This article was originally published in Peak Training Journal, Issue #2.
It was still the era of Frank Zane, where the beauty if symmetry dominated over competitors possessing beastly mass. To those that felt uninspired by the beach-bodies in vogue, Casey Viator, Tim Belknap and Tom Platz were exalted as unredeemed heroes ¾ always placing well but forced to look on as the likes of Dickerson, Makkawy and Bannout pranced off with the big checks. It was almost as if the meek truly had inherited the Earth.
The connoisseurs of mass felt that nothing could be more inspirational than photos of Bertil grunting out inclines with 180-pound dumbbells or Plants tensing his ponderous thighs between sets. We thrilled to tales of the Barbarian Brothers; throwing Olympic plates like Frisbees, kicking each other in the face for last rep motivation. Although this type of hardcore attitude was downplayed so that "the sport could reach a wider audience," we were just waiting for another big man to reclaim the Olympia crown and, in so doing, bring our doctrines back into prominence.
I was fifteen years old at the time and had already claimed possession of my older brother's stack of Muscle Builder magazines. On one particular day, I remember riding my rusty old bike to a store that sold used books, hoping to add to my collection. I bought one old magazine that sold for only seventy-five cents. The magazine was called Muscle Up (although the title on the cover had been torn off for illegal resale). It was a cheap old rag published on newsprint that was destined for bankruptcy from day one. Amid the vacuous articles and cheesy ads was coverage of the 1983 AAU Mr. America contest as well as a profile of the winner, a 22-year old phenom named Jeff King.
The inspirational qualities alone made the purchase akin to finding an original Van Gogh in the dollar pile at a garage sale. Jeff King possessed quads that, if they did not equal Platz's in size, certainly surpassed them in shape. Directly above his knees were thick teardrops of striated tissue that were unequalled in the sport. Furthermore, King sported an upper body that balanced his amazing wheels; thick pecs, rounded delts and rock-hard peaked arms. In addition to being untouched in the quad department, he also had perhaps the most powerfully developed neck musculature in the sport. In fact, King possessed a neck that looked as if it could withstand a double mule-kick from both Barbarian Brothers without consequence.
When Jeff King went on to win the NABBA Universe that same year, I cheered, hoping this was the man to bring the Olympia back to the realm of giants. Unfortunately, he never actually stepped onto an IFBB stage. After brief coverage in Musclemag International and some of the smaller independent (non-Weider) magazines, King disappeared from the bodybuilding spotlight. I spoke to Jeff to find out exactly what had happened.
Definitely. Primarily because of the impressive level of quality mass you carried. Can you tell my readers how you were able to pack 230 pounds on a relatively small-boned frame?
A lot of it has to do with what God gave you - the genetics you were born with. You need to start out with a certain amount of muscle fiber. There are theories out there like muscle hyperplasia and all that. I really don't believe in them. You're born with what you're born with. When you're a young kid everyone wants to be a professional football player and only so many of them can make it. It's a certain environment. It's a certain mental drive. You have to chalk it up to genetics and then proper training.
Bob (Gruskin) will tell you, I've always been very intense. When I take on something, (at least when I was younger, I've gotten a little more laid-back), I had tunnel vision. I had the "more is better" attitude and didn't do anything unless it was to the nth degree.
Growing up, I was not chubby but I was a soft, doughy kid. My freshman year of high school I weighed 108-pounds. Sophomore year I weighed 115. Junior year I was 135. My brother (Todd King, who won the NPC Collegiate Nationals in 1986) on the other hand, has always been stronger than me. He has more of a hard, well-defined physique but was thinner. I was always a little on the chunky side. To look at us both, you could see that we had all-together different bodies when we were young. So genetics played a part.
I would also attribute it to having good resources. Bob Gruskin introduced me to professional bodybuilders who steered my energies in the right direction. I remember meeting Robby Robinson. When Robby Robinson asked me how many sets I had been doing, I replied maybe eighteen sets for chest and twelve to fifteen for arms, etc. He said, "No, you only have to do eight or nine," and it freaked me out. This guy was massive, so I realized that I might have been overtraining at times. I had some really good inspiration.
When I started weight training at a gym, I heard about teenage bodybuilding shows. I remember going to New Jersey to see the Mr. Colonial America. My buddies and I would go to shows but never had the courage to enter.
When I was sixteen, a guy named Bill Lowden gave me a bit of a push. He signed me up for the Teenage New Jersey, paid the entry fee, and said he thought I would do well. All I wanted to do was place, and I ended up with a third. That's where I met Bob Gruskin.
