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Hero from Lika, The story of Marijan Matijević

Hero from Lika, as Marijan Matijević was known in those days, was a man from Lika with incredible physical strength and endurance. The great Croatian athlete, more precisely a wrestler in the Greco-Roman style, was born way back in 1878 and in his career was mentioned several times as one of the strongest men of that era. 

Hero from Lika - Marijan Matijević
Hero from Lika: Marijan Matijević

An interesting part of his life is certainly that he was truly proud of his homeland and corrected anyone who mistook him for a Hungarian or an Austrian (Croatia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy) by saying that he is a Croat born at the foot of the Velebit.

Samson of Lika, Hercules of the Golden Heart, Hero from Lika or the Bear Man...

…all these are nicknames that Marijan Matijević received and justified every day during his rich career. He grew up in a poor peasant family, so life forced him very early on to find work and happiness outside the borders of his homeland. He began honing his strength at physical jobs in Lika, he worked in mines, and his life changed when he went to Germany to repair railroads.

He came to Berlin in 1897, and one day he noticed in the newspaper that the weightlifting champion, Hugo Weber, was performing in the circus. Weber claimed that he was invincible, and whoever dared to oppose him in wrestling and who defeated him, will get a large reward of 500 gold marks. Hero from Lika needed money, his compatriots urged him to challenge Weber and in the end he did just that. He arrived at the circus in a worker’s blouse, and as soon as he approached Webber, he grabbed him, lifted him above his head and threw him on the floor. Weber was fired from the circus after that defeat, and the owners, we would say today, recruited Matijević.

Throughout his career, he had a string of successes

The aforementioned match with Weber soon lifted him to the heights, and the organizers scheduled him one fight after another. In 1904, he became the world champion in Ankara, and the highest Turkish award was then awarded to him by the last Turkish sultan, Abdul Hamid II. That victory introduced him to a part of the world that had not yet known him, and tours of North and South America and China followed. Perhaps his greatest victory was achieved in 1907 against the then world champion in boxing, the Italian Primo Carner. In order to always know who he was and where he came from, every poster announcing his fight read ‘Junak iz Like’ (‘Hero from Lika’) in Croatian.

Junak iz Like
The inscription on the poster of the announced fight of Marijan Matijević
Source: Lanterna Magazin

Historical records about Marijan Matijević say that he never lost a single fight. There are also records that he easily bent iron that most fighters couldn’t even lift, broke horseshoes with his bare hands, hammered nails into oak planks, and then pulled them out with his fingernails, on his chest they smashed stones weighing up to 150 kilograms with a sledgehammer. He could easily tear up an 80-card deck with his fingers, and he stretched iron money under his teeth like chewing gum. And the photos bear witness to his achievements. He was holding a 50-liter barrel of beer with his teeth, and at the same time he was lifting another with his hands. Some might call him an entertainer rather than an athlete, but the fact is that the Hero from Lika had a string of impressive athletic triumphs.

Marijan Matijević and barrels
Marijan Matijević holding a 50-liter barrel of beer with his teeth, and lifting another with his hands
Source: Lanterna Magazin

Hero from Lika was an active athlete even in his later years, so he pushed loaded railway wagons at the station in Županja. He had his last fight just seven days before his death, and he died of severe pneumonia at the age of 74 in Zagreb and was buried on Christmas Day 1951 at the City Cemetery in Županja.

Besides being a great athlete, the Hero from Lika was also known as a man with a big heart

In 1914, Matijević married Irena Khon, with whom he started a family, and together they settled in Županja in order to be as close as possible to her family. It is known that he donated money so that Županja could get electricity, and there are also records of the fact that every time he returned to Županja from one of the competitions, he went to local shops and settled the debts of his fellow citizens. He gave almost all the money he earned to the poor, to the Red Cross, to help victims of war, sick and weak children. He kept only as much as he needed. It is particularly interesting that he financed the research and inventions of Nikola Tesla, whom he met by chance in America, where he traveled to because of another in a series of matches. There he also received a golden ribbon with the inscription ‘The strongest man in the world’.

Your CTC Team, A. M.

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