THE PRIVATE SIDE OF MIKE MENTZER by Irene L. Hause (MuscleMag International Number 28 March 1982) with permission. Photo thumbnail by John Corlett, Edited by neckberg.
A strikingly handsome man who moves with the fluid grace of a panther. A bodybuilding superstar. Extraordinarily articulate, yet soft-spoken. Even among friends, known as a very private person.
Mike Mentzer. Has a great fear of ocean swimming because he doesn’t “want to become filet mignon for some shark!” Binges on spoonfuls of butter straight from the carton. Serves coffee strong enough to stand an elephant on its ear.
A diversified man with broad interests, Mentzer has earned the reputation of “the thinking man’s bodybuilder.” He has developed a highly successful mail order business based on his innovative, still controversial “heavy duty training system.” His very well written book, THE MENTZER METHOD TO FITNESS, was published in 1980 by the prestigious William Morrow and Company and is selling very, very well. At the age of 28, this internationally recognized physique star is already looking beyond his competitive days, saying “I don’t want to be competing at 40!” He readily admits that the thrill of competition is beginning to wear thin and that more than anything else, he’s “really tired of all the dieting.”
Mike’s road to Olympia competition began in 1971 when he was named Mr. Lancaster County (Pennsylvania). His training was temporarily halted two contests later by a serious shoulder injury which years later still affects his workouts. After an eight-month layoff, which he describes as the most depressing time in his life, he forged ahead, winning the 1976 IFBB Mr. America title and the 1978 Mr. Universe. Later in 1978 he placed second, behind Frank Zane in the Olympia, and “Zane vs. Mentzer / Symmetry vs. Muscularity” became one of bodybuilding’s hottest topics.
At the time of this interview – eight months after the infamous 1980 Olympia in Sydney, Australia – anger, hurt, and bitterness still tinge his voice as he describes his emotions that night when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “comeback” irrevocably damaged the credibility of bodybuilding’s most cherished title.
Yes, it is true that this incident has seriously diminished the possibility that Mike will ever compete again. But, on the positive side, it has provided added incentive for branching out even further, and at the time of this interview, Mike was just beginning to train for television’s popular SUPERSTARS competition.
Glamour, you ask? When this reporter telephoned him a few weeks later to verify a couple of facts, Mike was hitting the sack at an unglamorous 8:30 p.m. so he could get up at an even more unglamorous 4:00 a.m. for another rigorous day of training. He takes to SUPERSTARS not only the abilities of a bodybuilding champion, but a school-years background of swimming, track, and football. He swears he will help prove that “bodybuilders are not only athletes, but among the very best athletes in the world.”
This interview took place poolside of Mike’s elegant and spacious new desert home.
IRENE HAUSE: Since you have an apartment in Los Angeles and a house in Palm Springs, which do you consider home?
MIKE MENTZER: I guess both. I’ve been spending about equal time in both places.
HAUSE: I know that the Zanes and the Coes have recently moved to Palm Springs too. Where do professional bodybuilders train here? It’s a long way to Gold’s and World Gyms!
MENTZER: We train at a place called the Door-C Fitness Factory. However, now that Boyer’s moved down here too, we’re thinking about renting a small warehouse complex, putting in equipment, and getting a few more people involved in training. Bob Birdsong lives down here too, and Andreas Cahling is thinking about getting a place here. So maybe there is going to be an exodus from the Venice – Santa Monica area to Palm Springs. But I really don’t think that will happen. People like the beach, and Palm Springs is a little too secluded for many people.
HAUSE: From the pleasant topic of Palm Springs, let’s go to the unpleasant subject of the 1980 Olympia. There was so much understandable bitterness over Arnold’s seventh win. What was your gut-level reaction? Your professional reaction?
MENTZER: Well, paradoxical as it may sound, my immediate gut-level reaction was laughter. I just started laughing. It was ludicrous! It was so obviously an incorrect decision that my first response was just to laugh. Of course, as the dust settled and I thought about it, anger set in. I felt cheated. As time passed and I started thinking about things, the events started falling in place. Now I feel a responsibility to do something to correct the situation and see that it never happens again.
HAUSE: What do you have in mind?
