At the onset of the 1980’s, the Bodybuilding World was looking for a new King. Arnold Schwarzenegger, long recognized as the Greatest Bodybuilder of All Time, retired in 1975 at the premature age of 28 to pursue a ridiculous dream of acting in the movies. Arnold had set the standard of what a true Mr. Olympia champion should be. Tall, powerful, massive, confident. Arnold had owned the stage during his six year reign as Mr. Olympia, defeating all of his opponents with both an overwhelming physique and a sharp and calculating mind.
In the wake of Arnold’s reign, smaller and less intimidating champions had worn the Mr. Olympia crown. His sidekick and best friend, Franco Columbu, won the title in 1976 after Arnold retired. He was succeeded by the popular and aesthetically perfect Frank Zane, with a physique that looked like it had been sculpted by Michelangelo or Rodin.
When Arnold surprisingly returned to the stage in a dramatic comeback to win the 1980 Mr. Olympia, the sport was mired in controversy over the decision. Was a subpar Schwarzenegger physique deserving of defeating the current crop of top professional bodybuilders, most of whom had fanatically trained for this contest for a full year while Arnold had only decided to train for the contest two months earlier?
One year later, controversy reared it’s ugly head again when Arnold’s best friend, Franco Columbu, won the title a second time. Coming back from a devastating knee injury four years earlier, Franco displayed an incredible upper body with subpar leg development but he was still able to miraculously defeat top bodybuilders such as Chris Dickerson, Tom Platz and Danny Padilla. The enthusiastic bodybuilding fans in attendance roared their disapproval at the result, some even throwing objects onstage at the announcement of Franco as the winner.
Franco Columbu winning the 1976 Mr. Olympia
In 1982, perennial bridesmaid Chris Dickerson, the runner-up at the Mr. Olympia the previous two years, finally won the title. One year later, Samir Bannout, the Lion of Lebanon, stepped onstage in peak condition and easily took home the coveted Sandow statue in winning the 1983 Mr. Olympia. Although both Dickerson and Bannout were popular winners, each an outstanding bodybuilder in their own right, the sport of bodybuilding was still hungry for a dominant champion.
Chris Dickerson (left) and Samir Bannout (right)
The Mr. Olympia title had always been reserved for the Kings of Bodybuilding, the most massive and out of this world physique champions. When the title was created by Joe Weider in 1965, only Mr. Universe and Mr. World winners could enter the competition. The onstage battles for the Mr. Olympia had been epic from the very beginning. Larry Scott, the first winner of the Mr. Olympia, displayed his California surfer good looks along with his incredibly thick and massive arms to hold back such contenders as rugged Chuck Sipes and freaky Harold Poole.
Larry Scott winning the first Mr. Olympia
When Sergio Oliva took over after Scott’s retirement from the sport, he set a whole new standard in freakiness! Sergio was nicknamed “The Myth” because of his never before seen proportions that included 22 inch arms, a tiny 27 inch waist and massive 28 inch thighs. To witness Oliva posing onstage was mind blowing. The audience and judges had never seen anything so amazing before. When he was pushed for the title by the young “Austrian Oak”, the bodybuilding fans were treated to a spectacle of muscle that was never seen before. Sergio and Arnold were both Monsters and the Mr. Olympia title was reserved only for the best!
Arnold Schwarzenegger (left) and Sergio Oliva (right)
During Frank Zane’s three year reign as Mr. Olympia, Muscle Builder magazine writer Rick Wayne wrote an article criticizing the choice of Zane as Mr. Olympia. “The Mr. Olympia title is reserved for lions, not gazelles”, Wayne wrote disparagingly of Zane’s smaller build. Wayne longed for the days of Sergio and Arnold, when the Mr. Olympia was ruled by the truly massive giants of bodybuilding.
Lee Haney Arrives
In 1982, an unknown giant waited in the wings, ready to ascend to the throne of Mr. Olympia. Lee Haney, a native of South Carolina, was both genetically and spiritually ready for the challenge of becoming the new King of Bodybuilding. Lee was a former Teenage Mr. America winner and he placed fourth in the competitive Heavyweight Class in the 1980 Mr. USA at only 20 years, one of the biggest and heaviest competitors despite his extremely young age.
