It happened way back in 1980 in the most unlikely of locations. A short, skinny kid with seemingly little potential for bodybuilding stardom emerged from his shell and proceeded to shock the physique world to its core. He made such an impact that he even caught the attention of the most powerful man in the sport, prompting a personal phone call to invite him to the Mecca of Bodybuilding and future stardom.
His name was Tim Belknap and no one who had laid eyes on him at the beginning of 1980 would have been able to predict his rapid ascent to the top of the sport. Raised in Rockford, Illinois, Tim was a long way from the sunny beaches of Southern California. Rockford is a large town located about two hours northwest of downtown Chicago. Set amid the cornfields and often cold Midwestern weather, Belknap dreamed of leaving his hometown and becoming a bodybuilding superstar like the ones he read about in the magazines.
Born in 1958, Belknap had diabetes and was a short, skinny kid. When he walked into his first gym as a teenager, he wanted to build some muscle. He was tired of literally getting beat up by girls at school. Tim weighed in at a pathetically skinny 130 pounds at 5’4” on his initial visit to the gym. He grew quickly once he started working out but no one suspected that this was a future Mr. America in the making.
When Belknap began competing in local AAU bodybuilding competitions in Illinois, he was not an overnight success. At his short height, Tim didn’t have the structure or shape to capture the judges’ attention and he was often too smooth to garner a high placing. He would look on in admiration at the winner of one of the contests that he entered, good looking Glenn Kneer, who had the polish and sculptured physique that Belknap could only dream of, and wished it was him holding the first place trophy.
Working as an instructor at the local Chicago Health Club in Rockford, Illinois, Tim was managed at his job by a local bodybuilding legend. Lance Dreher, also living in Rockford, was Illinois’s greatest chance for the Mr. America title. Dreher was a bodybuilding prodigy, a square jawed, blond hair, blue eyed Adonis equipped with massive 21-inch arms and a lat spread that would rival Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu. Only in his mid-20’s, many bodybuilding experts in the Illinois area felt that Lance had the potential to go all the way to the Mr. Olympia title.
One day, Tim joined Lance and his attractive wife for lunch while working at the Chicago Health Club. As they walked through the cold winter air to the restaurant, Tim blurted out that he would one day like to win the Mr. America title. Lance glanced at his shorter employee and sarcastically replied, “Rots of Ruck, pal!” while his spouse shared in his laugh. Belknap felt embarrassed for voicing his private ambitions only to be met with derisive laughter. His desire burned inside him.
That April, Tim entered the 1980 AAU Jr. Mr. Illinois contest, held in his home town of Rockford. A junior level competition, the Jr. Mr. Illinois was a good warm-up show for advanced competitors who were planning to compete in state or regional level shows later in the year as well as a good starting point for beginning and intermediate bodybuilders who wanted to gain some experience.
As the nervous bodybuilders gathered in the auditorium for the check-in, very few in attendance paid any attention to the short, fat kid wearing the baggy grey warm-up suit. However, as the bodybuilders started to pump up to get ready to compete, all eyes soon were drawn to the plump competitor who was taking off his clothes. The “fat” was actually all muscle and the seasoned competitive bodybuilders were shocked at the massive physique standing in the room with them. At only 5’4”, Belknap weighed in excess of 220 pounds. Although slightly smooth and white as a ghost, his overwhelming muscle mass created quite a stir.
Tim Belknap went on to win the short class and overall at the 1980 Jr. Mr. Illinois. Rarely had a bodybuilder possessed so much muscle mass and size as Belknap displayed, especially at a small local show. Although he needed a lot more refining and definition to win bigger titles, Tim had gained the attention of a lot of judges and fellow bodybuilders with his victory at this show.
