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A Powerhouse of a Champion Who Gets No Respect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dominic Menaldi had had enough. So he picked up the phone.

His friend Hank is a great story, he said. He’s been in magazines--on the covers. He’s famous in other countries, but nobody here pays attention to him.

You put Tiger Woods on the sports pages all the time, and he only plays golf. Golf, Menaldi repeats, as if to rid his mouth of the taste. Hank Hill is a world champion. He’s got the title of strongest man in the world.

Fade out, fade in, and it’s Norm’s restaurant in Huntington Beach. Wednesday nights you can get all-you-can-eat meat, so Hill eats here after he works out at the Powerhouse Gym in Fountain Valley.

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They know him here. He gets the table for five, even when it’s just Hill, his girlfriend and Menaldi. They need the room.

Menaldi is big, but Hank Hill is bigger. At 29, Hill is 6 feet, 1 inch and 315 pounds, only about 12% of it fat.

Know someone with a 32-inch waist? His pants would just fit around one of Hill’s thighs. His upper arms are as big as a rolled roast. Even by strongman standards, Hill is unusually muscular.

He looks like a prison guard, which he was. He looks like a bodyguard, which he is. He looks like a professional wrestler, which he might be, he says, unless he can start making some money at his sport, his first love, powerlifting.

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He has credentials. He is the World Powerlifting Congress’ super heavyweight champion, a title he won a year ago in Columbus, Ohio.

But there are other champions. Even more than boxing, powerlifting is a fragmented sport. There are perhaps 20 organizations that bestow titles.

“There’s about five guys that get paid well,” Hill says between bites of his first order of chicken. “They hired good people and pushed and pushed and pushed. They got endorsements.

“One guy--he’s seven times champion--you know what he does? All he does is go around and do a seminar here and there for two or three grand. Advice, that’s all he does.

“He’s retiring this year. He told me he’s burnt out. Burnt out? He makes more in a month. . . .” Hill stops and shakes his head.

“I really don’t promote myself. It’s kinda my fault. I guess I thought when I won it, I’d just get it. Someone would call me. And I kept waiting, every month.”

Hill’s attitude is not unusual within the obscure sport of powerlifting, says Mike Lambert, publisher of Camarillo-based Powerlifting USA magazine. “A lot of them see what football players get paid and say, ‘What about me? I train hard too.’ ”

But while as many as 100,000 will pay to attend the Super Bowl, “large audiences are not the norm in powerlifting,” Lambert says. “The biggest crowd I’ve seen is 4,000, and a lot of them were powerlifters themselves or relatives of competitors.”

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Powerlifters do not get even as much attention as weightlifters do. Weightlifting, which involves fewer and different lifts, is an Olympic sport. Powerlifting is seeking inclusion in the Olympics, but weightlifters oppose it, arguing that the sports are too similar for both to be included.

But even if powerlifting’s circle is a tight and small one, within it Hill is a star.

“We were very concerned that Hank wasn’t going to come out this year,” says Phil Niemandt, a South African who is vice president for the World Powerlifting Congress’ African region. Niemandt is helping organize the championship meet in Durban, South Africa, to be held Nov. 7-10.

As the defending champion, “He will be treated as a celebrity here,” Niemandt says. “There will be a civic reception by officials of the city of Durban and press interviews and TV coverage.

“People are interested in him because he’s extremely large and lifts extremely heavy weights. Powerlifting is held in high regard in South Africa and Europe. There are lifters in Europe who make a living out of it. I’m a lifter, and I have a sponsor who sends me a retainer every month.”

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Meanwhile, Hill continues to train, expecting to better his best efforts so far: lifting 949 pounds from a squat, 837 pounds overhead from the floor (the dead lift) and 541 while lying on a bench (the bench press). In powerlifting, the weights lifted from all three positions are added for a overall score.

More difficult for Hill is scraping together the money for his first trip overseas to compete. His friend Menaldi not only employs him in his bodyguard service but also gives him some sponsorship money. A diet supplement company has signed him for some advertising.

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Still, working for a living takes up most of his day. Hill rises early to act as personal trainer to a few paying customers, then goes to work at his bodyguard job. After work, he trains at a gym, then goes home to Huntington Beach and sleeps, never getting the nine hours he believes his body needs.

“He’s eating constantly,” says his girlfriend, Robin Rodenbush, 28, also of Huntington Beach. “He’s always worried about what to eat next.”

“You’ve got to,” he says. “I try to eat five or six meals a day.”

That leaves little time for anything else. It’s powerlifting first, everything else next. Staying out late even one night “messes up my training for days,” he says.

“It’s OK,” Rodenbush says. “I don’t need to go out every night. We have plenty of fun. I like renting a movie and staying home.”

“If she wasn’t like she was, yeah, I’d be in trouble,” Hill says. “That’s why I let her know how it is first off.”

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How powerlifting became such an obsession to Hill is unclear even to him.

He says he inherited “big genes” from his mother’s side of the family, and by the time he was attending high school in southern Illinois he was competing in football and throwing the discus. “I bench-pressed 300 pounds when I was a freshman,” he says.

Being named all-state in football and setting state prep records in the discus got him scholarships in both sports to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. There, he had to bulk up to qualify as a football lineman. “I started lifting, and it just took off from there. I put on 40 pounds in one year.”

Out of school and working as a 280-pound prison guard at Leavenworth, Kansas, from 1988 to 1989, Hill decided it wouldn’t hurt to get bigger.

“I learned there that size and intimidation is everything. Not just your size--you got to be tough too. If you’re big and tough, you get a lot of respect in there. I never had any trouble, really.”

They put him in “B upper,” the most dangerous cellblock, Hill says. “No one wants to work B upper. It’s for the young guys. When you walk back there, you don’t have nothing on except the little radio, the body alarm. I never wore the radio--it kept going off accidentally--and these inmates thought I didn’t care about my life or anything. And they were scared of me.”

It was a good feeling, Hill admits. Still is. It’s the emotional payback for all these hours in the gym.

“I walk anywhere, you know? I like making [Rodenbush] feel safe. If people jump me and they have a weapon, then obviously, yeah, they’re going to do something. But anything less than that, you’re not going to be able to maul me or get on top of me. Yeah, it’s good satisfaction. That’s what I do. That’s who I am.”

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But if Hill can’t make a living at powerlifting, he sees only one other avenue for a man his size: professional wrestling. He says he’s been approached several times to join the circuit.

Don’t be fooled, he says. He spent a few sessions at a pro wrestling school, and even though every movement is choreographed, it’s still rough and taxing and often painful.

He went into the locker room, “and it looked like a pharmacy. Painkillers everywhere. One guy’s knee’s messed up, and one guy’s elbow is in ice. I mean, it looked like a damned hospital ward back there.”

Still, if his future is not powerlifting, pro wrestling will do just fine, Hill says. At least, he says, pro wrestling has “money and prestige.” Then maybe he’ll get some respect.


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