MENTZER: I’m not going to tell you everything, but it’s generally known now that the top professional bodybuilders have gotten together – not to form a union per se – but we’ve decided that it is up to us to take control of our careers and take greater control over what’s going on. As professionals, we have more to lose than anybody. It was my impression that weekend in Sydney, Australia, that Arnold was the IFBB. It was almost as if there wasn’t one official who had the courage to stand up to him. We just want to make sure that rules are changed and things are put into effect that will prevent these kinds of things from ever happening again.
As a result of what happened in Sydney, we boycotted the 1980 Mr. Pro Universe. While we didn’t get 100% compliance, it was successful enough to let Arnold and the rest of the world know that certain things were happening that were going to shake up the bodybuilding world.
HAUSE: In addition to the Arnold fiasco, you and a lot of other people thought you deserved much better than fifth place. As a result of all this, are you or were you really seriously considering retiring from professional competitive bodybuilding?
MENTZER: Yes. I’m still not sure. After what happened in Sydney and on deciphering the events, putting things into their proper place, seeing what actually happened, it caused me to look into the past and see some of the same patterns, but I was too naïve to recognize them at the time. I’m sure they’re going to continue into the future. I don’t want to discuss it any further due to the impending possibility of legal action.
HAUSE: Bodybuilding seems like such an intensely personal sport. When you box or ski, if you win or lose, it is something you do. When you win or lose at bodybuilding, it somehow seems more something you are. How do you think that affects your ego?
MENTZER: I’m surprised that you made that statement – something you are as opposed to something you do. I’m not sure I agree with that. Perhaps some bodybuilders take it that way because they’re so wrapped up in their bodybuilding that their whole identity is their physique, and when they lose, that’s making a statement about them. But I’ve never felt that way. I’ve never been devastated by a defeat because I don’t view defeat as a failure. It’s just one step in the learning process. If I lose a contest – as long as it’s not due to political reasons – I analyze the situation, analyze my physique, my performance, and try to improve upon it next time. But I don’t feel as though I’ve been lessened or diminished in stature as a person because I lost to someone like Kal Szkalak. All these guys are great champions, and losing to them is no big deal.
HAUSE: What are your feelings about “life or death” competitions with people you practically live with in the gym who may become close friends? Can you ever become really close friends with a man like Boyer Coe, for example, or is there always some hint of reservation?
MENTZER: That’s a curious question because since what happened in Sydney we have become much closer as friends. Even before Sydney, Boyer and I had been communicating on a regular basis, and friendship began to evolve. While there’s always a certain amount of underlying tension, especially close to a contest, I never felt it was a hindrance to the growth of our friendship. Boyer respects me as a competitor, and I respect him as a competitor, but I don’t think he feels that his whole identity is bound up in his bodybuilding. As to whether or not these competitions are life or death, they do seem to assume a tremendous amount of importance in our lives at those various moments, but when the competition is over, the emotions have died down, and everything returns to normal, we’re friends again.
HAUSE: Do you think your position in the world of bodybuilding has made it harder or easier for your brother Ray?
MENTZER: Probably a lot harder. I’ve already come out with a mail order business based on our type of training, and now he’s hoping to come out with one too. I’m sure it will do all right, but people already associate him with me, and it’s going to be more difficult for him to capture the public’s imagination.
Competitively, I think it may have hurt him too. I think some people may not want to see two Mentzer brothers winning all the contests. They would think that’s amounting to a dominance of sorts that shouldn’t be there, especially since a lot of what we espouse is contrary to the commercial interests at the moment.
HAUSE: With so many major titles behind you, which one means the most to you?
MENTZER: That’s an easy question to answer. I never felt more excitement than I did the night I won the America. It was my first really big contest, getting over that hump. I can remember, even before they called my name out, I knew I was going to win, and I felt the emotion welling up in my chest, and I had to really keep myself from crying. I remember standing on the stage, being very, very aware of everything that was going on – the audience, the people behind me, beside me. I made a definite attempt to never forget that moment, every impression, sight, sound, smell, everything, and I still have that impression in my mind.
HAUSE: What about the Mr. Universe title in 1978? With a score of 300, you were the first bodybuilder to win a perfect score in international competition.
