Robby Robinson, who as a professional bodybuilder was known as the Black Prince, never ascended to the Mr. Olympia throne but came close to winning it’twice. Over the course of a 26-year competitive bodybuilding career Robby won every other available title, including the Mr. America, Mr. World, Mr. Universe and countless others. Robby proved his competitive longevity by winning the inaugural Masters Mr. Olympia contest in 1994, defeating such other great champions as Lou Ferrigno and ’82 Mr. Olympia Chris Dickerson. He won the over-50 division of the contest every year until he tossed in his posing trunks for good after the ’01 Masters show.
Robby was born in Damascus, Georgia, on May 24, 1946, but in 1948 moved with his family to Tallahassee, Florida, where he grew up. He began training at age 13 but was already an accomplished student athlete, and he stills holds a few high school track records in Florida. Robby’s prowess in football and track led to an athletic scholarship to Florida A&M University, which his then idol, Bob Hayes (formerly the world’s fastest man, and the only man to win an Olympic gold medal in track and play in the Super Bowl), also attended. While training for track and football, he noticed that he responded rapidly to weight training and decided to try a few amateur bodybuilding competitions. In his first contest he placed second to Ellington Darden, who later became a well-known high-intensity-training advocate and author. Undaunted by this initial loss, Robby went on to victory in more than 300 amateur events before turning pro in 1975.
After establishing himself as the preeminent professional bodybuilder of the ’70s, Robby seemingly disappeared. In reality, he moved to Amsterdam to take advantage of the many offers he was getting for posing and seminars. He lived in Europe from 1979 to 1983 but still showed up in a few contests.
During his heyday in bodybuilding, Robby seemed to be an introvert in a notably extroverted activity. That image likely stemmed from his total focus in the gym, where he usually wore dark sunglasses. In fact, he kept notably silent throughout his career. Yet anyone who knew him understood that much was brewing behind those dark shades.
Now that he’s retired from competition, Robby has decided to tell it like it is: how he really feels about the state of bodybuilding, as it was then and as it is now. What follows is the rare candor of a great champion.
Q: How did you look when you first began training?
A: My father was a big man, about 6’2′ and 230 pounds, and my mother was a big woman. I seemed to get the best physical traits of both, so I was what you would call mesomorphic, or naturally muscular, from the start.
Q: You were a great track and football athlete. What made you choose bodybuilding?
A: I met a top bodybuilder in Florida named Richard Baldwin, who was also a teacher. He introduced me to all the bodybuilding magazines of the time. I recall being particularly impressed with a photo of none other than Joe Weider, who was posing with two pretty girls at his side. I decided then and there that this was for me; I wanted to be a bodybuilder.
Q: What would you say is the most significant event of your bodybuilding career?
A: I remember competing against Rich Gaspari during a series of pro contests in the late ’80s. At one show they brought Rich and me onstage, and we had to go through all the mandatory poses. When I threw the double-biceps, it seemed like everyone in the audience yelled, ‘It’s yours, Robby.’ That happened with every other pose I threw. Even though Rich won the show, the audience reaction made me feel proud and confident, and it’s a feeling I never forgot.
I also got a lot of satisfaction after the ’00 Masters Mr. Olympia, when photos of myself and Vince Taylor were published. I could see that I was clearly in better shape that year. Not long after that I retired.
Q: What was the most discouraging aspect of your bodybuilding career?
A: I think it was around ’89 or so. I wasn’t doing as well as expected in some contests, and they canceled my [Weider] contract. That was quite a discouraging moment.
Q: When were you in your best-ever shape?
A: I’ve had a number of times when I achieved peak condition, but the year that stands out most was in the series of contests against Rich Gaspari in the late ’80s. It seemed that every time I appeared, the audience made it clear from their response that I was the best, and I knew it too. I was also in great shape at the ’00 Masters Mr. Olympia.
Q: Of all the contests that you’ve won, which victory are you proudest of?
A: Probably the Mr. World in ’75. That was my first pro show, and I didn’t have a clue what to do. So I walked out onstage and threw five mandatory poses. It stands out because I was so close to the judges table that I could see how they marked their score sheets: They all had me in first place. It was a great moment. They never called me back, just had everyone else pose after that.
Q: Does it bother you that you came so close, yet never won the Mr. Olympia title?
