Let's cut to the chase, shall we? Eryk Bui made chop suey out of his middleweight opponents in Dallas, at the '04 Nationals. I mean, if that had been a boxing match, you'd score it as a first-round knockout.
Ripped and ready, with 173 sculpted pounds of muscle on his 5'5' frame, the 34-year-old Bui caused more than a few jaws to drop the moment he stepped onstage at the Friday-night prejudging. Not that it was going to be an upset victory; it just took him longer than expected to get there.
After shredding his way to the '02 USA Lightweight title, Bui moved up to the middleweight class at the Nationals that season'and dropped a depressing 11 places in the standings.
The highly driven Bui, who was born in Saigon, Vietnam, on December 25, 1970 (he has five brothers and a sister), bounced back with a third-place finish at the '03 USA and moved up another notch at that contest in 2004. Better, but not good enough. Not nearly good enough.
I could see it in his eyes in Dallas last fall. The show was being held at the same venue where he'd gotten spanked two years before. Game day would bring the Eryk Bui many of us had been expecting for some time.
In fact, the chap with the terrific guns, wheels, calves and lower back not only dominated the middles, but, according to some folks in the seats, was also the most complete bodybuilder onstage that night and could have won the overall. That honor, of course, went to Chris Cook, but Bui and the other class winners all earned pro status, and he will make his flex-for-pay debut at the '06 IRON MAN Pro.
How well will Bui do as a professional? Only time will tell. But time has already proven that he's much more than a physique artist: He has a degree in biology, is a dedicated father and volunteers his time working with children who have afflictions such as ADHD and bipolar disorder.
Bui also has a strong point of view on where bodybuilding has been, where it is today and the direction it should be taking. On a warm May afternoon I gave Eryk a tour of the grounds at Pasadena City College'including a visit to the campus weight room to chat with students in a bodybuilding class. We ended up at my office, where the tape recorder was turned on, and Bui opened up.
LT: You left Vietnam when you were four years old. Where did you go?
EB: I think we went to Camp Pendleton [in California] first. I don't have a boat experience. My father was a military officer and doesn't talk about this much, but we did go by plane. We stayed with a few sponsor families. Then my parents moved to Port Arthur, Texas. At that time people were shuffled all over the country.
My parents worked several jobs to make ends meet. We [the children] took care of each other while they were out working. They saved up money and opened up a small seafood market. From there they opened up a seafood dock in Sabine Pass, about 15 miles from Port Arthur. We built the dock from the ground up, and it was a family ordeal. My father bought this crane and taught himself how to use it. The shrimpers would go out, catch the seafood and come back with it. We would unload it, pack it and ship it to where it was needed.
LT: You played high school football, didn't you?
EB: Yes I did, at Port Arthur Thomas Jefferson. I played fullback on offense and in the secondary on defense. I would have liked to wrestle, but they didn't have a team. They did have powerlifting, though, and I was a finalist at the state championships three years in a row.
LT: What were your best lifts?
EB: At 140 pounds, my best squat was 565, I benched 325, and my best deadlift was 540, I believe.
LT: Bet you were always a strong kid.
EB: Yes, the first time I ever benched, I was horsing around with the lineman in the football weight room and benched 225. My coach saw me do it, thought I had a lot of potential and started a weightlifting team.
LT: You graduated from St. Thomas University in Houston with a degree in biology, but you didn't go there right out of high school, did you?
EB: No, I originally went to St. Edwards University in Austin; I had an academic scholarship and powerlifted, but I got homesick and stayed only one year. I called up my brother, who was going to St. Thomas, and I transferred there. It was much closer to home.
LT: And the success in powerlifting continued?
EB: For sure. I won a national championship there; I squatted 600, benched 365 and deadlifted 600 at a bodyweight of 147 pounds. I've always loved the challenge of heavy weights. The combination of powerlifting and bodybuilding is the best way to build a quality physique.
LT: You were a premed student in college but decided that your cuts would come on the bodybuilding stage.
EB: I did take the MCATS and was accepted at the University of Houston, but I decided to take some time off and ended up never going. My parents still give me hell about that. It just got to the point where I wanted to do something for myself and not because my parents wanted me to.
ALLLT: How did bodybuilding enter your life?
