Written by Peter McGough
05 November 2017

 Mike Mentzer

The Untold Story of the Journey to his Final Days



Prologue: Mike Mentzer died 13 years ago this month on June 10, 2001, aged 49. In a career that spanned over three decades, he was one of bodybuilding’s most prominent, inspirational and controversial figures. His theories and writings continue to be a source for debate, and his books and articles remain popular (see www.mikementzer.com). Mike Mentzer was a complex and gifted man who left an indelible mark on the bodybuilding landscape. His career and 5th place at the 1980 Mr. Olympia, which prompted his retirement, is well documented. In this timely tribute to Mike we review his final days and next week offer an appraisal of his place in the bodybuilding firmament.


 It was early May of 2001, when out of the blue I received a phone call in FLEX’s LA office from Mike Mentzer. We hadn’t spoken for over five years. Before he left FLEX in early 1996 we had what seemed a productive and rewarding friendship. Soon after in another magazine he took occasional pot shots at me. In one article he said I had a “fanny fetish”. Of all the subject matter we ever discussed fannies were never even bottom of the list butt I put it behind me. Anyway in that May 2001 conversation Mike acted like the previous five years had never happened and that we were continuing as if we had spoken a week earlier. He also made similar calls to Joe Weider and photographer Chris Lund, with whom he had worked on books and other projects. They also had the same time-lapse conversation with him, and he even came up to the office and had lunch with the Master Blaster

 In enthusiastic tones Mike told me he looked forward to celebrating his 50th birthday in November. He was destined not to make it. Currently he was throwing himself full tilt into producing a DVD and a new book.

 And yet …..

 And yet, as I listened to Mike’s effusive language, the phrase “productive genius” kept on surfacing in my mind.


 To gain further insight into Mike’s 2001 death, it is necessary to turn the clock back 21 years.

 Entering his first Olympia in his rookie year of 1979 the heavily fancied Mike lost out to a Frank Zane whom he outweighed by some 30 pounds. Digesting that loss, Mike planned to leave no stone unturned in his onslaught for the 1980 Olympia crown. "If they want more definition, I'll give 'em more definition," he vowed. Mentally, he went into a different gear and battened down the hatches earlier and more securely than for any other competition. He started dieting in February for the October contest. Previously, he had started dieting 12 weeks out. "I was consumed 24 hours a day by the thought: What can I do today in terms of training, diet, aerobics and motivation to improve myself? Everything I did was marshaled into the spirit of improvement."

 As 1980 unfolded, however, Mike had no inkling that his competitive career was hurtling toward its conclusion. In 1979, he had started taking amphetamines: "Not for the purpose of getting high - that was the furthest thing from my mind. I was taking them as ergogenic aids, to facilitate my hectic lifestyle. It made me feel like a productive genius."

 A typical excerpt from Mike's diary during that period reads as follows.

 4 AM: woke up and read philosophy for two hours

 7 AM: worked out

 9 AM: wrote article

 2 PM: rode bike for 14 miles

 4 PM: napped

 6 PM: ran for four miles

 8 PM: practiced posing

 9 PM: studied philosophy and dealt with mail-order administration

 11 PM: retired to bed

 "I was in love with being conscious - amphetamines have that effect on a lot of people. I'd read the literature on amphetamines and had never heard of any long-term physical damage, but I did know that it could possibly result in acute episodes of psychosis. I saw no problem for me because I was convinced I was focused enough and that my use was channeled in a positive direction.” [Mike had taken a three year course, commencing in 1974, at the University of Mayland, with the eventual goal of being a psychiatrist , but he dropped out in 1977 disillusioned with the subject.)

 "I didn't think there was anything wrong in taking stimulants to make me work as hard as I was. A lot of people drink coffee and smoke cigarettes to stay stimulated and be productive. I was a productive genius, but I had lost sight of the fact that the body and the mind have limitations."

 The warning signs were there. Twice during his prep Mike awoke to find himself, "at death's door." He was so fatigued that he couldn't even raise his arms, and had to stay in bed for the remainder of the day. But the next morning, he was back to "being a productive genius."

 Two days before the 1980 Mr. Olympia being staged in Sydney, Australia, Mike had that same "death's door feeling," which again confined him to bed for a whole day. By the morning of the contest he had recovered. He was 225 pounds, “And more cut than I'd ever been. "I looked my best, but I didn't feel at my best. It just didn't feel like a normal contest; no one was being their usual self. There was a strain and tension in the air all the way through."

 Even though he felt he was at his best and had no knowledge of the controversy to come, Mike told me in 1993 that he had made up his mind that the 1980 Mr. Olympia would be his last contest: “Trying to be the best built man in the world demands total seriousness, but in essence the seriousness and the ambition involved is a little silly.”


To find out what went down at the 1980 Mr. Olympia including the near fist fight between Mentzer and Schwarzenegger click on http://www.musculardevelopment.com/team-md-blogs/the-mcgough-report/11982-mentzer-vs-arnie.html#.U47ZXCh93oD


 In the wake of his fifth place finish at 1980 Mr. Olympia contest, Mike Mentzer's career began to fragment. In his seminars, he was openly contemptuous of the Sydney affair; a posture that he believes led to his being unofficially blacklisted by the IFBB, making promoters reluctant to book him. He left Weider publications, and by 1982, his annual income "Had gone from $200,000 a year to zero."

