The Scranton Superman-Jim Williams (Concluded with Part 4)
In the gritty, burnt out, hardscrabble town of Scranton, PA life was simple, but tough. A former coal mining town, about 2 hours due west of the Big Apple, Scranton, named for industrialist brothers George and Selden Scranton, was the anthracite coal capital in the 1930s and the third largest city in Pennsylvania with 140,000 hard working people. But as alternative sources of energy such as oil and natural gas were tapped in the 1950s, the coal industry suffered and the city, along with its sister city Wilkes-Barre, lost about half of its population through natural attrition. In 1992, the State of Pennsylvania declared Scranton a distressed city, a designation it still holds. Still life went on without too much complaint for a mostly immigrant and definitely blue collar population. There was also a small, but growing Black community who interacted reasonably well with their immigrant counterparts despite being at the end of the old Jim Crow era of racial segregation . It was in this environment that one of Powerlifting’s true legends was born and raised- the great Jim Williams- the Scranton Superman. This is his story, one of triumph and pain, of scintillating World Records and many years of humbling incarceration, of unreal training methodologies and finally of redemption and inner peace.
Jim Williams passed away quietly in 2007 and our Sport of Powerlifting truly lost not only an unbelievable athlete, but one of the great coaching minds of the sport- one that was literally 40 years ahead of his time.
In Scranton during the 60’s and 70’s, five Royal Crown Cola caps would get you into a Saturday matinee at one of Scranton’s original movie theaters ,the Comerford. For another 35 cents you could get yourself a slice of pizza and a Richardson Root Beer in a frosted mug at Kresge’s “Five and Dime” store which would eventually morph into something we all know as KMART. This, then was his small world- Jim Williams and his four brothers would spend summers in Belleville , a short bus ride west of Scranton , at his great aunt’s house in the country and enjoyed the simple pastimes of the day- swimming in the river, hiking ,playing, and of course eating like a king. No Disney Vacations, expensive summer camps for the Williams clan, as they were simply too poor .And of course there was no Internet, Twitter, emails or satellite TV. Those innocent days soon gave way to extreme turbulence -Vietnam, Watergate and Charles Manson. Innocence, especially for Big Jim was also soon to fade like the early morning mist.
Jim, despite all efforts by his family ,soon left his carefree childhood behind and unfortunately succumbed to the lure of the street life, of easy money and easier opportunities. In 1961 Williams admitted to playing part in the beating and robbery of a man, when he was only 21. He, another man and a 17-year-old took $80 and a wristwatch. This supremely idiotic act was to cost him dearly, but ultimately paved the way years later for his enormous success in Powerlifting. Williams, not having a high –priced lawyer was unable to plea bargain his way into a soft sentence as a youthful ( and first time) offender was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison, which he did in Rockview State Correctional Facility near the base of Mount Nittany, north of State College PA. His son, James, Jr. also felt that the early 60’s racism and his always unwavering sense of loyalty to his friends may have cost him:”People back then didn’t have much sympathy for a big black boy who beat someone up and robbed them. He did have a chance to do some sort of deal for reduced time if he turned others in but as always, he refused. He spent a lot of time in Prison, in and out, and I missed almost 11 years of his life, all told….”-James Williams Jr, April 2010
Rockview was a branch prison housing lesser security risk prisoners employed in the extensive farm program outside the gates, but is now is a medium-security institution for men. Big Jim started to lift weights at Rockview, and it was there that his theories of ultra high volume training took seed. It is interesting to note that some of today’s sophisticated training methodologies such as German Volume Training ( GVT) and the ever popular Sheiko protocols from Russia also had their roots in a dingy prison gym in Western PA. The equipment was basic but serviceable, and thankfully, the Prison Authorities did not subscribe to the ridiculous notion that weight training and Powerlifting made for a dangerous inmate, but rather was a special privilege that had to be earned and maintained by consistently good behavior, and an inmate, worn out from working out at the “Iron Pile” would be far less likely to get into trouble.
