The Bodybuilding world lost a legend on November 13th, 2012. Sergio Oliva, also known as “The Myth”, passed away at Saint Frances Hospital in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The official cause of death was a heart attack although Sergio had been in ill health over the last several years and had been on dialysis for kidney failure in the months leading up to his death.
Sergio was born in Cuba in 1941 on the Fourth of July. At the age of 12, Sergio was already working with his father in the canefields of Guambaco, Cuba. When he was only 16, his father decided that Sergio should enlist in dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army. The standard age for enlisting in the army was 18 but Sergio was already tall and sturdy and, with Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army threatening to take over, Batista was looking for plenty of soldiers.
Sergio liked being a soldier and he was looking forward to spending his life as a career military man. Unfortunately, after Castro took over the country, Sergio found himself out of a job. He spent his time lounging away at the beach and dreaming of a better life away from Cuba.
Sergio’s life changed when a friend of his suggested he join him at the local weightlifting club. This small gesture turned out to be the beginning of one of the true legends in the sport of bodybuilding. Sergio’s incredible genetic structure took to weightlifting like a bird takes to air. Within six months, Sergio was able to clean and jerk over 400 pounds. The Cuban weightlifting team immediately decided to add him to the team to represent Cuba at the 1961 Pan American Games in Kingston, Jamaica.
When Sergio traveled to Jamaica, he knew that this would be his opportunity to escape his life in Cuba. Telling one of the guards who was assigned by Castro to watch over his athletes that he needed to take a walk in order to psych up for the upcoming event, Sergio had a plan. As soon as the guard was distracted, Sergio ran like an Olympic sprinter for the American Embassy. After reaching the gates without being shot, Sergio demanded political asylum.
Initially living in Miami, Florida, Sergio worked as a TV repairman. In 1963, he moved to Chicago, Illinois because he liked the name of the city (“Chee-ca-go”) and he heard that’s where the jobs were. He started off working long hours in a steel mill plant. Continuing his exercise program, he joined the Duncan YMCA. The Duncan was famous for it’s hardcore atmosphere and the gallery of renowned weightlifters and bodybuilders who regularly worked out there.
Bob Gajda, who would go on to win the 1966 Mr. America and Mr. Universe, took Sergio under his wing and showed him how to train for bodybuilding. Sergio had incredible genetics as well as a hardcore work ethic. He would work ten hour factory shifts and then head over to the gym for a workout that typically lasted three hours.
Sergio began to compete in 1963. 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. Sergio lost the Mr. Chicago title in his first year of competition, in part because he couldn’t speak proper English.
He came back in 1964 and won the Mr. Chicago but was continually denied the coveted Mr. America title, often losing to bodybuilders who were not even close to the awesome Sergio physique. He won the 1966 AAU Jr. Mr. America title and was allowed to win the Most Muscular award at that year’s Mr. America show but the overall award was still out of reach.
Finally, Sergio decided to switch over to the IFBB and try his luck there. It turned out to be a good move. The International Federation of Bodybuilders judges were not as prejudiced as the AAU judging panel was. Sergio quickly 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’s 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, Sergio easily won the 1967 IFBB Mr. Universe title, held in conjunction with the Montreal World’s Fair.
Sergio was one of those rare bodybuilders who had it all. His shape and symmetry were matched by magnificent size in EVERY muscle group. Even the best bodybuilders usually struggle with bringing up one or two bodyparts. Not Sergio! He even had huge, developed forearms and long, diamond shaped calves to match the rest of his incredible physique.
Sergio was soon known as The Myth because of his mythical proportions. His arms were so big, they looked larger than his head when he hit the front double biceps pose. His 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 his tree trunk thighs. Sergio was probably the only bodybuilder in history to have his thighs and waist share the same measurement.
When Sergio entered the 1967 Mr. Olympia contest in New York, the crowd was astounded by the physique in front of them. Harold Poole, second to Larry Scott the previous two years, was relegated to the runner-up spot again when Sergio showed up. Even the rugged Chuck Sipes had no chance against Sergio. The world of bodybuilding had found it’s new King!
Sergio was so impressive in his Mr. Olympia win that the following year, 1968, he won the title unopposed! There wasn’t a bodybuilder brave enough to dare to share the stage with the Myth. But it wouldn’t be that way for long. A young upstart from Austria had just moved to America and was set on taking over the sport of bodybuilding.
In 1969, Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the IFBB Mr. Universe title to revenge his embarrassing loss to Frank Zane the year before. After a year of solid training in the U.S., Arnold was tanned, ripped and ready. He easily won the Mr. Universe contest before deciding to take on Sergio in the Mr. Olympia contest that same night.
As Arnold pumped up backstage, Sergio was furiously getting ready. Wearing a pair of butcher’s overalls taken from his previous job, Sergio would typically pump up for several hours before stepping onstage. Arnold watched Sergio prepare, sizing him up for their impending battle.
When Sergio was ready, he removed his overalls and shook his magnificent massive arms in front of him. As he stood up, Sergio slowly spread his lats wider and wider and wider. As he walked by, Arnold’s jaw dropped and he knew the contest was over.
