The Crucifixion of Kal
Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, before the age of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, there was the potential for more drama and fireworks onstage at a bodybuilding contest. In our present day society, everything is so PC (politically correct), the display of any negative emotion at the announcement of a low placing is looked down upon as bad sportsmanship and, worse, the possible destruction of any future career.
One of the most dramatic and unique reactions to a contest placing happened at the 1978 Mr. Olympia contest in Columbus, Ohio. Kalman Szkalak (pronounced SKUL-AK) was riding high on a wave of contest success and political controversy as he steamrolled into the Biggest Contest in the World. His fans were behind him all the way but he was on the fence with the Powers That Be and he knew it. The cocky Hungarian bodybuilder knowingly smirked in the face of certain adversity and he dared anyone (competitor or otherwise) to bring him down!
Kal Szkalak was born in Hungary in 1953. Growing up during the Hungarian Revolution, his family was forced to flee the country when Kal was only 4 years old. Managing to make their way into Austria, the Szkalak family was eventually relocated to a refugee camp in New Jersey before finally settling into Delaware. As a teenager, Kal started working in a health club. His physique quickly took to the rigors of pumping iron like a fish to water. Before long, the once skinny teen was bench pressing twice his bodyweight with no problem. The manager of the club recruited the young Kal to begin competing and convinced him to compete for the state title.
After winning the 1975 AAU Mr. Delaware contest and now totally enamored of the bodybuilding lifestyle, Szkalak did what any aspiring bodybuilder would do. He made his way to the Mecca. Driving a beat up camper/van, Kal drove across the country to relocate out west and train at the fabled Gold’s Gym in Venice, California. Arriving at the gym on his first day in town, he gave the front desk manager the last few dollars in his pocket to workout. He was pissed that the manager asked for his money but he had to train. It was a necessity.
Attracting the attention of the major bodybuilding stars of the gym, including Ken Waller and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kal soon became part of the Gold’s Gym gang. His immense strength in the bench press (easily doing reps with over 400 pounds), bulky physique and cocky persona allowed him to fit right in with the big boys. The following year, Kal gained the attention of the bodybuilding press by winning the coveted AAU Mr. California contest. Since the winner of the Mr. California was often a front runner for the Mr. America competition, all eyes were on this unknown bodybuilder.
Only six weeks later, at the 1976 AAU Mr. America contest in Philadelphia, Kal Szkalak overwhelmed a talented line-up to win the overall title on the year of the Bicentennial. His enormous pecs, peaked biceps and tremendous upper body immediately brought comparisons to the great Schwarzenegger. In addition to winning the overall, Szkalak also won Best Arms, Best Chest and Best Back. A new star with the unpronounceable last name had arrived!
In 1977, Kal was ready to make his imprint on the IFBB scene. Aiming for the prestigious Mr. Universe contest, Kal had to first qualify by competing in the AFAB Mr. USA contest. As a Mr. America overall winner, Kal felt like he was stealing a trophy from bodybuilders who were below his level but rules were rules. He needed to win this contest in order to get to the Universe so he easily overwhelmed the competition and won first place.
After winning the Mr. USA, Kal also competed on that same night in the Mr. Universe posedown to be selected as one of the three team members to compete at the Mr. Universe later that year. Along with lightweight contender Danny Padilla, Kal was chosen to be one of the members of Team USA alongside popular bodybuilder Mike Mentzer. Because Mentzer was a heavyweight, Kal and Mike would be competing directly against each other at the Mr. Universe.
As last year’s runner-up at the IFBB Mr. Universe, Mentzer was the heavy favorite to win this year’s World Championships. Like Kal, Mike had also won the Mr. America title the previous year (IFBB) and, as the current editor-in-chief of Muscle Builder Magazine, his popularity was growing each month. Mentzer was the “thinking man’s bodybuilder” and the combination of his tremendous physique and handsome good looks seemed ready to propel him to be bodybuilding’s next superstar.
Szkalak didn’t care what the odds were, his supreme confidence motivated him to train harder than ever and pull off an upset. In four contests, the 24-year-old bodybuilder was undefeated. Kal put everything into his preparation and arrived in Nimes, France full of confidence and sure of victory.