EB: I was at the gym and met [former National overall champ] John Sherman. He knew I had a good background in powerlifting, and I talked with him about how he would benefit as a bodybuilder learning various power movements; he taught me about bodybuilding.
I entered and won my first contest, a natural show in Texas, in 1994 at about 149 pounds. It went by height classes. My first NPC contest was the John Sherman Classic the next year; I won my class.
Bodybuilding came easily to me, but I was probably dieting way too hard back then. Now I set my goals, then ease into them rather than going hard closer to the contest and hurting my chances of peaking right. A lot of the guys on the amateur circuit today make it way too hard on themselves. They peak too early or get too far out of shape and have to kill themselves to get into shape.
LT: How did you end up in California?
EB: I was doing a lot of modeling and was traveling a lot from Houston to Los Angeles. Also, I figured if I wanted to continue bodybuilding, why not make myself more accessible? It was a marketing move, and it worked out well.
LT: You retired from competition in 1999, then came back three years later to have a terrific 2002 season, winning your division at the Cal, the Los Angeles Championships and the USA. Talk about a resounding return!
EB: Yes, I wasn't going to compete anymore'never thought I had a chance of turning pro. Then in 2002 I ran into a buddy of mine named John Noonan. He was doing the Cal, and he told me to do it. That was only 20 days before the contest. I won my class but was disqualified because I wasn't eligible to compete. I had not competed in a show for three years.
After that [California judge] Ken Taylor told me to do the Los Angeles Championships, which was six weeks later. I won the middleweight class at 165. Then I went from 165 to 147 in one week and won my class at the USA.
LT: What did you do, marry a treadmill?
EB: I was 161 on Tuesday; I fasted until the weigh-in and was seven pounds under the limit. I felt like my skin was crawling [laughs]. I wouldn't suggest this technique to anyone, but I was desperate to make weight.
LT: You went to the Nationals as a middleweight and got crushed, finishing 12th.
EB: That's right. More advice for bodybuilders: West Coast bodybuilders should do the USA until they become well-known; the Nationals are more of an East Coast show. I don't think I looked bad at my first Nationals. I just got lost in the shuffle. I wasn't at my best but thought I could have finished in the top five. I went from 147 at the USA earlier in the year to 176 at the Nationals.
I made the mistake of thinking size over conditioning for that contest and the next two USAs. Conditioning was my main priority for the '04 Nationals; I was very, very focused. Like I said, the Nationals is usually an East Coast show, so my thinking was, 'I can't give the judges any choice.' I knew if I came to Dallas at the top of my game, I could not be beaten in my class.
LT: You won your pro card, told me you were going to make your pro debut at the '06 IRON MAN Pro, then backed off and told others you were going to pass on moving to the next level and would come back to the Nationals as a light heavyweight. I thought that was nuts; so did [NPC President and IFBB Vice President] Jim Manion.
EB: [Laughs] It was also marketing. I have to stay visible and didn't want to get lost in the shuffle. There have been a lot of middleweights who won, turned pro and disappeared.
I'm very competitive, and it's very hard for me to train hard, diet hard and battle for fifth through 15th. At the amateur ranks I'm right there, every time I compete.
And there were health concerns. It's no secret that it's chemical warfare at the pro level. I'd like for it to scale back, and the recent letter from Ben Weider [regarding aesthetic considerations and judging standards] sent a very positive message to me to try and push the sport back into a positive light.
LT: Do you think the judges actually will follow the guidelines'no distended midsections, no synthol, rewarding V-tapers, etc.'and not reward the people who have been dominating the sport to this point?
EB: I think it may take some time. The supplement industry is not at its all-time high right now, to say the least, and a lot of that has to do with public perception. We have a responsibility to help change the perception. I did my own survey, asking people who train whose physique they would rather have, Ronnie Coleman's or David Henry's. Invariably, it was Henry's.
LT: If you ask people walking down Colorado Boulevard [Pasadena's main strip] whose physique they'd rather have, mine or Ronnie's, I might win that too. On the other hand, there are the people who pay the big-ticket prices at the Olympia, the Arnold and other major contests. Who do they want to see onstage? Body'building is a muscle show, and people want to see freaks'especially if they're spending a lot of cash.
