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Winning the Natural Mr. Universe

Winning a Bodybuilding competition is not as easy as it looks. I’ve had my share of victories in my long bodybuilding career but I’ve also experienced some pretty tough losses too. I’ve never taken any contest lightly but sometimes things just don’t go your way, no matter how hard you try.

Last year, in 2011, I decided to compete again after a long seven year layoff. I completely missed my peak and felt really out of place onstage after such a long time away from competition. I felt both embarrassed and mad at myself for taking things so lightly and I resolved to come back and win again.

When the INBA (International Natural Bodybuilders Association) announced that the Natural Mr. Universe would be held in my hometown of Chicago in 2012, I knew that this would be my next competition. When I realized that this would be 20 years since winning my first Natural Mr. Universe title in 1992, I felt like it was destiny that I would win the title again.

I began my training program to win the Natural Mr. Universe title on January 2nd, 2012. I trained with conviction and purpose all year long and I believed in my heart that I was going to win. Because it was going to be in Chicago, many local bodybuilders were making lots of noise and posting pictures on Facebook on how they were going to be the ones to beat in the contest. I basically ignored all the internet posturing and just stuck with my game plan to make the necessary improvements in my physique. I used all the talk and the boasting to fuel my motivation and train even harder!

I began my diet at 24 weeks out from the contest. Although I was in off season training when I started my diet, I was still pretty lean so I probably didn’t need that much time to get ready. I didn’t care though because I was so hungry to win, I was willing to go through any sacrifice in order to give myself the best chance for victory. I knew that no matter what happened on contest day, NO ONE was going to train or diet harder than me. I was willing to give it 110% all year and I was pretty certain that no one wanted to win this title more than I did.

In order to not feel so uncomfortable onstage this year, I decided to do a warm-up show at least a month before the Natural Universe contest. I wanted to go through the whole process of pumping up backstage, going through the poses at the prejudging and then repeating the process at the evening show. I didn’t really care how I did in my warm-up show, it was more just to get the kinks out and feel more at home competing.

This year, I decided to hire a “contest prep guru” to make sure I hit my peak and not flatten out like I did last year.  A friend of mine recommended a contest prep coach in the Chicago area who was developing a good reputation for bringing his clients in peak condition on the day of the show so I decided to use him. This guru uses a high carb approach to make sure his clients are full and hard on the day it counts. Seeing as how I was too flat for my show last year, I thought this would be a good coach to use.

Unfortunately, my contest prep guru didn’t have the right approach for me. He had me gradually increase my carbs during the last week before my warm-up show and I overspilled on the day it counted. In fact, my weight went up five pounds on the day of the show and my waist was up a full inch the day after the show. I entered the Masters division in an NPC competition called the Sunset Classic. With only four competitors in my class, I took a very disappointing third place. After this bad experience, I decided to drop my contest prep guru and just do things on my own.

With all of my years experience, I feel like I have enough basic knowledge about nutrition and I know what works for my body. However, it’s always good to have another set of eyes who can look at your physique and give you an honest opinion on how you are looking. I did consult with a couple friends of mine who are also very good Natural Bodybuilders. Layne Norton is a Professional Natural Bodybuilder and is well known in the industry as a contest prep coach. Another friend of mine, Dave Vignasse (, also helps prepare competitors for the stage and Dave also has an extensive competitive history behind him.

Layne helped me map out a game plan for the diet in the last month leading up to the show. For the last couple of weeks, I was talking to Dave almost every day and getting his input on the numbers (protein, carbs and fats) I was eating so I could peak perfectly on the day of the show. For the last week of my preparation, I decided to not do the typical “peak week” that so many competitors used. I didn’t think it was worth the risk to carb deplete, carb load, sodium load, sodium deplete, etc, etc. After the disaster that happened with my warm-up show, I thought it would be better to just keep everything the same and glide into the show in great shape. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

For my posing routine, I decided to come out as the Dark Knight. After seeing the highly anticipated film, “The Dark Knight Rises”, over the summer, I used the film as motivation for my contest prep. I loved the whole story of Bruce Wayne/Batman and how he tried to swing back into action after a long 7 year layoff. Unfortunately, he underestimated the competition and the formidable villain Bane literally broke him and exiled Bruce Wayne to a prison dungeon on the other side of the world. It was only after Wayne embraced his fears that he was able to escape his fate and return to the dominant figure he was in the past.

