Written by Peter McGough
08 November 2017

 Why Mike Mentzer Matters

The Unique Legacy of a Bodybuilding Original



Last week’s story about Mike Mentzer (see http://forums.musculardevelopment.com/showthread.php/144715-Mike-Mentzer-The-Untold-Story-of-the-Journey-to-his-Final-Days) ended with the question “It seemed the curtain had come crashing down in tragic Shakespearian style on Mike Mentzer’s last act and his name would fade into just a footnote on 20th century bodybuilding ….. or would it?” The following represents a very personal answer concerning the man who died, aged 49, 13 years ago on June 10, 2001.


 I watched Mike Mentzer's star rise in the '70s and later came to know him a little. When I came to California in 1992 the guy I most wanted to meet was Mike Mentzer. Eventually I spent many hours with him talking about things bodybuilding and things not bodybuilding.

 In my experiences with Mike he was always more amiable and humorous in person than how he came across in his writings, where he tended to be belligerent and hectoring. His text would accuse you of just about being an imbecile if you didn’t agree with him. It was an unfortunate trait, insomuch as it put others with differing views straight into combative mode. But the seed of his no-prisoners-taken delivery was his passion and the reality that he had truly thought out what he was writing to the nth degree. And if he took a verbal swing at you once in a while, well, what the heck! -- as long as he spelled your name right.

 He was also one of the most honest people I ever met -- particularly in discussing the mental gremlins that affected him. I did a major feature on him back in 1994, which required extensive interviews with him, during which he told me of the crazy things he did when he was going through his pre-1990 psychotic phases. Instead of detailing them as he related them I chose to simply write, “Stories began to proliferate in the bodybuilding world of a crazed Mike Mentzer indulging in increasingly bizarre behavior: running naked through the streets; directing traffic; prophesying the end of the world; being arrested by the police numerous times; waiting for aliens to land. Some of these stories are true, some are not.”

 I left out some of the things he actually told me had happened and upon publication he asked me why I had omitted them. I answered that I didn’t want to unduly embarrass him. He thanked me for my consideration, but laughed, "I've been through so much that if you tried to embarrass me, you couldn't do it! If I had a problem seeing those things in print, I wouldn’t have told you in the first place." I found it impossible not to like him.

 Others from afar seem openly critical of some of Mike’s decisions and lifestyle choices. He wasn’t perfect – nobody is. I honestly think that while his physical genetics were extraordinary, it was his inherent mental makeup that consigned him to much trauma in his life and a tragic end. For my part I learned long ago not to judge anyone unless you had walked in their shoes.


 As for the much promoted belief that the 1980 Mr. Olympia destroyed him and caused him to fulminate on its abomination for the rest of his life, Mike refuted that out of hand. In 1994 he told me, "A couple of days before the 1980 Olympia, before I even knew Arnold was entering, I had decided it would be my last competition. The Olympia ceased to be relevant long ago. There was a time when I never thought I could say such a thing. I was obsessed by being a bodybuilder, obsessed by the thought of being Mr. Olympia. And even though, during those times, I never completely neglected my mind, if I could go back, I'd reverse the priority: The development of my body would be secondary to developing my intellect."

 He continued, "I rarely think about the 1980 contest. I'm bored with it. I mean, 14 years after the event, how much more can I say?" He paused, and then smiled. "Enough time has elapsed to allow me to look back and giggle at the exertions I went through in my obsession of wanting to be compared with others – of the need to be the best built man in the world. I now see myself, as I think we all should, as an individual."

 Interestingly enough, Joanne Sharkey, Mike’s business manager, who still oversees his website (mikementzer.com) confirmed that Arnold Schwarzenegger had a year before Mike’s death called Mike to enquire about Ray Mentzer’s health problems, and had offered assistance. None was required, but the pair buried their differences. Indeed, John Balik, Ironman publisher, reports that shortly before his death, Mike referred to his former nemesis as "The best bodybuilder who ever lived."


 In his varying roles of competitor, trainer and author Mike Mentzer strode like a colossus across the bodybuilding firmament, and even in death he continues to influence a legion of followers and ignite passionate debate. It’s pretty remarkable considering that his best placing at the Mr. Olympia was second in 1979, and that his pro career lasted just two seasons--1979 and 1980.Among retired bodybuilders from that pre-1980 era, only Arnold Schwarzenegger attracts more present-day comment.

 Mike wrote more articles (and he did write them, they were not ghosted) than any other top class competitor or even most bodybuilding writers. He was a learned man with a vast vocabulary, but unlike some who exercise such verbiage, he wasn't showing off: it just came naturally to him. Likewise he had a grand, almost olde-worlde style of phrasing speech, which combined with his signature moustache lent a Corinthian, almost Victorian, aspect to his persona.

 I once told him that reading his articles when they first began to appear in MUSCLE BUILDER/POWER (the forerunner of MUSCLE & FITNESS and FLEX) during the late '70s was like a breath of fresh air. I added, "But I bet you've heard that a million times before?" He gave a wry smile as he responded, in that clipped almost Rhett Butlerish accent, "Yes! But I sure can stand hearing it again."

 Not everyone agreed with the extremes of his Heavy Duty training principles, but what cannot be denied is that Mike Mentzer made a major impact on the sport as a competitor and a trainer. Even though he did not win the Mr. Olympia title, he still, to me, had one of the most powerful, indeed Herculean, physiques of all time. His training philosophy offered solutions for its adherents. If something works, what more can you ask? Even for those who thought otherwise, Mentzer's stridence alone forced the examination of the science and logic of different training systems. Nobody else had that “Now, think about it, why exactly are you doing that?” influence on the masses. His ultimate contribution was that more than any other authority he, directly or indirectly, made us all think about what we were doing and why. And as his thriving business (mikementzer.com), and ubiquitous presence on web boards proves, he is, 13 years after his death, still doing it.