David Rigert – One of The Greatest of All Time

In honour of David Rigerts Birthday (12th March), here is an excerpt from The Greatest Weightlifters of All Time Vol 1 – Men, which is available from our USA Store and Europe Store.

Lifters like David Rigert of the USSR were well ahead of their time. Not only were they crazily strong, but they were athletic too. In fact, Rigert was so far ahead of his competition and set so many world records that you could make a reasonable argument that he is actually the greatest of all time.

David Rigert at the height of his career. Photograph licensed from Bruce Klemens

Rigert was born in 1947 to a German-Russian father who was moved around during the Second World War. Rigert was therefore born in what is now northern Kazakhstan before moving early on to the Kuban territory, an area of southern Russia that borders the Black Sea, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. It is amazing to think how many of the greatest ever were born in this area. Rigert from that era, Khrapaty from a few years later, Kakiasvillis not long after that, and most recently the strongest weightlifter of all time, Lasha Talakhadze.

In 1966 Rigert began training on his own with no formal coaching. Fortunately he found the writings of the 1950s weightlifter Arkady Vorobyov, who influenced his early training. Vorobyov was a talented athlete, coach, sport scientist and writer. 

It wasn’t long after he started training that Rigert, along with all males of his age, had to join the draft and so served in the military protecting ‘the population, territorial integrity and civil liberties in the territory of the Soviet state.’ While serving, Rigert managed to become an Master of Sport of the USSR, the eighth of ten levels of sporting achievement. This level equated to that of a national champion. In 1969, after his mandatory service was over, he teamed up with his long-time coach, Rudolf Plyukfelder, and began his dominant decade-long career. He competed for eleven years to be exact, from 1970 to 1980. His first competition was the 1970 World Championships in Columbus, Ohio. This would be one of the very few times in Rigert’s career that he wouldn’t either win or bomb out: those were Rigert’s two normal paths. He took the bronze medal in the -82.5 class behind teammate Gennady Ivanchenko. At this competition Rigert clean and pressed 152.5, snatched 147.5, and clean and jerked 182.5.

During Rigert’s career, he went on to win six out of the six following World Championships that he competed in. He won all nine of the European Championships he competed in, along with five USSR Championships. Perhaps most impressively, he set sixty-eight world records, with as many as twelve in a single year (1972). Even after the abolition of the press in 1972, in which he actually only set one world record, he still set absurd numbers of world records: ten in 1973, eight in 1974 and so on.

The first three years of Rigert’s career were during the clean and press era. He would press as much as 198 at a bodyweight of under 90. In the press, no dip and drive was allowed. Lifters would lean back and then stand up straight as they began to press as a way of adding momentum, but it certainly did not resemble a push press or a push jerk in any way. 198 at under 90 in bodyweight is equal to Liao Hui’s world-record clean and jerk in the -69 category. Essentially it was an out-of-this-world performance.

The only two competitions from 1972 to 1980 in which Rigert did not win were two of the three Olympics he participated in. In 1972, as the expected winner and already a legend by that point, Rigert bombed out on the snatch having already pressed 187.5. According to him, this failure was due to ego, which led to him opening with as much as 160. He was already so far ahead of everyone that he was only after world records. The winning total was 525. Rigert’s previous performance, the year prior at the 1971 World Championships, was 542.5, and he had just opened the Olympics with ten kilos more in the press than he had made at that competition. So furious was Rigert at his stupidity that he literally began to tear his hair out and hit his head against the wall. He was forcibly removed from the platform by his Soviet teammates.

After winning everything in sight during the following quad, Rigert headed to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal again as the clear favourite. This time he played the game safely, guaranteeing the win. Prior to this competition he had snatched 180 and clean and jerked 221 at under 90 in bodyweight. At the Olympics he went 170/212.5 for the Olympic records, still twenty kilos more than anyone else in the total, but nowhere near his potential. He was finally, after fifty-two world records, an Olympic champion.

By this point Rigert was finding it harder and harder to cut to the -90 class and was increasingly looking to move up. He was twenty-nine years old in 1976 and had gained a huge amount of muscle mass by now. His strength was almost beyond belief. In training he had back squatted 300 for six reps, snatched 200, jerked 260 and power cleaned 220.

Rigert admitted to doing four drug cycles of twenty-one days each per year, but nothing beyond that.

David Rigert in 1978. Photograph licensed from Bruce Klemens

Rigert continued to win everything during the late 1970s and in 1980 competed at his final Olympic Games in Moscow, in front of his home crowd. Just a few months before the Olympics he had broken world records in the snatch and clean and jerk as a -100 athlete with 181 and 230. But, just before the Olympics, despite him being the greatest in the world at that bodyweight, the coaches decided to move Rigert back down to the -90 class. There was some tough competition springing up in the 100s, with lifters like Adam Saidullayev, Viktor Sots, and even Zakharevich beginning to make names for themselves. During this cut in bodyweight, Rigert would manage to get below 90, but his body fat dropped to under four percent, similar to a high-level bodybuilder on stage. To actually be athletic and strong at this bodyweight was a tall order, and one which the thirty-three-year-old Rigert was unable to answer. Despite opening at 170, Rigert again bombed out of the Olympics, missing out on what could have all too easily been his third Olympic gold medal. Rigert admits that 1972 was his fault – his ego was too big. But 1980 in Moscow was not his fault. The coaches had unfairly forced him to drop his weight by over ten kilos and he was unable to do that and still compete at the level required.

He did end up competing one more time, in 1981, setting a further world record in the snatch at 185, but that was it for Rigert. Other than the next man we will look at, you could make a case for Rigert having the most dominant decade in weightlifting history. Norik Vardanian once told the story of his father Yurik witnessing Rigert being carried home drunk by his coaches at two o’clock in the morning, the day before the World Championships. Rigert went on to set world records in the snatch, clean and jerk, and total the following day. Rigert and his muscular physique have led to some of the most iconic weightlifting photos of all time, including the ones you will find in this book.

Rigert was entered into the Weightlifting Hall of fame in 1999, and went on to be an incredibly successful coach for the Russian national team. 

David Rigert in 2015. Photograph – Donland.ru

Read more about Rigert and 71 other weightlifters in this 228 page, full colour book available now.

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