You probably know Franco Columbu (1941-2019) was a two-time Mr. Olympia (1976, 1981) and a Mr. Universe (1970), Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best friend, and one of the strongest bodybuilders, pound for pound, who ever lived. You might know he grew up in Sardinia and died there too, but he lived most of his life in Southern California, that he was a chiropractor and an actor and that he blew out his knee in the inaugural World’s Strongest Man. You may have known all that, especially after the many tributes to him since his death on August 30. Now it’s time for the rest of the story.

Franco (sort of) in the 1969 Olympia

1. He (probably) competed in the 1969 Olympia. 

The ’69 Mr. Olympia was the first epic duel between the champ Sergio Oliva and heir apparent Arnold Schwarzenegger. In all histories, including Columbu’s, the Sardinian strongman’s Olympia debut didn’t occur until 1972.

But in one contemporary account of the 1969 contest, there’s this: “Franco Columbu, entered in the Mr. Olympia with these two, looked tremendous, huge thick delts and sliced up pecs that vibrated under the lights. What a reception he got! He took the short man Mr. Universe with honors, and was in the Olympia by merit of being Mr. Europe. Great as he was one tended to overlook his presence in the company of Oliva and Schwarzenegger simply because these two were making history by appearing together.”

Overlook, indeed. The still-new Mr. Olympia contest had been floundering (Oliva won unopposed the year before), and Columbu, like Schwarzenegger, was under contract to Joe Weider, who owned the show. So, it’s likely the 5’5” Italian, who, only minutes before, won the Mr. Universe short class, was told to flex in the O to give the crowd more for their money. Later, when the judges couldn’t decide between Arnold and Sergio, only the two bemouths posed together in an encore, making it easy to forget even then that Columbu had sort of been in the contest.

2. He and Arnold appeared (headless) on an album cover.

In December 1974, the rock band Grand Funk Railroad was kind of a big deal, having scored a #1 hit (“We’re an American Band”) the year before. They released the double album All the Girls in the World Beware!!!, which cracked the Billboard top 10 and spawned singles that rose to #3 and #4. On the album’s cover were the bodies of Arnold and Franco (orange trunks) with the hairy heads of the band’s four members superimposed on them. Like the title of that #3 song, it was some kind of wonderful.

3. He was featured in hair spray advertising.

Hair isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of Franco, but he did have a great head of it. In 1977, when he was the reigning Mr. Olympia and Pumping Iron was taking muscles mainstream, Columbu starred in a national ad campaign for Vitalis Super Hold. He was in both full-page magazine ads (with a wink-wink “pump” double entendre) and 30-second TV commercials named “What’s a Bodybuilder,” in which he plugs the spray’s holding strength. Ah, the ’70s!

4. He held a unique world record. 

In 1978, Franco went into the Guinness Book of World Records for blowing up a hot water bottle until it exploded in 55 seconds. He regularly performed the heavy breathing at exhibitions, even as late as 2007 (and famously in Pumping Iron). The current record is a scant 6.52 seconds. 

5. He trained Rocky.

From the late ’70s to the mid-’80s, Sylvester Stallone relied on Columbu for workout and diet advice. For Rocky II (1979), they were training partners, as the Italian Stallion tried to keep up with the Sardinian strongman, set for set. “I had to charge Sly a good amount for the training because he wanted to train full-out, just as if we were preparing for the Mr. Olympia contest,” Columbu remembered. “That meant two workouts a day, six days a week. I had to drop almost everything else in order to concentrate on getting him in the best shape of his life.”

For Rocky III (1982), Sly was peeled. “Man, back in those days I would do literally anything and everything to burn more fat,” Stallone recalls. “I wanted to get as lean as possible.” Columbu, who returned to win his second Mr. Olympia in 1981 and provided the blueprint to his fellow Italian-American, stated, “I drew up a plan to help Sylvester strip away as much fat as possible, and he achieved some fantastic results from our short time together.” 

After Columbu’s death, Stallone posted this: “FRANCO COLUMBU, the greatest and strongest bodybuilder I have ever met has passed. He taught me many things that I have applied throughout my life. We will NEVER HAVE A MAN LIKE THIS AGAIN. Thank you for the memories, Franco.”

Arnold, Franco, and Sly at World’s Gym in the ’80s.