Arnold vs Sergio - Bodybuilding's Greatest Rivalry

Arnold vs Sergio - Bodybuilding's Greatest Rivalry

Arnold vs. Sergio

One of the greatest rivalries in the history of bodybuilding was when Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian Oak, took on The Myth, Sergio Oliva. One bodybuilding writer at the time called it “Immovable Object Meets Irresistible Force”. Never before and very rarely since have two genetic superiors competed against each other at their physical peaks. It was truly a series of epic battles for the ages!

1969 - Arnold and Sergio first met onstage at the 1969 IFBB Mr. Olympia contest. Sergio was a two time and the reigning Mr. Olympia winner at this point (1967-68) and was looking forward to winning his third title. Arnold was also feeling good, having just won the 1969 IFBB Mr. Universe contest that same evening as the Mr. Olympia. The cocky Austrian was on a role and decided to enter the Mr. Olympia contest right after dominating the Mr. Universe to secure his role as the best bodybuilder in the world.

Arnold had been in this country for a full year, having arrived in the fall of 1968. With a year of training in sunny California and recently being reunited with his best friend and favorite training partner, Franco Columbu, Arnold had streamlined his physique by losing 15-20 pounds of unwanted bulk to arrive at the contest in 1969 lean, ripped and tan. Only one year earlier, Arnold had tasted defeat by a “skinny” 185 pound Frank Zane  at the 1968 Mr. Universe in Miami. He had learned the hard way that being  big didn’t mean being the best. But this was a new Arnold that took the stage in 1969.


Unfortunately, Arnold was not ready for the magnificence that was Sergio. The reigning two time Mr. Olympia convincingly psyched out Arnold before they even stepped out onstage. Sergio, who was known for pumping up for literally hours before walking under the stage lights, took off the butcher overalls that he was wearing to reveal a physique that Arnold did not know was possible. As he slowly walked past Arnold to make his way to the stage, Sergio sealed the deal by slowly spreading his lats. Poor Arnold didn’t think those incredible lats would ever stop spreading. Wide eyed in amazement, Arnold looked to his friend Franco for support. Ever the optimist, Franco replied, “Don’t worry about that, it’s just the lights in here that make him look that good.”


Arnold later admitted that he knew the contest was over right then and there. Although he stepped in front of the audience and gave it his all, with the New York fans shouting his name in support, it was no surprise to him when Sergio was announced the winner of the 1969 Mr. Olympia.


Onstage, the judges did not think the contest was that one sided. By a narrow 4-3 vote, Sergio won his third Mr. Olympia title but he also knew that he finally found a worthy adversary onstage. After winning his first Mr. Olympia title in 1967, Sergio had psyched out any potential adversaries to the point that NO ONE showed up to challenge him for the title the next year. As a result, Sergio won the 1968 Mr. Olympia contest unopposed.

When Arnold discovered that three of the seven judges thought he should have won, it restored his confidence back to the normal Schwarzenegger dimensions. He resumed training and headed to London, where he easily won his third NABBA Mr. Universe contest in the professional division. Returning home with his self-image fully intact, he proceeded to ramp up his workout intensity with training partner Franco Columbu in order to dominate the bodybuilding scene the next year.


Although Oliva possessed absolutely freaky proportions with his tiny 28 inch waist, massive arms, wide shoulders, thick pecs and lats along with huge quads and diamond shaped calves, Arnold was just as formidable with his massive pecs, huge arms and an aesthetic flow to his taller 6’2” physique. Oliva also recognized that Arnold was just as cocky and arrogant as he was. This match-up of The Myth and the Austrian Oak held the promise of an incredible showdown. Round one goes to Sergio!

1970 - Arnold and Sergio met onstage twice in 1970. Both of them were training hard and planning on competing again at the Mr. Olympia contest in New York in the fall. However, a new development that summer had them facing each other onstage two weeks before the 1970 Mr. Olympia.

Jim Lorimer, an insurance salesman and former FBI agent, was promoting the AAU Professional Mr. World contest in conjunction the World Weightlifting Championships in Columbus, Ohio only two weeks before the Mr. Olympia. In an unprecedented move back then, Lorimer was offering cash prizes for the winner of the contest. When he contacted Arnold to compete in the show, Arnold told him he could not do it because he was competing in the NABBA Mr. Universe that weekend in London, England. In order to ensure that Schwarzenegger would be in the contest, Lorimer arranged the airfare to have Arnold fly out of London at midnight after the Mr. Universe contest to arrive in Columbus, Ohio the next day in time for the Mr. World contest.

