Sergio Oliva: Brother from another Planet
Bodybuilder Sergio Oliva, "The Myth" shown above at his peak, circa 1969: 5-9 and 240 – form and function
I never was or wanted to be a bodybuilder. As a boy I was an athlete: I played football, loved track and field and played baseball. I was a serious Olympic weightlifter. The idea of walking onto a stage and posing in front of strangers nearly naked had zero appeal to me: it was contrary to my sullen introverted personality. On the other hand, as a small boy I had become immersed in comic books and the superhero mythos: I yearned to possess that perfect physique common to all comic book superheroes.
I graduated from superhero comics into Greek, Roman and especially Norse mythology. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Gods and they had incredible physiques, outsize and possessing capacities, strengths and abilities past those of normal men. The association between super powers and a super physique was implanted in my youthful mind and psyche. The barbell became my tool of transformation and realization.
The idealized physique became, for me, an internal topic of debate: the Flash and Mercury were perfectly built, yet light-boned. The Hulk, Atlas and Thor were thicker, more powerful yet more ponderous. As a boy I developed a preference for thick and freaky over lean and sleek. We all have our tastes and preferences, mine ran towards the massive Farnese Hercules rather than Michelangelo’s sleek David.
I was exposed to bodybuilding inadvertently. As an avid Olympic weightlifter, if you wanted contest results, training tips, lifter profiles, coming events or lifter gossip, you obtained that information inside bodybuilding publications. Olympic weightlifting was not popular enough to support periodicals dedicated strictly to lifting so weightlifting would glom onto bodybuilding magazines. This increased the bodybuilding magazines readership and broadened its customer base. It was a good deal for weightlifting because lifters got a monthly format with which to commune with the other lifting faithful.
I bought the magazines for the lifting stuff and was exposed to bodybuilding and bodybuilders. The bodybuilder trained a lot different from a lifter and other than the “power-bodybuilding” that John McCallum championed, I really didn’t care how bodybuilders trained and their physiques were largely uninspiring. There were very few superhero physiques in the 60s.
The first truly superhero physique was Sergio Oliva. Bill Pearl and Reg Park came close, however it was Sergio that first presented gargantuan yet proportional size with (at his peak) fantastic muscle clarity, as crisp as any other competitor of that time. Never has a bodybuilder been so far out in front of the rest of the World as Sergio Oliva was during a period that began shortly before his first Mr. Olympia win in 1966, and ran until Arnold Schwarzenegger defeated him (controversially) at the 1970 Mr. World competition.
Joe Weider once said, “No one could beat Sergio – when he was in shape.” What a backstory…born in 1941, Sergio was an impoverished youth in impoverished Cuba. At age 17 he joined a local weightlifting club and after just six months of training hoisted a 150-kilo (330-pound) clean and jerk. He came into national prominence when he totaled 1,000 pounds via a 303-pound press, a 303-pound snatch and a 396-pound clean and jerk. This weighing a super-lean 195-pounds.
At the 1962 Cuban National Weightlifting Championship, Rey Hernandez won the 198-pound class and Sergio Oliva took second place. Hernandez suffered a severe training injury and could not compete; Oliva was the alternate and selected to represent Cuba at the 1962 Central American and Caribbean Games in Kingston, Jamaica. That happenstance injury changed Sergio’s life: if Hernandez had not been injured, the world would never have heard of Sergio Olivia.
In Jamaica, while his guards were momentarily distracted, Oliva snuck out of his quarters. Spotted, Sergio ran off at top speed and just like in the movies was chased by KGB agents and goon Cuban secret police. He shook his pursuers and made his way to the American Consulate. He was granted political asylum.
In a somewhat humorous and ironic twist, 65 members of the Cuban delegation followed Oliva’s lead and defected that weekend. It was a black eye for the Castro regime and received a huge amount of international press. Not only did the entire Cuban national weightlifting team defect, most of their Cuban secret police handlers also fled to the west.