EB: Yeah, but there was a time when bodybuilding was admired'when there were physiques that people could attain. Yes, people will pay the big bucks to see a freak show, which is what it is today, but we don't want that. I really love the sport of bodybuilding and want to see it go back to the days of beautiful physiques that also looked healthy.
Guys like Steve Reeves, Lee Labrada, who looked great year-round. I mean, somebody who is fat in the off-season, hardly recognizable, then kills himself for three or four months to look good the day of the contest'that's not what bodybuilding should be about. It should be about looking in shape all the time.
Not only do you look bad when you go up and down in weight, it's a serious health risk. It's bad for the heart.
LT: The IRON MAN is nearly nine months away, but you look to be in good shape right now.
EB: I'm 205 pounds at about 8 percent bodyfat. With my powerlifting background, I'm always lifting heavy. But, as I caution people, you have to lift heavy but lift smart. I go heavy on bench presses and squats but don't always push it on deadlifts because that can cause your torso to thicken up. Keep your waist small, and the rest of you will look big.
My heart is not in it to get freaky; That's never been my game. I'm sure I could get up to 215 pounds and still look decent, but I'm very active, and have a son [Austin, who's eight] to think about. I want to be able to run around with him and enjoy life.
LT: I know you're very proud of your son, but most people don't know that there's a story behind the story.
EB: That's true. Back in 2000, I was going through a very bitter custody battle with my ex-wife. She was living in Texas at the time, and my son and I were here in California. In the end the judge awarded her physical custody.
LT: You must have been crushed.
EB: I was broken and shaken. I walked away with nothing left to fight with. Dealing with life without my son was the hardest thing I had ever endured. I was spiraling downward fast, without the will or strength to break my fall. I had to do something fast to make the emotional trauma subside. I didn't want to eat; I couldn't function. Being slaughtered in court and losing my rights as a father made me feel as if I had no control over anything.
LT: How did you get through those difficult times?
EB: I turned to the one thing that I had always been able to excel at'weightlifting. I went to the gym every day to vent my frustrations and build up an ample supply of endorphins to combat my depression. To help my focus, I ran three miles every day. My sense of control and focus eventually returned after almost a year of serious gym training.
Looking back, I could not have made it back out of my abyss without bodybuilding. It gave me back my sense of control and taught me to never give up because you never know what can happen unless you try. It reminds me of the old saying, 'When life gives you nothing but sour lemons to work with, make lemonade and always keep your glass half full.'
LT: How often do you see Austin now?
EB: I get Austin for the traditional holidays'Thanksgiving and Christmas. I also get him for the summer, and I try to see him every two or three months. Austin's my biggest fan'and my biggest critic. He's at all my national shows, and I can hear him in the audience, shouting out, telling me to flex my legs, lift my chest, stuff like that. He's already a better poser than I am!
LT: You have your own one-on-one personal-training business, correct?
EB: Yes I do. It's in Santa Ana, about five miles from where I live. It's on the 10th floor of an office building. I have a good clientele.
LT: Let's take a closer look at next season's IRON MAN. You'll be hitting the stage at about 190?
EB: At the Nationals I weighed in at 173; by prejudging I was 184. At the finals I was 191; I think I'll be around 190 to 195 at my pro debut.
LT: What do you bring to pro bodybuilding?
EB: What you saw at the Nationals: good muscle bellies, small joints, balance. I need to work on my back'my width is okay, but I need to bring up my lower lats. Whenever I hit a front double-biceps, I envision a perfect circle. That really shows onstage. I also can get hard and striated'anyone can be big and soft.
LT: Can you be a good pro?
EB: Absolutely. I can see myself cracking the top five at the IRON MAN.
LT: You're only the second Asian bodybuilder to go pro in the United States'Kris Dim was the first'and one of three Asians pros in the world, including Japan's Hidetada Yamagishi. Is that a plus?
EB: I think so. I think I'll be very marketable with the Asian population; there has been some talk of a pro federation starting up in China. If that ever happens, that would be a great opportunity. By the way, how come Weider/AMI hasn't signed any Asian bodybuilders?
LT: I don't know. I work for IRON MAN. By the way, Weider/AMI has in fact signed an Asian bodybuilder, Kris Dim.
