Ivan Syla from Ukraine: The Strongest Man in the World
Ivan Firtsak was a man from the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine; he was so strong that there were legends about his extraordinary physical powers. Every morning he ate an omelet of 40 eggs. He could also move a wooden house or harness himself to a plough and till a field just like an ox. As a result, the strongman was recognized as the strongest person on the planet in the 20th century and was called Croton in honor of the legendary wrestler of Ancient Greece. Though there were times when the Queen of England applauded him and the strongest wrestlers of the world were defeated by him, the Ukrainian spent the second half of his life in his home village in almost total obscurity.
Ivan Firtsak was born in 1899 in the village of Bilky in the Transcarpathian region. He was born to a peasant family of many children. The family wasn’t terribly poor, but it wasn’t rich either. That’s why, in order to make a living, the boy went off to Prague, where he gained his first popularity. There, his extraordinary physical abilities were noticed and he was invited to perform at the Hertsfert Circus, with whose troop he later traveled halfway around the world. But first things first.
Ivan’s strength started to develop in his early childhood. His neighbors recalled a case when he felt sorry for an ox that could not plough the field and he harnessed himself up instead. And when the ox hurt its leg, Ivan put it over his shoulders and carried it home.
It went without saying that nobody in the village was able to compete with him. For example, when he had an argument with a fellow villager, he pulled an oak cross out of the ground and beat his offender with it. He was put into prison, but escaped from it by breaking the bars. The villagers were not too surprised because they remembered well the stories about his grandfather who once met a bear in the forest and killed it with a log.
Learning of this, a Czech official Vaclav Prochazka, a village notary, wrote a letter to his brother, who at that time owned a factory in Prague, and asked him to give the boy a job. Vaclav’s brother was looking for strong workers. That’s how Ivan in his peasant clothes, a wide-brimmed hat, and a canvas bag packed with simple food made it to the capital.
In Prague, Ivan Firtsak first worked at the factory and later he got a job as a loader at the railway station. He also participated as an amateur athlete in fighting championships and different weightlifting competitions. Ivan Firtsak became famous at the Weightlifting Championship hosted by Czechoslovakia in 1922 where he lifted 150 kg and won a gold medal.
However, the sport itself did not bring a big profit. At that time circuses were popular and were a place one could demonstrate his strength and make good money. So the Ukrainian peasant became a performer at the Hertsfert Circus and started to tour worldwide. He took the pseudonym Ivan Syla and presented himself as the strongest man on the planet. Nobody dared contend for the championship, because in front of amazed audiences Ivan ripped iron chains apart, punched oak boards with nails and then took them out with his teeth, bent steel rails into a heart shape, or lay on broken glass while hefting 500 kg of weight.
In the USA, Ivan performed the following PR stunt: he lay on the ground while an automobile ran over his throat. Photos of this act were published in numerous American newspapers. As a result, Ivan introduced it to his program under the title “A man under the car.”
In 1927, to show their respect, the owners of the Ford Motors Company gave Firtsak a car. Soon the Ukrainian strongman became famous around the world. Not only common people, but also presidents came to watch his performances.
Even the Queen of England came to watch one of his performances. She wanted to see how the Ukrainian performer would fare in a boxing ring competing with an experienced boxer. After his circus act Ivan Firtsak started a fight with John Jackson. Apparently, it wasn’t a good idea because the Ukrainian champion with a single blow broke the opponent’s ribcage and the latter never stepped into the ring ever again. The blow is said to have been so heavy that it made even a durable boxing glove burst… To avenge for their hero, a whole crowd of Jackson’s fans attacked Ivan. They hurled stones at him and Ivan suffered an open skull fracture. The doctors had to insert a metal plate to replace the damaged bone.
There remains no credible evidence why in the 1930s Ivan pulled out of his contract with the circus and decided to go back to his home village. It was not the best time for such a decision because at that time Transcarpathia was occupied by Hungary, who even wanted to confiscate his car. Not wanting to give it up, Ivan took smashed the Ford to pieces with a sledge hammer.
The formerly famous Ukrainian entertainer wasn’t respected very much in the USSR. He hardly made ends meet. Ivan Firtsak earned his bread by performing at village clubs and showed his stunts for peanuts. Although he was no longer young, he bent rails, lifted heavy weights, and pulled carts full of people. Later, he founded a circus school and a school of martial arts.
Strongman Ivan Firtsak died in 1970 in his home village and was buried at the local cemetery. In 2009, a monument to him was erected in Bilky, modeled after another Ukrainian strongman Vasyl Virastyuk. In 2013, the film Strong Ivan about Ivan Firtsak was produced. In this film, the legendary strongman was played by Dmytro Khaladzhi.