Gustavo Badell, who finished third in the 2004 and 2005 Mr. Olympias, has died at 50. This is his story.
GUSTAVO BADELL: THE RISE
Gustavo Badell was born in Venezuela on November 3, 1972, the youngest of five children. When he was five, the family relocated to Puerto Rico, where he lived most of the remainder of his life. Badell took up boxing as a teenager. “I was so skinny when I was boxing,” he said. “It was my trainer who told me that I should start lifting weights to build up my arms, because you get hit on the arms a lot when you’re blocking punches.” He soon found that pumping iron was his true passion. After only six months of training, he entered and won his first bodybuilding contest at 19: the 1991 Junior Caribbean Championships.
Badell poured over muscle magazines. “I loved what I was doing so much,” he said. “I would see all the guys in the magazines and think, I want to look just like them. And then I started to think, I want to look even better than them.” It wasn’t Dorian Yates who he wanted to look like in the ’90s. It was a more aesthetic bodybuilder chasing Yates: Shawn Ray. In 1997, Badell won the Caribbean Championships and IFBB Pro League status.
GUSTAVO BADELL: THE WILDERNESS
Pro bodybuilding proved to be a struggle for the Puerto Rican. For six long years from 1998-2003, Gustavo Badell entered 16 pro shows, and he only finished higher than 10th twice. Usually, he was near the bottom, sometimes stamped with a DNP (Did Not Place), forgotten, forlorn. In his only Mr. Olympia appearance during that stretch, in 2002, he finished 24th out of 25. The very next year, he entered one show and suffered another DNP (the top 20 placed). Badell was only 30, but it seemed like it was over for him. He just didn’t have it. How could he keep entering pro shows if he rarely got anywhere near the first callout…or second callout…or third callout? DNP after DNP. He was down there in bodybuilding’s basement. He was lost in the wilderness.
GUSTAVO BADELL: THE WORLD’S THIRD BEST BODYBUILDER
But Gustavo Badell’s career is a testament to persistence. He just kept training, and dieting, and growing, and learning, and improving. And in 2004, he was bigger, leaner, better, and it all paid off with the most remarkable out-of-nowhere rise in bodybuilding history: from the basement to very near the penthouse. It started with a third-place finish in the Ironman Pro. Okay, that qualified him for the Mr. Olympia again. And he followed it with a seventh at the Arnold Classic. He was moving up, getting noticed, finally, but he was still just a journeyman pro. It seemed very unlikely he’d crack the top 10 at the Olympia.
Not only did Gustavo Badell crack the top 10 at the 2004 Mr. Olympia, but he soared all the way to the bronze medal position, third place behind only Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler! From nowhere to number three in the world in one year. He leapt 21 places from his only previous Olympia outing to this one! At 5’8″ and 240 pounds, Badell sported a symmetrical physique with a wispy waist and crisp conditioning. His side poses were especially strong. He benefited from the contrast with Coleman and Cutler, who were then in a size race and couldn’t match the tight midsection and balanced proportions of the man who had a new nickname: the Freakin’ Rican.
The next year, Badell won the Ironman Pro, finished third in the Arnold Classic (behind only Dexter Jackson and Chris Cormier), and once again saved his best for Vegas with a repeat third-place finish in the 2005 Mr. Olympia, again behind only Coleman and Cutler (and ahead of Jackson and Cormier). What’s more, at the Olympia, he beat everyone in the “Challenge Round”—sort of a separate contest within the contest with one-on-one, pick-your-pose duels—which was judged by past Mr. Olympia champs, including Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, and Frank Zane. Those legends favored the more aesthetic Badell over the bigger Coleman and Cutler.
“I never thought of anyone as unbeatable,” Badell said. “I’m a fighter. I’m hungry. I want to win. All those guys bigger than me, okay, but bigger isn’t always better. People say Gustavo is cocky. I’m not. I’m confident, because I know I can outwork anyone….Every show I went to, even when I finished last, I looked at everyone and thought everyone is beatable. That’s the way a fighter thinks. That’s how you got to think. Why do it otherwise?”
GUSTAVO BADELL: REST IN PEACE
Gustavo Badell won two more pro shows, one in 2006 and another in 2009. His Mr. Olympia placings remained respectable but slid downward: sixth (2006), eighth (2007), 10th (2008), 13th (2009). He temporarily retired after 2009, but returned three years later, competing for the final time in 2012, the year he turned 40. He was then living in Las Vegas.
In retirement, Badell stayed involved in bodybuilding, promoting contests and training others in Puerto Rico, and he regularly posted his thoughts on the state of bodybuilding on his Facebook page, sometimes encouraging everyone to closely monitor their health. He is survived by four children.
The Barbell offers our condolences to Gustavo Badell’s family, friends, and fans.