Oliva was deposited in Miami where the 21-year old apprenticed as a TV repairman. He worked in the Spanish-speaking Cuban ex-patriot community. For some inexplicable reason, the man from the tropics decided to move to the inhospitable frozen north: Chicago. His first job was in a steel mill. He was the lowest worker on the totem pole and routinely worked 10-12 hours a day as a grunt worker in 120-degree heat. He would then head to the Duncan YMCA for hard and heavy training sessions. He trained six days a week.
Sergio got out of the steel mill and went to work in the equally brutal Chicago Stockyards. He worked long and hard and eventually became a butcher’s apprentice and eventually a butcher. He broke down sides of beef all day long before heading to the gym for his marathon training sessions.
He was making decent money as a butcher; he turned a financial corner and got his own place. Being single and driven, he structured his life around work and training. Plus, he got free steaks. Sergio later was famous for wearing his butcher’s uniform to warmup at the 1968 Mr. Olympia. Asked why, he wryly retorted, “It’s what I wear when I kill animals.” He slaughtered Arnold Schwarzenegger that night. Arnold and Franco freaked out backstage when Olivia stripped off his butcher smock to reveal the freakiest body they had ever seen. “I lost my shit. My pump went away and I immediately deflated.” Arnold later reminisced. Arnold famously kissed Oliva in defeat.
Sergio ended up training at the hotbed of Chicago Olympic weightlifting, the Duncan YMCA. This was a great facility under the guidance of national level AAU bodybuilder Bob Gadja. Bob was an intellectual guy, brilliant, extremely smart. It didn’t take a genius to see Oliva’s potential. Bob Gajda lost his shit when he saw Sergio stripped down for the first time. Bob told him he could conquer the world if he got on the bodybuilding bandwagon. Bodybuilding training of that era suited Sergio’s personality: he liked to train and developed a wide menu of exercises.
Oliva had no interest in getting back into Olympic weightlifting. In those days, anyone weighing more than 198-pounds was considered a heavyweight. A 205-pound Sergio would be compelled to compete against 300-pound giants. Besides, his body was responding incredibly well to all these new and different bodybuilding exercises, many of which he had never tried or done before.
Between the marathon hours he put in on his daytime butcher job and his 2-3 hour long lifting sessions, Sergio developed a raging metabolism that allowed him to ingest tons of indiscriminate calories, yet stay lean. He was a high volume, high-intensity trainer. Jeff Everson once saw him do 15 sets of 15 reps in the bench press using 245-pounds – super-setted with 15 sets of pullups and chins. And that was just part of his workout for that particular session.
He began competing in Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) bodybuilding competitions in 1962. It was a strange time for a strange organization in a strange sport. There were two competing factions fighting for bodybuilding supremacy, the ultra-conservative AAU and the Canadian Weider brothers with their pretentiously named International Federation of Bodybuilders, which at the time existed in Montreal and New Jersey.
Sterile suit and tie wearing old men ruled Olympic weightlifting: they wanted to control and profit off bodybuilding’s growing popularity. These conservative banker types were repulsed by bodybuilding, detested it, yet saw its surging popularity as a way to make money and prop up the financial black hole that was Olympic weightlifting. The grey suits considered the Weider bros foreign porn-hustlers that put out magazines with homosexual overtones. The Weider’s saw the suits as crass opportunists.
The AAU rationalized taking over bodybuilder as a duty, to “save it” from the repugnant Weider’s, and to make bodybuilding “respectable.” AAU Mr. America contests were run like male beauty pageants: contestants were interviewed and judged on diction, vocabulary, knowledge of world events and grooming. Athletic “points” were awarded and counted heavily.
In addition, it was the age of institutionalized racism. Officialdom happily tossed Sergio the bone of being named “most muscular” (best body) at the big events, but there was no way on God’s green earth that the AAU was going to allow some negro with a pompadour hairdo wearing tight green sharkskin pants and an orange tank top, a foreign weirdo that can barely speak American to be crowned Mr. America. Never ever. Not going to happen.
Bob Gajda, who self-admittedly couldn’t come close to challenging Sergio’s in a real physique contest, won the title of Mr. American in 1966 and Sergio (surprise!) won the Most Muscular bobby prize. For his athletic points, Sergio snatched 275 and clean and jerked 365 weighing 195, this without doing any pre-competition Olympic lift training. That would have gotten him 4th place at the national Olympic weightlifting championships that year.