Big Jim behaved himself, and trained like a fiend doing basic barbell and dumbbell moves, and lots of volume. It was not unusual for him to Bench Press twice a day, and again one of the most respected modern day theorist, Boris Sheiko estimates that for an ultra advanced athlete, this is indeed, the proper training protocol. The environment and gear were pretty rudimentary at Rockview-quite often, the inmates would train in their prison issued denims, and when someone needed a belt for back support, they simply wrapped a couple of heavy towels around their waist. Needless to say, all of his lifting was totally and unequivocally raw. When he was released, he was close to 290 lbs of muscle, despite the bland prison diet. Big Jim actually started a Prison Lifting Team while at Rockview, and did so again later on in life when he was once again incarcerated in the Federal Prison System for a variety of offenses. A newspaper article in Texarkana, Texas, many years after his Championship days was entitled “Lifting Back to Dignity” and it depicted a then graying Jim Williams, well past his prime, still dead lifting big weights in the Federal Correctional Institute, still coaching and helping others.
Big Jim was, as his nickname attested, always a really big guy. He weighed a full 200 lbs when he was only 12 years old, and literally Military Pressed his own body weight when he was 15, the first time he ever laid hands on a barbell. His size and natural strength enabled him to win the State High School Shot Put Championships and earned a tryout with the Houston Oilers of the old American Football League , straight out of Scranton Technical High School. He weighed around 235 lbs when he started training in Prison and peaked at a mountainous, though extremely muscular 360 lbs, at a height of around 6’2”. In fact, Rickey Dale Crain remembers lifting in the inaugural 1971 World Powerlifting Championships held at the Zembo Mosque in York, PA as a teenager and seeing Big Jim live , and in person for the first time: “ I was hanging around after my session and in he came. Jim Williams had to be biggest person I had ever seen, and remember I was pretty familiar with big guys having lifted weights half my life by then. His upper body was enormous with a chest taping over 60” ( relaxed) and with a set of 22-23” arm cold.. It’s not that his legs were small, either, they must have been around 35 inches, but his upper body was from another planet. His Olympic weight belt looked like a dinky little trousers belt on him . I would hated to be grabbed by him because he could have squeezed the life out me in an instant…”
Jim’s strength and nasty outward appearing disposition( despite his true gentle nature) served him well in surviving the horror of Prison Life, which even then was a precursor to the gang infested Reality Shows like LOCKUP that proliferate the airwaves today. One incident, though unverified serves best to illustrate this. It seems that Big Jim had a visitor one day, an older man whose son was due to land in Rockview soon for an 18 month stint for armed robbery. The old gentleman made a deal with Big Jim to give a certain amount of money – allegedly over $20,000-to his family if Big Jim would look after he boy and keep him from getting beaten and abused by others. Big Jim agreed, and one day he and the boy were with his lifting team at the Rockview Iron Pile when they were approached by one of the early members of the famed White Supremacist Gang the Aryan Brotherhood who wanted to know what “Their” white boy was doing with his group, which was mostly black. When confronted by the AB thug, Jim told him that he would “ flip him for it- meaning the kid-” and did just so- by “flipping” the Aryan Brotherhood guy with one hand as easy as you and I would toss away a pencil… understandably, his friend was forever left alone……
By the time Jim finished his first (but sadly not his last) Prison Stint, he had honed and refined his now famous high volume system down to perfection. He would spend hours on the phone with lifters from all across the country giving training advice. He sought out new and more experienced training partners and got them in Bob Gaynor ( still lifting big weights today in his 60’s) and the immortal and enigmatic John Kuc. Their training sessions at the downtown Scranton YMCA, and later at Bob Gaynor’s basement in Mountaintop, PA were legendary with records broken in practically every workout . The Scranton Y , by the way was no special place to train whatsoever. One past member of the Y put it best: “I took swim lessons at the Scranton Y as a kid, it was a dump with a weight room with a couple bent up bars, ripped benches and flimsy squat racks....”Member codenamed “Guru” Marty Gallagher’s “Purposely Primitive Forum- 2007
Jim’s passion then and his legend were built on his superhuman prowess in the Bench Press. In those days, the rules for the Bench Press were almost sadistic- no extraneous body motion allowed, no uneven extension of the arms and a mind-numbing 2 second pause on the chest, which, if supervised by the “wrong” official easily turned into 3 to 5 seconds of agony. Despite this, Jim’s Bench started soaring, little by little- 450- 475- 500-550- all fell like ripe cornstalks. His one unwavering goal during those early days was to overtake the one man who had managed to Press the magical 600- Pat Casey, who had officially pressed 617 in 1967 in a California competition.
