Written by Ron Harris
05 October 2016


Making Bodybuilding Great Again

The Experts Weigh In



Numerous veteran fans and athletes feel that the “glory days” of bodybuilding were anywhere from the 1960s to the early 2000s. It’s a worn cliché in just about any sport to insist that the game was purer and more exciting in past eras. But you could also argue that bodybuilding has changed and evolved to keep up with newer demands. In addition to the open class, we now have both the 212 division for the lighter men and the brand-new Classic Physique division to showcase superior aesthetics over raw bulk. This year’s Mr. Olympia marked the most exciting comeback in the 51-year history of the event, with the return of IFBB Hall of Fame star Kevin Levrone, at age 51. And as far as new blood, there is a whole new generation of 20-something champions on the rise, including Dallas McCarver, Justin Compton and Cody Montgomery. But still, many older fans and athletes miss the “magic” that they feel the sport used to hold. So we gathered a diverse group and asked them to be specific. What was better about the sport before? How can it regain that magic and enthusiasm? Here’s what they had to say.


What do you miss about the “old days” of the sport? What was better back then, in your opinion?


Lee Haney

I caught the tail end of what I feel was a very special age. Tom Platz was still competing. Frank Zane was there, and so were Robby Robinson, Bertil Fox, Albert Beckles, Samir Bannout, Jusup Wilkosz and Mohamed Makkawy. I caught a piece of that, which made it magical for me. Back in 1983 I was like the baby of the bunch at only 23 years old, which made it very special for me. We enjoyed the Grand Prix shows, going from one country to the next. It was so much fun, and we were like a family. Oscar State IFBB General Secretary was still around. The whole aura was special. I can’t compare it to now. I can only talk about my experience. Then myself, Mike Christian, Rich Gaspari and Lee Labrada helped usher in a new era. We were in competition with each other, but at the same time we respected one another. What we were trying to accomplish with our physiques, and what we wanted to communicate, was all good. It was all positive and healthy. It was just a magical time I will always treasure.


Rich Gaspari

I miss the camaraderie we had back when we competed. I remember getting ready for the Olympia in Venice Beach, California where all the top-10 guys were training in the Gold’s Gym. We do not see that today, with all the top guys training everywhere around the world and talking smack online.


Lee Labrada

What’s missing today is the emphasis on the classic physique. We’ve lost our way in the pursuit of extreme muscle size, at the expense of balance and proportion. Small waists have been replaced by 36” waistlines and potbellies. The classic V is long gone, gradually replaced by thick, squatty physiques over the last 20 years.


Ronnie Coleman

For the most part, I miss the camaraderie that we all had. Mostly, we got that because we used to do so many shows overseas together. We were all onstage to beat the other guy, but offstage we would help each other out. In fact, Flex Wheeler helped me win my first pro show in 1995. He was having a great season. We were in Paris to do another show, and I went to his hotel room to ask him some advice. Not only did he answer every question I had, but he also gave me some more information that I never even knew to ask about. As a result of what he told me, I was able to win my first contest soon after, the Canada Pro Cup. It’s not like that with the guys today. We had more fun. We would train together on the road, eat together and share food if someone needed it. We were like brothers.


Shawn Ray

What I miss about the old days of this sport is the depth of competition and the camaraderie of the athletes. In the old days, we had a lineup of bodybuilders who were superstars, even though they were placing 10th in the Mr. Olympia! Everyone who qualified was revered for simply making it there. Now we have athletes in the contest no one has ever heard of, and even then, only the top six guys are the focus of the event. Sometimes the promotion even looks like it’s only a two-man contest. That would have been unheard of back in the day, with so many superstars being within striking distance of the title on any given day.

In the ‘90s, most every top athlete had the respect of his peers, because we all understood how hard it was to gain pro status and eventually qualify for the Mr. Olympia. That made us respect each other from afar, and even more on contest day. Athletes back then communicated by phone and in person. We read each other’s articles and studied their photos to the degree that we knew whose body parts were whose, without even seeing their faces. There was much more admiration, too, because we knew we were elite athletes. In other words, we were the exception, not the norm. We stood out in a crowd, and people lined up for our autographs because of our accomplishments, with the help of the magazines promoting us. That made us celebrities who people could only dream of one day seeing in person, and the fans could only relate to through our interviews.

It was much better back then, because I believe we appreciated being pro bodybuilders more. There were so few of us, and we were spread out all over the United States and the world. We ranged from California, to England’s Dorian Yates, Canada had Jurassic Paul Dillett, Holland had the Flexing Dutchman, Berry de Mey, all the way to Germany’s Andreas Münzer. We had international appeal and global respect in all the gyms of the world, and fans who loved us. I feel the luster is gone these days, because of the accessibility to the pros, of which are too many and who are not as good as in days past.


