Bill Pearl is a bodybuilding pioneer and star. He won the Mr. Universe title at the age of 40. At this time, the world’s richest man, Paul Getty, was a Mr. Universe fan and used to attend the contests. He was so impressed by Bill Pearl’s muscle size and willpower that he invited him to visit his huge property.
Bill is a great athlete and known for his pride and honor. He hated posing but loved to work out. Furthermore, there were times when he thought about quitting bodybuilding. Back in those days, the famous Muscle Beach was filled with dubious people. Bill as a youngster didn’t like them. According to Bill, “Some of these kids were on an evil kick that wouldn’t quit, and I never was like that and didn’t want any part of it.”
Here’s Bill Pearl’s story. William Arnold “Bill” Pearl was born on October 31, 1930, in Pineville, Oregon. As a youngster, he started to read books about old-time strongmen. He was fascinated by their acts of strength, like bending steel bars or tearing telephone books. Strongmen were accepted by society. The theaters were filled with thousands of people, cheering and applauding them. Bill admired their strength and reputation as strength stars. Thus, he ordered a York Big 10 Special Weight Set in the hopes of becoming strong and well-built. The York Big 10 Special Weight Set consisted of 80 lb weight plates, a five-foot bar, two dumbbells, collars, two kettle bells, a pair of iron boots, and a wrist-roller. Due to the war effort, iron was in short supply, and he had to wait two whole years for that set. When Bill’s hands first touched that iron, it set off a chain reaction that would change bodybuilding history.
He began working out in his basement with his friend Al Simmons. They started working out three days a week. As Bill was in the ninth grade, he could one-arm snatch with 100 pounds.
One day, a friend of his came to his house all excited and said, “Bill, I finally got the answer.” In his hands, he had a copy of Strength and Health magazine. Bill couldn’t believe his eyes when he looked through it and saw pictures of John Grimek. He figured, “This is it; this is the way!”
Bill trained harder and put more determination into his workouts. As his size and strength increased, his desire to improve his mental attitude also increased. Thus, he played football. It was not his passion, but it was a sure-fire way of getting a higher education. He got offers from the University of Washington and Washington State University.
He admits he wasn’t a natural athlete, and everything came only after much hard effort. In fact, the only two sports he made rapid progress in were wrestling and bodybuilding.
Bill can remember taking pictures when he was a young lad of 17 or 18, and his arm hanging at his side measured 11 3/4″, which is a pretty good measurement for a young kid.
After Bill had been training for a while, his one goal in life was to get his picture in Strength and Health magazine—or, in fact, any magazine!
In the Navy
In 1950, Bill entered the service, and so he had little time to work out.
Bill recalls, “The Navy was just wonderful to me at this time. They gave me military transportation across to England. In fact, they assigned me to the American Embassy in London, so I could take part in the contest. The man who was responsible for all the Navy’s help was Captain Ralph Styles, who later became an Admiral. He asked me to boost the U.S. Navy and let it be known how the Navy feeds its personnel. It was easy for me to say these things because in my case, they were perfectly true.”
Bill worked his tail off in those days, and he trained as best he could on the Navy bases, and he never really got any help at all, until he went to Leo Stern’s gym while he was stationed in San Diego.
Who is Leo Stern?
Leo Stern’s gym is one of the oldest gyms in San Diego, but you may be wondering, “Who is Leo Stern?”
Leo Stern spent his four-year enlistment as a physical-training instructor (PTI) in the U.S. Air Corps. In 1946, he opened his gym and worked up to 90 hours a week. Even later in his gym-owner career, he worked 11 hours a day, six days a week. Recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger visited Leo and proved that he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Hats off!
Leo influenced the world of bodybuilding and powerlifting. In the golden era of bodybuilding, he was well known. Old-timers will be familiar with his name. Many bodybuilding, lifting, and strength stars passed through Leo’s gym, including Lou Ferrigno, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, of course, Bill Pearl.
Leo Stern was a good friend of Bill Pearl’s. He put a lot of money into helping Bill when he was young kid in the service. He fed him for months and helped him travel. In 1950, Bill entered the service, and, after he served, he went to Leo Stern’s gym and trained. At first, Leo Stern didn’t pay attention to Bill Pearl. He was just another well-built kid who seemed to be interested in becoming stronger to improve his wrestling. Bill was the wrestling champion of the 11th Naval District and had high hopes of representing the United States in the Olympic Games.
