"I'm the fittest man in the world!" That may be. But why does Rob Powell have zero to show for it? Because the previous title holder cornered the market. And hired great lawyers

by David Kushner, Men’s Fitness, December 2003


"Come on upstairs!" says Rob Powell, as he jumps from his red pickup truck. "I want to show you my injuries!" Despite having just cycled 25 miles around Waco, Texas, run seven, climbed five, worked out at two gyms, benched, curled, squatthrusted, practiced martial arts, eaten a dozen chicken sticks, and masked his sweat with several blasts of cologne. Powell explodes up the steps to his apartment door.

He bolts past the giant black dog yapping inside his cluttered living room and grabs his digital video camera, pre-cued to footage of the pancake-size blood tumor he suffered after a spill on the 500-mile cycling tour he took to film his documentary 2wice Broken. "Wait till you see this bruise! It looks like a third butt cheek!" Powell cackles, angling the tiny screen. "You want a list of my injuries? I dislocated my shoulder, separated my hip. I had a concussion the entire summer!"

After twice breaking the fitness record in the Guiness Book of World Records, the 42-year-old is on a mission to create an insane new sport built around his superhuman feats. "I'm craaaaaazy about it," he drawls in his southern accent. And as the videotape of his wounds will attest, he just might be whacked out enough to pull it off. Powell is the self-described World Fitness Champion. He used to call himself the World's Fittest Man until he got a cease-and-desist letter from the lawyers of another strangely fit fella named Joe Decker. Decker told MF by phone that Powell's claim is bogus. "He didn't break my record," Decker sniffs. "He broke a different record." Decker trademarked the title after he broke the Guinness fitness record in 2000. Powell retorts by pointing out the two Guinness certificates that hang on his wall opposite the Coors Light bar sign and the Jenny McCarthy collage. "There's my proof right there" he sighs.

If you want to become the fittest man on the planet, here's what you need to do: swim two miles, cycle 110, row 20, run 12, hike 12, row 20, climb 20 (on that much-hated elliptical machine), crank out 1,250 push-ups, 1,250 leg lifts, 1,250 jumping jacks, and 3,250 abdominal crunches. Then you must lift 300,000 pounds of weights in various upper-body reps. And it all has to be done in under 19 hours, 17 minutes, and 38 seconds--Powell's time. And if you don't have three credible witnesses and a of video cameras documenting every groan, pop, and tear, Guinness won't even consider your record.

Those Before Him

The first guy to inflict torture on himself in the name of fitness was Steve Sokol, a physical therapist from San-Jose who set the benchmark in 1998 for what Guinness subsequently called the 24-Hour Fitness Challenge. Despite his notable achievement, however, Sokol wasn't splashy enough to be pictured in the Book of World Records alongside the world's heaviest beetroot (it was 52 pounds) or the fat guy who had to be buried in a coffin the size of a piano case (he was 1,069 pounds). But Sokol's conquest caught the attention of a blubbery Joe Decker, a 33-year-old former bartender in Maryland. Decker was heading for a baby-grand-size tomb of his own. He hadn't always been in such sorry shape, though. Decker was once a powerhouse fullback in high school on the fast track to college ball. During a game, he took a hard hit below the knee, causing anterior compartment syndrome--a painful injury that, instead of breaking the leg, causes it to hang and rot like a hunk of dead jerky. Decker drowned his sorrows in Twinkies and beer. Unable to afford college, he joined the military, which sent this former football star straight into the fat-boy program. "It was humiliating," he says.

Dreams squashed, Decker ended up in New Orleans, mixing Hurricanes at a Bourbon Street bar and subsisting on another great diet: Jagermeister and cigars. "I was on a vicious roller coaster" he recalls, "It was the pit of hell. I was either going to make a change or I was going to kill myself." After one long look in the mirror, he got on a plane back to Illinois and hit the ground running--and biking. "Fitness filled a void," he says. "It saved my life."

On December 2, 2000, under the watchful eyes of a video crew and two Guinness-approved judges, Decker broke Sokol's record in the 24-Hour Fitness Challenge. In a nonstop rush, he completed 13 grueling events, including 100 miles of cycling, 3,000 abdominal crunches, and lifting 278,540 pounds. A warm-up for what Powell would bring on in the future. The media ate up the redemptive story of fat boy turned fit boy, bestowing upon Decker the sexy title of World's Fittest Man. Sensing opportunity, his handlers suggested he trademark the name. From his appearances on the Weakest Link to the pages of People magazine, Decker artfully milked his story to touch the inner lard-ass lurking inside every adult. "If this fat kid can become the world's fittest man" Decker is fond of saying, "then you can lose 10 pounds!" After undergoing a transformation from the Today show's token tubby to thin man with disturbing leftover jowls, Al Roker called Decker "my hero." This January, Decker is coming out with his first book, The World's Fittest You. The trademark is paying off. "I didn't do all this for the press and publicity," he says, "but I'm not going to lie. It's been nice. Before this, I couldn't pay people to listen to me."

Down in Waco, Rob Powell heard Decker on TV blabbing on and raking in the press. And he had one response about the Fat Boy Wonder: "I'm going to bury him."