In a stunning upset, Szkalak beat Mike Mentzer for the 1977 IFBB Mr. Universe heavyweight class by a slim one-point decision. Controversy ensued after the victory when it was revealed that Mentzer was, in fact, beating Kal after the prejudging by a considerable margin. However, the judges decided to conduct a posedown at the evening show, using the placement system instead of the more complicated points system. Ignoring the scores from the prejudging, the judges selected the winner of the contest by only using the placement system at the evening competition.
The European audience responded loudly to the massive upper body displayed by Szkalak, giving him a tremendous ovation during the deciding posedown. How much of this crowd support influenced the judges’ decision is impossible to say but, in the end, Kal was able to grasp a slim victory over a shocked Mentzer. Mike’s girlfriend, Cathy Gelfo, was visibly upset the following day after the surprise decision. “How could Mike lose to half a bodybuilder?”, she exclaimed, obviously referring to the weaker leg development of Szkalak compared to the exceptional thighs and calves displayed by the Mighty Mentzer.
As a determined Szkalak graced the cover of Muscle Builder Magazine under the caption, “Szkalak Makes Critics Eat Their Words at IFBB Championships!”, the bodybuilding world embraced its new superstar. Joe Weider took advantage of his new IFBB star by featuring him in training articles each month in his magazine. Unfortunately, the relationship between new bodybuilding star Szkalak and the biggest bodybuilding publisher in the business would soon hit a serious road bump.
Kal, unlike most bodybuilders willing to do anything to climb the ladder of success, was a fiercely independent and outspoken individual. In other words, he didn’t take shit from anyone, not even the Master Blaster himself. Disagreeing with Joe over a “verbal agreement” regarding payment for the use of his photos for Muscle Builder Magazine, Szkalak decided that if Weider wasn’t going to pay him what was promised, he would take it upon himself to get his pictures back.Storming into the Muscle Builder offices, Kal removed what pictures he could find of him training in the gym and attempted to walk out with them. According to stories, the furious Weider tackled Kal as he tried to walk out and a lawsuit was soon filed against Joe. Weider finally settled out of court.
As if this wasn’t enough, Kal Szkalak decided to stand up to the IFBB by attempting to form a Professional Bodybuilding Union. IFBB rules stated that any professional bodybuilder from the organization was forbidden to compete or participate in any other bodybuilding federation. Feeling that as professionals, bodybuilders had every right to make a living by choosing where they wanted to compete or guest pose, Szkalak decided to form a union.
Backed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promised to serve as Union President if the group was formed, a number of other professional bodybuilders decided to stand with Kal against the IFBB. When IFBB President Ben Weider heard of the possibility of a Pro Bodybuilders Union, he called for an emergency meeting.
Meeting at a Santa Monica hotel, Kal Szkalak and his group of professional bodybuilders met with Ben Weider and other federation officials. Arnold, who had promised to lend his considerable clout behind the union, was conspicuous by his absence. Kal began the meeting by stating his case that professional bodybuilders should be free to make their living by competing anywhere they chose. A consummate politician, Ben Weider countered that the IFBB was receiving complaints of professional bodybuilders who had shown up for guest posing appearances out of shape and even demanding (blackmailing) promoters by asking for more money than was agreed upon. Weider ended his rebuttal by stating that maybe it is the IFBB and not the bodybuilders themselves, who is more in need of union support.
Arriving 30 minutes late, Arnold finally appeared at the meeting. Seeing that the idea of a bodybuilding union was not going in the direction he anticipated, Arnold quickly decided to take his leave. He told Ben Weider he had to leave early for another appointment, right before all those in attendance were about to vote yea or nay for the Professional Bodybuilders Union. Poor Kal was left out in the cold without the considerable Schwarzenegger influence behind him and the idea of the union was quickly voted down.
Only a few months later, the 1978 IFBB Mr. Olympia contest was scheduled to take place in Columbus, Ohio. Frank Zane, the current champion, would be defending his title against a serious line-up of competitors that included Robby Robinson, Danny Padilla, Ed Corney, Boyer Coe, Roy Callendar, Dennis Tinerino and, last but not least, Kal Szkalak.