On August 30th, 1969 Jim crossed the magical 600 barrier to become only the second man in history to achieve an official 600lb bench press, with lifts of 600,730,675-2005 in placing second to Don Cundy at the USA Senior Nationals in York, PA - the Bench Press weighed out at 601½lbs for a new meet record. (Remember, the Bench Press was contested first and there were no “rounds “system which meant that Williams always followed himself on each and every Bench Attempt). On 15th February, 1970 he recorded a new National bench press record of 628lbs at the Junior Middle Atlantics meet, breaking the previous mark set by Pat Casey in 1967. Later that year, Jim failed his Deadlift attempts at the USA Senior Nationals in New Orleans after having benched 615lbs for another meet record. Early in 1971, Jim increased his National Bench Press record to 635lbs at the Eastern Open USA Championships in Scranton, PA. At this point, he felt that the sky was literally the limit for the Bench Press:“My training at this point in time became nothing short of phenomenal. I would make sure I benched 600 or better every day of a training period. In a 3 month period, I would Bench 600 at least 70 times…”
His mind was now fixed on one simple goal- to Bench Press 700, something no one had even contemplated attempting. Remember, these were the days when an honest 700 lb Squat or Deadlift at any bodyweight was a huge deal giving both the strict judging standards and the absence of heavy supportive gear and specialized Deadlift/Squatting Bars and Racks. In 1971, the same year that the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18, and the country started using unleaded gas, Charles Manson was sentenced to spend the rest of his life on Death Row in San Quentin and the Sport of Powerlifting was to finally become an International Event with the advent of the 1st World Championships held in York, PA. Williams was part of this historic event and placed second to Hugh Cassidy in the Superheavyweight Class. By then, his Bench had skyrocketed to a colossal 661 officially ( done at the 1st Worlds) and an unbelievable ( though unofficial) 705 done in front of the Bob Hoffman and the USA Olympic Weightlifting Team in the old Broad Street Gym at York. He also duplicated this monumental press in Bob Gaynor’s basement on a flimsy bench with narrow uprights. In 1972, once again in York, PA, Williams placed second again, this time to his friend and training partner John Kuc, who had spent the entire prior year going from 270 to around 330 in bodyweight... Another future legend, then a “rookie” in the Sport-Don Reinhoudt- placed third. Because the Bench Press was contested first, Jim had gotten off to a good start leading Kuc by 75 pounds with his historic and highest official bench Press of 675 lbs. He had a close miss at 700 as well. Unfortunately due to what was apparently balance problems Jim only managed 825 lb in the squat which was well below his squat world record of 861 lbs. Remember, Williams could achieve an extraordinarily deep squat with nothing more than a flimsy singlet (little better than underwear), tiny Ace Wraps which looked like a Band –Aid on each of his massive knees, and a thin belt. Nervousness kept him from achieving his 900+ Squat, a number that he and Kuc did in training many times. Kuc, however, using his newfound bulk motored up with a deep and easy 905 and it was game on. Jim’s Deadlift was lagging and according to Bob Gaynor, he rarely trained it: ”In the years I trained with Jim, I maybe saw him Deadlift twice. He was always so far ahead by subtotal time that he rarely needed to extend himself much.”