MENTZER: The Universe was almost anti-climactic. There was no elation at all. It was just one more stepping stone to professional bodybuilding.
HAUSE: Let’s discuss the areas you’ve branched into from bodybuilding: seminars, writing, show business. How important is each in your life now? Which do you enjoy most? Which do you perceive pursuing in the future?
MENTZER: The seminars and posing exhibitions are additional avenues for making money. I enjoy the posing exhibitions, but seminars can sometimes become tedious. You don’t make as much money conducting seminars as you do exhibitions, but you’ve got to put out a lot more energy. It takes up a lot more time, and you end up saying the same things over and over. The movies – show business – I don’t have any dreams about. A lot of people seem to think there’s a logical leap from bodybuilding to show business. Maybe that’s because of Steve Reeves, Arnold, and Lou. I wouldn’t mind trying a little acting just to see what the craft is all about, but I have no burning desire to be a Brando!
HAUSE: What about these things you do, such as voice-overs for the Universe on television?
MENTZER: I would like to do some more commentaries, perhaps branch out into something in communications. But that’s going to have to be developed. I would like to do sports commentaries for CBS, maybe get a short-term contract, just to see what kind of potential I have. I think I have some. I’d like to begin developing alternatives now, so when the time does come to put a cessation to my bodybuilding activities, I’ll have something to fall back on.
HAUSE: What about your writing? Do you really enjoy it?
MENTZER: Yes. And probably like most writers, I have thoughts of someday writing a novel. I particularly enjoy writing articles for bodybuilding magazines and communicating with the young bodybuilders. I feel a strong kinship to them because I went through all the same things, and I will continue to write bodybuilding articles as long as the interest is there.
HAUSE: I heard that you invested a huge sum of money into a gym in Ohio. Is that true?
MENTZER: I wish it were, but it’s not. Apparently everybody thinks I’m making millions of dollars in bodybuilding, and they’re asking me to invest outrageous amounts of money!
HAUSE: Do you really think you’ll ever go to medical school? Bodybuilding has already brought you as much or more in terms of material wealth and recognition as being a doctor could, unless you won the Nobel prize!
MENTZER: The longer I wait, the more remote the possibility becomes. The professional bodybuilder’s lifestyle is a rewarding one, an exciting one, traveling all the time, meeting people. Opportunities are always arising to expand myself, but I know that five years down the road, or maybe only two or three years down the road, I’m not going to be getting the kind of satisfaction and fulfillment that I get from it now. Although, of course, I’ll still be expanding into other directions because of bodybuilding. But I would like to do something that I consider more meaningful.
HAUSE: Explain, please!
MENTZER: Bodybuilding is obviously a self-centered, maybe even selfish, pursuit. After a while, everything gets to be too much for me. Everything is me, me, me! The common denominator is that I’d rather do something where I’m going to help other people or be more involved with other people. I think I’d get more fulfillment from that than from competing in Grand Prix contests at the age of 40.
HAUSE: You seem very self-assured and goal-oriented. Yet everything seems so well tempered with common sense and a deep enjoyment of life. What’s the foundation of all this?
MENTZER: Both my moral and intellectual development have been influenced by several existential philosophers, primarily Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher, poet, and critic. In line with what the existentialists teach, I believe that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions and that responsibility cannot be foisted upon some aspect of our psyche, like the id or subconscious, nor can we attribute it to the plotting of a devil or to some kind of errant impulse. We’re all responsible for what we do!
I also feel that we as individuals are responsible for who we are. If we’re winners, it’s because we’ve programmed ourselves to become winners. If we’re losers, in large part it’s because we’re programmed to feel that we’re losers. I’ve noticed this especially among bodybuilders. There does seem to be two types: Those who really feel they deserve to win, and go on to win, and those who feel that they aren’t worthy of winning and therefore rarely win.
When I talk about winning and losing, I’m not really talking about just physique contests. I’m talking about every moment of our lives. Every single moment of our lives we’re faced with a decision to act responsibly and constructively or to be paralyzed and not to act.
HAUSE: Does physical fitness have a place in all this?