EB: Oh, okay, why don't they sign two? [Bui and L.T. crack up].
LT: Where do you train?
EB: At two places'24-Hour Fitness in Costa Mesa and Gold's Gym in Huntington Beach.
LT: What's a typical precontest training protocol for you?
EB: I do a four-on/one-off routine. I used to try to hit each bodypart three times a week, but couldn't do it. I do bi's and chest on day one, shoulders and tri's on day two, back and calves on day three, and quads and hamstrings on day four. Then I take a day off and do the same cycle again. I train once a day, even prior to a contest.
I do a minimum of three sets, a maximum of six, per exercise. My reps range from three to 20, and I do three to four exercises per bodypart. It also depends on how I feel. You have to listen to your body. If I'm tired that day, I'll do less weight, more reps. I never do light weight'lifting small weights builds small bodies.
LT: Can you list a typical routine?
Day 1: Chest and biceps
barbell presses 7 x 20, 20, 6-10,
1-2, 1-2, 15-20, 15-20
Incline barbell presses
4 x 20, 20, 8-10, 8-10
presses 5 x 15-20
Dumbbell flyes 5 x 10-12
Barbell curls 6 x 15, 10, 10,
5-8, 2-4, 2-4
6 x 10, 10, 10, 4-6, 4-6, 10
Day 2: Shoulders and triceps
5 x 20, 15, 10, 5-8, 5-8
Dumbbell overhead presses
5 x 20, 20, 15, 12, 12
Dumbbell lateral raises
5 x 20, 15, 10, 10, 20
EZ-curl bar extensions
5 x 12, 8-10, 8-10, 8-10, 12
Incline dumbbell extensions
5 x 8-10
Day 3: Back and calves
Bent-over barbell rows
6 x 20, 20, 20, 15, 12, 6-8
One-arm dumbbell rows
(per arm) 4 x 12, 10, 10, 10
Seated machine calf raises
3-4 x 20
Leg press calf raises 3-4 x 20
Machine donkey calf raises
3-4 x 20
Day 4: Quads and hamstrings
Squats 7 x 20, 15, 12, 10, 5-8, 2, 1
Leg presses 4 x 30*
5 x 15, 12, 10, 10, 10
6 x 20, 12, 10, 5-8, 5-8, 5-8
*I use the leg press as a secondary movement, in addition to squats. I always squat and never use the leg press as a primary movement. A single set consists of 10 reps with my feet together to hit my outer sweep, 10 reps with my feet shoulder width to hit the medial portion of my quads, and 10 reps with my feet in a sumo stance to hit my inner thighs. It's an awesome compound movement.
LT: You're one strong sucker. Didn't you bench-press your weight, 195, 50 times at the Olympia Expo?
EB: Yes, I did. And it's on tape if people don't believe it. That same weekend I shot my first DVD, called 'Taking Care of Business,' and made a prediction that I would win the Nationals. I'm squatting 600 for reps on the DVD, and that was only three weeks before the Nationals.
LT: What are your best squat and bench?
EB: My best squat is 725. My best bench is 495. I've also deadlifted 670 in the past, but I don't go that heavy anymore.
LT: Any major injuries?
EB: Not really'I'm very strict with my movements. I concentrate on the negative. I go slow and controlled. I'm not thinking quads on squats; I'm thinking glutes and hamstrings to support me going down. I'll think quads on the way up. You have to distribute the weight.
LT: Any advice for natural bodybuilders?
EB: They need to lift heavier more often. You have to stimulate your body, give it a reason to grow. If I don't feel that soreness the next day, I don't grow. You also have to eat well. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are solid meals; I take shakes or eat bars for my other meals. For those who are just starting out, make sure you have breakfast, lunch and dinner nailed before you start thinking about protein shakes, bars and powders.
LT: Speaking of food, it seems as if you always stay hungry'hungry to continually improve.
EB: Well, I love the sport and will continue to do it'as long as it stays fun. I have other things going on in my life and can walk away from it as well and be content.
Editor's note: To contact Eryk Bui for personal appearances'or if you can get him a deal with Weider/AMI'log on to his Web site, www.erykbui.com, or write to him at 2855 Pinecreek Dr., A420, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. IM