The Daredevils of Bodybuilding - Revealing the Treasured Icons

Daredevils of Bodybuilding

Looking Back Helps to Look Forward

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Every avenue of human endeavor has its risk-takers - men and women who, when circumstance or mood dictates, defy the accepted norm. They would rather march with head held high to the beat of a different drummer than conform out of weakness to a convention they believe to be wrong.

Bodybuilding, with ego as its driving force and physical power its primary expression, is not without its own treasured icons. Here are a few such individualists and the memorable moments that bestowed that distinction. We call them "The Daredevils of Bodybuilding."


The story goes that during the prejudging of the 1971 NABBA Universe in London the head judge asked Bill to show his right side to the panel. While all the other competitors were facing to the left, genial Bill stood facing the judges. When the judge repeated his request to turn to the side, Pearl responded: "Don't be difficult. Don't make it difficult." Such audacity!

Having won the amateur Universe in 1953 and the professional Universe in 1961 and 1967, Pearl was seeking his third pro Universe title at age 41. He had astonished the bodybuilding world by announcing his intention early in 1970 when he had been out of competition over two years, daring to challenge Arnold, Park, Zane, Oliva, and all other contenders.

On the day of the competition Pearl boldly declined the traditional pump-up before judging. He wasn't about to let a deflating pump destroy his confidence onstage. With his refusal to accede to the judge's request, one might have thought he jeopardized his chance in the contest. Yet at the end of the day Pearl stood once again victorious as the 1971 professional Mr.Universe. He had dared and won!


After winning the 1951 amateur NABBA Universe, Park dared to challenge America's leading bodybuilding entrepreneur through his Reg Park Journal. A 1955 editorial demanded, "Get off my back, Weider!" Apparently Joe Weider wanted to involve Reg in a partnership that would see him as the UK representative for Weider products. Park strongly rejected his advances, preferring to pursue a business with his father.

The two powerful bodybuilding icons had had a previous agreement, the terms of which Weider exceeded by continuing to use Park's pictures in his magazines. Moreover, Weider added insult to injury by describing Park as a Weider "pupil" instead of simply a Weider booster. For nearly two decades this situation angered Reg until eventually the two men agreed to an uneasy truce.

Reg continually challenged photographers, for he strongly disliked being photographed. While staying as a guest at physical culturist Doc Tilney's Miami home (circa 1950) with famed photographer Russ Warner, he stymied Warner's efforts by refusing to pose until the final day of their visit. Years later Warner recalled: "Park was probably the most difficult man to photograph. He criticized every picture I took!"

Never a big fan of steroids, Reg risked disfavor with the mainline bodybuilding establishment by sharply criticizing their users. "I compare the guys who take them with fellows who rob banks!" he boldly declared.

Despite his sometimes audacious behavior Reg Park remains a sterling icon of our sport. He won three Universe titles - amateur in 1951 and professional in 1958 and 1965 - in additional to countless appearances in magazines worldwide. Clearly he who dared much also achieved much. Even Arnold once admitted, "Reg was my idol."


Reeves's training sometimes ran counter to the traditional wisdom of his day. He was known to down-size a muscle - or simply neglect training it - if it didn't complement adjacent muscles. He took long layoffs from the weights in order to recharge. He worked at menial jobs to get where he wanted to go. Yet his physique was so far ahead of his time that he became a star, not just of bodybuilding, but of the silver screen as well. His wide shoulders and narrow waist were universally admired.

Russ Warner told of a time he took 150 pictures of Reeves, but Steve said they weren't good enough. "He stormed into my Oakland studio, ranted about the published pictures doing him an injustice, and demanded the negatives. He tore up all but 16 of them." Just goes to show even the Greek god could lose his cool.


The original Mr. Olympia once boldly chose to purposely lose all his hard-earned size in an effort to achieve oneness with his inner self. Scott related: "Shortly after retiring from competition I reduced my workout, and my bodyweight dropped to 195. Believing my training was to satisfy a weak ego, I finally determined I must lose all my size in order to see if I could like myself for the person I was underneath the muscles. After a year of not training, my weight had fallen to 180 pounds. Surprisingly I still liked myself." Always an experimenter, Larry was not afraid to utilize ordinary gym equipment in unconventional ways. Instead of using the EZ-curl bar for biceps curls, he gripped it with thumbs resting on the uppermost curve to hammer out reverse curls. Presto! Popeye forearms. He worked his hamstrings on the hack-squat machine. He managed to direct blood flow into minor muscles to improve the pump in neglected areas. By daring to use new, experimental techniques, he established his reputation as a bodybuilding innovator.


