The uncrowned King

Dan Wohleber was the greatest strength athlete you never heard of.  In the late 1970s a smart, genuinely tough and ungodly strong skinny man named John Black opened a gym in a tough town: Cleveland. Black created a hardcore training facility that was a magnet for every bad ass in a bad ass town. John and Bob Fortenbaugh created a powerlifting squad that he campaigned at the junior national championships and senior national championships.

Without a hint of irony (unintentionally ironic?) the gym was called Black’s Health World.  This gym and these guys were anything but examples of “health.” Some were motorcycle outlaws, others were enforcers (allegedly) for Jackie Presser and the Teamsters. Some were debt collectors and others were called, “one punch.” They were also called “The Wild Bunch,” and for good reason: when roaming together as a pack, say at a bar, “incidents” would routinely occur.

John Black was the strongest skinny man I ever saw. At 5-11 and 198 he could legitimately barbell squat 800 below parallel and he could deadlift 775 any day of the week. Only a low 400-pound bench press kept him from winning world titles.  Black once fought in a Tuff Man competition because the gym was behind in rent.  He tore up the competition and also tore up a tricep in the final fight; this injury destroyed his bench press for the rest of his competitive career.

For years I coached Black’s Gym at the national championships. In the lead up to the nationals, John would select the 11-man squad, handle the travel and hotel logistics and act as a buffer between our athletes and coaches and the officials. Bob Fortenbaugh and I would divide up the Black’s team lifters and competition coach them. We captured five national team championships. Bob and I were named as IPF world championship team coaches in 1991. We guided team USA to the world team title over 33 other countries. This was one of the highpoints of my life.

John once related to me about the first time he ever saw Dan Wohleber. “This big 14-year old kid, maybe 180-pounds, walks into my gym. The kid watched as I deadlifted 405 for 10-reps, which at that time, early in my lifting career, was a new personal record. I was pretty pumped afterwards. As I am congratulating myself, the kid walks over to the bar and without any warm-up and using a double overhand grip with the worst technique I have ever seen deadlifts the 405 for 14 reps! I was like, ‘What the f#@k!’ Naturally I gave the kid a free membership.”

Within six years the kid became the first man in history to deadlift 900 pounds. But that is getting ahead of the story.

Danny was taken under the wing of the Black’s crew. He got so strong so fast that he ended up ripping a pectoral. Not having hospitalization or the money to get the ripped muscle surgically repaired, one chest muscle was destroyed. From that point forward he essentially bench pressed with one arm.

I first crossed paths with Dan when I worked with Mark Challiet as his coach. Mark and Dan faced off in the 242-pound class in an epic battle in 1980 that was one of the most exciting battles I have ever seen or been a part of. Mark was on that day. He made a conservative opening squat of 744. We watched as Wohleber opened his squats with a massive 821-pounds, which he missed. Mark made his second attempt with 788. Danny jumped to 841 on his second squat and dumped the bar, almost killing a spotter. Mark jumped to 804 for a close miss. Wohleber insanely jump to 871-pounds, well above the then current world record.

I was elated, when Dan missed this weight he would be out of the competition. Bye Bye to our toughest competitor.  I did not see this, but later heard that Dan was smoking a Marlboro prior to the world record attempt. When his name called, he stood, flicked the butt across the backstage warmup room and said, “Showtime.” He then strode to the platform a crushed the squat, setting a world record that stood for ten years. Strangely, it was my boy Kirk Karwoski that finally bested Dan’s record with a 904-pound effort.

Mark’s worst lift was the bench press. He was a world record holder in the deadlift and a fabulous squatter, but his long arms hurt his bench press. As bad as Mark’s bench press was, Dan’s was even worse. At the competition, Mark benched a so-so 452-pounds, peanuts for the 242-pound class where 550-pound shirtless bench presses were not uncommon. Dan Wohleber bench pressed 369-pounds that day, the lowest bench press ever posted by a national champion in the 242-pound class before or since.

Going into the deadlift, it was a see-saw battle between the two best 242-pound deadlifters in the world. Mark made his opening deadlift and Dan would respond with a slightly higher success to retake the lead. Mark crushed all his deadlifts ending with a hard-fought 804. It all came down to Wohleber’s final deadlift with 821 pounds. If he made it, he’d be the national champion. I watched with a sinking feeling as he broke the Olympic bar from the floor and ratcheted it to lockout for the win. The crowd went crazy. What a freaking rocket ride.

Dan was selected as a member of the United States powerlifting squad that competed in India at the world championships. Danny was a young boy traveling outside the United States for the first time. He had a terrible trip: cars, buses, 18-hour plane rides, horrible food and horrible Indian heat. He placed a disappointing third. He had, however, one of the best excuses in the history of athletics: he caught malaria.

He recovered and reemerged two years later. He was older now, more seasoned, much bigger and stronger. Weighing a full 275 pounds, Dan shocked the strength world when he squatted an astronomical 960-pounds. He then made the first 900-pound deadlift in history. The deadlift was epic. The 900-pound pull had been in the gunsights of superheavyweight lifters for a decade and though many got close, no one had pulled 900. The fact that the man weighing a mere 270-pounds was the first to crash the 900-pound barrier exponentially amplified the magnitude accomplishment.

In this wretched era of “deadlift only” competitions (don’t even get me started on allowing straps, hitching, and bendy bars) Dan pulled 900 after squatting 960. There is an unimaginable degree of pre-fatigue that a world record squat with just shy of 1000-pounds will inflict on any deadlift that follows. The two lifts use many of the same muscles: thighs, erectors, abdominals and hamstrings.

Before he tied into the final 900-pound deadlift, Dan had squatted 840 (in the warm-up room) made an opening squat attempt with 900, then a second attempt squat with 930 before the world record 960 effort. Then in the deadlift: he pulled 800 in the warm-up room before opening with an 840 and pulling 870 on his second attempt deadlift.  That is a hell of a lot of super heavy squatting and deadlifting before being allowed to attack 900.

Can you imagine how much he could have pulled on this day had he not had to squat? I think a 950-pound pull would have been a lead pipe cinch. Oh, and by the way, Dan’s two lift total of 1,860-pounds (960 squat + 900 deadlift) was not exceeded by any lifter, regardless of bodyweight, for fourteen years. Only Power God Ed Coan was able to exceed Dan’s squat/dead total, Ed did it weighing a ‘mere’ 242-pounds.

Dan’s roll was ended when he suffered a horrific squat wipeout with 900 + pounds. He told me that the massively powerful John Florio saved his life by retarding and redirecting the barbell path when both knees were ripped apart simultaneously. Dan came back from this gruesome occurrence and lifted at the inaugural APF world championships in Maui in 1985.

I was there coaching Chaillet and the two giants were lifting against one another, once again.  Again, Dan missed his first two squats on technicalities and again he kept upping the poundage, despite miscues. Mark stood next to me as we watched Dan get ready for his 3rd. For Mark and me it was déjà vu all over. “Oh my God…” Challiet groaned, “not this nightmareagain” Mark said this under his breath as we remembered our last encounter with Dan. It was not to be. Danny did not get his 3rdsquat and Mark won the title.

In 2018 the exploits of the real strength giants are forgotten. In 2018 the methods that they used to set records that have not be surpassed, are forgotten. Internet gurus with lots of followers and no credentials (or bogus credentials) proliferate and prosper while the methods of the giants are forgotten. How did Dan Wohleber train to get so strong? We shall post his squat and deadlift routines, broken down and gone into in detail.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.