Running Away With It

"Ordinarily, I’d kick toward you testicles," Powell explains, as he steadies my palm in the air before me, "but right now, I'll do it into your hand." We're standing in a narrow hallway in the back of a splashy Gold's Gym. Powell does his calisthenics here but saves his heavy lifting for the Olympic--a bare-bones gym next to a Christian youth center in a rundown strip mall. At the moment, a pair of enormous women waddle into two tanning rooms labeled Jamaica and Bahamas. Crew-cut students in backward Baylor caps curl to No Doubt. Despite their occasional furtive glances at the warrior with Bruce Lee feet, they don't have to worry about him kicking their sacs by mistake. I do. Powell skillfully swings his foot millimeters from my hand. One thing is clear: He's a wild man, but a professional, too.

The son of cattle ranchers, Powell grew up rustling cows outside Dallas. "We were cowboys" he says, "the real deal." A high school track star, he rode a wave of college scholarships--attending seven universities (including one he got booted from for spending too much time in the cheerleaders' dorm). After graduating, he coached high school football at a variety of Texas schools, getting sacked from one for making the kids carry a giant log--Navy SEALs-style. He supplemented his income as a professional bodyguard (or, as he calls it, "hired muscle").

But dreams of stardom went unfulfilled. He tried out as a quarterback for a couple of Arena football teams, only to be told he was too short and awkward. "One coach told me no one needed a left-handed Doug Flutie," he says. When he saw a Guinness show about the fitness record, he committed his life to stomping it into pieces.

Powell rabidly intensified his already active regimen. Before work (he was a high school history teacher), he'd wake at the crack of dawn to go running along the Brazos River with his favorite training partner and dog, Wolf. He diversified his workout, incorporating cycling, hiking, and the elliptical machine. He tormented himself day and night at the thought of snatching the title from Decker, who he thought squirreled his way into the record books. "He took advantage of the judges" Powell snaps. "He wasn't doing proper push-ups or high enough leg lifts."

Then at noon on October 27, 2001, Powell attacked Decker's record like chops to the 'nads. Cheered on by buddies from his gym and his students, he leapt into his local pool to begin. With duct-taped feet, and a backpack full of M&Ms and infant rehydration formula, Powell hit his workout--blurring through 12 miles of running, 110 of biking, 3,250 sit-ups, and more. And, he adds, his push-ups were kosher. Twenty-two hours, 11 minutes, and 40 seconds later, he was the new world-record holder.

For good measure, and just to spit in everyone's face, he crushed his own record the following year.

The Not-So Good Life

As we head over to the recumbent bicycles at the gym, Powell says all his physical and mental suffering brings him nearer to fulfilling his dream. "I'm part Native American," he explains, "and for me, nothing gets you closer to your visions than intense exercise." And the image in Powell's mind's eye is his World Fitness Championships, or, as he calls it, "the ultimate extreme sport."

Other fitness competitions pale in comparison, he says. Ironman is chump stuff. "Everybody's grandmother can do a triathlon" he scoffs. Strongman competitions are pure vaudeville. The World Fitness Championships, on the other hand, are designed to be a ball-busting challenge, but one to which an ordinary dude at any neighborhood gym can aspire. The event has modified the Guinness criteria to include some of Powell's own inventions--such as Pop-Ups, a combination push-up, squat thrust, and jumping jack designed to eliminate cheat-prone events like ordinary push-ups.

"It's going to test my limits" says Merl Wolff, a 45-year-old Navy diver, one of the six competitors who signed up for the inaugural World Fitness Championships. (The event took place last month, and though the outcome was unknown at press time, MF put its money on, uh, Powell.) "My goal is just to finish," he says. Justin Hua, a ripped 17-year-old high school wrestler, has higher aspirations. "I want to show people how tough this is" he says, "and I want to turn this into a big new sport."

As Powell finishes his workout, however, the biggest challenge of launching the sport might be simply convincing guys to enter a competition he says will easily take three months to recover from. On the walk out, he stops a young guy who apparently has been mulling over the possibility of entering the event. "So, what do you say?" Powell asks. "You can do it!" The guy pulls out his iPod earbuds and says, "No way, dude. You've got to be crazy." Powell snickers but doesn't argue.

As usual, he has about a million other things on his mind. Despite the fact that only six people have signed up for his first event, Powell says it's only a matter of time before the sport goes mainstream. And he's going to do whatever it takes to get there. He's taken leave of his teaching job to dedicate all his energy to the championships. He's spent $20,000 on ill-fated promotional events and is $60,000 in debt. There are no morning shows. No book deals. No hokey game-show debuts. There is his low-budget Web site, where Powell sells ball caps and T-shirts. And there's a toll number where he sells the 2wice Broken videos. Tonight he's going to stay up until 2 a.m., just like he did last night, exchanging e-mails with lawyers he can't afford who are battling to protect his trademark, the World Fitness Championships.

"I don't care if someone becomes the next World Fitness Champion" Powell says, "but this is my sport now, I own it."

As Decker likes to remind Powell from afar, there's still only one World's Fittest Man. "He can be the Workout King of the World," he suggests sarcastically.

But Powell shrugs it off. He's a machine on a mission. And though the world hasn't caught on yet, he knows exactly who he is: "I'm the champion. Now let me get a pen and write down my injuries for you!"

COPYRIGHT 2003 Weider Publications

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning


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