A: I’m not the type of person who complains, but I got plenty of negative publicity back then. I also competed in too many shows during the year, so by the time the Mr. Olympia rolled around, it was hard to peak again. But objectively, out of the three times I competed against him, I’d have to say that Frank Zane deserved to win at least twice. He was lean but muscular, and that’s what true bodybuilding is. I’m talking here about the shape of the muscles, the inherent clean lines that make for an aesthetic physique.
Q: What kind of negative publicity did you get?
A: When I first started out, you weren’t supposed to dress a certain way. You had to have a conservative appearance deemed acceptable to the public. I, on the other hand, dressed in way that could be described as defiant. I wore torn shirts to the gym, had braids in my hair, and that caused concern among some people that I didn’t present the best image of a professional bodybuilder. I just wasn’t clean-cut enough for the time. Compared to the clean-cut image that Zane presented, I looked downright rebellious in some people’s minds. But I never let such negative thoughts affect me at the time. I just knew that to be the best, you had to be consumed by bodybuilding, and that’s all I thought about.
Q: Were you trying to make any type of statement with your gym attire?
A: My only reason for dressing the way I did was pure comfort. I just liked the feeling of the clothes I wore. I was proud of my physique and figured, Why hide it under a bunch of clothes? It was never anything more than that. I never intended to come across as arrogant or defiant. Comfort was my only motive. I was also quiet and introverted, which added to the effect, since I never explained anything at the time. People thus put their own spin on it. I was getting hate mail, phone threats; you wouldn’t believe how what I wore irked some people. My philosophy, however, was to turn negative responses to positive energy.
Q: How does your training differ today from what you did 25 years ago?
A: I’ve changed nothing. I’m still balls to the wall in the gym’the Tasmanian Devil. I love it because I love bodybuilding. I still train heavy, just like I did 25 years ago. My belief is that if you take care of yourself through sensible training, good nutrition and so on, you don’t have to make many concessions to age. I still eat my four to five meals a day, drink my protein drinks, just like I did in years past. I eat about 2,500 calories a day, more on training days, less on rest days. I do take supplements, such as various antioxidants that affect not just muscle but overall health. I do one less set for most exercises than I did in the past, but I always do two very heavy sets. No playing around. I won’t lift Mickey Mouse weights; I’m a bodybuilder.
Q: What’s your secret to staying in shape year-round?
A: That comes down to good nutrition. I eat clean all the time. I control stress through participating in activities that relax me outside the gym, such as gardening. I also enjoy my current business of designing scarves and traveling to promote that business.
Q: When you competed, did you favor any particular type of diet for getting in ripped contest condition?
A: I had about three different eating plans, which I’d vary to prevent my body from getting used to one type of plan. That worked best for me. As I said earlier, I adjust my calorie intake to the workout. When I trained smaller muscles, such as arms, I’d eat less than what I ate when I was doing thigh or back training. I never cut out carbs, preferring to eat such natural carb sources as whole grains, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables. When I ate eggs, I’d eat mostly egg whites but always included at least one yolk. I guess you can say that I ate the way I felt. If I felt I needed more energy, I’d simply eat more. I always consumed about 400 grams of protein a day because you need protein to build muscle. My fat intake came from natural sources, such as flaxseed oil and balanced oil blends. I’d take about two tablespoons of such oils with each meal.
Q: Have the judging procedures for bodybuilding competitions improved or regressed over the years?
A: The guys under contract with Weider are usually in good shape. They are the true professionals, in a sense, because their contract demands that they show up in condition. It’s simply their job to be in shape because that’s how they make their living, so they are motivated.
On the other hand, I’m disappointed by the efforts the IFBB has put into bodybuilding as a sport. When you hear rumors that contest officials are taking money off the top from sponsors and the promoters, you start to wonder where their loyalty is. Although ticket prices to most contests have risen significantly, you still see many pro contests offering the same money they did 15 years ago. [Editor’s note: The exceptions are the Mr. Olympia and the Arnold Classic. Prize money at those two contest has increased significantly.] By the time you pay your so-called guru, subtract the chemicals, food, tanning bed and so on, you’re flat broke. I think it’s a shame’just a losing battle for the bodybuilders.
Since the IFBB is the only organization that promotes pro bodybuilding shows, as a bodybuilder you are at their mercy. If you voice any opinion that they consider contrary, your career is over. That’s what happened to Aaron Baker. I think the progress of bodybuilding competition over the past few years is just pathetic; it’s at the bottom of the totem pole.
Q: What’s your opinion about the present crop of top pro male bodybuilders?