According to the book, “Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors, Volume 2”, Sergio was in Columbus, Ohio to merely watch the proceedings, not to compete. He was there primarily to witness the weightlifting segment, in which Russian World Champion Vasily Alexeev would successfully lift 500 pounds overhead for the first time in history. When Lorimer spotted Oliva in the audience, according to Sergio’s manager, he convinced him to step onstage and compete.


Sergio did not think Schwarzenegger would even be in the contest because he competed in Europe only the evening before. In Arnold’s book, “Education of a Bodybuilder”, he also claims that he was surprised that Sergio was there. He wasn’t expecting him to compete until the Mr. Olympia contest two weeks later.

Regardless, Sergio and Arnold butted heads again onstage in Columbus, Ohio for the Mr. World contest. Arnold was noticeably bigger than he was a year ago with more thickness in the chest and arms. Sergio was still amazing with his outrageous development accompanied by such a tiny waist.


Because the contest was being filmed by ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports, the stage was flooded with bright lights for the benefit of the television cameras. Sergio made the mistake of slapping on too much baby oil before he stepped onstage and the strong lights made him look too glossy and smooth.



In the end, Arnold Schwarzenegger defeated the invincible Sergio Oliva in front of millions of television viewers for the first time. Arnold was overjoyed at beating the incredible Sergio and was even happier to be interviewed by Bob Beattie for the TV audience. It was Schwarzenegger’s introduction to the American public and he drank in the spotlight.



Just like after his loss to Frank Zane in 1968, Arnold analyzed why he was defeated by Oliva at the 1969 Mr. Olympia. He obtained film of Oliva posing to study his physique and take note of his strong points and weak points. He noticed how he hit his poses and where the weak links in the armor would be. Although Sergio certainly seemed invincible, Arnold knew he had a chance to exploit these weaknesses, especially after three of the seven judges on the 1969 Olympia panel thought he should have won.

When Arnold met Sergio onstage one year later, he put his plan into action. For all his genetic gifts and his incredible work ethic (Oliva, unlike Arnold, worked a full-time job involving physical labor before commencing his brutal 3 hour workouts every day), Sergio was lazy on the posing platform. Often, he would leave his legs unflexed when hitting an upper body pose or he would not properly contract all the muscles when hitting a back pose. Arnold took note of this and worked on his posing routine even harder, only including poses in which he looked his absolute best.

Arnold studied the films of Oliva posing and watched which poses typically followed one another during a posing routine. Bodybuilders are creatures of habit and they will normally follow a pattern in the way they organize their posing routine. Because of Sergio's incredible shape, with his tiny waist and overblown muscle bellies, Arnold included a lot of twisting poses into his own posing routine, poses designed to accentuate his mass while making his wider hips look smaller.


After the contest, all the competitors met for dinner at a restaurant. Sergio, who was regarded by most as invincible over the last few years, was still shocked that he lost the contest to Arnold. Arnold confided to Oliva that he never would have beaten him if Sergio had been a little bit bigger. “If you were ten pounds heavier, you would have won”, Arnold told him. Sergio took this advice to heart and resolved to step onstage at the Mr. Olympia in two weeks bigger and better.

Arnold knew another weakness of Sergio was his pride in being the biggest man onstage. Fans of Oliva were always astounded at the immense size of his arms, his legs, his chest, etc. By indicating that he may have been bigger than The Myth, Arnold knew Sergio would come into the Mr. Olympia contest even bigger. As Schwarzenegger painfully learned in Miami, however, bigger is not always better.


All serious bodybuilding fans were in New York in September of 1970 to view the dramatic showdown between Sergio Oliva and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the Mr. Olympia title. Sergio's rabid fans were there in full force to see their hero win his fourth title while Arnold's growing army of supporters wanted to see a new champion crowned and prove that the contest in Columbus was not an accident.




