The Tijuana Incident
The Arnold Schwarzenegger-Sergio Oliva rivalry came to a dramatic close in 1973. Although the two did not officially meet onstage in competition that year, they did face off against each other in two very wild and strange confrontations. It was a fitting conclusion to a heated conflict that had pitted two of the greatest bodybuilders of their generation head to head against each other.
Arnold Schwarzenegger first got his glimpse of the man they called “The Myth” on his initial visit to the United States in the fall of 1968. Invited to compete in the IFBB Mr. Universe contest in Miami, Florida, Arnold suffered a disappointing loss to a much smaller but perfectly refined Frank Zane. To make matters worse, the bulky Schwarzenegger was further dejected after watching the then two time Mr. Olympia champion, Sergio Oliva, bring down the house as the special guest poser that evening. Arnold was floored by the outrageous dimensions and incredible muscle mass of the reigning king of bodybuilding. At only 21 years old, the young Schwarzenegger was already a two-time Mr. Universe winner but, even at his age, he was smart enough to know he still had a long way to go after seeing Sergio in the flesh.
With a year of consistent, hard training in the U.S behind him, the reborn Austrian Oak had made tremendous improvements in his physique by sculpting and defining his massive bulk. He came back to easily win the 1969 IFBB Mr. Universe, but he again met more than he bargained for when he decided to take on Oliva in the Mr. Olympia contest that evening. Although taller and heavier than the reigning champ, Arnold was defeated by a slim margin while a stupendous Sergio claimed his third Mr. Olympia title.
The tide began to turn in Arnold’s favor one year later when he surprised Oliva by showing up to compete at the AAU Professional Mr. World contest in Columbus, Ohio. Schwarzenegger was bigger than ever and now a master at presenting his physique and he was able to outscore the slightly smooth Oliva in front of the television cameras for ABC TV’s Wide World of Sports. The once invincible Sergio was stunned at his defeat by this cocky newcomer from Austria.
Several weeks later, Arnold repeated his victory by again beating out Sergio at the 1970 Mr. Olympia contest in New York. Losing the Mr. Olympia crown, even to an extremely formidable competitor as the massive Schwarzenegger, was too great of a blow to the proud Cuban bodybuilder. Sergio took the loss personally.
The next year was even more disappointing to the former three-time Mr. Olympia champ. After working with Nautilus manufacturer and bodybuilding entrepreneur Arthur Jones, Sergio was coerced into entering the 1971 NABBA Mr. Universe contest in London with the express purpose of beating the legendary Bill Pearl. Jones and Pearl had had a business disagreement a year ago and Jones was hoping to use his new star pupil to exact revenge on the arrogant champion.
Unfortunately, for both Arthur Jones and Sergio, things did not go as planned. Bill Pearl, at the ripe old age of 41, defeated a subpar Oliva and an aging Reg Park to win his fourth Mr. Universe title. Arnold, who was chomping at the bit at the prospect of beating not only Sergio but also Pearl, a man he had never faced in competition, was denied a chance to compete because of a new IFBB rule that forbid any federation competitor from competing outside of the organization.
One week later in Paris, France, Arnold went on to win his second consecutive Mr. Olympia title while Sergio found himself suspended from competing in any IFBB competitions for a full year. Schwarzenegger won the title unopposed and a disappointed Sergio was allowed to guest pose for an appreciative but equally disappointed audience.
Refusing to go down without a fight, Sergio decided to return to the Mr. Olympia in 1972 in his best shape ever. The normally hungry Schwarzenegger had become relaxed in his recent easy victories and showed up in Essen, Germany 3-4 pounds overweight. Sergio was more defined than ever before and his freaky proportions allowed the magnificent Oliva physique to shine. This battle would go down to the wire!
An international judging panel that included no representatives from the U.S.A. chose Arnold as the winner. Sergio was infuriated at the decision! Realizing that Schwarzenegger was Joe Weider’s rising star, Oliva reasoned that “the fix” was in. Sergio could not win no matter what he looked like.
Returning home to Chicago, Sergio was again treated like a king. His friends and colleagues in the bodybuilding community assured Oliva that he was indeed a much better bodybuilder than Schwarzenegger. His incredible proportions and muscle mass (That Tiny Waist! Those Huge Arms! The Tree Trunks Thighs!) made The Myth the BEST Bodybuilder in the World according to his loyal fans! The proud Sergio readily absorbed the praise, allowing the encouraging words to soothe his bruised ego.
As the 1973 Mr. Olympia date approached, the bodybuilding fans all around the world eagerly anticipated another classic Arnold-Sergio showdown. In the October, 1973 issue of Muscle Builder magazine, Ricky Wayne wrote an article titled “Sergio Will Win!” As Wayne boldly predicts in the opening paragraph, “... I strongly suspect that by the time this little opus has been converted into print for MUSCLE BUILDER, Sergio Oliva, the erstwhile enfant terrible of bodybuilding, will have repossessed his Mr. Olympia crown.”
