The 1979 Mr. Olympia was a duel of physique types: Frank Zane versus Mike Mentzer. But it was also a clash of philosophies and generations, pitting the 37-year-old, two-time and reigning Mr. Olympia, Zane, against the 27-year-old, upstart rookie sensation, Mentzer. What’s more, the rest of the lineup of 15 (the largest ever, until the next year) was loaded with some of the best bodybuilders of the late ’70s and early ’80s: Chris Dickerson, Robby Robinson, Danny Padilla, Tom Platz, Albert Beckles, and Roy Callender. As Michael Jackson was singing then: Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough. Let’s journey back to the twilight of the turbulent 1970s, to Columbus, Ohio, and the venerable Veterans Memorial Auditorium for the 1979 Mr. Olympia.
MR. OLYMPIA 1979: BACKSTORY
There was a “Lightweight Era” in bodybuilding. It went from 1976 to 1983, between the six straight wins of 230-something Arnold Schwarzenegger and the eight straight wins of 240-something Lee Haney, when the only Mr. Olympia winner who weighed more than 200 pounds was a much-lighter-than-usual Arnold in 1980. For the first four of those years, there were two Mr. Olympia weight classes, under-200-pounds and over-200-pounds, with the two class winners then competing for the overall. The under-200 champ won every time. This was the last year for the bifurcated system; and, as, we’ll see, the duels that had begun with (heavyweight) Arnold beating (lightweight) Franco Columbu in 1974 and 1975, disintegrated in 1979 into the bigger posedown we’ve had ever since.
This was the fourth Mr. Olympia in a row promoted by Arnold Schwarzenegger and the late Jim Lorimer at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Columbus, Ohio—the site of Arnold’s first victory in America in 1970 and the future home, for 26 years, of the Arnold Classic. When it finally succumbed to the wrecking ball in 2015, the Vet was bodybuilding’s Wrigley Field, its Fenway Park, its Madison Square Garden.
Coming off his Olympia victories in 1977 and 1978, Frank Zane was favored, but the competition was stiff. To add mass, Zane had been training heavier since the previous Olympia. He had to contend again with “the Black Prince,” Robby Robinson, the heavyweight winner both previous years, who moved down to the lightweight division this year. Boyer Coe, second behind Zane in under-200 the previous two years, would be there again. Future Mr. Olympia Chris Dickerson had won a pro show over Robinson, Coe, and rookie Mike Mentzer earlier that year. Busy Roy Callender had won three pro shows already that year; he’d be competing in the heavyweight division.
And then there was Mike Mentzer, the rookie juggernaut, the Heavy Duty high-intensity trainer, who had also won a pro show that year. He was staring out from the cover of the October Muscle Builder as the bodybuilding world congregated in Columbus, so famous in muscledom already no name was necessary. Could Zane win the suddenly loaded under-200 Olympia class again, and, if he did, could he fend off over-200 Callender or Mentzer?
MR. OLYMPIA 1979: FRANK ZANE’S ACCOUNT
On his blog, Frank Zane posted a detailed remembrance of his preparation for this contest entitled “1979 My Greatest Olympia Win.” This is what he wrote about his time in Columbus before stepping on the Veterans Memorial stage:
At the contest, it wasn’t like I could just lay around when I got there. I had a job with ABC television to do expert commentary for the Mr. Universe contest that was being held the day before the Olympia competition. I handled it with ease, relaxed, confident, and full of energy. I even managed to smile occasionally, but not so much to give hint of my deep inner bliss. That year I had arranged for a publicity agent in Columbus who secured space on the Holiday Inn billboard, which everyone saw on their taxi ride from the airport into town. It read: “Columbus welcomes Christine and Frank Zane, Mr. Olympia.” After all, I was Mr. Olympia.