Sitting in the audience during the prejudging of the Mr. International contest, Kal was spotted wearing a dark brown warm-up suit and glowing with confidence. As the bodybuilding fans descended upon the undefeated champion for autographs, someone asked Kal how he was looking. With an all knowing smirk, Szkalak coyly answered, “You’ll see, you’ll see.”
The prejudging for the 1978 Mr. Olympia was soon underway. In the Under 200 pound class, Frank Zane redefined the word “Ripped” as he appeared onstage in shredded condition. Despite a challenge from bodybuilders such as Mohamed Makkawy, Danny Padilla, Boyer Coe and Ed Corney, Zane dramatically improved upon his 1977 condition by competing in outstanding condition. He was definitely the favorite to win the Under 200 pound class.
The crowd was brimming with excitement as the Over 200 pound class finally walked out onstage. Robby Robinson, runner-up one year earlier, was much leaner and more ripped than last year. The massive Roy Callendar, who had placed runner-up to Robby at the inaugural Night of the Champions contest earlier in the year, was bigger and harder than ever before. And then Kal Szkalak walked onstage...
Displaying a thick and massive upper body, Kal smiled to his appreciative fans as they loudly cheered for their underdog champion. When Kal was called back out for the second round of judging, the mandatory poses, his body really came alive. Presenting some of the thickest pecs since the Austrian Oak last graced the stage, this audience of hardcore bodybuilding fans stood up and shook the walls with their loud ovation. As Kal hit one astounding most muscular pose after another, the sound level in the theater reached unprecedented heights!
Robert Kennedy, the publisher of MuscleMag International, was on hand to witness the tremendous show of support for Szkalak. Making special mention of the sustained and extremely loud ovation for Kal every time he appeared onstage, Kennedy even chose to feature him on the cover of his MuscleMag Annual issue that included the Mr. Olympia coverage. Without a doubt, Szkalak was the most popular bodybuilder onstage that night.
The Over 200 pound class seemed to be between Robby Robinson, Roy Callendar and Kal Szkalak. The audience favorite was Kal by a landslide. Despite leg development that was out of proportion to his thick and massive upper body, the hardcore bodybuilding fans wanted to see BEEF! This was the Mr. Olympia contest, after all, not some elegant art show. No one displayed more raw muscle mass onstage, along with the indescribable aura of charisma, than Szkalak did.
This overwhelming feeling of admiration and enthusiasm explains the reaction of the crowd after the exciting posedown took place. Standing onstage with fellow bodybuilders Frank Zane, Boyer Coe, Danny Padilla, Robby Robinson and Roy Callendar, Kal anticipated adding win Number 5 to his resume that night. Alas, it was not to be. After Danny Padilla, the 5’2” genetic marvel who was a little too soft tonight, was called out in sixth place, pandemonium ensued.
“In fifth place,” the emcee slowly announced, “Kal Szkalak!” Kal looked shocked onstage as the audience booed loud and long. How could the judges screw over their hero? Didn’t they see the massive arms, the thick pecs and the ripped condition of Szkalak?
Taking in the boos, Kal Szkalak came up with one of the most unique responses to a poor decision at a bodybuilding contest. Stretching both arms out to his side, Kal let his head fall over to one of his massive shoulders and he closed his eyes. Crucified! Kal was letting his fans know that the judges and the Powers That Be had crucified him in front of the biggest group of bodybuilding fans all year. He had stood up against the Establishment and he had been screwed for it.
The audience was in shock over the dramatic reaction by Szkalak but they soon raised their voices in support of their favorite bodybuilder of the night. Not aware of the lawsuit against Joe Weider or the attempted launch of a pro bodybuilders union, the hardcore bodybuilding fans couldn’t understand why this magnificent bodybuilder with more beef than anyone onstage could be relegated to fifth place!
By the end of the night, Frank Zane had won his second Mr. Olympia title with a happy Robby Robinson in second, Roy Callendar taking an impressive third place and Boyer Coe in fourth. Kal had succeeded in stealing the show, both with his physique and his one of a kind ending. His career as an IFBB Professional ended on that evening, but Kalman Szkalak made an impact in his brief career as a bodybuilder that will be remembered for a lifetime!