Six months later, Belknap showed up at the 1980 AAU Mr. Illinois completely transformed! His bulky and smooth appearance was now replaced with a hard, grainy physique. As the sole competitor in the short class of the Mr. Illinois, Belknap walked onstage by himself to hushed silence. The audience was incredulous at the sight of this 5’4”, 215 pound freak in front of them. His massive legs looked like tree stumps with crazy vascularity lacing his quadriceps. His 20-inch arms were thick and imposing, with rugged muscle surrounding his forearms, biceps and triceps. From head to toe, Belknap’s physique was packed with thick, gnarly muscle.
As he went through his mandatory poses, the audience realized they were seeing something special. The applause and cheers began to emerge as the crowd slowly overcame their shock and astonishment of this physical marvel in front of them. Belknap was so massive, he had a difficult time hitting his poses. For his side triceps pose, for example, his arms were so big, he literally had to throw his arm back to barely grasp his wrist with two fingers.
With prejudging complete, it was inevitable that Belknap would easily win the Mr. Illinois title. Who would have thought that this short, fat kid with seemingly no potential would become such a dominating force in less than a year? For all those who were lucky enough to witness the 1980 Mr. Illinois in person, they knew that a freak had arrived on the bodybuilding scene and he was sure to shock the world soon.
Four short months later, at the same venue that held the Mr. Illinois contest, the 1981 AAU Midwest Open Championships took place. Featuring a line-up of bodybuilders that included state and regional champions from all over the Midwest, this contest would turn out to be a preview of the coveted AAU Mr. America contest. Whoever came out on top in a talent packed competition such as this would be recognized as one incredible bodybuilder.
Any insecurity or trepidations that had plagued Belknap throughout his life were now a thing of the past. After his dominating win only months earlier at the AAU Mr. Illinois, Tim knew that he possessed a physique that was one of the best in the country. Belknap was cocky, even anxious, to get revenge on those bodybuilders who had defeated him in previous competitions over the last few years. Crushing these bodybuilders would be sweet revenge to the kid who had been picked on most of his life.
As the bodybuilders milled around the stage before prejudging, receiving their assigned competitor numbers, Tim Belknap stood on the stage looking at his rivals. Recognizing top competitor Glenn Kneer, a bodybuilder who had defeated Belknap in the beginning of his career, Tim loudly called out him. “Hey Glenn, Glenn, Glenn”, Belknap shouted out so everyone could hear. When Kneer acknowledged him, Belknap made a big production of shaking his hand. “Good luck, man”, Belknap said with a smile, knowing what was coming.
At the prejudging, the crowd was very loud and vociferous every time Belknap stepped onstage. The buzz was now out all over Illinois about this new freak from Rockford who was so big and ripped, he was going to go all the way to the Mr. America. The auditorium at the prejudging was filled to capacity as bodybuilders and fans alike jammed into their seats to witness this amazing spectacle in person.
By the time the evening show began, the crowd was primed to witness Tim Belknap in person. Everyone who had been at the prejudging was anxiously telling the uninitiated about this massive freak that you have to see to believe. Promoter Kevin Noble spied Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva sitting in the front row and told him, “Wait until you see this kid, you’re going to be impressed.”
When Tim Belknap’s name was announced, the audience roared their approval. As Belknap slowly made his way onstage, he leaped onto the posing platform with a resounding THUD! The crowd exhibited shock and delight at the sight of the 5’4”, 214 pound massive freak in front of them. Wearing light colored posing trunks and sporting a wild head of frizzy hair, the fans felt like they were looking at bodybuilding’s version of King Kong. Belknap was a compact mini-tank with legs that looked like they could compare to Tom Platz, rock hard abdominals, massive 20-inch arms (so big Belknap could barely flex them), all topped off with a granite hard physique that was laced with vascularity and deep cuts and separations. It was a look never seen before on a bodybuilding stage – a prelude to the legion of “freaks” who would dominate the sport in the years to come.
Tim Belknap went on to easily defeat the best and most talented group of bodybuilders in the 1981 Midwest Open. Many of the competitors competing that day would go on in the future to win state and national level titles with some even achieving pro status. However, this night belonged only to Belknap. The bodybuilders competing that day had as much chance of beating him as surviving a 1986 Mike Tyson crushing right uppercut. As Belknap posed with the massive, wooden handmade overall trophy, Sergio Oliva himself looked on and nodded his head approvingly.
