Matt Mendenhall has passed away at 61.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 26, 1960, he grew up in a bodybuilding family. A football player and pole-vaulter, Mendenhall took up weight-training after a pole-vaulting injury. Packing on muscle easily, in 1978 at 17, he entered and won the Mr. Ohio High School. Three titles followed: 1980 Teen Mr. Metropolitan, 1981 Mr. Cincinnati, and 1981 Buckeye Open. The latter was his final overall title.
That’s because he leapt all the way to the NPC Nationals in 1982, and, at only 22 and unknown out of his home state, he nearly defeated favorite Lee Haney for the heavyweight crown. Haney, who was only seven months older, went on to win not just the overall but the IFBB World Amateur, and then a record eight Mr. Olympias (1984-91). He was the bodybuilder of the ’80s. Meanwhile, as Haney collected another Sandow annually, Mendenhall kept trying to join him in the big league, always touted as one of the few guys, maybe the only guy, who could challenge the reigning Mr. O for bodybuilding’s apex.
In 1983, Mendenhall was the favorite going into the Nationals, but a flu bug blurred his cuts. He slipped to fifth in the heavy class, which Bob Paris won. In 1984, he was in a devastating car crash, but he recovered to again vie for the Nationals heavy class. He was second again. Mike Christian won. The next year was maybe the cruelest of all. He won the heavy class at the USA Championships, but at a time when only the overall victor turned pro, he lost to light-heavy David Hawk in a controversial decision. Still, his class victory qualified him for the 1985 World Games, where class winners turned pro. But he again ran up against a juggernaut, Berry DeMey, who again relegated Mendenhall to a cruel, close-but-not-quite second. He was back at the Nationals in 1986. Surely, this was finally his year. No. Another phenom, Gary Srydom, leapt in front of him via crisper conditioning, once again relegating the forever-promising Mendenhall to second place. It was the fifth time he’d missed turning pro by one placing.
Then came a couple of NPC Nationals (1987 & 1988) when he was watery, placing 11th and 10th amongst heavies; and, when he vanished for three years afterward, people began writing him off as wasted potential. But he roared back in the 1991 Nationals at his heaviest bodyweight (255), nearly regaining his phenomenal physique, if still a tad smooth. Unfortunately, it was the most loaded amateur class of all time. He beat Chris Cormier, Bob Cicherillo, and Edgar Fletcher (among others), but still placed fifth behind a murderer’s row of Kevin Levrone, Flex Wheeler, Paul DeMayo, and Ronnie Coleman! What’s a guy gotta do to make it to the pros? He was only 31, but that was his final contest. That same year, 31-year-old Lee Haney also competed in his final contest, winning his eighth Mr. Olympia.
Retired from the stage, Mendenhall ran a Colorado chiropractic business specializing in muscle pain. And all the while, his name was repeated in bodybuilding circles as the great “What if?” What if he’d nailed his conditioning and earned pro status? (He later learned he had a lingering yeast infection, which caused water retention.) Could he have been Mr. Olympia? At 5’11” and around 245, he had bigger legs—calves especially—than Haney and was just as wide through the shoulders, but he would’ve lost poses when Haney showed off his superior back and chest. They were similar: height, weight, age… Neither had spectacular arms, and with their exaggerated X-frames, they both looked superb just standing relaxed. In 2018, Haney effused: “One of the people that I kept my eye on that I felt was the most gifted bodybuilder that Mother Nature said, ‘Here it is,’ was Matt Mendenhall. I have never till today seen a physique as complete, as genetically gifted as Matt Mendenhall. Matt was a walking He-Man. He was absolutely beautiful.” What if…?
Our condolences to Matt Mendenhall’s family, friends, and fans. We’ll update this story if more information regarding his passing is made public.