According to Bill Pearl, “I was training at Leo Stern’s gym at the time, and Muscle Beach was going full blast. I can recall I had gone up there a few times just to see what went on, and, at that time, things had gotten bad. There were a lot of new kids coming out from New York and other parts of the country, and some of the things these guys were doing down there were absolutely degrading to the sport. These antics they were pulling on the boardwalk, and some of the comments made to the young girls were just a little too much. I recall going to a physique contest one time, and there were so many vulgar comments made from the audience to the people up there posing. They were so loud and rude; I was disgusted at the whole affair. I remember going back to see Leo, and I told him I was going to quit training. He couldn’t understand why, and I told him I just wasn’t raised that way, and I was just going to continue with my wrestling. In fact, I was doing so well at my wrestling; I was hoping to make the Olympic Games team in 1952. Leo came up and saved the day by telling me that just because some of these clowns were acting this way, it didn’t mean that I had to be like them or get involved in any way. Leo said to me, ‘Let them play their games; divorce yourself from these people. You don’t have to associate with them.’ I haven’t even to this day, and I have never really been accepted by the crowd at Muscle Beach, and while I’m not on the ‘outs,’ I’m on the other side of the tracks—not that I’m a ‘goody-goody boy;’ it’s just that my attitude toward the sport is entirely different from theirs. Some of these kids were on an evil kick that wouldn’t quit, and I never was like that and didn’t want any part of it.”
Bill Pearl’s Personality
According to Leo Stern, “Bill surprised me by coming along as quickly as he did. When he first set foot in the gym, I can recall him having a large-boned, rugged type of physique that had possibilities, but at that time, he was nothing more than a sturdy individual. He told me he had worked out at home and at the YMCA, and anywhere else where he could find weights. His main interest at that time seemed to be his wrestling, at which he was particularly good. Bill responded very quickly to coaching; he was an excellent pupil. I had only to tell him once how to perform any exercise, and when I outlined his programs, he followed them to the letter. It’s always been a practice of mine when working with anyone that they follow the workout exactly as written and do as instructed, or there isn’t any point in coaching them. Bill got along well with everyone, as he is an extremely likeable person—although he was prone to being shy and lacked confidence in his own ability. He made remarkable progress in those first two years. Let’s face it; you just don’t come out an unknown and win everything in the state of California in your first year of competition—unless you are outstanding—and that is exactly what Bill did. Normally, it takes time to develop a reputation, and although the judges look at everyone, they are usually inclined to more fully observe an individual who is known and has been around for some time.”
Bill Pearl vs. Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski
In 1953, Bill Pearl took the physique world by storm. By this time, Leo had taken a deep interest in him and was helping him all he could. Bill just went wild that year. He took the Mr. Southern California, Mr. California, Mr. America, and Mr. Universe titles all in one year! It was during this year that Bill first met “Zabo” Koszewski. He got to know him well at these contests, and they have been good friends ever since.
According to Bill Pearl, “Zabo is about six years older than I am. When I won the Mr. Southern California title, Zabo placed second. When I won the Mr. America title, Zabo was third. At that time, he was hard on my heels all the way, and I think he would have done a lot better if I hadn’t been on the scene. Zabo is about as remarkable a man as you could find anywhere. He’s 46 years old and has been in fantastic shape all the time, year-in, year-out. He’s devoted his entire life strictly to the sport. I really admire the man, and he is another one of those people who have given much more than they have taken from the sport.
I think it’s a shame that Zabo never won the Mr. America title, as he wanted to so very much! To continue year after year in great shape as he has done really takes a lot of willpower, believe me. I know. I think Zabo is like me in one respect: If he can’t beat them onstage, then he will beat them in age. He is a nice person and has been a good influence on a lot of kids down around the beach area over the years. They look upon Zabo as ‘The King;’ in fact, that’s what they call him, and believe me, he is the king! Zabo’s words are never ignored, and what he says is gospel. He has done a great deal for these young kids, and he tries to keep them all on the right path. I see him every now and again, and I can honestly say I’ve always liked the man. I hope he will be around for a long time yet!”
Bill Pearl and posing
Bill always used to have a serious and tight face because he hated to pose!
According to Bill Pearl, “I always looked at it as a job, never as fun. I don’t like to pose. I like doing the best I could at it, but I never enjoyed posing and still don’t. I’m not an exhibitionist. I’m an introvert in a lot of ways. I didn’t like getting up onstage and doing it—other than that it was a job that had to be done. So, that’s why I came across the way I have, but I’m not like that. I’m a very congenial guy when I’m doing things that I enjoy doing, but if I’m not at ease and feel the least bit uncomfortable, then I withdraw, and that sometimes comes out.”
