We are very saddened by the passing of one of the most iconic pillars of the Golden Era Franco Columbu today, August 30th 2019.
He was much more than just a two-time Mr. Olympia and Arnold’s sidekick, in this piece we commemorate the Sardinian Strongman’s life, achievements, and history.
Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t the only unknown European to make it big in Golden Era bodybuilding in the late 1960 and early ‘70s. Born on August 7, 1941 in Sardinia, a small island off the coast of Italy, Franco Columbu was a strength prodigy at an early age.
At a height of 5’5” and weighing 185 lb, Columbu was pound-for-pound one of the strongest men in the world. For example, he could perform a 780 lb deadlift. His strength feats earned him the nickname “Sardinian Strongman”.
In the mid-1960s, Franco traveled throughout Europe performing in weightlifting and bodybuilding competitions. Over the years, he earned Powerlifting Champion titles in Europe, Italy, and Germany.
Columbu was also an amateur boxing champion in Italy, and used boxing workouts as a cardio strategy during his competitive bodybuilding days. He didn’t back down from any challenge, once saying: “Winners do what they fear”.
Back in the Golden Era, strength components were common in bodybuilding competitions. At one of those competitions, Columbu met Arnold Schwarzenegger in Germany in 1965, and the moment would spark a life-long friendship.
During the height of the Golden Era, photos of Franco & his tall friend Arnold in Muscle Beach or Gold’s Gym would become some of the most famous & iconic captured moments in the history of the sport.
Arriving in America
When publishing magnate Joe Weider brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to Los Angeles, the Austrian bodybuilder convinced his Sardinian friend to join him.
Columbu arrived in America in 1969, and Weider helped him and Arnold create a bricklaying and patio business called European Brick Works. They were good at building outdoor patios, but they proved much better at building their bodies.
Even in 1969 Columbu was considered one of the strongest men in the world. Golden Era veterans like Bill Pearl marveled at the smaller man’s ability to lift huge amounts of weight. Columbu held powerlifting and Olympic world records, and began appearing on American television shows doing strength stunts. One of his most popular was blowing up hot water bottles until they burst.
He once famously lifted the back of a car to help it out of a tight patking spot! Check it out:
Franco had also appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show,” “That’s Incredible!”, “The Phil Donahue Show,” “The Guinness Show,” and many other popular programs of the 1970s.
Franco proved just as adept at bodybuilding as strength sports. Back in his heyday, the Mr. Olympia and many other high-profile contests had different weight classes. Columbu competed in the under-200 lb division, and it was in the smaller class that he won a string of major titles, including Mr. Universe (1968-71), Mr. Europe (1969-70), and Mr. World (1970-71).
Columbu competed in the Mr. Olympia contest four times. He won the lightweight (under 200 lb) category in 1974 and 1975. Then in 1976, the Sardinian Strongman took the overall Mr. Olympia title, beating Frank Zane, Ken Waller, Mike Katz, the late Ed Corney, and other famous athletes of the Golden Era.
In 1980, the IFBB ended the two-class system, and in 1981, Columbu won his second Sandow trophy, beating Chris Dickerson & OSL Ambassador Tom Platz in one of the most famously controversial Mr. Olympia contests of all time.
Making His Mark on the Big Screen
Despite his heavy accent, Columbu followed his friend Arnold into the film business, though in a much more limited way. He made a huge impression in the iconic bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron” in 1977 and performed in scripted shows in the 1970s (e.g. “The Streets of San Francisco”), and appeared in a number of television commercials. He had bit parts in Schwarzenegger blockbusters “The Terminator”, “The Running Man”, and “Conan the Barbarian”.
His involvement in the movie industry also included being Sylvester Stallone’s personal trainer for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) to immense success.
And in 1993, he starred in his own action movie called “Beretta’s Island” which his old friend Arnold had a cameo in.
1977 Strongest Man in the World
One of the most popular stories told of The Sardinian Strongman is when he was in first place at the 1977 “Strongest Man in the World” competition before suddenly dropping out due to a leg injury. It happened mid-competition while lugging a refrigerator on his back dragging it up an incline:
Away from stage and screen, Columbu earned a DC (Doctor of Chiropractic) from the Cleveland Chiropractic College in 1977, and had been a practicing chiropractor in Los Angeles to this day. Even as a chiropractor, Arnold gave his best pal a break. In February 2006, Columbu was appointed to the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners by then-Governor Schwarzenegger.
Forever Arnold’s Companion
Many have commented over the years that Arnold and Franco made for an odd pair. Though both were world-class athletes, their height difference made them a sometimes comical sight as they strutted down the Venice Boardwalk.
Despite their close friendship, their personalities were vastly different. Arnold was boisterous and outgoing. Franco was quiet and happy-go-lucky. Though a fierce competitor, Columbu didn’t engage in the manipulative gamesmanship that was Arnold’s trademark.
But the two have a strong fraternal bond and share a generous spirit. They were still close to this day, Franco was Arnold’s best man for his marriage to Maria Shriver in 1986, and Schwarzenegger has helped Columbu in his efforts to star in films over the years. But their real legacy is in muscle, the pair helped create the Golden Era of bodybuilding.
Columbu always had time for fans, and understood his place in the legacy of the sport. He’s a member of the IFBB Bodybuilding Hall of Fame, and was awarded the Arnold Classic Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
As Arnold handed his old friend the crystal plate award, the two had a playful tug of war, then Franco, still speaking with a thick accent, talked with genuine warmth about his long friendship with his fellow European immigrant.
Columbu’s true legacy was his amazing power. “I’m the strongest bodybuilder who ever lived, I think,” he once said. Few would argue the point.
He could clean-and-jerk more than twice his weight, and held a number of world records for years. He was a beast in the gym, and people would stop training in Gold’s to watch the Sardinian Strongman perform his amazing lifts.
His quiet dignity, athletic prowess, and friendship with Schwarzenegger made him one of the most famous and popular of the Golden Era greats. Every year, he was a regular at the Arnold Sports Festival, flying with his friend Arnold on the former Governor’s private jet. Their bond remains strong to this day.
The Bodybuilding community will never stop appreciating Franco’s colossal impact on the sport. He will always be remembered & looked up to as a legendary role model.
His career can be summed with his famous quote: “Kill them with success, and bury them with a smile”. Rest in Peace to Franco Columbu, and condolences to his family and loved ones.
How do you remember Franco? How has he influenced you? Tell us in the comments below.