This three-time Mr. Olympia (1967, 1968,1969) has led a life of genuine risks - from dramatically escaping the political intrigue of his native Cuba to his years as a Chicago police officer - but an incident that occurred at the 1971 NABBA Universe in London may help explain why he never did win the Universe. While he was pumping up before the contest, a man and boy approached him for pictures and an autograph. The normally good-natured Sergio dismissed them abruptly with a grumble and a humph. Only later did he learn this fragile gentleman was one of the judges. Oops! Sergio blew it. Still he remains one of the most loved Mr. Olympia's to this day.


Arnold has always played his cards right, even when he took risks to gain the upper hand. Take the time he tricked Sergio Oliva into leaving the Olympia stage under the pretext of a general exit by competitors. Sergio was at the end of the line where he unwittingly complied with Arnold's direction to lead the exit. This ruse left Arnold onstage alone before a cheering audience, who had the impression Sergio had thrown in the towel. Of course, Arnold won the 1970 Olympia, the first of his seven victories at the big O.

In 1972, when the Olympia was held in Essen, Germany, the crafty Arnold suggested the prejudging take place in a large room that happened to be paneled in dark wood. Thus, a tanned (yet nonetheless white) Arnold stood out in comparison to his black-skinned opponent, Sergio, who tended to blend in with the dark walls. Another calculated gamble paid off. Arnold did more than fire up his muscle cells to achieve his phenomenal success. He took chances too.


The distinction of being our shortest Mr. Olympia ever belongs to 1976 and 1981 champ Franco Columbu. Don't let his 5'3" stature fool you, though, for he was clearly no pushover. From Italy to the US, and through careers as diverse as bricklayer and chiropractor, this Sardinian Samson had all the credentials of a daredevil. He trained rapidly like a powerlifter to maximize his favorable insertions and the leverage his compact form provided.

Legend says Franco once challenged three burly barmen at one time simply because they had the nerve to disparage his strength. (They backed down, and Franco proved his point.) He formerly took chances with his precontest diet, gobbling ice cream and fruit pies at the same training table as Roger Stewart. Later in his competitive career he was more careful with his diet. Aside from his controversial 1981 Olympia victory Franco Columbu is remembered as one of bodybuilding's best-loved champions.


Zane made a science of body-building. His aesthetic and symmetrical physique stood out sharply in comparison with mass monsters before and since. He made better use of his small bone structure and ectomorphic body-type than perhaps anyone else in the world. He went against the grain of conventional training and showed the courage of his convictions. "Bodybuilding isn't just training or nutrition or mental attitude or how much sleep you get, but it is all of that," he declared.

The three-time Mr. Olympia (1977,1978, 1979) was infinitely adaptable. While his Olympia opponents were slavishly doing set after set, he dared to ease up in midstream. He said: "I know how to train my body. If I panic about competition, I might overtrain. I do exactly what I have to do, nothing more." Not one bodybuilder in a thousand would have dared as much.


Gironda was bodybuilding's truest magician. Opinionated, iconoclastic, controversial, he nonetheless talked the talk and walked the walk. Known to MuscleMag readers as the Iron Guru, he may have been, in his way, the greatest daredevil of them all. He dared to compete in the Universe at 40-plus and displayed crisper definition than that of most 20-year-olds. In fact, his definition set the standard by which contests are still judged.

His views on specific exercises angered many in the bodybuilding community. He regularly voiced his disapproval of squats and bench presses, basic mainstays of gyms worldwide. He claimed they built, respectively, a fat rump and effeminate pecs. For quads he recommended hacks, Roman chairs and sissy squats. For the pecs he showed us in his own physique the results of his personal brand of dips. He experimented - and then some - with sets of one rep to a thousand. He criticized the practice of one-arm movements as a waste of time, but like every other technique, never totally discounted it for rare cases.

Vince's dietary pronouncements were legendary. He lived basically on meat, eggs and water for months at a time. His caustic but sincere witticisms live on in his wise teachings. Was he the last of the great risk-takers? Not likely. The advent of this millennium has spawned a whole new breed of adventurers who would risk their very lives for mass and elusive bodybuilding glory. They will be the new daredevils of bodybuilding.

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