Sergio Oliva - The Myth (Part One of Two) - Old School Labs
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Home » OSL Blog » Sergio Oliva: Becoming the Myth

Sergio Oliva: Becoming the Myth

September 12, 2017

Sergio Oliva combined extraordinary genetics, astonishing proportions, and a commanding presence to become an enduring Golden Era legend. Nicknamed “The Myth,” the Cuban immigrant went on to win three Mr. Olympia titles, and created a legacy that has many fans still calling him the greatest bodybuilder of all time.

Sergio Oliva Workout

The first time you see a photo of Sergio Oliva (1941-2012), you may immediately think, “That’s a morph. Definitely a morph.”

No, it’s not a morph, but it’s easy to make that mistake. In his bodybuilding prime, Oliva’s amazing physique challenged the limits of what people thought was possible in developing a muscular body. In a bodybuilding culture that often exaggerated body sizes and feats of strength, Oliva lived up to the hype.

On his way to winning three Mr. Olympia titles, Oliva earned the nickname “The Myth,” because of his legendary proportions and muscle mass. Never before and, arguably, never since has a bodybuilder combined such incredible muscle size with jaw-dropping proportions and shape.

Sergio Oliva Sr.

Admired by the Best

Even his peers were in awe of him. Even one of Oliva’s most celebrated onstage foes is one of his greatest admirers. Arnold Schwarzenegger engaged in epic battles against Oliva on the Mr. Olympia stage—they were the bodybuilding version of Ali-Frazier. Both men had great respect for the other. When Arnold is asked about Oliva in any interview, he will talk about the amazing strength, muscle mass, and overall structure of one of the best bodybuilding physiques ever. In some ways, having to battle Oliva helped make Schwarzenegger a much better competitor.

Sergio Oliva Sr.

Schwarzenegger’s not alone in his admiration for Oliva. Some of the most acclaimed and famous bodybuilders run out of accolades when it comes to describing the incredible physique of Sergio Oliva. But none of it would have ever happened if it wasn’t for a courageous sprint for freedom as a 21-year-old.

Cuban Strongman Defects

Sergio Oliva was born in Cuba in 1941 on the fourth of July. At the age of 12, he worked with his father in the sugar cane fields of Guambaco, Cuba. His father decided that Sergio should enlist in dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army when he was only 16. Needing men for the battle against the revolutionary forces of Fidel Castro, Batista welcomed the young, strapping Oliva into the Cuban army.

After Castro emerged victorious, Oliva found himself adrift in the radically changed country. He accepted an invitation by a friend to join the local weightlifting club. This small gesture turned out to spark the beginning of an all-consuming passion. Oliva’s incredible genetic structure and natural strength took to weightlifting like a fish takes to water. Within six months, he was able to clean and jerk over 400 pounds, an astounding total for a 20-year-old. The Cuban weightlifting team immediately added him to the team to represent the country at the 1961 Pan American Games in Kingston, Jamaica.

Sergio Oliva Sr.

When Sergio Oliva traveled to Jamaica, he knew it would be his opportunity to escape his life in Cuba. Oliva made his move, telling one of the guards who was assigned by Castro to watch over the athletes that he needed to take a walk in order to psych up for the upcoming event. As soon as the guard was distracted, Oliva ran like an Olympic sprinter for the American Embassy. After reaching the gates without being shot, the young weightlifter requested, and received, political asylum.

Miami Bound

Initially landing in Miami, Florida, Oliva worked as a TV repairman. In 1963, he moved to Chicago, because he liked the name of the city (“Chee-ca-go” he would say in his thick accent). Though he worked long hours in a steel mill, he still found time to continue his weight training at the Duncan YMCA. The Duncan was famous for its hardcore atmosphere, and hosted a colorful gallery of renowned weightlifters and bodybuilders who regularly worked out there.

Sergio Oliva Sr.

An older bodybuilder named Bob Gajda, who would go on to win the 1966 Mr. America and Mr. Universe contests, took the young Cuban under his wing and showed him how to train for bodybuilding. Oliva had incredible genetics as well as a hardcore work ethic, a common attribute of Golden Era legends. He would work 10-hour factory shifts and then head over to the gym for a workout that typically lasted three hours.

Just as incredible as his strength and genetics was Oliva’s metabolism. Many bodybuilders in those days would starve themselves on low-carb diets in order to develop the definition needed to show their muscles. Sergio never had to diet at all. He would typically eat hamburgers and hot dogs and drink soda pop, even when preparing for a contest.