Later in the article, Wayne also writes (quite ironically as circumstances will soon reveal), “By all accounts, his losses in the last two or three years have registered no obvious adverse effects on Sergio Oliva. Possibly, some say, defeat may have resulted in the more “together” head which now rests on the powerful shoulders of the Cuban emigre.” Furthermore, Ricky goes on to stir the pot a little more by concluding that “Arnold was visibly shaken when he set eyes on Sergio last year. He will faint this time from shock!”
Weeks before the 1973 Mr. Olympia was to take place in New York, many of the best West Coast bodybuilders from the IFBB traveled down to Tijuana, Mexico to compete at the Mr. International competition as a warm-up to the main event at the Big Apple. Held in Tijuana for the last ten years by promoter Eddie Sylvestre—winner of the first IFBB Mr. Universe contest in 1959—the Mr. International routinely featured top amateur bodybuilders from all over the world.
Imagine the surprise on the bodybuilders’ faces when three-time Mr. Olympia and one of the best bodybuilders in the world showed up on that hot day in August to contend for the title! Sergio Oliva decided that he would like to add the Mr. International title to his already impressive resume just because he could.
In addition to the IFBB Mr. International contest, Sylvestre also featured an event called the “Mr. International Azteca”, which was open to previous Mr. International winners. Since Sergio had not won the Mr. International title before, he decided to also compete in that contest before entering the Mr. International Azteca. The amateur bodybuilders he was going to soon steamroll over looked like a bunch of kids who were just told that Santa Claus wasn’t coming that year for Christmas.
With no other recourse but to allow the popular Oliva to compete in front of his vocal Latin America fans, Sylvestre granted Sergio access to enter the contest and the legendary bodybuilder happily walked all over the competition by dominating the event over bodybuilders who were half his size. He easily won the medium height class over an improved Bob Birdsong and the always reliable Bill Grant. However, Sergio refused the beautifully sculpted first place trophy, allowing the amateur bodybuilders in his class the privilege of collecting the hardware. The Myth was only interested in the massive overall trophy so he could move on to the prestigious Mr. International Azteca competition.
As the sole entry in this division, Sergio turned to the audience and focused his gaze on Joe Weider and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The magazine publisher and the current Mr. Olympia had traveled from California to watch the event and were as surprised as everyone else that Sergio had shown up to trounce the competition. With the crowd firmly behind him, Oliva challenged Schwarzenegger to come up on stage with him to see who was the “best built man in the world”.
Feeling that Weider had stacked the deck against him at the 1972 Mr. Olympia by choosing the judges that would eventually pick Arnold as the winner, Sergio wanted a showdown with Arnold on more neutral ground. Weider quickly advised Arnold to stay in his seat and ignore the challenge by Sergio.
In the January, 1974 issue of Muscle Builder magazine, Joe Weider wrote about the incident in an article titled “Let Me Tell You a Dirty Story”. Weider writes that he went to the microphone and “explained to the audience that Sergio was up to one of his old tricks again, and that it was impossible for Arnold to compete because he was already committed to the “Mr. Olympia” contest in New York where the world’s best built man would be decided.”
Sergio wouldn’t have it. He went out into the audience and pleaded with them in both Spanish and English to back him up in an attempt to urge Arnold onstage with him RIGHT NOW! The bruised pride of Oliva was itching for a final showdown with the man that he felt he was physically superior to. He knew he had no chance of beating Arnold in New York but he was more than ready to face him on stage here, mano a mano, in the friendly venue of Tijuana, Mexico!
Weider goes on to state his case in the Muscle Builder article by exclaiming, “I tried to explain to Sergio, and to the audience, that people in New York had already spent thousands of dollars on advance tickets... to see the battle of the century between Arnold, Sergio, Nubret, Katz, Franco and others.It would not only be ridiculous, but it would also be highly unfair to all those fans in New York to have the issue already decided beforehand. That is totally illogical! It is comparable to people buying ringside seats for a world heavyweight boxing match at Madison Square Garden to see the champ and the top contender, but the boxers decide to fight it out in Puerto Rico a month before the match at the Garden...!”
Although Joe Weider made a good argument for Arnold choosing to forfeit the competition to Sergio, he did not make mention of a similar situation only three years earlier. As author Randy Roach makes note of in his book, “Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors Volume II”, “Weider’s last statement does sound logical from a promotional perspective, but this type of rationale wasn’t present three years previously in Columbus when Sergio was negotiated into competing against Arnold two weeks before they were to clash at the much anticipated 1970 Mr. Olympia.”
As a consolation prize, Franco Columbu, who was seated with Weider and Arnold, agreed to go onstage to meet Sergio in a showdown. The massive Sardinian, who was also in preparation for the Mr. Olympia contest only weeks away, was in fantastic condition but was no match for the incredible Oliva.
After Sergio and Franco were both given the opportunity to pose for the cheering crowd, the promoter Eddie Sylvestre took the stage. He raised the arms of both Oliva and Columbu, declaring the contest a draw. Sergio, however, with the crowd of supporters behind him, believed that he was the winner.