Ironically enough, in later years as he attempted a comeback, his Deadlift, when he finally decided to put some work into it went right into the low 800’s at over forty years of age. That day, in York, however, John Kuc was a much better deadlifter than Big Jim and was able to come from behind and win his first World Title. Still, Williams 675 pound bench press went into the books as an American Record because it was done one year before the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) was formed and began keeping "official" world records. Since the IPF didn't recognize the 675 as a world record, Williams was not able to get his lift into the Guinness Book of Records though it clearly deserved to be listed, which is and will always be sheer stupidity by a bunch of little old men in blue jackets ( as usual). Nevertheless, his official 675 Bench stood, like the Rock of Gibraltar for years until finally broken by Ted Arcidi at one of the Early Budweiser Record Breakers meets in Hawaii with a 705.To be sure, Arcidi used an early (and very flimsy) version of a bench Shirt (the Original Blast Shirt by Inzer) and if one were to examine the footage of his Press, there was no discernable pause whatsoever. All of Big Jim’s Presses were done with a minimum of a 2 second pause on the chest. Pundits today speculate that were he in his prime today, Big Jim would , with a double ply open back shirt and “motionless bar” judging (versus a pure dead stop) Press over 1050, and possibly as much as 1200 lbs, he was that strong. His insane volume on assistance exercises was one of his secrets, plus keeping his volume DOWN on the actual Bench Press. His 5- 6 day per week training protocol on the Bench included doing no more than 21 reps in an actual Bench Workout, often starting with 315, and ending with well over 600, but then turning the tables and doing literally hundreds of reps in basic bodybuilding movements for his upper body such as Incline Dumbbell Presses for 10x10 reps with over 135 lb dumbbells, the famed Jim Williams Front Delt Raise done with a 100 lb plate- again for 10 sets of 10 reps, and standing Bicep curls with 100 lb dumbbells in each hands for…you guessed it 10 sets of 10 reps.
For all of his prowess in the Bench, he was no slouch in the Squat either, as he held the World Record in the Squat for a period of time at 865 lbs, and handled 1200 lbs in what he termed as the “Half-Squat”- a squat to about 3-4 inches above parallel ( and taken out of the rack). This Half Squat, done in 1971 with no gear and no Monolift could possibly have translated into a 1300 lb Squat or more with the aforementioned modern amenities. No doubt about it, he could have totaled well over 3000 lbs with today’s gear and judging standards. As in the Bench Press, Williams assiduously performed tons of Leg Assistance work including “Quad Head Work” ( on the leg extension machine- done for 15 sets of 10 reps, and heavy front Squats for 8 -10 sets of 10 with 405 plus the Half Squats . On a side note, Williams’s deltoids resembled the proverbial cannonball, and how on earth he managed to position even 405 lbs, a ridiculously light weight for him on his ponderous upper body was a testament to his flexibility and athleticism. Big Jim for his girth walked and carried himself like someone far lighter and could, at 340+ lbs dunk a basketball. One of the issues that he was passionate about was proper posture in lifters, and not to carry oneself “like a fool”, and thereby attract unwanted attention. He used to ride to and from the gym on a 10 speed bike, which he claimed aided both his warm-up and recovery. He was also an early proponent of hydro therapy, as he frequented a “swimming hole” nearby his home for many an after workout recovery dip, plus used the local steam baths from time to time. Once again, a man significantly ahead of his time.
However, for all of his prowess and intelligence in the gym and on the platform, Big Jim had a very hard time shaking the lure and the siren call of easy money from the streets, even then, and he paid for it. Soon, he became as well-known in the courtrooms of Scranton as he did around the nation as a Powerlifter A lot of people in the Iron Game back then wondered why he disappeared from sight so quickly after the second World Championships. Shortly after the Worlds, the U.S. Secret Service charged Williams with counterfeiting; alleging he and a group of men printed and sold or attempted to sell $5 bills. There is one unconfirmed (and strangely silly) report online that claims that Williams actually printed up (and distributed) the funny money with himself in a powdered wig on the front, instead of Abe Lincoln. Unbelievable. He ultimately was sentenced to two years in prison which he served in a variety of Federal Penitentiaries, Counterfeiting being a Federal crime. Some people speculate that Jim was at least semi” institutionalized” and may have actually liked the structure of prison life, but I find that hard to believe given the fact that he and his wife Pat were parents to 3 growing kids- James, Jr, Nathaniel and Georgianna and would rarely see them , especially during his Federal prison stints. He didn’t stop there. In 1981, he was sentenced to five years in federal prison after his conviction on Social Security fraud charges where he was supposedly involved in organized prostitution and labeled by his cohorts (who turned on him for a reduced sentence) as “The Kingpin” for organized crime in Northeast Pennsylvania. Before that trial, city police arrested him on cocaine trafficking charges. Early in 1982, a jury acquitted him on four drug-delivery counts, but did convict him on one count each of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and criminal conspiracy. All in all, Williams spent 11 years of his life behind bars, where he continued to train and was presented with humanitarian awards for establishing inmate weightlifting programs.
