Sergio Oliva: Better Than Ahhhnold

Sergio Oliva: Better Than Ahhhnold

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because where there’s a will, there’s a way for the willful to muscle it up.

By Eugene S. Robinson

This is completely binary and if you don’t understand it, you’re not likely to be able to understand it. And what’s begging your understanding — with 235 pounds of muscle on his 5-foot-9 frame — is the man called, for a more significant portion of his life, “The Myth.” Cuban-born Sergio Oliva, in the strange and rarefied air of the world of professional bodybuilding, was widely understood to be the bodybuilder’s bodybuilder and was whispered about in wonder as often as he was extolled as being otherworldly. 

For? A whole shitload of shit: winning Mr. Olympia; being Mr. Olympia; beating Arnold Schwarzenegger in a beating so sound it made “The Austrian Oak” go back and rethink his approach to just about everything; getting beaten by Arnold after a last-minute, controversial judges switch by bodybuilding’s Don King, Joe Weider; and last but not least, taking five bullets in the gut from an angry former wife like it was no big thing.

“There’s no way to understand how wildly phenomenal Sergio Oliva was,” said former Teenage Mr. San Jose and Teenage AAU Mr. Olympia Bill Gronachon, “without mentioning the other greats: Hank Aaron, Ali, Michael Jordan, Wilt, pre-divorce Tiger Woods … ” He trails off and tries to trace with his hands how largely significant Oliva was before stopping. “And Arnold just … Elvis’d him. But Sergio was a beast.”

The inside-the-fence reference points to the powers that be pushing the (possibly) more marketable Schwarzenegger up one place in line. Sensible sounding now, but back in 1969 when Oliva beat Schwarzenegger for the first — and only — time, it was a toss-up. Neither could speak English very well and both were wildly unlikely to exhibit any mass appeal on the basis of body shapes and sizes that by 1970s standards were wildly out of norm. OK … they were freakin’ freaky.

But considered by Schwarzenegger to be the most genetically gifted bodybuilder of all time — small joints, fine bones, clean lines and massive, well-proportioned muscles — Oliva’s Achilles-esque response to being doormatted for Schwarzenegger was as sudden as it was almost career ending. He walked, leaving behind the premier International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB). Which was then and now very akin to leaving the NFL for the Pop Warner league. Or worse.

Which is how Oliva spent his subsequent years: being the greatest competing in second-rate shows while working a day job as a Chicago cop.

“It’s not even fair to talk about Oliva and ‘the mistakes he made,’” said Eddie Williams, both a former cop and a competitive bodybuilder. “The only mistake he made was knowing how great he was and thinking that that was going to be enough.” Well, it was enough for 20 first-place titles, Mexican movie roles and a bunch of near-celebrity over a life that started with fighting Castro in Cuba as a teenager and ended in Chicago from kidney failure.

And his legend? Lives in and well beyond myth in the memories of those in love with the wild boundaries of wherever our bodies could go.