A: Chris Cormier has an impressive physique. And for the first two years he won the Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman looked nothing short of phenomenal. But then he started showing a bloated gut. You can’t be Mr. Olympia and have your stomach sticking out. In fact, I think any of the guys who stand onstage with a bloated abdomen should be embarrassed. I would never compete looking like that. If you’re a pro, your first responsibility is to be in shape. And shape is not with your gut hanging out. When Jay Cutler showed up with great abs last year, I thought that was the smartest thing the kid could do. He actually did beat Coleman throughout the prejudging.
Flex Wheeler is the most genetically gifted bodybuilder, but he seems lazy to me, as if his heart really isn’t in it. You’ve got to work hard to be a top pro, regardless of genetics. I think that if Flex really busted his butt, no one could beat him. He’s that good. He’s got everything’small joints, full muscles, the whole nine yards. He’s got to get in there and do some heavy deadlifts like Ronnie and get serious.
Q: Your competitive career spanned more than 25 years. Do you think any of the present pros will match that record?
A: I doubt it. I think there are too many drugs taken today, and that exacts a cost physically. I mean, look at stuff like synthol [a fat emulsion used for muscle-size enhancement]. Anyone who shoots that into their muscles has got to be nuts. I see photos in the magazines of bodybuilders with holes in their biceps from using that stuff. I think the IFBB needs to get tough with kids using crap like synthol’for their own good.
I heard that Andreas Munzer was taking about 44 different drugs at the time of his death. No bodybuilder should ever have to take that quantity of drugs. It’s ridiculous. Another sad case was Momo Benaziza, who also died tragically from a drug overdose. Who’s going to take care of his wife now? The IFBB needs to get serious about drug testing; otherwise more fatal cases are inevitable, with the types and quantities of drugs used today. Bodybuilders are supposed to be paragons of health, yet that’s hardly the case these days.
When those drug problems leak out, the public expresses total disgust with bodybuilders, assuming we are all just a bunch of drug-crazed idiots who would resort to anything just to get bigger or more muscular. I think that’s one reason bodybuilding contests aren’t as popular as they were in years past.
Q: Why is the bloated ab look so pervasive in the pro ranks?
A: It’s the drugs. What do you expect to happen when you inject 18 units a day of growth hormone like some of these guys are doing? The guys today are using drug regimens that were unheard of years ago. An example is combining growth hormone with insulin: a combo that usually results in a bloated-gut appearance.
I worked with a ‘coach’ in preparation for the 2000 Masters Mr. Olympia, and the guy wanted me to inject 800 milligrams of testosterone cypionate a day. He also told me to take 500 milligrams of Dianabol a day; four units of growth hormone a day. I looked at the drug list he gave me and said, ‘Not in this lifetime!’ He wanted me to be the biggest guy onstage, but I didn’t care about being the biggest; I wanted to be the guy in the best shape.
Q: How do those so-called gurus devise drug programs?
A: The guys who listen to those self-styled experts don’t even know their own bodies. In short, I don’t think the suggested drug programs are based on anything factual. But I do know what they lead to’things like bloated guts and ugly bodies, as well as potentially serious medical problems.
Q: How do the champions of your era compare to today’s top guys?
A: As I said earlier, I think Chris Cormier is a great bodybuilder. He’s muscular, symmetrical and never shows that bloated-gut look. Ronnie Coleman initially looked fantastic, until he went overboard in the mass quest, leading to the bloated-gut look he now shows. Kevin Levrone looked overtrained for a few years, but at the ’02 Olympia he regained his old form and then some. In fact, I thought he should have defeated Ronnie, but the old IFBB political dog reared its ugly head again, and they gave Coleman another gift, much to the chagrin of the audience. Milos Sarcev also has a nice body, as does Dexter Jackson.
I’ll tell you one thing, though, if the top bodybuilders of my era ever took the same type of drugs routinely used by today’s top pros, we would wipe these current guys off the stage. Most of us trained far harder and were more dedicated and serious about our training and diets. Because of that, I think the champions of the past would have been just as big as many of the present champs, but with a far higher level of physique quality. Aesthetics were always an important consideration in the past, not just the acquisition of mere size.
Q: Could a bodybuilder realistically compete today without using drugs?
A: With the present standard of judging established by the IFBB, the biggest guy wins. A former Mr. Olympia such as Frank Zane would be deemed too small today, and he won the title three times. One step in the right direction would be a shift in the judging to take into account factors other than size, such as symmetry, definition and a good aesthetic look, minus things like bloated guts. While the mass behemoths do appeal to some hardcore fans, most people are completely turned off by too much mass at the expense of aesthetics. We’ve lost our core audience.