When Sergio Oliva was working in a factory, one of his supervisors was amazed by his incredible physique. In order to discover the bodybuilder’s secrets, his boss snuck into the lunch room during a break to see what magical foods Oliva ate to develop such size. Imagine his surprise when he saw the young factory worker eating two packs of Hostess Twinkies that he washed down with two bottles of Mountain Dew for lunch!

Early Struggles, then Dominance

Sergio Oliva Sr.

When Oliva began competing 1963 in the AAU, he found obstacles to success that had nothing to do with his physique. The AAU ran amateur bodybuilding in those days, and black-skinned competitors were often bypassed for white, good looking athletes, who were considered more appropriate spokesmen for the title of Mr. America. When Oliva lost the Mr. Chicago title in 1963, he lost it in part because he couldn’t speak proper English.

He didn’t give up. Oliva won the Mr. Chicago title in 1964, but was continually denied the coveted Mr. America title, often losing to bodybuilders who were not even close to the awesome Oliva physique. Still, the young immigrant persisted. While he won the 1966 AAU Jr. Mr. America title, and was allowed to win the Most Muscular award at that year’s Mr. America, he was again denied the overall award despite being the clear winner.

Moving to the IFBB

Finally, Oliva decided to switch over to the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) and try his luck there. It turned out to be a good move. The IFBB finally granted him a fair fight. Oliva won the 1966 Mr. World title and then took third place in the brand new Mr. Olympia contest, won for the second year by Larry Scott.

Sergio Oliva Sr.

Oliva immediately stunned the IFBB with his potential. His genetics were so off the charts that he would add pounds of solid muscle to his frame in only months while keeping his tiny waist the same size. After another year of ball-busting training, Oliva easily won the 1967 IFBB Mr. Universe title, held in conjunction with the Montreal World’s Fair.

Sergio Oliva Sr.

Sergio Oliva was earning a reputation as one of those rare bodybuilders who had it all. His shape and symmetry burst with magnificent size in every muscle group. Even the best bodybuilders usually struggle with bringing up one or two bodyparts. Not The Myth! He even had huge, developed forearms and long, diamond shaped calves to match the rest of his incredible physique.

Sergio Oliva Sr.

An Icon without Equal

Oliva earned the nickname The Myth because of his mythical proportions. His arms looked larger than his head when he hit a front double-biceps pose. Oliva’s deltoids looked like cantaloupes, and his chest had slabs of beef for pectorals. His extremely wide lats would taper down to a tiny 29-inch waist, the same size as each of his tree-trunk thighs. Oliva is probably the only bodybuilder in history to have his thighs and waist share the same measurement.

When he entered the 1967 Mr. Olympia contest in New York, his physique stunned the crowd. Harold Poole, second to Larry Scott the previous two years, finished runner-up spot once again when the big Cuban showed up. Even the rugged Chuck Sipes had no chance against Oliva. The title belonged to The Myth.

The world of bodybuilding had found its new King!

Sergio Oliva combined extraordinary genetics, astonishing proportions, and a commanding presence to become an enduring Golden Era legend. Nicknamed “The Myth,” the Cuban immigrant went on to win three Mr. Olympia titles, and created a legacy that has many fans still calling him the greatest bodybuilder of all time.

In Part Two, we look at Oliva’s epic battles against Arnold Schwarzenegger and how his legacy now includes his son, Sergio Oliva, Jr., a remarkable bodybuilder in his own right, who is shaking up the IFBB.

If you haven’t already, go ahead and read Part One.

Sergio vs Arnold

The competition between Sergio Oliva and Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the greatest rivalries in the history of bodybuilding. It’s rare when two genetically superior athletes compete against each other at their physical peak in any sport. Though they only met onstage three times, Oliva vs. Schwarzenegger will likely never be topped in bodybuilding.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva

When it started, The Myth stood alone in the sport. Oliva’s win at the 1967 IFBB Mr. Olympia contest in New York was more than a statement; it was a sign that the sport had reached a higher level. With his combination of immense muscle size, almost unrealistic proportions, and a cocky yet fun stage presence, Oliva was the new King of Bodybuilding. He seemed unbeatable.

All his competition agreed. When Oliva declared that he would defend his title at the 1968 Mr. Olympia contest, no other bodybuilder had the guts to step onstage to compete against The Myth after the way he dominated the contest one year earlier. He won uncontested.