Sergio winning his athletic points: Mr. American? No Way! Have another “Most Muscular” bobby-prize
The Weider’s were more than happy to give the young men a place to compete and be judged strictly on muscles – and who cares if you are black or don’t speak the King’s English and work as a butcher in the stockyards. In about this time, he experienced a size burst and without losing any muscularity grew from 195 to 215. The difference was astounding and Sergio began being heavily featured in the Weider Muscle mags.
In preparation for his first Mr. Olympia appearance, he was able to push his bodyweight up yet again, from 215 to 228, this in one incredible six-week period. That transformation was captured by ace photographer Russ Warner and shown in Muscle Builder mag. Joe Weider had the best physique photographers in the world on staff and it was inspirational to see Sergio get bigger and better seemingly every month. I loved that an international-level Olympic weightlifter was bitch-slapping effete bodybuilders.
Oliva crushed everyone and everything for the next three years. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave him the ultimate compliment. “He was the only bodybuilder that ever intimidated me. When he stripped down when I competed against him in my first Olympia, I looked at him in awe and immediately lost my pump. I lost the contest right there and then.” Sergio kept getting larger as he aged, still retaining his natural, sub-8% body fat percentile, this despite eating whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. A muscle writer once saw him stuffing his face on a dozen crème-filled pastries in a Paris bakery three days before an Olympia.
Sergio in top shape: taken at Arthur Jones’ Florida plantation: Jones noted that Sergio’s flexed arms were bigger than his head. While training six times a week and throughout his entire bodybuilding career, he always had a full-time day job. Sergio worked throughout his bodybuilding career, making his greatness all the more incredible. He had a 25-year career as a policeman.
At his absolute peak he weighed between 230 and 240. He had excellent delineation, particularly when compared to the bodybuilding standards of that era. Because of the way he trained, hard, heavy and often, he was notorious for being able to achieve massive pumps. Bill Pearl had a victory over Oliva at the 1971 NABBA championships. Held in London, the judging for the competition dragged on overly long. The competitors stood near-naked on a 50-degree cold stage for almost two hours, during which Sergio visibly deflated. He didn’t help his standing with the staid European judges when he started complaining loudly that they needed a food break. He lost to Pearl.
What made him such a great bodybuilder was his physique was full of contradictions: he had massive muscles yet was perfectly proportional; he had a tiny waist yet had big (8-inch wrists) bones; he had huge arms yet they had no peak; he had yard wide shoulders yet hips as narrow as a dancer; he had incredible legs and back (earned from his years as an Olympic weightlifter) yet loved bodybuilding exercises. He was thick from any direction or angle yet appeared athletic, possessing Big Cat grace.
There was a superhero perfection, an integration to his physique: he had a perfect skeletal structure, complete with the proper limb/torso length. His large bones enabled him to build freaky size – way past everyone else of the era – yet he was proportional and symmetrical. He was the superhero physique come to life. I will let two bodybuilding experts have the last word, first Arnold…
“Sergio was even more impressive than I remembered. Compared with all of the other bodybuilders I've ever faced, Sergio really was in a class by himself. I was struck by that again the minute we were onstage. It was so hard to look impressive next to him with those incredible thighs, that impossibly tiny waist, those incredible triceps."
Robert Kennedy, the late publisher of the magazine MuscleMag International, wrote, "Anyone who loves the sport of bodybuilding knows the name of Sergio Oliva. I greatly admired him and consider him to be the all-time world's greatest physique. I saw him in competition many times, including his shows against Arnold. There is no doubt that with his wide shoulders and narrow hips he was genetically superior to any other bodybuilder of his generation. Sergio was not only the most aesthetic bodybuilder on stage, he was also the biggest. Sergio Oliva was the most genetically gifted bodybuilder of all time.”
- Sergio served the city of Chicago as a police officer for more than 25 years.
- In 1986, Sergio was shot five times with a .38 pistol by his then-wife Arleen Garrett.
- Sergio Oliva died on November 12, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois from apparent kidney failure.
- He was 71.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.