Because the INBA allows for the use of props and costumes onstage, I decided to rent a mask and cape of the Dark Knight and record a voice over at the beginning of my posing routine. I related it to my own individual comeback and how I was going to win tonight. I even used the same music for my posing that I used in 1992, when I won the Natural Mr. Universe the first time. The crowd loved it and I even won the Best Poser Award that evening.

2012 Natural Mr. Universe posing routine

They say that bodybuilding competitions are won backstage before they are onstage. If you ever competed in a contest before or have been backstage when the competitors are pumping up, you probably know what I mean. The competitors that do the best seem to have an aura around them that exudes confidence. They dominate the pump-up room with their confidence and their winning attitude. When I competed in my warm-up show, I noticed that about the guy who won my class. He was very busy pumping up and quickly moving around backstage. He was gregarious and loud but not in a cocky way, it was just a means of psyching himself up for the contest. I took note of that and I thought about how I would conduct myself backstage for the Natural Universe contest a month later.

My friend from Chicago, Kimie, offered to help me out in getting ready for my contest. I told her to pick up a large mirror from the store because I wasn’t sure if the contest promoters would have any mirrors backstage in the pump up room. In addition to the mirror, Kimie also brought along a lawn chair so I could put my feet up and relax backstage. My persona is not an aggressive, psych out your opponents attitude that Arnold Schwarzenegger exemplified in the movie “Pumping Iron”. I prefer more quiet confidence and keeping to myself backstage before it’s time to battle onstage.

I’m not sure if I psyched anyone out by lounging in my chair backstage with my feet up but it helped to keep me relaxed and stress free. It also got the attention of everyone backstage. They were all looking at me and thinking, “Who the hell is this guy acting like he’s the king back here?”. I had the only mirror in the pump up room set up next to me and all the other competitors were coming by and posing in front of it. At one point, one of the bodybuilders competing in my class pulled his shirt up and hit an ab shot right in front of me. I smiled to myself when I realized that my abs looked more ripped than his.

I waited a little longer than everyone else before I started pumping up. There was another room off to the side of the pump up room that no one was using so I went back there with my “entourage” and starting preparing for the contest. I had another coat of tanning applied to me and then started pumping up, hidden out of sight from the rest of the competitors. When it was finally time to line up, I came out into the pump up room all pumped and oiled up. I don’t know if my approach psyched anyone out but it gave me the feeling of being “special” and on a different level than the rest of my competitors.

The prejudging went smoothly and I felt from the call-outs that it was between me and another competitor for first place. He was a very tall (about 6’3″) with a good upper body and in good condition. I had better legs than him and I looked better in the majority of the mandatory poses so I was feeling good about taking first. At the end of the comparisons, the head judge surprisingly called for a 3/4 back pose, not one of the standard mandatory poses. Because this is one of my favorite poses, I paused for a second and then smoothly hit the pose while the other competitors were trying to figure out how to execute the shot. The crowd roared their approval and I was certain of victory from that moment.


Video of the Final Placings

The Evening Show was a delight because I had some of my closest friends and all of my family there to support me. My nephews were able to see me compete for the first time because they were not alive or very young the last time I was onstage. I won the first place Gold Medal along with a massive sword for the Best Poser award. What a contrast to when I won the Natural Mr. Universe the first time in 1992. For that contest, I had traveled alone to California and won the title I always wanted to win without the support of my family and friends. To win the contest 20 years later in front of my hometown crowd was a great feeling!



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