing this with my own eyes, I’d not have believed it happened.
And that, in 1979, was that. The assembled crowd, me included, cheered, and the legend that was born on Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood spread — far enough and fast enough that it hit Hollywood just like maybe Aprahamian expected it would. In March 1985, he appeared in the now-cult classic The Last Dragon.
But back before they had even closed principal photography on the film, Sylvester Stallone and Aprahamian — of course — had found each other. For? For Stallone’s soon-to-be filming arm-wrestling movie Over the Top. Stars, bars, films, the 23-year-old Aprahamian — that “fat guy” — was arriving in 400-pound style.
And then, on June 13, 1985, he died. He went to sleep and just never woke up.
The rumors were that they later found a 50-pound tumor on his liver. The rumors were also that people who didn’t take steroids also didn’t curl Toyotas. Finally, the rumors were that his parents were inconsolable.
“Those kids take that shit,” said retired cop and longtime Olympia habitué Jimmy Dahl with a nod to “performance-enhancing” drugs, “and it gets them there, but it’ll never keep them there. … His poor mother.”
The rumors were never confirmed though, and so what we’re left with — actually, all we’re left with — is the sight of that Corolla shimmying to life and launching Aprahamian into the history of heft in a most significant way. A fact with which he’d have been well pleased.