Q: How would you respond to a statement that your body was the result of just using drugs such as anabolic steroids?
A: I would say that anyone who voices that opinion doesn’t know me. I’d estimate that about 80 percent of any success I’ve achieved as a pro bodybuilding competitor resulted from plain old busting my butt in the gym, day in and day out, for years. Look at Coleman. The weights he uses are humongous. How can he not be huge? He’s probably the strongest bodybuilder in the game.
Q: What’s the major error being made by bodybuilders today?
A: Not knowing their own bodies. You must observe and experiment to learn the best ways to peak for a contest. No one else can do that for you. Everything has to be precise, as if it were on a time clock. You have to eat right, and you have be in the right frame of mind to peak perfectly. That comes with experience. It’s an art.
Q: What do you think about competitors getting so out of shape between shows?
A: It’s a mistake. I don’t think you should deviate drastically from your peak contest weight or you’ll just add fat. I think that any bodybuilder should be able to reach peak contest condition in about two months. You have to be consistent in your training, eating and rest. If it works out right, you’ll be in a kind of flow, where you can glide into contest shape, rather than having to resort to drastic measures. You’ll know when you’re in that flow because you’ll be excited about competing, rather than dreading it. Too often, guys mistime the process and wind up reaching peak shape about two days after the contest. Many of those guys depend too much on the drugs, which often backfires, leading to disaster on the day of the show.
Q: What is it about bodybuilding that you didn’t like over the years?
A: I didn’t like the pressure put on me to be someone other than myself. Some of the powers that control bodybuilding suggested that I change my usual clothing style to something more ‘presentable.’ They said I should be like Leroy Colbert [a bodybuilder from the 1950s famous for his huge arm development and engaging personality], but I’m not Leroy Colbert, I’m Robby Robinson. I think they should respect me for who I am. But in a way, I used that to my advantage. I figured if they want to portray me as a bad guy, I’ll be a bad guy, no big deal. What they said didn’t really matter to me.
Q: Some people have accused you of being arrogant, since you seem almost antisocial in the gym. How would you respond to that?
A: I wasn’t trying to behave in a way to purposely piss anyone off. I just took my training very seriously, and I didn’t want to get involved in any conversations in the gym. I was there only to train, not hang out. The gym is my little world for an hour, and when I’m there, I like to be left alone.
Q: Many magazines lead people to believe that anyone can be a bodybuilding champion. Do you agree?
A: I think that people should take an objective look at themselves and decide whether they have the physical and mental attributes required for success in professional bodybuilding competition. That involves things like aesthetics, bone structure, muscle shape and so on. Bodybuilding offers great rewards for anyone, but not everyone is cut out to be a champion. You cannot change muscle shape, regardless of what anyone says. It’s strictly genetic. Taking drugs won’t work either, unless you also possess the favorable genetics to go with it.
Q: I don’t recall any great emphasis on aerobics years ago. Did the past bodybuilding champs do aerobics?
A: We used walk up and down the stairs from the beach in Santa Monica. There was no great emphasis on aerobics back then. We never had to do extensive aerobics because few of us got totally out of shape in the off-season, as is common today.
Q: Some pro bodybuilders have complained about the ‘old boy’ IFBB judging system, where they use the same group of judges at the Mr. Olympia year after year. Is that a true problem?
A: They’ve got to clean up that judging system. Some of the people judging today were judging me 20 years ago. While experience is usually an asset, a lack of objective judging is not. I’d love to judge pro shows, and I think other pros would too. They would be objective and vote for the best physique onstage. I have no doubt about it.
Q: You’re 56, but how old do you feel?
A: I certainly don’t feel my age. I’m as enthusiastic as ever. I have my supplement company, UBT, and I have another company called Body and Art that sells custom-designed scarves that’s also doing well. I feel great, better than ever.
Q: What changes need to made in bodybuilding?
A: Freaky physiques are not better. I think we’ve lost our core audience. Ticket prices to the contests are outrageous, yet the prize money offered is stagnant. I think magazines need to tone down the T and A’and I don’t mean traps and abs. It only adds to bodybuilding’s bad reputation and drives people away from what could be a rewarding activity.
Editor’s note: For more information on Robby Robinson, check out his official Web site at www.robbyrobinson.net. IM