Little did he know that he would soon meet his greatest rival. A young Austrian named Arnold Schwarzenegger had been invited to the U.S. by bodybuilding entrepreneur Joe Weider. Standing 6’2”, Arnold had recently won the 1968 Pro Mr. Universe in London weighing an incredible 250 pounds. Though only 21 years old, he was one of the biggest bodybuilders in the world, with a potential as huge as his 21-inch biceps.

It was at the 1968 IFBB Mr. Universe contest in Miami that the Austrian got his first up-close glimpse of The Myth. Schwarzenegger, though impressive, lost the contest to a perfectly sculpted Frank Zane. What made a bigger impression on the young competitor was the guest poser that night: Sergio Oliva. Onlookers remember how Arnold’s mouth dropped open as he witnessed the incredible size and proportions of The Myth.

Intrigued, Schwarzenegger learned what he could about the huge Cuban bodybuilder. Oliva did not have the luxury of being a sponsored Weider athlete, like Arnold and his friend Franco Columbu, but had to endure long hours of doing hard labor in the cold Chicago winters. After a full day of work, Oliva would go to the gym and train for three hours in the basement of the Duncan YMCA in Chicago.

Arnold realized he had a long way to go to be the best bodybuilder in the world.

The First Meeting

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva

The first onstage battle between Schwarzenegger and Oliva was the 1969 Mr. Olympia. After a year of solid training in the U.S. at Gold’s Gym in Venice, Arnold was tanned, ripped, and ready. Pumping up backstage, the Austrian watched Oliva getting ready, wearing a pair of butcher’s overalls. When Sergio was ready, he removed his overalls and shook his magnificent massive arms in front of him. As he stood up, he slowly spread his lats wider. As he walked by, Schwarzenegger knew the contest was over.

Writing about the experience in his first book, “Education of a Bodybuilder,” Arnold recalled that he was immediately psyched out after seeing Oliva backstage. Despite his incredible transformation in the last year, Schwarzenegger was still no match for The Myth.

Despite Arnold’s intimidation backstage, the contest itself was much closer than anticipated. Schwarzenegger, standing 6’2” and weighing 235 pounds, was a much bigger man than Sergio. As Sergio wowed the crowd with his incredible front double-biceps pose and most muscular, Arnold tried to upstage his opponent by hitting his classic three-quarter back poses and twisting biceps shots. At the end of the contest, Oliva had defeated Arnold by a 4-3 vote from the judges. For the first time in years, Oliva had met a worthy opponent.

In order to understand his rival better, Schwarzenegger traveled to Chicago later that year to train with Oliva for a week. Arnold was amazed at how strong Sergio was and how hard he worked. Oliva would handle incredible poundage and do so with ease. On the bench press, for example, Schwarzenegger would do reps with 315 pounds, while Oliva would do high reps with over 400 pounds!

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva

Schwarzenegger and Oliva met onstage twice in 1970. While both of them were planning to compete again at the Mr. Olympia contest in New York, they both entered the AAU Professional Mr. World contest in Columbus, Ohio, only two weeks before the Mr. Olympia.

According to the book, “Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors, Volume 2,” neither man knew the other competitor was planning on entering in the contest. It didn’t matter. The battle was on.

Because the contest was being filmed by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” the stage was flooded with bright lights for the benefit of the television cameras. Oliva made the mistake of slapping on too much baby oil before he stepped onstage and the strong lights made him look glossy and smooth.

In the end, Arnold defeated the invincible Oliva for the first time in front of millions of television viewers, in part because of the lighting. It was Schwarzenegger’s introduction to the American public, and he drank in the spotlight.

Shocked at his loss, Oliva was told by Arnold afterward that he never would have beaten him if Sergio had been a little bit bigger. “If you were ten pounds heavier, you would have won,” said Schwarzenegger. Sergio took this advice to heart and resolved to step onstage at the Mr. Olympia in two weeks bigger and better.

Arnold Breaks Through

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva

All serious bodybuilding fans were in New York in September of 1970 to view the dramatic showdown between Sergio Oliva and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the Mr. Olympia title. When The Myth stepped onstage that night to thunderous applause, he was, as promised, even bigger than he was for the Mr. World contest only two weeks earlier. Too much body fat and oil marred his muscular definition. Still, he the crowd loved him. His proportions and freaky muscle mass were greater than ever, and fans cheered wildly as he hit his crazy most-muscular poses before exiting the stage.

Arnold’s glistening physique creased with new cuts. He glided confidently from pose to pose and milked the audience for every drop of applause he could get.

The crowd cheered the epic showdown of the top two bodybuilders in the world. Oliva and Schwarzenegger emerged from backstage to take a bow. They began to pose in front of the judges and fans, and the audience again went wild. This moment gave birth to the posedown.

