1. Martins Licis was the 2019 World’s Strongest Man.
Might as well start here. The Dragon dethroned the Mountain. No, this wasn’t a Game of Thrones subplot. Martins “The Dragon” Licis, 6’3” and 340, who in his previous World’s Strongest Man contests had never medaled (sixth in 2016, fourth in both 2017 and ’18) bested the reigning champ Hafþór “The Mountain” Björnsson (third) and Poland’s Mateusz Kieliszkowski (second) to win the 2019 WSM by a convincing margin. “I prepared for this by lifting weights, eating food, and sleeping a lot,” Licis quipped deadpan with a sly shrug just after his victory. Then he added, “And watching cartoons.” (His favorite is the Japanese anime One-Punch Man, perhaps the world’s strongest superhero.)
2. Martins Licis was born in Latvia.
Born in 1990 in Riga, the capital of Latvia, Mārtiņš Līcis (pronounced, in English: Mar-teens Lee-cees) immigrated with his mother, Anita, and father, Kristaps, to Massachusetts in 1994, the year he turned four. His young parents had come to pursue architecture careers, and, having grown up under communism in the former U.S.S.R., they encouraged their child to chase his American dreams. Tagging along with mom and dad to the gym, Martins started training with weights at nine.
3. Beaten up, Martins Licis set out to become “outrageously strong.”
In 2003 at age 12, he was pummeled by three older kids while waiting for a bus. In the aftermath, Licis’ attitude changed. Going to the gym was no longer a chore. It became his passion and his purpose. He trained to become, as he said, “outrageously strong so that nobody can touch me.” It worked. Martins Licis wrestled in high school and began competing in strongman contests while still a teenager.
4. His tale took an Odd turn.
Just after turning 20, Licis and a friend drove across the country, moving to Los Angeles. As his mother wrote, “he was looking for his own tribe.” He found its leader in Norwegian-American strongman and coach Odd Haugen. Licis toiled under Haugen’s tutelage in Haugen’s garage and then his commercial gym, The Training Hall, where he still works out. Haugen, a grip-strength legend, is America’s foremost advocate for MAS wrestling, an ancient Russian strength contest in which two seated participants hold the same stick and try to pull it out of their opponent’s hands or pull their opponent over the wooden divider. Licis, who adopted the nickname “The Dragon” because of the fire burning inside him to be the best, won the 2016 MAS Wrestling World Championships five months before his first World’s Strongest Man, in which he placed sixth.
5. He starred in a Geico commercial.
The top strongmen are a good-humored bunch, and this is especially true of Licis. His YouTube channel is filled with videos that showcase not just his training and eating, but also his mischievous humor and affable antics. Hollywood noticed. He’s appeared on the game shows Game On! and To Tell the Truth in 2020, and last year he starred in a Geico commercial (without the gecko), helping a man recycle by smashing his cardboard boxes and then pulling the waste disposal truck. It’s all helping to popularize competitive strongman.
(Opening photo: Paula R. Lively)