1971 Mr. Universe
After winning the 1967 Mr. Universe title, Bill retired, but Leo Stern persuaded him to compete because of the degrading comments from some bodybuilding magazines. Those magazines credited some newcomers as the “World’s Greatest Bodybuilders.” Pioneers like John Grimek, Reg Park, and Bill Pearl appeared at the bottom of their Top 10 or Top 20. Furthermore, there were articles that claiming Bill was afraid to compete against the current top bodybuilders
Bill knew that the only way he could compete fairly against anyone was in the 1971 Mr. Universe Contest. Bill Pearl decided to enter the Mr. Universe Contest at 40. He took pictures of all the top men who were expected to compete in the contest and placed them on his bathroom mirror to look at every day. Alongside these, he placed a photo of himself, taken on his 40th birthday.
According to Bill Pearl, “The contrast was so bad; at times, it was hard for me to muster up the energy to train, watch my diet, and think of little else but the contest. I knew a day of reckoning was coming, and I had committed myself and others. It was sink or swim. Leo and I planned every aspect of the contest, including the type of training we felt would give me the necessary size, shape, and muscularity. I wrote to Chuck Amato and asked for advice on a diet. I also wrote and asked for advice from others who I felt could answer some of our questions. We left nothing to doubt or chance. We worked a proper stance, tried to guess what the judges would have us do, and prepared for anything. It was a 24-hours-a-day job of training, proper eating, mental concentration, and continually preparing.”
Arnold and Bill Pearl
The judges were known as fair, strict, and neutral.Every top bodybuilder in the world was competing, including Sergio Oliva, Frank Zane, Reg Park, Tony Emmott, Kassem Yazbek, Roy Duvaland, and Chris Dickerson. But where was Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Some of the top men who were training for the contest decided to drop out. A couple of weeks before the contest was to be held in London, it was rumored that the top contender would not be allowed to enter because of other commitments. Bill cited that he had nothing to do with this personally, and that Arnold was a fine fellow and a real competitor.
Bill Pearl was one of the bodybuilders whom Schwarzenegger had not defeated. Schwarzenegger was in top condition and hungry to compete against Bill, but he decided to skip Mr. Universe and compete in the following 1971 Mr. Olympia in Paris. Arnold won Mr. Olympia, but the lineup was poor.
In Iron Man Magazine (May 1972) Wayne Gallasch wrote, “The Olympia 1971 was something of an anti-climax, with Arnold winning in a ‘one-horse race’ against two other men whom I had never heard of.”
1971 Mr. Universe was the toughest competition Bill had ever taken part in. The crowd enjoyed a fabulous show, then waited for the results. The announcement was as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen, the 1971 NABBA Amateur Mr. Universe winner is Ken Waller of the United States.”
According to Bill, this was an extremely popular decision, and the theatre rang out in resounding applause.
The next announcement was, “Ladies and gentlemen, the 1971 NABBA Professional Mr. Universe winner is… Bill Pearl!”
The crowd went wild!
Bill Pearl and the World’s Richest Man
Jean Paul Getty was a fan of NABBA and attended lots of shows. He was so impressed by Bill Pearl’s muscle size and willpower that he invited him to visit his huge property. Bill and Leo Stern drove in a 20-year-old Cadillac limousine to Getty’s three-storey 16th century castle. Getty proved to be a very friendly and modest host! Paul Getty personally guided them through the estate, and then spent hours asking and answering questions. Every room and hall of the Getty Estate was furnished with priceless artwork from the 16th and 17th centuries.
After retirement, Bill opened his own gym, authored books, and coached.
Bill was a huge supporter of Pat Casey, the first powerlifter to officially total 2,000 lbs, as well as to bench 600. Bill also coached Mr. America Jim Morris.
The World’s Strongest Man, Bill Kazmaier, credited Bill’s book, Keys to the Inner Universe, as having a significant impact on his training philosophy. Hats off to Bill Pearl’s dedication and work! Today, he is 88 years old and still living an active life.
(Editor’s Note: Of course, this is not Bill’s full biography. Writing about Bill’s colorful life would fill over 100 pages! This article is only meant to give a brief overview of how great he was. If you are interested in reading Bill Pearl’s full story, then I would suggest visiting his webpage. He also authored books about training and his life. Have fun and keep training!)
- “The Bill Pearl Story, Iron Man 1971”
- “Bill Pearl: Master of the Universe”