“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” Riddled with controversy, Mike Mentzer was a household name in bodybuilding throughout the 1970s especially after he wowed the world with a huge victory in the heavyweight division at the 1979 Mr. Olympia. Despite his victory, his tenure as a famous bodybuilder on the professional circuit was short-lived as he retired in 1980 at 29 years old and amid his scandalous accusation that the Mr. Olympia event was rigged. Suggesting that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a favorite among the judges, Mentzer argued until his death on June 10, 2001 that the entire professional bodybuilding circuit was a complete sham.
Long before his bitterness for the bodybuilding industry blossomed, Mentzer enjoyed a seemingly normal childhood throughout the 1950s and 1960s in the Pennsylvania borough of Ephrata. By the time he was 12 years old, he showed an early interest in bodybuilding after flipping through various bodybuilding magazines and admiring how muscular the men were on the covers. Despite weighing only 95 pounds, he was determined to become as strong as his idol, Bill Pearl, and immediately told his father about his dreams. Shortly after, his father purchased a set of weights, which came with an instruction manual that Mentzer poured over night after night. With the booklet recommending that he train up to three days each week, the young Mentzer set out to fulfill his goal.
By the time he was 15 years old, Mentzer had transformed himself from a scrawny, 95-pound kid into a 165-pound muscle-clad teen who could easily bench press 370 pounds. As for his academics, he proved to be exceptionally smart and excelled at Ephrata High School where his senior English teacher, Elizabeth Schaub, encouraged him to pursue his interests in language, writing and thinking. However, instead of enrolling in college after graduation, he enlisted in the United States Air Force and served four years as his passion for bodybuilding flourished.
During his stint in the Air Force, he upped his training from three days each week to three-hour workouts, six days a week. He even started competing in physique contests and found immediate success when he won the Mr. Lancaster title in 1971. However, his victory was bittersweet as he endured a terrible disappointment later in the year with a 10th place finish at the 1971 AAU Mr. America. Losing the title to Casey Viator, Mentzer was crushed behind the scenes but Viator was kind enough to share his trainer’s contact information with the young Mentzer. Fate, however, had other plans when a serious injury kept Mentzer out of the gym for four long years.
Once Mentzer was out of the Air Force and healed from his injury, he enrolled at the University of Maryland as a pre-med student studying everything from genetics to organic and physical chemistry. During this time, he returned to the gym and, when he wasn’t spending hours at the library studying, he was putting in long, overdue time lifting weights. In fact, he even returned to the stage in 1975 with a third-place finish at the Mr. America contest before making an even bigger comeback in 1976 when he won the title. In 1977, he won the North America Championships and earned second place in the Mr. Universe contest before taking the title in 1978 and earning a perfect score of 300 from the judges. This string of victories boosted his confidence and ultimately led him to upgrade his status and join the professional circuit.
Toward the end of 1979, Mentzer competed in the Mr. Olympia as a heavyweight and won the title with yet another perfect score of 300. He set his sights on defending the title the following year after putting on 10 additional pounds of muscle and even going to the extreme of transforming his hotel room into a private sauna to shed any last-minute water weight. When he took the stage, it was obvious he came prepared as RX Muscle magazine later described his performance. “Mike Mentzer was ripped and ready. With his tiny hips offset by wide shoulders and massive arms, Mentzer hit some jaw-dropping poses during his free posing routine. His legs were some of the best onstage with chords of thick muscle popping out of his thighs and his freaky calves bunched up and looking ready to explode.”
Despite Mentzer’s impressive showing, it wasn’t enough to beat Arnold Schwarzenegger who, admittedly, wasn’t in top shape with extra water weight and a prior shoulder injury. While the loss devastated competitors like Chris Dickerson, Frank Zane and Boyer Coe, it took an even bigger toll on Mentzer who knew his physique was better and believed the contest was rigged. Saying just as much to his fellow competitors as they planned to boycott the next Mr. Olympia, Mentzer took his disdain one step further and announced his retirement from bodybuilding in 1981 at 29 years old.
After his brief stint as a professional bodybuilder and former Mr. Olympia and Mr. America, Mentzer might have left the stage but he didn’t give up on the sport as he continued to train bodybuilders like Dorian Yates using his perfected high intensity training program. Over the years, he shared his training tips with Iron Man Magazine and even released a series of training DVDs. He later teamed up with his brother, Ray, and Yates to launch an athletic apparel company aptly named “MYM,” which stands for Mentzer Yates Mentzer. The company was later renamed “Heavy Duty, Inc.”
Mentzer held onto the belief that the Mr. Olympia was rigged up until his death on June 10, 2001 when he was found in his apartment in Rolling Hills, California. Two days after his death, which was attributed to heart complications, his brother died from complications caused by Berger’s disease. Despite Mentzer’s lifelong disdain for bodybuilding, he was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 2002 for his contributions and success.