The IFBB, obviously upset with the former Mr. Olympia for his “stick it up your ass” bravado, decided to suspend Sergio shortly after the contest. The federation claimed that Oliva had competed in Dan Lurie’s rival organization by entering and winning the WBBG Mr. Galaxy contest only days earlier. As author Roach explains in his book, the suspension of Sergio didn’t make sense. “The problem here”, Roach writes, “was that Sergio had actually entered and won Lurie’s Mr. Galaxy title well over a year earlier in April of 1972. Weider had more than ample time to disqualify Oliva for such an act, and would have also known that a showdown between Sergio and Arnold in New York that year was highly unlikely.”
Ricky Wayne, an ardent supporter of the Sergio Oliva physique, recalls a conversation he had with promoter Eddie Sylvestre years later during a 1984 meeting at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In his book “Muscle Wars”, Wayne writes, “Sylvestre told me that on the evening before the 1973 Mr. International contest, he and his wife had dined with Joe Weider and his wife, Betty.” According to Sylvestre, “Weider remarked that he’d invested too much money in Arnold’s career to risk the latter’s defeat by Oliva.” Sylvestre said he took that to mean Weider expected him to guarantee a victory for Arnold, which was “totally out of the question!”
In Roach's book "Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors, Volume II", the author recites a phone conversation with WBBG President (and Joe Weider rival) Dan Lurie that resonates with Wayne's story. "According to Lurie", the book explains, "Arnold was in Tijuana not as a spectator, but to compete in the Mr. International Azteca event. When Sergio unexpectedly showed up, Weider was quickly on the scene with three of his own judges, plus offering himself as a fourth."
"Lurie claimed that Sylvestre knew Weider was there to overrule the three judges that were already assigned to the contest. Sylvestre would not comply with the judging augmentation, and this is why Weider took Arnold out of the show. Consequently, Sylvestre would be flying Lurie's WBBG banner at his future Mr. International contests."
Needless to day, Sergio did not make the trip to New York a few weeks later to compete in the 1973 Mr. Olympia contest. Arnold faced only his friend Franco Columbu and the excellent Serge Nubret from France to easily win his fourth Mr. Olympia title. Oliva was most likely unaware that an unknown pair of journalists would be on hand for that event to record the contest for an upcoming book on bodybuilding called “Pumping Iron”. Charles Gaines and George Butler would no doubt have been very impressed by incredible physique of The Myth had they had the opportunity to see him onstage in New York. Perhaps the opportunistic duo would have even insisted that Oliva be a part of the “Pumping Iron” movie years later if Sergio would have made an impact in New York.
The fireworks between Arnold and Sergio reached new heights only a few months following the 1973 Mr. Olympia. On March 21st, 1974, the “Tomorrow” TV show featured both Oliva and Schwarzenegger along with the current AAU Mr. America, Jim Morris. As host Tom Snyder interviewed the trio of bodybuilders for a nationwide television audience, Sergio could not contain his frustration.
Launching into a tirade against IFBB politics, Oliva claimed that the contests were crooked and that he cannot win because Joe Weider picks the judges. Sergio said that Arnold was under contract to Weider so he would always come out on top in a contest between the two bodybuilding legends.
Sergio wasn’t finished with his list of complaints. Claiming that Arnold was boasting in Muscle Builder magazine that he was the strongest bodybuilder in the world, Sergio decided to solve this debate in front of a captive national TV audience. A barbell weighing 225 pounds was brought out on the television set so Oliva could prove his point. A former Olympic Weight Lifter for his home country of Cuba, Sergio easily cleaned the heavy barbell to his upper chest before ramming the barbell overhead for three shaky reps. As the weight slammed back to the floor, Sergio demanded that Arnold try to beat him in the lift.
A confident and secure Schwarzenegger said he never claimed to be stronger than Sergio. He explained to the TV host that bodybuilding is about building the perfect body, not lifting the greatest amount of weight. That’s why he is Mr. Olympia and Sergio is not.
The opportunity to promote the little known sport of bodybuilding to the large television audience was wasted by Sergio’s tirade against both Weider and Arnold. Weider was so upset by Oliva’s behavior that he wrote another article against Sergio in the October, 1974 issue of Muscle Builder magazine titled “Sergio Oliva, a ‘Chicken’ Without a Head”. He called Sergio’s appearance on TV, “Bodybuilding’s Darkest Hour”.
The greatest loss in this dramatic conclusion to the Arnold-Sergio rivalry was the end of any more showdowns between the two Mr. Olympia champions. The two greatest bodybuilders of their generation would never compete against each other again onstage. Although Arnold would face opponents like Franco, Nubret and the young Lou Ferrigno before retiring from competition, he would never face the likes of someone like Sergio Oliva ever again. Theirs was a competitive relationship that helped to inspire and motivate each of them to be better than ever. All good things must come to an end, but the Arnold and Sergio rivalry will be one that will be remembered forever in Bodybuilding History!