In Memory of Mike Mentzer
November 15, 1951 - June 10, 2001
In the 1930s, Pulitzer Prize winning philosopher and historian Will Durant made the comment that:
Of the many ideals, which in youth gave life a meaning and radiance missing from the chilly perspectives of middle age, one at least has remained with me as bright and satisfying as ever before -- the shameless worship of heroes. In an age that would level everything and reverence nothing, I take my stand with Victorian Carlyle, and light my candles, like Mirandola before Plato's image, at the shrines of great men… For why should we stand reverent before waterfalls and mountain tops, or a summer moon on a quiet sea, and not before the highest miracle of all -- a man who is both great and good?
Apart from being a close friend, I have long considered Mike Mentzer to be a genuine hero; a man who, indeed, is both “great and good.” For Mentzer was (and remains) a man who summated the very pinnacle of physical perfection in the world of bodybuilding, becoming in many a mind’s eye, one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time (thus fulfilling part one of Dr. Durant’s definition); and a man who constantly sought honesty rather than reputation, integrity rather than commercialism and truth above all. That this is evidence of the “good” (the second part of Dr. Durant’s definition) should not need further elaboration. Sadly, the world of bodybuilding hasn’t the same love for the heroic as Will Durant or myself. To wit, for possessing the three virtues cited above, Mentzer was sorely punished; for the first he was condemned by the bodybuilding orthodoxy; for the second he was excommunicated from its power base; and for the third he would be denied the greatest title in bodybuilding along with the opportunity to earn a living from his passion. These were hurdles that would have broken a less heroic spirit than the one inhabiting the Herculean physique of Mike Mentzer. Nevertheless, Mentzer would persevere and, in time, earn prestigious titles of a different sort (and of far greater worth in the arena of life); he would become known as “a fully-actualized human being;” “a man of self-made soul;” “a pioneer in exercise science” and (perhaps the one of which he is most proud) “a philosopher of mind and body.”
Anytime a man stands up for the sake of principle (or principles, in the case of Mentzer, for he has proven himself a very principled man), he is worthy of respect. When doing so comes at great personal cost and in the teeth of great adversity, he is rightly considered a hero. In the mid 1970s, when bodybuilding was just starting to become fashionable, Mentzer, like a breath - no, a cyclone - of fresh air, whistled through its murky and pungent halls, decimating myths and exploding falsehoods. In time, he built quite a following among seekers of truth within the bodybuilding community. Mentzer’s well-reasoned conclusions, based for the first time upon logical thinking and scientific evidence, rather than sales of supplements and equipment, brought bodybuilding out of its self-imposed dark ages and into the world of modern technology. Attending this renaissance was a revolution in the way bodybuilding was performed and bodybuilders were perceived.
As many of you know, 2001 had been something of a renaissance for Mike; he had begun production of his new Heavy Duty video and was preparing to record and launch a new series of audiotapes. Publishers from various magazines in both North America and overseas were preparing to carry his ads and to run new feature articles on Mike and his training principles. I had the privilege of working with him on his last book Mike Mentzer’s Ultimate Guide to High-Intensity Training which he was extremely excited about and that will be released by McGraw Hill later this year. I’m pleased that he was able to see the final draft of the book and that it met with his approval.
Mike single-handedly changed the face of bodybuilding; as a result of his insights and council, people discovered a better and more efficient way to train, to diet - and to live. Mike’s first passion was always bodybuilding and, unlike many champions who simply lust after power or prestige, Mike sought clarity and truth rather than reputation and fame. Ironically, it was his devotion to these first two virtues that brought him the latter two.
He was a voice of reason in an industry rife with hucksters and propaganda. He once said that, “I don’t care to have many friends and acquaintances, but the few good friends I posses are very close to me.” How true this was. He never attempted to curry favor; nor did he subscribe to the adage that one “must go along to get along;” he was his own person always - and refused to be otherwise. Prior to Mike’s coming on the bodybuilding scene in the late 1970s, bodybuilding had cried out for a watchdog or protector of young bodybuilders who might otherwise fall prey to the blandishments of the corporate interests that had infiltrated the sport. His well-reasoned articles, imploring us to use our minds and to make bodybuilding an adjunct to - rather than the reason for - our existence lifted bodybuilding out of its own self-imposed “dark age.” No longer would people live in the gym, nor blindly accept the edicts of a champion, merely because he had won a contest or was featured as the current “flavor of the month” in a bodybuilding magazine. Mike not only spoke of a better way to accomplish this - he actually created one. Some of Mike’s fondest moments were spent training and educating those who sought to improve themselves through the discipline of bodybuilding. Loved by some, feared by others, and ignored by no one, the one common element Mike Mentzer inspired in those he met was respect. Here was a man of principle (in an industry where principle is too often sacrificed to commerce) who was willing to stand up for his principles and be counted, no matter what the personal cost - and often it was heavy, indeed.