MENTZER: Yes, definitely! A large part of my value system stems from promoting physical well being and anything else that enhances life, strength, and the feeling of personal power. And I don’t want to leave out the mental, spiritual, and emotional aspects, all of which I feel are very important in leading a rich and balanced life. It’s great to have a Mr. Universe physique and 20-inch arms, but without the added meaning that intellectual development and spiritual and emotional fulfillment provide, even the enjoyment of a well-muscled physique will be reduced.
Developing one’s spirituality really enhances every aspect of life. Even though I’m not a religious person in the traditional sense, I’ve always been aware of the spiritual side of myself and have always tried to stay in touch with it. I define “spirit” as that part of man which allows him to know himself, that which he really is.
I made the statement after the Mr. Olympia contest that I was considering retiring because physical training of the type required to win the Olympia demands such physical energy and sustained preoccupation that one is literally forced to shelve his spiritual and intellectual needs for a long period of time. I’m not sure it’s worth it. When I begin to feel myself losing touch with my center – my spiritual self – I really feel out of sorts and don’t enjoy life nearly as much, even though I’m getting in my best physical condition. I can tell when I’m losing this touch with my centering because I just don’t enjoy things that I ordinarily enjoy things which really enrich life for me, like music, reading certain kinds of books. Even emotional relationships become rather tepid at this point, and I’ve come to discover over the years that the secret in really living a happy life is balance.
HAUSE: With your reputation as an intellectual, so you ever feel isolated among bodybuilders?
MENTZER: That has two answers, really. In the gym before a competition I intentionally isolate myself from almost everyone. That’s more conducive to my type of training, high intensity training. You’ve got to have almost 100% concentration in order to train with maximum intensity. But I haven’t intentionally isolated myself from bodybuilders socially. As a matter of fact, I pride myself on having good relationships with almost all the top bodybuilders, excluding one or two.
When I’m not training for a contest, I’m quite open and accessible in the gym, I feel. I’m often approached by younger bodybuilders for advice on numerous things, and I’m always forthcoming and actually enjoy engaging in such conversations, as I do recall quite vividly myself at their level of development and experience. I know that if at age 18 I had sought advice from Bill Pearl in the gym and if he had give me a rather abrupt answer or rejection, I would have been crushed.
What does anger me, however, are the casual fans who walk in and who do not ask, but demand, that I take photos with them and their family and sign autographs for 50 different people they know. I have no time for these kinds of individuals and will let them know with a curt reply.
HAUSE: Do you ever get “mash” letters from women?
MENTZER: Yes! I’ve had a few over the years, and they’re very, very explicit! These women really are kind of crazy when you think about it. For all they know, I could be a masher myself, a Jack-the-Ripper type! Really, a woman has to be sick or distorted to get that explicit with someone she doesn’t even know! Of course, what they’re responding to is an image of me as portrayed in the media.
HAUSE: What makes a woman attractive to you?
MENTZER: While I am very attracted to women in general, I find that over the years I’ve been attracted to the point of pursuit rather rarely. But when I am, it’s usually a very strong, overwhelming attraction, and I’ll pursue her for all I’m worth. I’ve been immediately overpowered by the women I’ve pursued, or I just didn’t pursue them. It wasn’t something that developed over a period of time.
HAUSE: How did the conversation evolve during your recent Gentlemen’s Quarterly interview about your being a sex symbol?
MENTZER: I suppose that any bodybuilder who is reasonably good looking and gets a considerable amount of publicity is asked that question. I don’t consider myself a sex object at all, but of course how others may view me is an entirely different matter!
HAUSE: How do you feel about your looks?
MENTZER: I think I’m reasonably good looking, but I’ve never been preoccupied with my facial appearance.
HAUSE: What do you fear the most?
MENTZER: That anabolic steroids may have somehow altered my personality. Many people fear that taking steroids will adversely affect them physically. I’m more concerned about the way they might have affected me psychologically or my personality. Scares me to death!
HAUSE: If you could start life over again, what would you change?
MENTZER: At this point, I’m not sure that I would change anything. I haven’t lived long enough to regret anything. It is my most fervent wish, however, that I will be able to say the same thing at the conclusion of my life!
Note by owner neckberg.com: The above interview was sent by Irene. She allowed me to use it. Big thanks. Use my great tag- system and click ‘Irene Hause’ for more great articles by her. – Mr. Berg