You might know him as “The Freakin’ ‘Rican.” From a scrawny kid growing up in Puerto Rico to a 245-pound muscle-clad man known as “The Freakin’ ‘Rican,” Gustavo Badell might not be the most popular or well-known bodybuilder in the industry, but his story of success is certainly inspiring. Born in Venezuela on November 3, 1972, Badell moved to Puerto Rico with his family when he was five years old. Despite being considered small for his age, he refused to let his size stand in the way of his competitive streak and dedicated himself to becoming the best amateur boxer and kickboxer around. However, with his opponents continuously ripping through him like it was nothing, Badell discovered his fierce attitude and determination could only take him so far as he finally took his coach’s advice and began weight training with the hopes of adding some much-needed muscle to match his opponents punch for punch and kick for kick.
While his friends were busy hanging out and going to the movies, Badell hit the gym hard at 15 years old and began an intense weight training regimen where he focused on his biceps and triceps to build punching strength. “My trainer told me to start lifting to put on weight and build up my arms because you get hit on the arms a lot and it helps if they are bigger,” Badell recalled. He undoubtedly had the genetics for weightlifting because, after only a few short weeks of chin-ups, pushups and dips in the gym, he had packed on some serious muscle. In fact, his arms grew so big that they looked odd and out of place on his tiny frame, which prompted other weightlifters to encourage Badell to try bodybuilding and work out the rest of his body. Although it took Badell some time to find his rhythm with the weights, once he did, there was no turning back.
In 1991, Badell entered his first bodybuilding competition at the Junior Caribbean Bodybuilding Championships and won the title at 19 years old. Motivated by his victory, he trained even harder and won the 1997 Caribbean Championships, which earned him his professional card. He made his first IFBB appearance at the 1998 Grand Prix Germany where he finished in ninth place before facing a series of disappointing finishes at the 1999 Grand Prix England, Night of Champions and World Pro Championships. Determined to find his footing, he made his first appearance at the 2000 Ironman Pro Invitational where he placed 18th and went on to make his Mr. Olympia debut in 2002 where his 24th place finish further proved just how steep the competition truly was on the pro circuit.
After ongoing disappointment, things finally started to turn around for the 5’8” tall Freakin’ ‘Rican in 2003 when he teamed up with Serbian bodybuilder Milos Sarcev to take his training and physique to the next level. “Now my role model is Sarcev,” Badell told Iron magazine. “He is like a big brother to me and he’s taught me so much, not just about training and dieting, but how to enjoy bodybuilding. He’s taught me to enjoy bodybuilding no matter what the result of a contest. I am just so happy to be competing and doing what I love and he is the same way. He’s a real inspiration to me and I feel fortunate to know him and his family.”
Soon, Badell’s partnership with Sarcev paid off and he ranked higher and higher in competitions with third place finishes at the 2004 Ironman Pro Invitational, the 2004 Show of Strength Pro Championship and the 2004 Mr. Olympia. Riding the wave of momentum into 2005, he finished third at the Arnold Classic before taking home the biggest win of his career at the Ironman Pro Invitational. Later that year, he wowed audiences with a shocking third place win at the Mr. Olympia. Finding another victory at the 2008 San Francisco Pro Invitational, Badell had finally reached the top and wrapped up his career wins in 2009 with a victory at the Atlantic City Pro.
Amid his wavering success on the stage, Badell landed on the cover of numerous magazines like Flex and enjoyed the perks of endorsement deals with companies like Muscle Tech who paid him a pretty penny to promote their Masstech weight gain powder and their Nitrotech Hardcore protein powder. However, not even the perks could overshadow Badell’s true passion for the sport. “I want to be the best bodybuilder I can be, not to win contests, but for me,” he said. “It would be great to be Mr. Olympia, but I can’t say, ‘I’m going to win’ or ‘I’m going to be in the top five.’ You never know what the judges think. I want to show everyone how good I can be. I just want to always get better… I don’t want to get bigger, just always get better.”
Despite his determination to always improve, Badell never earned the Mr. Olympia title and eventually retired form professional bodybuilding after his 13th place finish at the 2012 Arnold Classic. With retirement, he quickly shifted his focus from building his massive 21.5-inch arms to life at home in Puerto Rico with his wife, Jessica, and their children—Christian, Michael Gustavo, Nicole Marie and Barbie Ann.
Today, the 44-year-old continues to make the rounds at various bodybuilding contests around the world and frequently gives interviews where he shares his story as a skinny boxer who took more than his fair share of hits on the mat before transforming himself into the ripped and impressive “Freakin’ ‘Rican.” Using his story to inspire young bodybuilders, he keeps his advice simple and rooted in commitment. “Bodybuilding is a lifestyle,” he says. “It’s not a contest. I want to be a professional bodybuilder all my life, to live this way all my life.”