Before the Mr. Olympia, the NABBA Mr. Universe in London every September was the most prestigious contest in the world. Naturally, I had to win it and in 1970, 71, and 72 I had my chance.
After winning Mr. World in Belgium in 1969, I set my sights on the 1970 London Amateur Mr. Universe. The original Gold’s Gym that summer had a wonderful training spirit. Every morning at 10 am Arnold would arrive at my Santa Monica apartment on Bicknell Street, and we’d head for the gym. Dave Draper would usually be leaving when we arrived since he was an early trainer. Serge Jacobs from Belgium trained with us a bit that summer, and it was an atmosphere of encouragement and cooperation. Artie Zeller snapped this photo of me posing at the end of one of our workouts a few weeks before we left for London. This was the first year Arnold won Mr. Olympia from Sergio.
I believe the Olympia was a few weeks after the London Mr. Universe which Arnold won. I remember Arnold, Sergio, and Franco Columbu on stage posing for the Olympia. In the middle of it all, Arnold seemed to realize that Franco didn’t belong there (I’d beaten him in the Universe weeks before) so he pushed him off the platform. With only two remaining, Arnold and Sergio continue to pose and pose, no one could decide who was the winner, until Arnold turned to Sergio and said, “Enough already, let’s leave, the posing is over”. So, Sergio left the stage and it looked like he was giving up since Arnold continued to pose. It was enough to turn the tide in his favor.
But back to the Universe. My reputation had preceded me in London, and I was extremely well received and in tremendous shape weighing around 190. The English fans loved me. Arnold really helped me that show, he was like a coach. After observing the response, I got when I hit my vacuum pose, which I did in the middle of my posing routine, he suggested I do it as my last pose. I did and it had a dramatic effect and became my signature best pose. I won the Amateur Universe and Arnold won the Professional Universe.
It was a great thrill and I vowed to come back the next year to win the Professional Universe. I loved the sterling silver trophy and wanted another one. And what was even better, Christine made the trip to London with me, competed in the Miss Universe Bikini and won easily. Long dark hair, deep suntan, radiant smile, and elegant poise made her a standout against the pale skin English ladies. Women’s bodybuilding was quite a bit different in those days, no posing like men and women who looked like women.
Summer 1971 Christine and I were invited to tour South Africa for the summer. I was to compete in London on the way back from South Africa. In 1971 apartheid was in full swing and the atmosphere seemed very restrictive. I had 25,000 pills and capsule in my suitcases and had to give a nutritional seminar to the customs guy at the airport but made it through OK.
My biggest surprise came when they asked me what kind of reading material did, I have with me, “Any Playboy Magazines”? They weren’t allowed in South Africa. Christine found everything even more stifling and left after a month, spending 2 months traveling all over Europe with her girlfriends from Santa Monica College. Lucky her. I had exhibitions to do and a contract to fulfill, so I had to stay. There was nothing to do, so I trained practically all day. An enthusiastic young bodybuilder housed me, and we went to the 600 square foot gym six days a week, twice a day, each session lasting 3 to 4 hours. I got into incredible shape. Everyone there thought I’d win.
Meeting Christine in London we checked into our hotel. Having trained for 3 months at high altitude — Johannesburg is 7000-foot altitude, I felt powerful and energized at sea level. Nevertheless, I rested for the competition while Christine visited museums, she was used to my pre contest energy conservation program. Then came the competition.
I easily won the “short class” , there was no real competition. In the tall class, however, was Sergio Oliva, Dave Draper, Reg Park, and Bill Pearl. Pearl was the favorite and attracted so much attention that when it came time for the class winners to be compared, it never happened. I was really looking forward and pumped up ready to pose against him. When I asked Oscar Heidenstam the organizer about this after the show, he said “We forgot”.
I was extremely impressed at how Bill Pearl acted like the winner the entire judging, what presence he had. I learned a good lesson that year and vowed to take the title in 1972. After the competition, Christine and I flew to Belfast, Ireland for a posing exhibition. We were a little nervous on the plane since Bernadette Devlin, the IRA activist was on the plane. We arrived in Belfast to see tanks in the streets. Arnold gave an exhibition that night too, weighing 245 in muscular condition. That year it was rumored that he would compete against Pearl in the Universe if Bill would compete against Arnold in the Mr. Olympia. It never happened. But what did occur was a bomb scare at our hotel. Arnold and I went out to eat with the show organizer while Christine stayed at the hotel, she didn’t feel like going out. When we returned everyone was outside in their bathrobes waiting for the bomb squad to give the OK. A scary time.
So, it was back to the US for another year of teaching and when school let out a summer of hard training began. Again, I trained with Arnold, me for the Universe and he for the Olympia which was to be held in Essen Germany the same weekend. We trained hard and heavy. Dave Draper would usually stagger into the gym and work one body-part with me and then disappear. Remember one workout with him where we did shoulders: 5 sets of seated dumbbell press working up to 90-pound dumbbells, followed immediately by upright row with a cable, then 45-pound dumbbell side laterals. 15 sets with heavy weight and little rest.
Training legs with Arnold, 5 weeks before the contest we worked up to 405 in the full squat. He did 8 reps, and I did 10. The next day my lower back went into spasm and I couldn’t bend forward for a week. Arnold dislocated his knee in South Africa giving a posing exhibition and had it operated on when he returned. All from heavy squatting. Wish I had a Leg Blaster in those days.
I bulked up to 208 pounds and felt like I was in good shape for 5 weeks before the contest until I saw Christine photos. I was big and smooth. Had a lot of work to do with a bad lower back injury as well, but with diet and aerobics I dropped about 12 pounds.
On the plane trip to London, I wore a rubber waist band to keep my low back warm, it still hurt a bit, but I came in good enough shape. I learned how stupid it was to bulk up for a contest that year. I was in great condition, bigger than the two previous years, especially in the thighs, but I was not quite as muscular as in 1971. The judges liked my look, and I won the overall Professional Mr. Universe title against and Dennis Tinnerino and Boyer Coe .
Except for my earlier competitive days when I amassed a collection of 150 trophies, I’m not a collector of every bodybuilding trophy I’ve ever won. But I did want another London Mr. Universe trophy. Not overly large, the muscle figure was fashioned of sterling silver atop a black hardwood base. A thing of beauty, I wanted another one. But Bill Pearl was the last person to win one of these the year before. 1972 was the first-year contest organizers decided to give the typical larger “junk” trophy — don’t know if they couldn’t afford the art object they’d always given or if they wanted a prop that looked bigger in photos. I was disappointed and ended up giving them back the substitute trophy after removing the name plate as proof. The day after the competition we left for Essen, Germany where the 1972 Mr. Olympia was being held.
But that’s another story.