It is one of the most memorable moments in the fitness industry — Tom Platz faced ‘Dr. Squat’ Fred Hatfield in a squat competition. The “squat-off,” as it’s often called, went down in Essen, Germany, in 1992. It was a spectacle that sought to address the eternal question: Who is stronger, the bodybuilder or the powerlifter?
Since that time, the competition has been cited by lifters and sports scientists to debate the relative merits of both sports. What is generally missing from these conversations is the history of the contest. Platz and Hatfield did not compete against each other to solve a scientific problem or out of a sense of rivalry. This was a publicity stunt masterminded by Vince McMahon, the chairman of the then World Wrestling Federation.
How did Vince McMahon, Tom Platz, and Fred Hatfield end up in this situation? The answer is a strange mixture of wrestling, capitalism, and showmanship. So, with that in mind, we’ll explore the background of the contest, the event itself, and, of course, its abiding memory in the world of strength sports.
In 1990 Tom Platz and Vince McMahon attempted to make bodybuilding history in the year’s Mr. Olympia competition convention hall. At that time, the Olympia was bodybuilding’s most important competition (it still is today). The duo who ran the contest, Joe and Ben Weider, was the sport’s most successful and influential promoters. They had operated in bodybuilding for over 40 years and, by that time, had few rivals to contend with.
Enter Vince McMahon. In 1990, the wrestling mogul and chairman of the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) announced that he was starting a new bodybuilding federation — the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF). The WBF lasted two years and has largely been greeted as a bizarre failure by fans of wrestling and bodybuilding.
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Part of the WBF’s appeal, at least initially, was that it provided bodybuilders with guaranteed contracts. This helped distinguish the WBF from the Weider’s federation, the IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilding). In the IFBB, bodybuilders earned money by winning competitions or securing additional sponsorship. In the WBF, you signed a contract and received a set sum in the same way an athlete joins an NFL or NBA team.
Equally important to the WBF were the grandiose wrestling-style tactics McMahon employed to promote his federation. During the course of the WBF’s two-year existence, McMahon and his agents launched television programs, fitness magazines, and crossovers between his wrestlers and his bodybuilders.
The strangest thing the WBF did was give all of the athlete’s personalities. Rather than stepping on stage as mere bodybuilders, they were given wrestling personas like the aggressive biker, the rich kid, a vampire, and a surfer. This, it was hoped, would make bodybuilding more exciting for the general public.
Despite early claims that the WBF would not become like wrestling, Tom Platz was soon implicated in these outlandish publicity efforts. Platz was with Vince McMahon when the WBF was launched in 1990. He was hired as the Head of Talent Relations and as the editor of the WBF’s fitness magazine, Bodystars Lifestyle. (1)
In his role as Editor, Platz was eventually asked to face Hatfield in a squat contest. In 1992 Hatfield joined the magazine as a writer and to oversee the development of McMahon’s supplement line, ICO-PRO. (2) He was joined by other big names like Mauro Di Pasquale to make Bodystars a real rival to Weider magazines like FLEX and Muscle & Fitness.
As WBF representatives, Platz and Hatfield were routinely encouraged to participate in whatever promotional campaign Vince McMahon planned. This was most clearly seen in 1990 when Platz accompanied McMahon at his guerilla marketing campaign at the Mr. Olympia Expo. The now-famous Platz/Hatfield squat off was just one more example.
Interviewed many years after the event, the now-deceased Hatfield made clear Vince’s input:
“Tom and I worked for Vince McMahon, owner of the WWE. He had it in mind to create a bodybuilding version of entertainment similar to pro wrestling and hired Tom and me to pull it off. He also hired a dozen of the best bodybuilders in the world as talent. As a marketing gimmick, Tom and I were obliged to go head to head in a “great squat-off” at the FIBO exhibition in Germany. I came out of retirement.” (3)
And thus began one of the most talked-about events in bodybuilding and powerlifting.
In February 1992, Tom Platz and Fred Hatfield faced off against one another in a lesser discussed squat contest to determine who was the strongest man at the WBF. The contest, won by Fred Hatfield, was said to have been a very close call. Hence, a decision was taken to host a second squat off. This time in Essen, Germany. (4)
It’s this second squat off — called the Great American Squat Off by the competitors — that the fitness industry remembers. Why Germany? At that time, the WBF was attempting to expand into Europe. (5) Part of the motivation behind the contest was, it seems, to drum up European interest in Vince’s bodybuilding experiment.
In March 1992, Tom Platz announced in Bodybuilding Lifestyles that he and Dr. Fred Hatfield would return to competition to determine who was the stronger man. (6) Initially written as a throwaway comment, Platz repeatedly mentioned the “squat-off” from March until the contest’s conclusion that summer.
