“Winners do what they fear.” Otherwise known as “The Sardinian Samson,” Franco Columbu is one of those classic bodybuilders like Arnold “The Austrian Oak” Schwarzenegger who everyone instantly idolizes. In fact, the two bodybuilding greats competed on the professional circuit at the same time and quickly established a close friendship that lasted for decades. So, what was so special about Columbu other than his friendship with the Terminator himself? Standing at only 5’4” tall and weighing 194 pounds, Columbu proved that even small bodybuilders can become legends after winning four Mr. Olympia competitions and numerous powerlifting titles.
Long before he ever imagined taking the bodybuilding stage, Columbu was born and raised on the Italian island of Ollolai, Sardinia in the 1940s. Shorter than most of his classmates, he was first introduced to boxing as a teen and refused to let his small stature work against him as he became the amateur boxing champion of Italy. Although he enjoyed the sport, he never intended to pursue boxing on a professional level and eventually turned his attention to bigger passions like weightlifting and bodybuilding to add muscle. Before long, he put boxing in the rearview mirror and focused on bodybuilding full time.
Knowing he would have to work twice as hard to build his small frame, Columbu initially trained as both a powerlifter and an Olympic weightlifter before progressing to actual bodybuilding after seeing the results of his hard work and making a new friend. In fact, he was busy training for an upcoming bodybuilding tournament in Munich in 1965 when he met amateur bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two quickly became close friends and sealed Columbu’s fate in bodybuilding thanks to a healthy competitive streak between friends.
Columbu saw his fame continue to blossom as an Olympic weightlifter and powerlifter especially after winning powerlifting titles like the Champion of Europe, the Champion of Germany and the Champion of Italy. By the late 1960s, people were referring to him as the “strongest man in the world” as he took stage after stage giving his “strongman act.” During the performance, he showed off his strength by lifting cars while someone else changed a tire, orally inflating a hot water bottle until it ruptured, and deadlifting over 750 pounds.
While building his reputation as one of the strongest men in the world, Columbu was also becoming a big name in the bodybuilding industry with an impressive winning streak. Typically entering in each contest’s short division, he won the 1969 and 1970 IFBB Mr. Europe contests, the 1969, 1970 and 1971 IFBB Mr. Universe, and the 1970 IFBB Mr. World. In 1974, he made his Mr. Olympia debut in the lightweight category weighing under 200 pounds, which prevented him from competing against his friend, Schwarzenegger. As luck would have it, Columbu won the 1974 Mr. Olympia title as a lightweight and Schwarzenegger won the 1974 as a heavyweight, which happened again in 1975. In 1976, Schwarzenegger sat out the competition as his friend took home yet another Mr. Olympia lightweight title.
Tragedy struck in 1977 when Columbu was injured during the World’s Strongest Man competition. At the time, he was taking part in the infamous refrigerator race, which involved wearing a heavy refrigerator strapped to his back while racing downhill. During the race, Columbu stumbled to the ground and severely dislocated his leg. The incident was aired on live television with millions watching. The Italian bodybuilder later sued the World’s Strongest Man competition and received a $1 million settlement for the injury.
Determined to return to the bodybuilding stage stronger than ever, Columbu did exactly that in 1981 when he won the Mr. Olympia title once more and for the last time. Interestingly enough, this was his biggest victory as the 1981 contest was the first time all bodybuilders competed against each other in the same category. With Schwarzenegger retiring in 1980 after winning the title, Columbu never got the chance to compete against his friend but his 1981 victory was especially sweet considering he beat men twice his size in every category.
Toward the end of his bodybuilding career, Columbu cashed in on his fame and friendship with Schwarzenegger as he debuted as an actor with his first appearance—albeit uncredited—in the 1976 flick, Stay Hungry. He appeared in minor roles in several Schwarzenegger films like Pumping Iron, Conan The Barbarian, The Terminator and The Running Man. He also appeared as himself in the 1998 Hollywood Salutes Arnold Schwarzenegger: A Cinematheque Tribute and in the 2002 Raw Iron: The Making of Pumping Iron with his name most recently appearing in a video game of Terminator 3 where he’s listed as “The Columbu Terminator.”
Aside from bodybuilding and acting, Columbu is also a certified chiropractor after earning his Doctor of Chiropractic degree from the Cleveland Chiropractic College in 1977. After years of practicing, the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners ordered Columbu to stop claiming that he had a doctorate in nutrition on his letterhead in 2004. Despite the obvious misrepresentation, Columbu was later appointed to the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners in 2006 when his friend, Schwarzenegger, was elected Governor of California. Although the issue raised eyebrows, Columbu continued to serve on the Board until January 2014.
Today, the 75-year-old seems to be enjoying his retirement to the fullest especially after receiving the 2009 Arnold Classic Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the professional bodybuilding industry. And, as you can imagine, he doesn’t let his age stop him from pumping iron as he frequently works out with Schwarzenegger and even documents his training with the Austrian Oak on YouTube. While he may no longer bench press 525 pounds, squat 655 pounds or deadlift 750 pounds, the fact that the 75-year-old still makes his way to the gym is certainly impressive. After all, he said it best, “I’m the strongest bodybuilder who ever lived, I think.”