The next year when I was eighteen, I came back to win that show. I followed that up with the Teenage Mr. America and USA, the Collegiate Mr. America and I actually won the Mr. Southern New England open when I was still a teenager. Every time I won it became more positive reinforcement.
Back then AAU and NPC were one. They didn't split until later. When I was in the AAU Collegiate America they had just split, that must have been 1980 or 1981. Rufus Howard won the AAU Mr. America that year. I really didn't understand the split at that time.
In 1983 you won the America. Many people believe that you were the greatest champion to ever hold that title. Looking back, what was that night like? What was your experience from winning that show?
It's funny. Think of it like Christmas. When you were a kid waiting for Christmas, you could hardly stand it. As soon as Christmas day came and you opened all your gifts, it was a letdown.
That's exactly what winning the America was like. Yeah, I was psyched, but after I came out and everyone was heading home, I felt like I had worked my ass off for nothing. At that time I had my goals redirected to go to the Mr. Universe. After I won that, it became a job.
After you won the Universe, you had some controversial losses at the NABBA Pro Universe and the Pro World. What happened at those two shows?
Well, I'm trying to think back. I don't know if they were controversial. They weren't in my mind. I have always felt that if you were in such incredible shape and there was no doubt you were the winner, then you would win. If both you and your competitor are in good shape, it's like flipping a coin.
Hey, there are times when I was in horrible shape, like the last show I did. Its not like I didn't train for it or that I didn't want it.
Basically you just missed your peak?
I think mentally I just pushed too hard for too long. I needed a break. For those other shows, Thierry Pastel from France beat me. It's funny, at one show I beat him and I don't know how I did it. He was in incredible shape. Then at another show, he beat me and I thought I had shown up in better shape than him. I guess it all equals out.
As far as being controversial, I guess it depends on whom you are talking to. People would come up to me and say, "Oh man, no one is going to touch you." They really believed what they are saying. Then there is a guy twenty feet away with people saying the same thing to him. It's all opinion.
Another question along a similar vein: in an issue of Musclemag, Mike Mentzer was quoted as yelling at the NABBA Pro Universe that you, "could walk into the Olympia right now and outmuscle everyone!" You had mentioned to me in a previous conversation, that Joe Weider had flown you out to California for photos and training articles. How come we never saw you on an IFBB pro stage?
Politics. Why, because if Weider put me on the cover of his magazine and I wasn't an NPC man, then he would be recognizing an unaffiliated bodybuilder. It would not be promoting their business. I think that's why. It comes down to dollars and cents. I forget who the photographer was, but he has those pictures somewhere and they will probably sit wherever they are.
At that point, I knew I couldn't do it forever. I needed to get into a career in which I would not get beat up doing it. I am riddled with injuries that keep popping up left and right. I just came to a point where I said, "enough is enough." I knew in my heart it was time to move on.
[In later business dealings with the people at Flex, I had them check their photo archives and they assured me they do not have any Jeff King photos, so they must be in the possession of the photographer.]
What do you think of the direction the sport has gone in the last five years? What competitors impress you?
I don't even know. In al honesty, yours is the first magazine I have looked at in three years. The YMCA I train at doesn't even have magazines. I honestly don't know if I can give you an answer. There is a guy I hunt with that competes. He always asks what I think of so and so, and I don't even know who they are.
The last time I was at a Gold's about a month ago, there was a picture of a guy with blonde hair. [Dorian Yates] He looked freaky. I don't even know his name, but there was an article on him and I remember thinking, "Holy shit!" I was just freaking out. These guys are just getting beyond human. One guy was 270. That's incredible. I don't know what they are doing different. I can't believe their training is any different.
I think a large part of it is the increased use of growth hormone and the introduction of IGF-1 and other new growth compounds.
I have never used GH and I don't even know what IGF-1 is.
IGF-1 is insulin-like growth factor. It works along similar pathways as growth hormone. When used along with insulin and traditional anabolics, it packs a serious punch. Even to be at the national level, they have to hit things pretty hard.
No shit. That destroys any fantasy I had of ever making a comeback.
One last question, stepping away from bodybuilding for a minute, tell your fans what Jeff King has been up to in his personal life the past few years.
I have been getting back to the things that I had given up for bodybuilding, such as fishing and hunting. Basically, I have just been getting my life in order. I have been working on my career as a physical therapist. I received my Masters degree in 1991 and have been working with the geriatric population. Anytime that I am not working, I spend outdoors. I am also a taxidermist and I just finished building a house. That's about it.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Jeff. Best of luck!