Lee Haney as a teen
At the end of 1980, Lee required wrist surgery to remove a cyst. He decided to take a full year off and train for victory when he returned to the stage. Lee was now the owner and operator of a gym in South Carolina (prophetically called The Olympian Fitness Center). After one of his many growth producing workouts in 1981, Lee was hanging out with his girlfriend (and future wife) Shirley and his workout partners at the gym. Lee made a declaration right then and there in the small gym in South Carolina. “I will shock the world of bodybuilding when I return to the stage”, he announced to those in attendance.
In 1982, Lee Haney began his ascent to the top of the bodybuilding world. The NPC (National Physique Committee) had launched their initial national level competitions to compete against the traditional amateur arm of the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union). In answer to the AAU Mr. America, the NPC offered the American Bodybuilding Championships (later changed to the NPC Nationals). The NPC also promoted their own versions of the Mr. USA (The USA Bodybuilding Championships) and the Jr. Mr. America (the Junior Nationals Championships) and the Jr. Mr. USA (the Junior USA Championships).
Lee began his domination of bodybuilding by first competing in the 1982 NPC Atlantic USA Championships, held in Atlanta, Georgia, in the spring. Weighing a massive 222 pounds, the 5’11” gentle giant steamrolled over the unsuspecting competition and easily won the overall title. Two months later, Big Lee competed in the first ever NPC Junior Nationals, held in New Orleans, Louisiana. Lee beat out young bodybuilding prodigy and 1981 Teenage Mr. America Mike Quinn to win the Heavyweight Class and then defeated future internet fitness celebrity Tony Little to win the overall title.
Lee Haney winning the Jr. Nationals in 1982
After having won a regional level and national level title, Lee set his sights on the first ever NPC Nationals, to be held in New York City in the fall. During an intense summer of training, Lee continued to work at his Olympian Fitness Center and was also working as a bricklayer in the hot South Carolina sun, in addition to training hard to fulfill his bodybuilding destiny.
As the competitors lined up in the Heavyweight Class at the 1982 NPC American Bodybuilding Championships, the massive and ripped 226 pound physique of Lee Haney immediately stood out. His voluminous torso off set by a tiny waist brought to mind the magnificent Sergio Oliva. By the end of the day, Lee Haney was the first ever NPC National Bodybuilding Champion, having defeated such future bodybuilding greats as Matt Mendenhall, Bob Paris, Tim Belknap and Mike Christian in the process. In the overall posedown, none of the other excellent class winners could compare to the big and massive Lee Haney. Lee Haney made history by becoming the first overall winner of the NPC Nationals.
Lee Haney posing down with Mike Christian at the 1982 NPC Nationals
Lee Haney wins the 1982 NPC Nationals
In order to attain professional status, Lee needed to win his weight class at the IFBB World Championships (formerly known as the IFBB Mr. Universe). Held in Munich, Germany that year, Lee faced some very tough competition in the form of massive Gunnar Rosbo from Norway and the hulking 6’8” Ralf Moeller from Germany.
Lee Haney and Rolf Mueller at the 1982 IFBB Mr. Universe
In the two weeks after the NPC Nationals and preceding the IFBB World Championships, Lee had filled out his already huge physique, increasing his bodyweight from 226 pounds to 233. The increase in weight filled out his already dominant physique, accentuating his vascularity and hardness. A bigger and harder Lee Haney easily won the Heavyweight Class at the 1982 Mr. Universe, impressing the jaded bodybuilding media and the international selection of judges alike. As he had prophesied a year earlier, 22 year old Lee Haney, from the small town of Spartanburg, South Carolina, had shocked the world of bodybuilding. Now it was time to make his ascent to the coveted Mr. Olympia title.
Lee Haney wins the 1982 IFBB Mr. Universe in the Heavyweight Class
Read Part 2 of “Lee Haney – A New King Arrives” here!