 In 1983, ace inventor and entrepreneur Arthur Jones recruited Mike and brother Ray (1979 Mr. America) to work with him on research projects he was undertaking at his Nautilus headquarters in Deland, Florida. However, things didn't progress the way Mike had hoped, and after six months, he and Jones severed their business relationship. Joe Weider rehired Mike in the fall of that year, but after six months, Mentzer left to assume the editorship of Workout, a newly launched magazine.

 "Editing Workout was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done," Mike claims. "It lasted 18 months, and every day of that period I had the same commitment and ambition I'd had in preparing for the 1980 Mr. Olympia. I wanted the magazine to be the absolute best I could make it, and I worked harder than I'd worked in my entire life. Sometimes I'd stay awake for two or three days at a time to meet dead lines. I was using a lot of amphetamines to make me productive.

 "The magazine was doing fairly well, when, just as it started to turn a profit, the financial people - for whatever reason - pulled the plug on the whole thing and we ceased operation. It was a crushing blow. I'd put 110% into the enterprise and it hadn't worked out."

 The folding of Workout in 1985 was just the first prong of a triple emotional whammy that was delivered to Mike. That same year his father - whom he idolized - died. Mentzer was also dealing with the fallout caused by the ending of his near decade relationship with Cathy Gelfo.

 "I was still using amphetamines, and that use, in association with the series of traumas, did something to my mind that I'm fairly clear about today, although these things are very complex. The combination of being emotionally distraught, which can cause an individual to lose conceptual control, exacerbated by my use of amphetamines did something to my emotional core that led me to perform irrational acts that I thought were rational. I wasn’t in control of my mind although I thought he was.”

 For five years Mike did crazy things and was regularly hospitalized. As Mike wrestled with his demons, the bodybuilding community, to its discredit, took a detached stance toward his circumstances. There were two notable, and noble, exceptions: ex-girlfriend Julie McNew and John Little, senior writer for FLEX.

 "Julie, even though our relationship had ended, was very supportive, emotionally and financially, over that whole five-year period," Mike states. "Only now can I appreciate her friendship.

 "John Little was one of the few who didn't approach me on the ignorant assumption that I was a 'loony' or a 'crazy.' John understands quite a bit about the power of ideas and the way they work in the mind. He would talk with me at length, and I remember those conversations with fondness, which causes me to think fondly of John Little. He never wrote me off.”

 In January 1990 a hospitalized Mike experienced a Eureka moment."I'd exhausted all avenues of thought on my predicament, and realized I was wrong. It was me that was out of control, not everybody and everything else. I knew I had to wake up to that fact or my life would be over. As soon as that realization hit, I was appalled at how much time I had wasted. It was time to move on. It was time to 'Go back to what you know, Mike Mentzer!'"

 Mike Mentzer went back to what he knew with a vengeance. Almost miraculously, within a few days, he was establishing his personal-training business at Gold's Gym, Venice. His progress over the next few years was onward and upward.

 And yet …..

 And yet, there were still occasions when the demons visited. One day in late 1994 John Little rushed to my desk and told me he had just received a call from Mike, saying he was in Las Vegas and about to fly to the moon to meet with Bill Clinton and discuss the world’s problems. And Mike wasn’t joking. To his credit John visited Mike and the psychotic episode was soon over.

 TOWARD JUNE 10, 2001

 As I listened during that fateful May 2001 phone call I couldn’t help but think the effusive fast-talking Mike was in the middle of a “productive genius” phase.

 And indeed there were warning signs about his health. In spring of that year a blood clot broke loose from his leg and went to his lung. While hospitalized it was discovered that he had experienced two silent heart attacks, wherein the victim is unaware there’s a problem. Despite this Mike kept up a relentless pace in productive genius style and smoked heavily.

 Since 1999 Mike’s younger brother, by 21 months, Ray had been receiving kidney dialysis and was awaiting a transplant. Mike offered to be a donor to his sibling who had won the 1979 Mr. America, before it was discovered that he had serious heart problems, which precluded him from being a candidate. Nevertheless, Mike moved in with Ray so that he could look after his brother better.

 On Saturday June 9, 2001 after a long day he wrapped filming of the DVD he so wanted to finish. Later that night at the brothers’ apartment, despite Ray telling him he should turn in, Mike continued to work on the DVD’s script. Ray went to bed. The next morning he discovered Mike dead in bed, apparently of a heart attack. The younger Mentzer was devastated as he went about making funeral arrangements. On the morning of Tuesday, June 12, Joanne Sharkey (General Manager of Mike’s business but who was in essence like an older protective sister to the brothers) received a call from Ray’s dialysis unit that he hadn’t turned up for his appointment. Almost unbelievably on going to the apartment Joanne found Ray had passed away. It’s hard not to surmise that in his frail state of health (in the previous few months he had been rushed to the local emergency room several times) the death of his beloved brother was just too much to bear. The two brothers dying within 48 hours of each other shocked the bodybuilding world. Mike was 49 and Ray was 47. 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?

 For the answer to that question stay tuned for next week’s story.