His extensive Prison record serves to underscore one important fact about our world, the World of Powerlifting: sometimes we get so lost in the virtual blizzard of data online- of workouts, macro and meso cycles, issues with judging, geared lifts and raw- federation squabbles and general electronic bitching we forget to remember that behind every record lift, beneath every squat suit and bench shirt there is a human being- by definition -both societal and theological-a highly imperfect creature by nature always prone to make mistakes, some small and insignificant, and others much more egregious. But ….given the unimpeachable laws of balance and accountability, most usually pay for these mistakes in the heavy coin of time and lost opportunity. Jim Williams paid dearly for his mistakes and eventually became a Born Again Christian during his final stint in prison and vowed not to stray ever again –which he did not. Cynics may deride this conversion as just another prison scam and excuse for failure, but Big Jim’s actions post release were as good as his word. He returned to his family, his long suffering wife Pat and his kids, now grown. He started to make a comeback in the mid 80’s, now training at Peffer’s Athletic Club and actually increased his lifetime max in the Bench to a raw 715 when he suffered a career ending quad tear whilst squatting with over 860 lbs. His son James, Jr. recounted to me:
“He backed out with 860 and turned his head to his spotter to say” this is light” But….as he turned his head, he also accidentally turned his foot and when he squatted, he tore up the quad muscles completely. He had surgery but was never the same again and shortly after his overall health began to decline and had to quit lifting altogether…”
-James Williams Jr, April 2010
No longer able to lift, Big Jim turned to more scholarly pursuits such as writing, drawing and reading, plus active participation in the local A.M.E Bethel Church where he was a member of the choir along with his four brothers. He was shocked when he went to the local library and found only a few paragraphs on Black History of the area, so he decided to write a book, as yet unpublished- called “Northern Fried Chicken” a treatise on Black History of the Northeast. His collection of charcoal sketches ranged from portraits of Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jacques Cousteau and Teddy Kennedy. He had a huge stereo system and also loved to tinker with cars. Sadly during the early 90’s Big Jim suffered a series of strokes which left him unable to walk, and totally confined to a wheelchair. Still, his passion for helping others after his prison conversion did not dim with age and infirmity. Despite the fact that he was on a fixed income (and not much of one) he was always ready to lend a hand to anyone down on his luck with a kind work, a few dollars and even some food. Often he would be seen tooling down the sidewalk on his motorized chair with a box of canned goods in his hands, on an appointment to help a hungry friend. His 2 sons Nathaniel and James using his system of training followed in his footsteps to a point in Powerlifting and recorded some extremely respectable lifts and national accolades along the way. They could not ever duplicate the titanic achievements of their mighty sire, however.
Jim Williams passed away in 2007 and it would be easy for anyone to remember him just as a habitual criminal given his early youthful indiscretions, and his continual stints in Prison, just as it would be so easy to remember him just as an icon of the Sport of Powerlifting and one of the Strongest Men to ever trod Planet Earth. Remember- Big Jim didn’t have a lot of opportunities back then for a variety of reasons- his lack of formal education, institutional racism of the 60’s and 70’s, and his own massive failings in deciphering between right and wrong- Were he alive today he may have been a world famous gym owner, coach and highly sought after trainer, or maybe a wealthy Pro Athlete in either Strongman or Track and Field.. Sadly he chose pathways and built, as he so aptly described it “crooked bridges” that were not straightened out until much later in life. I believe were he to have a say in the matter, Big Jim would simply want to be judged as a man who lived , made mistakes, paid for them and eventually found peace and redemption in the one competition where there are no second attempts- in the battle for his own soul- and a man who loved his family dearly. One thing is for sure, he will always be in our sport…
The Scranton Superman- Big Jim Williams