The promotion did not stop with Platz. The WBF launched Bodystars on April 4, 1992, on terrestrial television in America. (7) This was not the first time a fitness program had been launched in the United States — Jack Lalanne had one in the 1950s — but it was one of the first times a show dedicated solely to bodybuilding had television coverage.
Bodystars, alongside Bodybuilding lifestyles, was the main promotion for the Great American Squat Off. In the general fitness community, the event was greeted with a mixture of interest and criticism. For some, it was yet another example of Vince McMahon’s marketing gimmicks. Most didn’t care, however. They just wanted to see the two men in action.
Despite being opponents, Platz and Hatfield were also co-workers. They respected one another and, it seemed, learned from each other. Before both competitions, in February and that in the summer, Platz and Hatfield trained together to bring them back to former glories.
Both men, we have to remember, had been retired for several years. Platz’s last placing at a bodybuilding contest came in 1987. Hatfield’s last placing at a major powerlifting meet came in 1986. They needed some time to get back into the habit of heavy squatting. They also needed time to redevelop that competitive mindset that had brought them to the top of their fields.
Although he never won a Mr. Olympia contest, Platz was known for having the most impressive legs the sport of bodybuilding had ever seen (an assertion that still holds up today). Hatfield, as a powerlifter, boasted a 1,000-pound squat. Together, the two men had more than enough ability to make the competition interesting. There was also personal pride at stake.
Later interviewed on his experiences, Hatfield playfully remembered that “We trained together for months, and it became clear to me that Tom actually believed he could beat me! Ugh! I had to get serious!” (8)
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Platz was outspoken a year after the competition about his strength and his ability to defeat Hatfield under the right circumstances:
“Well, I’d say with a little bit of training for a maximum lift, I probably could have squatted just under a grand. And I wasn’t really trained as a strength athlete. Although I did train with Fred Hatfield last year, I was able to do — what did I do? Eight plates (775 pounds) for a single. However, back then, if we’re looking at those years, ’85 to ’86, I think realistically 800 to 900 pounds would have been a predictable single. With some training specificity.” (9)
But what happened at the competition itself? As Tom Platz wrote in the September edition of Bodybuilding Lifestyles, the FIBO exhibition in Essen, Germany, was dominated by talk of the Great American Squat Off between the two men. (10) In front of a packed hall, and Bill Kazmier as a spotter, the two men suited up and faced off.
Part of the thing that has made the squat off so legendary was its format. Taking the two men’s expertise into account, it was decided that they’d compete in two phases — a max lift portion and a single set with 525 pounds for the most reps possible.
It did not disappoint. In the most reps competition, Platz reiterated his King of the Squat status. Platz managed an incredible 23 reps. Cheered on by Bill Kazmier and the crowd, this was very much the “Golden Eagle” in his element. Dr. Squat, in contrast, managed 11 reps. (11)
This mattered little for Fred Hatfield, who, in the max rep part of the contest, squatted 855 pounds to Platz’s 765 pounds. Both men had improved on their previous ‘Squat Off’ feats. When the two first met in February of that year, Hatfield managed three reps with 740 pounds, while Platz repped 505 pounds. for 21 reps. (12)
Thankfully for bodybuilders and powerlifters everywhere, the WBF footage of the event still exists online in possibly the most 1990s fitness footage ever made. Ensuring everyone knew who was responsible for the event, the WBF’s television show broadcast the event.
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Initially, the Squat Off helped ensure more attention for the then failing WBF. It was unique, fun, and provided a talking point for gym-goers around the world. Unfortunately for the WBF, its most audacious and most popular event came just months before the entire federation and its media outlets were closed down.
The WBF’s inaugural year in 1991 had seen some success and some failures. 1992 was the year the WBF died. It is enough to say that neither bodybuilding nor wrestling fans cared enough about the WBF to make it a viable entity. So for the WBF, the Platz/Hatfield contest was very much the last hurrah moment.
For the athletes themselves, it served as just another example of their strength and determination. Hatfield, who died in 2017, wrote about the contest in several of his later books. (13) Likewise, Platz has often spoken about the contest, and its build-up, in interviews and training seminars.
Not everyone was happy with the contest. In 2016 Kazmier accused Platz of using fake plates. Kaz’s accusation reinvigorated interest in the competition, with people weighing in on both sides. (14) For some, it seemed impossible that Platz could move a weight so easily before flattering at the end. Others, however, pointed out Platz’s long history of heavy squatting. Lee Priest, for example, said he saw Platz regularly squat 500 pounds for reps. The controversy served as a great reminder of how unique and interesting the squat-off was.
For trainers, sports scientists, and gym-goers, the contest is the easiest and arguably coolest example of explaining the differences in strength between bodybuilders and powerlifters. Unintentionally Vince McMahon and the WBF created both an educational tool and a slice of fitness mythology. Not bad for a strange crossover between ‘rasslin’ and bodybuilding.
Featured image: Image by Passat25
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