In addition to Arnold and Sergio, Reg Lewis was also entered in the show but his appearance was a mere footnote to the real battle of the titans onstage. All eyes would be on Arnold and Sergio for the Mr. Olympia title. Incredibly, Sergio tempted fate earlier in the night by creating some controversy before the big event.

The 1970 IFBB Mr. Olympia was held in conjunction with the Mr. World and Mr. America that evening. When the check-in for the competitors was taking place, Sergio walked into the backstage area with his manager. The manager announced to the promoter that Sergio would also be entering the Mr. America contest in addition to the Mr. Olympia. While the Mr. America competitors looked on in horror, Sergio's manager explained that Sergio would like to win the Mr. America title because he is a proud immigrant to the United States and he would like to have this title in addition to being Mr. Olympia.

The Weider brothers were quickly brought in to bring calm to a potentially volatile situation. If the amateur Mr. America competitors banded together and decided to boycott the contest because one of the best bodybuilders in the world, as well as a three time reigning Mr. Olympia champion, was going to steal their title, no one would blame them. After explaining to Sergio's manager that Sergio could not compete for the Mr. America because he was way beyond this level of competition, the manager stubbornly refused to listen and he insisted that Sergio be allowed the right to compete for the Mr. America title.

Eventually, a compromise was reached and Sergio agreed to accept an honorary Mr. America trophy and the amateur competitors would still compete that night for the regular Mr. America contest. A potential disaster was avoided at the last minute but not without leaving a bad taste in the mouths of the promoters and possibly the judges.

When Sergio stepped onstage that night to thunderous applause, he was, as promised, even bigger than he was for the Mr. World contest only weeks earlier. However, the muscular definition that had been so prominent last year, and even more so earlier in his career, was now blurred by too much fat and oil. His proportions and muscle mass were greater than ever but he lacked the crisp muscularity of really display it. The crowd acknowledged his freaky muscle mass as Sergio hit his crazy most muscular pose before exiting the stage.

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Arnold was up next and he appeared to be even more cut than when he surprised everyone by beating Sergio a few weeks earlier. He glided confidently from pose to pose and milked the audience for every drop of applause he could get. After winning the Nabba Mr. Universe a month earlier followed by his surprise victory over Sergio, Arnold was ready to seal the deal tonight and complete his triple crown. By defeating Sergio at the Mr. Olympia, Arnold would be recognized as the King of Bodybuilding.


As Arnold and Sergio were brought back onstage in front of the crazy audience, they began to pose in front of the judges and fans. This was the beginning of the Posedown, a new concept in the bodybuilding world that was created on this night in 1970.

Sergio and Arnold traded off poses, each trying to show their strong points to the judges. For the first time in his life, Sergio felt like he was in a real fight. He knew this young Austrian was a formidable competitor and there was a chance he could lose his title tonight. Arnold also knew that it would be a tight decision. Arnold even stepped forward on the stage so he was standing closer to the judges. Any little edge he could attain to make him look bigger, better and more like the winner was a strategy he was willing to play.

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His next move was not even planned but it worked brilliantly. After several minutes of sustained posing buoyed by the wild screams and applause from the audience, Arnold looked at Sergio and suggested they end this madness. Sergio quickly agreed and he stepped off the posing platform to head back stage. Immediately, the fans started to voice their displeasure by booing. Arnold stopped in his tracks and looked at the audience. He instantly came up with the idea of making it look like Sergio was leaving the fight. Arnold shrugged his shoulders like he didn't know why Sergio left the stage and then motioned for him to come back onstage and finish the posedown. The end result? Arnold looked like a winner and Sergio looked like a quitter.

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When the announcement came moments later, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the new Mr. Olympia champion. A dejected Sergio left the stage as his reign as the undisputed King of Bodybuilding was now over. Arnold looked like it was the best day of his life as he accepted the $1000 cash prize from Joe Weider and then posed with the trophy as well as the other winners of the evening, Dave Draper, Mr. World and Mike Katz, Mr. America.

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Arnold and Sergio were not through however. They would meet again several times and the next Mr. Olympia showdown would turn out to be one of the most controversial in the history of the sport. These two cocky, genetically superior champions each believed that they were the best in the world. What would happen next is the stuff of legends.

Part 2 of the Arnold vs Sergio Rivalry coming soon!


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