I maintained my calm Thursday evening after arrival and all-day Friday by relaxing as much as possible. I was still on my low-carb diet but ate a little more carbs Friday (about 150 grams) so my muscles would feel full the next day. I hadn’t lifted weights for four days and my muscles were becoming stimulus-hungry for a pump. It would come soon enough. Saturday morning, I was up at 6 AM and had my usual pre-contest breakfast of three poached eggs, eight ounces of broiled calves’ liver, and a baked yam. I had another large baked yam divided up into two-ounce sections, and I swallowed a bunch of free form amino acids, extra glutamine and arginine followed by the two ounces yam with a little carbonated water to wash it down. Then I meditated with my blindfold, doing this sequence right up until noon. Then I had a small cup of coffee, more yam, and walked to Vets Auditorium for prejudging.
While everybody scurried around frantically pumping up backstage, I relaxed in a trailer in back of the Veterans Memorial. I had a guy alert me to 20 minutes before stage time, oiled up, did 20 pushups, and walked to the stage. I knew my muscles would pump up while posing and I’d grow bigger as I continued to pose, this while those guys who had already spent up to two hours working out [backstage] would deflate as they stood there on stage watching me pose. They looked better backstage, I looked better onstage. It was all timing, conserving energy right up until the last minute and then pouring it on when needed.
MR. OLYMPIA 1979: LIGHTWEIGHTS
The under-200-pound class had swelled to 10 competitors. The top three from 1978 were again there: Zane (first), Boyer Coe (second) and Danny Padilla (third), but the addition of Robby Robinson (over-200-pound winner in 1977 and 1978) and Chris Dickerson making his Olympia debut (he’d previously competed in other organizations) heated up the competition substantially.
The 5’2″ “Giant Killer” Danny Padilla wasn’t going to slay any giants here. Writing in Muscle Builder magazine, Bill Dobbins shared his prejudging notes. Of Padilla, he wrote: “Not in shape. He knows it, too. Smiles sheepishly, waves good-naturedly to his fans.” Of the 5’6″ and 40-year-old Chris Dickerson, he wrote: “Really good, much improved, still with those amazing calves.” Robby Robinson was off, smooth-ish, and he lacked that 3-D pop he had at his best a few pounds heavier. Dobbins wrote: “The shape is there, the great balance, but he’s simply not in peak condition. Major disappointment.”
Boyer Coe was high-def, and he needed to be because his physique always lacked things, especially ab and chest density and back width. And yet he also had things most others lacked, especially his pointy biceps and quad separation. Dobbins wrote: “Better than ever. Abs improved, but torso still lacking when standing relaxed.” Was this the year Boyer would get the nod?
Frank Zane needed to be in the shape of his life to fend off Coe for the third straight year, and he was! At 5’9″ and 195 pounds, Zane was bigger than previous years yet peeled, a human anatomy chart. His chest was splintered, his spinal erectors were striped, his obliques were diced. His signature vacuum pose was the best pose in the contest.
Zane later wrote:
Prejudging was as grueling as usual, but I was prepared since prejudging rehearsal was part of my pre-contest training routine. I likened the three-hour prejudging to running a marathon. I wouldn’t run a marathon without practicing the entire marathon beforehand, since this was the hardest thing you had to do. Competitors seemed to drop like flies while I smiled my way through the afternoon sweat-fest.
MR. OLYMPIA 1979: HEAVYWEIGHTS
There were half as many competitors in the over-200 division as the under-200. The Lightweight Era, indeed. On paper, Roy Callender, second-place the year before and winner of three pro shows already that year, was the favorite. But the Canadian Callender was smooth. It’s no wonder, though. In that first year of a loaded IFBB Pro League schedule, he’d entered every previous show, all eight of them, peak after peak, traveling frequently around North America. And he was injured. Observing prejudging, Bill Dobbins wrote of Callender: “Disappointment, what he might’ve done here without an injury.”
Callender’s stumble allowed two veteran competitors, the Australian Roger Walker and the American Dennis Tinerino, to move up to third and second, respectively. Of the 6’1″, broad-shouldered but somewhat lanky Tinerino, Dobbins wrote: “A pleasant surprise, and definitely in the running.”