The following week, promoter Kevin Noble mailed off some pictures of Belknap from his Mr. Midwest Open win to Muscle Builder editor-in-chief Bill Reynolds in California. Upon receiving the photos, Reynolds showed them to the Master Blaster himself, Joe Weider. A true lover of bodybuilding, Weider was blown away by the incredible thickness and size exhibited by the freaky bodybuilder from Rockford, Illinois. Weider told Reynolds to contact this new rising superstar and fly him to California for a photo-shoot ASAP.
Soon, Tim Belknap was standing on the beaches in Southern California as Weider’s top photographers recorded the moment for history. Within months, the bodybuilding world would be made aware of this new muscular freak of nature. Ironman Magazine also chose to place Belknap on the back cover of their popular magazine as well as feature a full length story on his training and diet. The former skinny kid who suffered from diabetes and was once beat up by girls was now living every bodybuilder’s dream. After a phone call from Joe Weider himself, he was flown out to the Mecca of Bodybuilding for photo-shoots and instant fame in the bodybuilding world.
Later that year, Belknap would complete his magic carpet ride by entering the 1981 AAU Mr. America in Las Vegas. After relocating to California, Tim had listened to the advice of some bodybuilding experts and had drastically reduced his bodyweight in order to show a more streamlined and defined physique. Now riding on a buzz of publicity and magazine exposure, Belknap was the odds-on favorite to win the biggest national title in the country.
When the competitors lined up onstage for the 1981 AAU Mr. America in Las Vegas, the transformation in the Tim Belknap physique was astonishing. Having reduced his weight down to a svelte 187 pounds, Belknap had lost more than 25 pounds of muscle in order to present a more attractive package for the national judges. Even at a much lighter bodyweight, the incredible thickness and size that Belknap had displayed in March was still very much evident. It was a watered down and refined version of the freak that had shocked the bodybuilding world but he still had the equipment to do some damage at the Mr. America contest.
Belknap battled bodybuilding legend Rory Leidelmeyer for the first place trophy in the light heavyweight class. Also appearing more refined and smaller than usual, Rory had similarly brought his bodyweight way down in order to highlight his incredible shape and symmetry. Comparing him to the tank like physique of Belknap was equivalent to comparing a rhinoceros with a cheetah. At the end of the day, however, the smiling and confident Tim Belknap was the winner of the light heavyweight class. He had the momentum and buzz as the new freak of bodybuilding and could not be denied first place.
In a dramatic turn of events, Belknap’s rival and former manager at his old job, Lance Dreher, was also competing in the Mr. America. One year earlier, Lance had taken third place in the heavyweight class and he was back looking better than ever. This year, Lance had improved his physique enough to move up to that coveted first place division, winning the heavyweight class with a massive and ripped physique.
In the posedown for the AAU Mr. America overall title, it came down to the two freaks from Rockford, Illinois. Lance was incredibly massive with 21-inch arms highlighting his ripped, thick physique. Belknap was also freakishly developed with huge striated legs and arms that were thick and massive. They were a physique of opposites; Belknap displaying the incredible legs and freaky hardness and Dreher exhibiting massive arms and a wide, thick back. Which way would the judges go?
In one of the closest decisions in the history of the AAU Mr. America contest, Tim Belknap won the overall title by a slim one-point margin. He had received four first place votes compared to three “1’s” for Lance. The Freak from Rockford, Illinois had fulfilled his destiny by going all the way to the top and defeating the best amateur bodybuilders in the country. He had done it by ushering in a new type of physique that the bodybuilding world had never seen before. Massive, thick muscularity accompanied by gnarly, freaky hardness. This new standard would soon change the way bodybuilders were assessed for competitions by the judges. Symmetry, proportion and shape now had to compete with the new standards of size, hardness and just plain freakiness. Bodybuilding had now entered a new era!