In 1989, after promoting eight international and professional bodybuilding competitions between them, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Lorimer decided to create their own unique competition called the Arnold Classic. When they first began promoting the Mr. Olympia contest in 1976, the Schwarzenegger-Lorimer team totally recreated the contest experience by bringing in top professionals to design the onstage sets and light the stage in a way that had never been done before. The result was an exciting and innovative experience for the audience, one never seen before at a bodybuilding competition.
After four consecutive years of promoting the Mr. Olympia contest, Arnold and Jim eventually had to acquiesce to the IFBB and let other promoters have a chance at promoting the number one contest in bodybuilding. They made a deal to promote the IFBB Pro World Championships on alternate years and promote the Mr. Olympia contest every other year.
After the very controversial 1981 Mr. Olympia contest, however, Arnold and Jim took a short sabbatical from contest promotion. It wasn’t until five years later that they brought professional bodybuilding back to Columbus, Ohio, when they promoted both the IFBB Pro World Championships in March of 1986 and then the Mr. Olympia contest later in the year.
After promoting the Pro World Championships again in 1988, Schwarzenegger and Lorimer decided to begin their own competition the following year and call it the Arnold Classic. By this time, Arnold was now a movie superstar with films such as “Conan the Barbarian”, “The Terminator”, “Commando”, “Predator” and “Twins” on his film resume. The promoters decided to cash in on Arnold’s immense fame by offering a VIP Package that would include a picture with the legendary bodybuilder/actor and an All Star Seminar featuring Arnold and the winners of the first annual Arnold Classic.
For only $150 in its initial year, a ticket buying fan could get seats for the prejudging and evening shows, a picture with Arnold, access to the after party on Saturday night as well as the Champions Seminar on Sunday morning featuring Arnold and the winners of the first ever Arnold Classic and the Ms. International contest. It was a deal too good to pass up for any true hardcore bodybuilding fan!
Having attended five Mr. Olympia contests in Columbus, Ohio in the past (1977, ’78, ’79, ’81 and ‘86), I definitely wanted to go see the first ever Arnold Classic. Living in Chicago at the time, Columbus was only an eight-hour car ride from my hometown so my best friend Dennis and I made plans to check out the show. My birthday was that weekend, so we celebrated on Thursday night and left for the contest on Friday afternoon.
Arnold was promoting his title contest with the same marketing fervor that he used to promote his movies. Using his superstar status to his advantage, he accessed the major media outlets to promote the first Arnold Classic. This was Arnold the Publicist at his best. You can tell that it was very important to him to make his first Arnold Classic a big hit.
One of the media venues that Arnold used was the Tonight Show hosted by his friend Jay Leno. After making some small talk with Jay on the show, Arnold started promoting the first ever Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic, which he referred to as “The Super Bowl of Bodybuilding”. Then, Arnold and Jay made their way over to the empty stage for a demonstration of bodybuilding for all of America to see. Appearing on the show were both Rich Gaspari and Mike Christian, two of the top professional bodybuilders in the world and entrants in the first Arnold Classic.
Rich and Mike were in contest condition and were standing onstage in their posing trunks. The audience was slightly taken back by the sight of two muscular bodybuilders standing onstage and flexing in their posing trunks, so Leno began to lighten the mood by asking the bodybuilders some questions. At one point, Jay asked Mike Christian if he was competing against Arnold, would he be able to “take him”. Christian didn’t know how to answer the question with Arnold standing there so he said Arnold is training for movies but he’s eating fish and vegetables to prepare for the contest. Gaspari got in a good line when he said, “and Doritos”, throwing in a shameless plug for Jay Leno’s sponsor.
Based on the condition of Gaspari and Christian, it seemed that Mike had the edge in terms of size and fullness while Gaspari seemed a little harder but smaller. With the Arnold Classic only a week away, this might be the year when Christian would finally overtake Gaspari. The last time Mike beat Rich in a contest was at the 1984 NPC Nationals when heavyweight Christian won the overall over 188 pound light heavy Gaspari.
When my friend and I showed up for the prejudging at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium on Saturday morning, we met some of our other friends from Chicago who had also made the trip to see the first ever Arnold Classic. The contest was packed for the prejudging as the excitement was in the air surrounding this historic event. Of course, no one had a clue on exactly how huge this contest would become over the years. At the time, it seemed like just another Pro World Championships or Mr. Olympia contest promoted by Arnold and Jim Lorimer.
As crazy as it may seem today, there was NO EXPO at the first ever Arnold’s Classic. There were a few older bodybuilders who had set up small tables in the basement of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium to sell their 8x10 photos, but that was the extent of the expo. I remember seeing such legendary bodybuilders as Frank Zane and Larry Scott in the downstairs area selling their pictures.
When the competitors came out for the prejudging, I was shocked to see that Mike Christian was not included in the line-up. After appearing on national TV and looking like he had everything it took to win the contest, it was amazing to me that he had skipped the show when he had such a great opportunity to make history by winning the first ever Arnold Classic.
The competitors that did show up included an all-star line-up consisting of Rich Gaspari, Robby Robinson, Gary Strydom, Bertil Fox and Bob Paris. Of this group, Gaspari looked like the winner because of his excellent conditioning and also the way he presented himself onstage. At only 25 years old, Rich was now a veteran of the pro bodybuilding stage and he posed with the right amount of intensity and desire to attract the judges’ attention.