Competitor #13, Mike Mentzer, was already the talk of bodybuilding, and he was about to become the talk of Columbus. Of this contest, he later said: “On the day of my first Olympia, my spirits were very high. I thought I could beat Frank Zane. I figured my proportions were equal to his and, at 220 pounds, I was so much bigger.” At 5’8” and 220, he was densely developed with Herculean proportions and curvy limbs. Mentzer dominated the over-200 division. Dobbins wrote that he was “Almost shockingly good.” The only question then was: Would he have enough fine detailing to overtake Zane in the finals?
After prejudging, future head judge (and current president of the IFBB Pro League) Jim Manion said: “If Mentzer doesn’t win, it’s a crime.” The legendary Serge Nubret said, “Mike is better, but Zane is the champion.”
MR. OLYMPIA 1979: FINALS
The evening show began with the amateur Mr. International. This was followed by two guest posers: Lisa Lyon, a media sensation as a women’s bodybuilding pioneer, and 1976 Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu, posing publicly for the first time since suffering a dislocated knee at the 1977 World’s Strongest Man.
In the past, the under-200 and over-200 Mr. Olympia division winners dueled in the evening contest. This year was different. The bodybuilders with the top six scores, regardless of division, would be judged again in the posedown round. Each of the seven judges, including legendary bodybuilders Reg Park and Bill Pearl, awarded one point to who they deemed the winner. Those points were added to the prejudging scores. So, the whole weight division thing really didn’t matter (it would be scrapped next year). On top of that, the judging system—boxing point style at prejudging and winner-take-all at the finals—was complex and messy. The one good thing this show spawned was the posedown round.
The six competitors in the posedown were: Boyer Coe, Chris Dickerson, Mike Mentzer, Robby Robinson, Dennis Tinerino, and Frank Zane. Regardless of the sextet of musclemen on stage, it was still a lightweight versus heavyweight duel to all in attendance. All eyes were on the reigning champ Frank Zane and fast-rising rookie Mike Mentzer.
It was a contrast between the leaner Zane and the fuller Mentzer, and if both had looked as they did at prejudging the nod may have gone to Mentzer. If Mentzer had been just a little drier, it certainly should have. But Mentzer wasn’t the same, and he wasn’t better. He was worse. By all accounts, he had smoothed out.
Frank Zane won the 1979 Mr. Olympia, his third straight (and last) Olympia title, cementing his status as the face and physique of the Lightweight Era and a paragon for aesthetic bodybuilders to this day. Many still contend Mentzer should’ve won. They wanted to end the Lightweight Era then and there and give bodybuilding’s ultimate title to someone who had built a bigger body, a body builder, not a body sculptor. It was an apples versus oranges decision, but in the end the apple was peeled and the orange wasn’t. It was a missed opportunity for Mike Mentzer, who competed only once more, at the 1980 Mr. Olympia, and a seized opportunity for the improbable three-time champ, Frank Zane.
We’ll give the final word to Frank Zane:
[At] the banquet and a nice meal afterwards, wine flowed freely. As Christine [his wife] and I sat at our table, Mike Mentzer, who had come in second, was nice enough to come over and say, “It’s not your fault that you won.” I accepted it as a compliment and thought about retiring. Could it get any better than this?
1979 Mr. Olympia Results
October 6, 1979 / Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Columbus, Ohio
Frank Zane ($25,000)
Under 200 lbs.
1. Frank Zane
2. Boyer Coe
3. Robby Robinson
4. Chris Dickerson
5. Danny Padilla
6. Carlos Rodriguez
7. Albert Beckles
8. Tom Platz
9. Ed Corney
10. Steve Davis
Over 200 lbs.
1. Mike Mentzer
2. Dennis Tinerino
3. Roger Walker
4. Roy Callender
5. Bob Birdsong
(The total prize money was $50,000 with Frank Zane receiving half. We’ve been unable to verify how the remaining $25,000 was split up, but it was likely parsed out to the six men who made the posedown, with Mike Mentzer receiving $10,000.)