Writing about the experience in an article for his first book, Education of a Bodybuilder, Arnold recalled that he was immediately psyched out after seeing Sergio backstage. As soon as Sergio removed his overalls, Arnold knew he had lost. Despite his incredible transformation in the last year, not even Arnold was ready for Sergio.
In order to understand his opponent better, Arnold traveled to Chicago later that year to train with Sergio and see what made him tick. Arnold was amazed at how strong Sergio was and how hard he worked. To warm-up, Sergio would do ten sets of wide-grip chins behind the neck. When it came time to actually begin the workout, Oliva would handle incredible poundages and do them with ease. On the bench press, for example, Arnold would handle 315 pounds while Sergio would do high reps with over 400 pounds.
Even more incredible was Sergio’s metabolism. Many bodybuilders in those days would starve themselves on low carbs in order to develop the definition needed to show the muscles. Sergio never had to diet at all. He would typically eat hamburgers, hot dogs and drink soda pop, even when preparing for a contest.
When Sergio was working in a factory, one of his supervisors was amazed by his incredible physique. In order to discover his secrets, his boss snuck into the lunch room during their break to see what magical foods Sergio ate to develop such size. Imagine his surprise when he saw Sergio eat two packs of Hostess Twinkies and two bottles of Mountain Dew for lunch!
Sergio and Arnold would stage some epic battles together in the 1970’s. They were the Ali and Frazier of bodybuilding. Two genetic giants each competing at their physical peak. Arnold probably never would have trained so hard or achieved such greatness in his physique without the fear and awe that Sergio inspired.
In 1970, Sergio lost his Mr. Olympia crown to Schwarzenegger. In 1971, Sergio competed in the Nabba Mr. Universe contest in London and was not allowed to compete in that year’s Mr. Olympia contest. However, in 1972, Sergio did compete in the Mr. Olympia and it was one of the sport’s most memorable showdowns ever.
Sergio achieved his life time best condition at the 1972 Mr. Olympia, held in Essen, Germany. His tiny waist was contrasted with the incredible mass and thickness in his full muscle bellies. In an era when most bodybuilders had subpar leg development, Sergio had huge quads that were full and sweeping.
Sergio lost that contest and many people argue that it was Joe Weider’s influence on the judging panel that brought about that decision. Arnold was Joe’s main man in the magazines and his number one marketing tool. It wouldn’t have been good business to have the current champ lose his title.
Sergio walked away from the IFBB after the Essen Controversy. He continued to compete in lesser known organizations like Dan Lurie’s WBBG (World Bodybuilding Guild). The WBBG held a knock-off contest called the Mr. Olympus which Sergio easily won several times. Sergio would often show up smooth for these contests but he would always win. The challenge of competing against Arnold was now gone so Sergio didn’t have the motivation to train hard like he did when he was competing in the Mr. Olympia.
I grew up in Chicago so I had many opportunities to see Sergio in the flesh. The very first contest I attended, Sergio was the guest poser. Although I had seen plenty of great physiques that night onstage, Sergio was from another world! When he hit his front double biceps pose, his arms looked like they were bigger than his head and his tiny waist didn’t even look real contrasted against all that muscle.
After he was finished with his posing, Sergio came back out onstage wearing a white bathrobe to answer questions from the audience. As he sat on a stool in the middle of the stage, people just shouted out questions from the audience. An Hispanic man in front of me yelled out, “Hey Sergio, what’s your sign man? I’m a Capricorn!”
Sergio answered all the questions with charisma and charm. When someone asked him if he used machines or free weights in his workouts, Sergio replied, “All free weights, no macheens.”
In 1976, Sergio became a Chicago policeman. It was the dream job he always coveted and Sergio loved being a cop. He was a beat cop in the Rogers Park neighborhood and he was a sight to see walking down the street. When he got the job, he had to have his uniform custom made because the uniform shop did not have clothes that would fit his massive body. While Arnold was headed toward a career in Hollywood, Sergio was walking the streets of Chicago as a cop.
In 1980, Sergio decided to return to competition in top shape again. Serge Nubret, the great bodybuilding champion from France, was promoting his own organization in Europe. It was called the WABBA organization and it featured some awesome bodybuilders who had either left the IFBB or did not wish to compete in Weider’s organization.
Sergio was now sporting a shaved head and he had regained the magnificent physique of his earlier career. In the first event, Sergio faced off against the massive Bertil Fox from England. Bertil came close to matching Sergio in pure muscle mass but no one could defeat the incredible proportions and structure of The Myth. Sergio also competed against Kal Szkalak, Robby Robinson, Tony Pearson, Dave Johns and even Serge Nubret himself in subsequent contests. In each event, the legendary Sergio always came out on top.
I would see Sergio at all the local competitions in Chicago during those years. You couldn’t miss Sergio if you tried. His clothes were as flashy and outrageous as the man himself. He would typically wear high waisted, bell bottom white pants with fancy shoes. His shirts had to be custom made with a slit in the sleeves so his massive 21 inch arms could fit. Sergio would wear numerous gold bracelets and necklaces including a massive gold medallion that became his status symbol. He invented “bling” when Mr. T was still living in obscurity and bouncing in bars on Division Street in Chicago.