Robby was also in fantastic shape with a genetically superior physique to Gaspari but he was not projecting the same “winning aura” in the way Rich was. Gary Strydom was a BIG audience favorite due to his immense size. Gary was taller and bigger than the rest of the line-up and he looked so much more massive and fuller than when he placed fifth in the Mr. Olympia contest six months earlier. Samir Bannout was also in top shape. The former Mr. Olympia was in the midst of a comeback with the IFBB and was on his way to top competition form.
After the prejudging was over, we got in line to have our picture taken with Arnold. For the first time ever, Arnold was taking photos with anyone who bought a VIP ticket for the event. The line stretched from the basement of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium up the stairs and around the lobby.
When I finally reached the Austrian Oak in the flesh, Arnold looked at me and said, “Wow, look at your arms! Come on and hit a biceps pose!” Delighted that Arnold himself was complimenting me on the size of my arms, I smiled like a little kid who just met his boyhood idol and did as instructed, grinning like a fool and flexing my arm for the camera.
After my friend Dennis and I got our picture taken with Arnold, we met up again with our friends from Chicago to get something to eat. Walking the streets of Columbus to look for a restaurant, my friend Danny insisted that we walk over to the Hyatt Hotel because that’s where all the VIP’s in bodybuilding were staying. I asked him why he wanted to go so far away to eat lunch when there were other restaurants a lot closer but he was adamant about going to the Hyatt.
When we finally arrived at the Hyatt Hotel and took the elevator up to the restaurant, it looked like they were closed because there was hardly anyone in the dining room. The hostess told us they were in between lunch and dinner and they were not seating anyone right now but Danny kept persisting until she finally relented and reluctantly showed us a table.
As we sat down, my eyes opened wide when I saw who was sitting at the table across from ours. The Godfather of Bodybuilding himself, Joe Weider, was eating a salad with his wife Betty sitting next to him. They had a group of people seated with them including top pro bodybuilder Lee Labrada. I couldn’t believe we were sitting next to so many famous people in the fitness industry that I had mostly only read about in the magazines. Danny looked at me and smiled as if to say, “See, I told you so.”
I wasn’t really talking much to my friends during lunch because I was trying to eavesdrop on the conversation of the table next to ours. Someone at the table asked Lee Labrada who he thought was going to win the contest and he said, “Probably Rich (Gaspari).” Lee sounded a little down when he said it, making me think he probably regretted not competing in the contest. Labrada and Gaspari had a big rivalry after last year’s Mr. Olympia with each of them winning alternate Grand Prix contests in Europe before Rich finally won with a score of four wins to Lee’s three victories.
I was in the middle of my lunch when all of a sudden Arnold and Franco walked into the room with a couple of young girls in their company. The table with Weider and Labrada became silent as Arnold approached them. Everyone said hello to Arnold and he responded with, “Who do we have here? Let’s see… pimp, pimp, pimp, prostitute, pimp, prostitute” as he pointed individually to each of the men and women sitting at the table.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence until everyone started nervously laughing. It was as if Arnold was the King and everyone else was in his court. When the King made a joke, it was necessary to laugh, even if you didn’t think it was funny.
Arnold and Franco made some small talk and then left as quickly as they entered. We finished up our expensive lunch and left as soon as the Weider table left also. It was time to get back to the contest.
The evening show was as spectacular as I expected it to be, coming from the ace promotional team of Schwarzenegger-Lorimer. The show began with Hans and Franz from the popular TV show Saturday Night Live on stage. Comedians Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon wore big, grey sweat suits that were stuffed with fake pads to make them look like they had muscles. After furiously pumping up for “their cousin Arnold”, the Great One himself made his way onstage to the delight of the sold out Columbus, Ohio crowd. The first ever Arnold Classic was being filmed for NBC Sportsworld so the cameras were rolling as Arnold did his funny skit with Hans and Franz.
The stage design and lighting at the first Arnold Classic was all very professional and added to the aura and excitement of the evening. Midway through the contest, Arnold stood onstage and invited bodybuilding champions from the past to join him onstage. The audience cheered loudly as legends such as John Grimek, Bill Pearl, Sergio Oliva, Larry Scott, Franco Columbu and Lee Labrada lined up on the Veterans Memorial stage to the delight of the bodybuilding fans in the audience.
The first Arnold Classic was a great competition. As expected, Rich Gaspari pulled off his biggest victory yet by defeating Robby Robinson, Samir Bannout, Gary Strydom, Bob Paris and Bertil Fox. After three consecutive years of finishing in the runner up spot to Lee Haney at the Mr. Olympia, this victory had to feel sweet for Gaspari. He will forever be remembered as the first winner of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic!
As for the competition itself, who could have imagined back in 1989 that the Arnold Classic would grow into the gigantic Arnold Sports Festival? It has now become the biggest sports festival in the world, featuring 18,000 athletes who compete in more than 45 sports and events.
The expo, which didn’t even exist at the premiere event, now features more than 800 vendors and attracts over 175,000 spectators. In addition to the Columbus, Ohio event, the Arnold Sports Festival continues to expand around the world, holding competitions in Spain and Brazil and will soon be holding more events in Australia and China. It’s an amazing accomplishment from Arnold and Jim Lorimer and it’s always fun to look back at how it all began.