In the end, Schwarzenegger was sharper and more aggressive, and beat the reigning Mr. Olympia. Oliva was no longer the King of Bodybuilding.

Leaving the IFBB

Officials slapped a suspension on Oliva for competing at the NABBA Mr. Universe one week earlier. The punishment finished any chance of another Schwarzenegger-Oliva showdown at the 1971 Mr. Olympia. Not only was Oliva denied a chance to try and win back the Mr. Olympia title from Arnold, but he was also defeated that year by the legendary Bill Pearl the Universe in London.
Oliva set his sights on 1972. Training under the tutelage of Arthur Jones, the designer of the Nautilus system, The Myth was looking even more freaky than usual as the 1972 Mr. Olympia approached.

The 1972 Mr. Olympia took place in Essen, Germany (“Arnold country,” commented Frank Zane). More bodybuilders than ever before would contend for the Mr. Olympia title that year. But all eyes were on the Austrian and the Cuban. Fans were not disappointed.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva

The legendary pictures of Oliva posing at the 1972 Mr. Olympia, taken by photographers Benno Dahmen and Albert Busek, still blow minds over 40 years later. The Myth displayed incredible proportions, his massive quads and diamond-shaped calves providing the foundation for his huge upper body, set off by his 28-inch waist.

Toward the end of his posing routine, Oliva raised his arms overhead and hit what would later become known as “The Myth pose” or the “victory pose.” It’s a pose that very few bodybuilders can pull off, but Oliva made it legendary. The picture of Sergio striking the victory pose at the 1972 Mr. Olympia is one of the most iconic pictures in bodybuilding history. It’s heroic, powerful, dramatic, and beautiful all at once. Like the famous picture of Ali standing victorious over Sonny Liston, it is an iconic photo that will long represent the best of bodybuilding.

Sergio Oliva

Even the victory pose wasn’t enough. Schwarzenegger would edge Oliva in a controversial decision. The incredible Cuban athlete’s face dropped into disappointment and heartbreak. The Sandow trophy landed in the hands of his rival. Arnold won his third Mr. Olympia contest.

Controversy, Tragedy, and a Living Legacy

Unknown to the bodybuilding world at the time, this historic battle between Oliva and Arnold would be the last time the two competitors would ever meet onstage. The contest left a bitter taste in the mouth of the proud Cuban, and he began competing in Europe for other organizations, including WABBA and the now forgotten WBBG, which awarded a trophy called Mr. Olympus.

Sergio Oliva

It wasn’t until the early 1980s before Oliva returned to the IFBB and the Mr. Olympia. Now, in his early 40s, The Myth could finish no higher than eighth in 1984 and 1985. The ’85 Olympia was his final show.

Oliva continued to live in Chicago, working as a police officer, staying away from the limelight. As bodybuilding began growing in popularity in the 1990s, he started attending bodybuilding expos and making appearances. The fans never forgot him. How could they?

Sergio Oliva

Sergio Oliva passed away in 2012 at the age of 71 from kidney failure. To this day, some still consider The Myth the greatest bodybuilder of all time, or at least the second best behind Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sergio, a man forever enshrined in history as one of a kind, will never be repeated. Fans didn’t count on one thing: His genetics living on.

Sergio Oliva, Jr. — The Myth Lives On

Sergio Oliva Jr.

Sergio’s son and namesake, Sergio Oliva, Jr., is on his way to building his own legend. Displaying the amazing proportions that define the Oliva physique, Oliva, Jr. won the 2017 New York Pro earlier this year. After taking some time off by skipping the Mr. Olympia contest this September, Oliva, Jr. hopes to take the Arnold Classic title in 2018.

One look at Oliva, Jr.’s incredible victory pose is all the proof you need that he is indeed his father’s son. While his father was hesitant about his progeny following in his footsteps—Senior wanted his son to pursue a more traditional education and career path—Junior proves he belongs on a bodybuilding stage. The uncanny similarities in thickness and balance between father and son have long-time observers of the sport doing a double-take whenever Junior hits the stage. But Junior is his own man. The Chicago-born phenom and son of the great legend will write his own story, create his own legacy.

In 2018, Oliva, Jr. will make his move to put his own indelible stamp on the sport. It’s fitting that it will begin at the contest hosted by his father’s greatest rival and the only man who can claim mastery over The Myth. A new Golden Era awaits.

What do you think? Is Sergio Oliva the greatest of all time? Can his son match his accomplishments? Let us know in the comments below.

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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