At one contest that I was competing in, Sergio arrived late to watch the show. The auditorium was packed with bodybuilding fans on a warm August evening when Sergio walked in the door. As he walked down the aisle, people started to notice him (he was pretty hard to miss!). The entire audience started clapping as Sergio walked toward the stage. He began waving to everyone as they acknowledged the True King of Bodybuilding.
Sergio walked up on the stage as the audience continued to applaud him. I was standing in the wings, waiting with some other teenage competitors for our chance to pose. Sergio walked up to us and shook all of our hands saying, “How the big boys doing? How the big boys doing?”
In 1984, Joe Weider and Wayne DeMilia made an agreement with Sergio to return to the IFBB by entering the Mr. Olympia contest again. The contest was going to be held in New York City so Sergio would be returning to the same city in which he won his first Mr. Olympia title. The bodybuilding world was buzzing with the news that The Myth would be returning to the Mr. Olympia!
In a contest that was full of the old generation and the emerging new generation of bodybuilding, no one received more applause or got a louder ovation from the fans than Sergio did. Even at 43 years old and past his peak, Sergio still looked incredible on stage with his small waist, huge arms and breath taking structure.
When Sergio was announced in eighth place, the crowd erupted into boos. The fans stood on their feet and showed their support for the man who inspired so much awe and admiration over the years. Lou Ferrigno was one of the bodybuilders in the audience who was now just a fan for the person he had seen win the Mr. Olympia contest so many years ago.
Sergio, who was known for his hot temper and his willingness to speak his mind, looked like he was on the verge of walking off stage after being announced in eighth place. Rick Wayne, the gifted writer for Muscle and Fitness magazine, convinced Sergio’s wife Arlene to hand Sergio his new baby boy onstage. As Sergio held his son Sergio Jr in his arms, he approached the microphone to speak to his fans.
“Give the support to the best man”, Sergio urged the fans. “The place that I took tonight, first, sixth, eighth, tenth, it doesn’t matter. I will forever be The Myth”. The fans all rose to their feet and gave Sergio sustained applause, shouting out their support as the new group of bodybuilders standing onstage, including Lee Haney, Mohammed Makkawy, Samir Bannout and Bob Paris, respectfully paid homage to their hero.
Sergio entered the Mr. Olympia the following year and repeated his eighth place victory. Knee problems had prevented him from training his legs heavy and his mythical body was starting to show the signs of aging.
In 1986, Sergio was preparing to compete again in the Mr. Olympia when tragedy struck. In a domestic argument with his wife Arlene, Sergio was shot five times. Arlene claimed it was self defense as Sergio was coming after her. Despite his life threatening wounds, Sergio got into the car and drove himself to the hospital.
That was the end of Sergio’s bodybuilding career. He miraculously survived his gun shot wounds, including one that came perilously close to his liver. He knew that his best days were behind him and he decided to never step onstage again. When ever he attended the bigger bodybuilding events like the Arnold Classic and the Mr. Olympia, fans would line up to take pictures with him and get his autograph.
I was proud to have Sergio come out to one of the bodybuilding contests that I promote in Chicago each summer. In 2008, Sergio attended my show with old time friends Bob Gajda, 1966 Mr. America, and Bill Seno, 1964 Mr. America Most Muscular Man winner. It was a great honor for me to be able to have the opportunity to bring Sergio out on stage with Bob and Bill and honor all of them for their accomplishments in the sport.
Unfortunately, the last few years of Sergio’s life were not easy. He was in a bad car accident years ago and then caught a staph infection while still recovering in the hospital. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight and his once legendary muscle mass was now a thing of the past.
Sergio had kidney failure over the last year and he was forced to be on a kidney dialysis machine three times a week. He moved extremely slow and he looked and felt much older than a man only 70 years old. I tried to get him to come out to my show again last year but he refused because he was embarrassed of his appearance. For someone who once looked super human, it was sad to see him so thin and frail. Of course, the fans would have loved to have seen him regardless of how he looked. We will always remember Sergio for who he was and what he represented.
There is a picture of Sergio from the 1972 Mr. Olympia that is one of the best pictures ever taken of any bodybuilder. Sergio is hitting his patented Victory pose in which he raises both arms overhead. It is a pose that only Sergio has ever been able to execute so well. Many other bodybuilders over the years have tried to imitate the pose but they all fall short.
In order to look good in the Victory pose, you need incredibly large arms, wide shoulders and lats and an extremely small waist. You also need big legs to match the size and width of the upper body.
In the picture, Sergio’s face is calm but confident. He is smirking ever so slightly, as if to tell us that he knows how magnificent he looks. It is a beautiful picture, expressing a combination of joy, victory, pride and superiority. It clearly illustrates everything that is good about bodybuilding and it is all wrapped up in one incredible photo.
That is how I will always remember Sergio. The Cuban immigrant who came to this country and worked at hard labor jobs while developing one of the most legendary and gifted physiques in the history of the sport. He was a proud, confident champion who did things his way and his body will stand the test of time as one of the very best. Rest in peace Sergio Oliva, The Myth!