Kevin Levrone

What I miss the most are the incredible, majestic posing routines we used to see from men like Lee Labrada, Shawn, Lee Haney and even Flex Wheeler. They used to put the time and effort into selecting the perfect music to showcase their physiques, and then work and practice to make routines that had you in awe. I still remember Phil Hill’s routine to “Phantom of the Opera.” It sent chills down your spine. I also miss the mystery that the sport and its athletes used to have. The fans want daily updates now about how the guys are looking, training and just every little detail of their daily lives. It takes the excitement out of the sport when you have that level of access.


Flex Wheeler

I don’t miss anything. I’m over it. The ‘90s were great, but I don’t dwell on the past or live in it. I don’t think about coming back, I don’t worry about how much weight I lift or what I look like now compared to then. When I see pictures and videos of that Flex, I hardly recognize the person.


Jose Raymond

Where do I begin? I miss the days when only people with a lot of education and experience were looked to for advice. Now, everyone is an expert. A person can do one contest, or read a few articles, and declare him or herself an expert and start charging to coach people. The sport itself used to be more special and exciting. Being a pro meant something, and carried a very real prestige. It was very difficult to become a pro. Now, everyone and their mother is a pro. There are so many divisions aside from bodybuilding, and that’s watered down the quality of the pro lineups.

Another thing I loved about the old days was how the pros would compete in a bunch of shows beyond the Arnold and the Olympia. You could go to a contest like the Ironman Pro or the Night of Champions and see Kevin, Shawn, Flex, Nasser, Chris Cormier, Vince Taylor and Lee Priest. A lot of the shows had most of the top men from the Olympia in them. Now, the guys are scared to compete more than a couple of times a year, and they are also afraid to compete if there’s another guy doing the show they feel they can’t beat. They will hear that Dexter is doing a certain show, and so for that reason they avoid it. The guys in the old days weren’t afraid to stand next to anyone. Then again, they were all so damn good because only the elite made it to the pro ranks, so they didn’t have to be.

I also miss the mystique that the pros had back then. The fans had a ton of respect for them. Now, you see kids bashing and insulting the pros online and in social media, often saying things to them they would never have the balls to say to their face. We didn’t have that level of access to the stars in the old days, and I think that was actually much better.


Peter McGough

As a dyed-in-the-wool print guy, the thing I miss most is the magazines being the main source of information and news. You’d pick up a magazine and get a full report of the big contests, all the behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt, as well as the onstage action. You’d get it all in one complete and compact package. Now with the Internet, fans can follow the action in real time and so by the end of the day, they think they know the whole story, but they don’t. And because the Internet is so immediate, the magazines don’t do contest reports anymore because their story will be published six weeks or more after the event. Readers think it’s old news, and they know what happened anyway. In my humble opinion, the proliferation of social media outlets makes the modern-day fan think they’re well informed, but they are not learning as much as ‘90s fans did because they are not receiving all the information in a one-stop, consolidated package. Of course, I could just be an old fart.


Ron Harris

Like Jose and Shawn, I miss the mystique the sport used to have before the Internet. Bodybuilding was once like a secret club with its own slang, clothing and gathering places. I was fortunate enough to live in the LA area from 1991 to 2000, when Venice Beach was still The Mecca. Within a one-mile radius, you had Gold’s Gym Venice, Joe Gold’s World Gym, the Firehouse restaurant, the Venice Beach boardwalk and the Muscle Beach outdoor gym, the Marina Pacific Hotel and various retail shops like Max Muscle, Hot Skins and Body Alive that catered to bodybuilders, selling workout gear (including all manner of striped spandex tights and shorts, baggy pants and billowing sweatshirts that made every guy look like he weighed 250 pounds). You could walk into Gold’s Gym and see stars like Flex Wheeler, Chris Cormier, Gary Strydom, Mike Christian, Mike Matarazzo, Mike Quinn, Aaron Baker, Lou Ferrigno or many others working out.

The magazines were our lifeline to the sport and its athletes, and the TV show I worked on, ESPN’s “American Muscle,” featured athlete profiles, workouts, contest coverage and even a cooking segment. You could also watch event specials on television of the Mr. and Ms. Olympia, the Arnold Classic, the USA and the NPC Nationals. Speaking of contests, until Fitness came along, contests were purely for men’s and women’s bodybuilding— and they were packed with competitors and fans! Bodybuilders aspired to be champions, because that was the only way magazines would feature them and they would ever get any recognition or publicity. Now, anyone who’s been training for a few months can promote themselves all over Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. The pros are scattered to the four winds now, and hardcore bodybuilding is a tiny cult compared to the legions of Physique guys and Bikini girls. I’m just grateful I was able to enjoy the end of that golden era in the best place to be part of it.