Still, those who sought truth in life and a more reasonable approach to building muscle could not help but be drawn to Mike’s ideas. He was happiest when he could open a young bodybuilder’s eyes to the possibility of their true potential, of both body and mind. He inspired (and often trained) everyone from CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, celebrities such as Tony Robbins, and high-intensity authors such as yours truly and, above all, the trainee who wanted results, honesty and a clearer perspective of exercise science. In truth, there may have been science in bodybuilding prior to Mike Mentzer, but never a science of bodybuilding -- Mike Mentzer gave us that.
On a personal note, I shall miss Mike dearly. Many was the time (over a period of some 22 years) that we would talk philosophy, bodybuilding and other life issues well into the wee hours of the morning. And it was always his benevolence and decency as a human being that impressed me most. I shall miss those conversations and, like his many friends and fans, I, also shall miss the excitement of reading Mike’s “latest” article; it seemed as if he was speaking to each of us individually when he wrote. There has never been - nor shall there ever be - a bodybuilding writer of the caliber of Mike Mentzer. He could not only “talk the talk” but he most certainly walked the walk, being the first bodybuilder to ever win the Mr. Universe with a perfect score.
Fortunately, the Mike Mentzer Company will continue to spread Mike’s teachings through the wealth of writings, audios and videos that he has left behind. I console myself with the thought that only the body has passed away, the soul of Mike Mentzer still emanates from every page of his prose, exhorting us to develop a “siege” mentality in the gym; to take “an extra day or two off” to allow for full recovery and growth and to “develop our minds” as well as our bodies. His life and what he stood for will continue to inspire bodybuilders not yet born. Here, indeed, is an immortality of the soul, which makes almost insignificant the passing of the flesh.
Consider these words, taken from Mike’s last work, The Integrated Man, a short story (and his first foray into fiction writing) that will appear in the appendix of his last book - for they encapsulate perfectly the very soul of the man and thus serve as the best possible words with which to frame his epitaph:
I never suffered such a vice -- the dire need for approval. Rather than be like a creeping vine climbing up a tall tree where I could not stand alone, I preferred to be intellectually-emotionally and morally self-sufficient. No, I had always been a radical. This was expressed in my early years mainly through my “sense of life,” which is the pre-conceptual, preverbal, emotional, subconsciously integrated view of man and of existence -- a child’s emotional, subconscious equivalent to a conscious, mature philosophy of life. In part, owing to the lack of proper, rational guidance, I was blindly rebellious and desperately sought self-assertion. As I matured, however, the blind rebelliousness progressively decreased; and I was less under the control of my subconscious, emotional sense of life, and became increasingly directed by an explicitly verbalized, conscious, rational philosophy of life. The blind rebellion had been replaced by a passionate desire to discover the dispassionate, objective truth. At the time that my maturation was reaching a pinnacle, I became thoroughly fact-centered, truth-oriented; which placed me out of step with the rest. It’s not that I was a lone wolf; it was that I learned to think for myself; which I came to understand required privacy.
As a young boy, I sought to achieve an objective view of others. This was accomplished by imagining myself lifted up into space, where I could peer down and obtain a clear, unobstructed view of them; and what I observed was abject conformity and the desperate desire for the safety of will-less passivity. Not passivity of the body, but passivity of the mind. And it wasn’t passivity all the way through, but beyond a certain point. They were either unwilling or unable to think beyond the confines established by the pack.
The idea that achieving spiritual self-sufficiency was the goal of the process of maturation never occurred to them, something they never thought to question. They lead blighted lives, bereft of any interest in science, philosophy, morality or art. Life as they lived it was the immediately given, the not to be questioned, the stubborn adherence to tradition and the opinion of others. To me, gaining the ability to think and to judge independently was the ultimate purpose in life. Those who didn’t care held no interest for me, were of not the slightest concern, as I couldn’t possibly respect them or their second-hand opinions. Nor did I refrain from letting others know this; but again it didn’t matter, as they didn’t matter. They were merely passing through existence, as cultural ballast, individuals that never looked up, held nothing sacred; while I and others seeking to achieve the ideal were righteously doing what truly, in logic and reality, was of fundamental importance. (The character trait I admired most in others was their holding of an exalted view of the sacredness of man’s self-esteem and happiness on earth.)
Mike Mentzer, to my mind, is one of the greatest bodybuilders who ever lived. I say “greatest” not because he won the most titles or sold the most supplements for the business heads of bodybuilding, but because he built one of the greatest physiques of all-time without once selling out; without once ever wavering from his own belief in what was true and good and refusing to sell the public anything but his own honesty.
Each decade brings with it a new crop of “champions,” but they are quickly forgotten when the new crop of champions are harvested by the corporate machine. Mike Mentzer endures because he stood for something more, revealing that there are some principles worth espousing even when great personal cost is at stake. And in so doing, Mike revealed the potential inherent in all of us to become fuller human beings and live healthier more purposeful lives. One can’t ask much more than this from one’s heroes.
Take heart, dear reader, whenever you wish to visit with Mike in future, you shall find him between the pages of his books - Mike Mentzer: the bodybuilder, the philosopher and champion of the human spirit.
John Little, June 12, 2001
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