Even the sharpest perception is dulled by the maelstrom of New York City, a place where an extravaganza is as common as wing tips at the Rotary Club. But last week many blasé New Yorkers were gagging on their sequins-and-denim cool, gaping like tykes at the circus at the sight of the huge men strutting about Madison Square Garden. The giants were there for a showdown, not with fists or guns, or even with basketballs, but with muscles.
The occasion was the Mr. Olympia contest staged in the Garden's Felt Forum. It was a bodybuilding competition among the world's most muscular and best-developed men, and their talent was obvious. No bad call by an umpire, no upset stomach, no poor footing could induce a slack performance. It was all there on the posing stand, the symmetrical result sculpted through tedious, agonizing and seemingly endless hours of pumping iron in dank gymnasiums, and it was appreciated by a coterie of zealous fans.
The objects of esteem were four men at the zenith of their sport, athletes so far advanced that even their colleagues regard them with envy and awe. They were Arnold Schwarzenegger, going for his fifth consecutive Mr. Olympia title, enough of a legend for his first name to evoke a response wherever a barbell is picked up with purpose; Lou Ferrigno from Brooklyn, even bigger than Arnold, but young, entered in his first professional contest; Franco Columbu, short and compact, whose misfortune it is to be performing in the same era as his friend Schwarzenegger; and Frank Zane, like Arnold and Franco a Californian, also a schoolteacher and one of the few ever to defeat Schwarzenegger. That victory was back in 1968 in a Mr. Universe contest.
Ferrigno was the subject of speculation and curiosity, the rookie who looked good during the spring, but could he hack it in the major league? He is 6'5", weighs 265, and at 22 is regarded as the heir to the champion. The two had never met, and just a few days before the contest Ferrigno wondered about the wisdom of challenging Schwarzenegger, the "Austrian Oak." If Ferrigno did and lost, the appearance in the Garden would cost him his amateur status and he would become a wandering minstrel with nowhere to play his tune. On Wednesday Mathew Ferrigno, who is a lieutenant in the New York City Police Department and Lou's father, said, "If Arnold were here we could decide, but Arnold don't show himself to nobody." The champ was still in Los Angeles.
The next day young Ferrigno appeared at a press preview, and after a session under the warm lights of television cameras, the brooding giant made his decision. He would meet Schwarzenegger. "I've been waiting eight years for this day to come," he said in a heavy Flatbush accent. "The Olympia is the most prestigious class in the world."
"If my son wins, he will hold the title for a decade," the lieutenant noted proudly. "There is nobody on the horizon to challenge him."
The dark, busy-haired Ferrigno, who for the moment has put aside his career as a sheet-metal worker, had just won his second Mr. Universe title in Verona, Italy and was on a six-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week training schedule and a strict diet. Criticism of his legs was driving him to lift 600 pounds 15 to 20 times daily to improve his calf muscles.
His detractors said he still lacked the definition of muscle essential to achieve top ranking in the sport. The ability was there, but the polish was missing. Ferrigno is massive, but so is Schwarzenegger, and The Oak's muscles jump out at you like outrageous price tags. "Lou can't even beat me," said Columbu, his voice accented with scorn. "He lacks experience and a few body parts, like a back and calves. When he stands with Arnold, he looks bigger because he is bigger. He looks impressive. But when they pose, Arnold's experience wins out. An amateur will be up against a professional."
Columbu was competing with Frank Zane in the small class of Mr. Olympia, the category for men weighing less than 200 pounds. There would be individual class winners, plus an overall champion, but it was obvious that Columbu considered the major title beyond his reach. Why, then, was he here? "The main thing is not to win the contest," he answered. "I have a very good following. They expect a good show."
Just then, a skinny teen-ager walked up and plaintively asked the secret to gaining weight. It was like badgering Nolan Ryan about how to pitch a fastball. "I have a booklet about that," Columbu said. He peddles booklets explaining his training secrets. They sell for $2. Schwarzenegger gets $3 for his.
On Friday Columbu and Schwarzenegger appeared on a morning television show. Ferrigno was not there. "He is probably sitting at home watching my body and moving around his television set, posing, to see if he should compete," said Schwarzenegger. "I want to go against Ferrigno because he is new and people are talking about him."
Both Schwarzenegger and Columbu are considering retirement. The Oak is only 27 but he is weary of competition, or perhaps the lack of it, and he hinted that this could be his last contest. Columbu, who claims to be 30 but may be older, is attending a chiropractic school; he intends to go into business.
When the competition began, it was immediately evident that Columbu would defeat Zane and win that class. Next to the dense, muscular Italian, Zane looked almost willowy. That left the champ and the challenger.
The crowd responded with wild shouts of encouragement as Schwarzenegger and his young opponent took the stage. Spotlights and oil highlighted their muscles. As they moved through their poses, Schwarzenegger's superiority began to show. At one point they turned and found themselves face-to-face, both locked in arm shots, veins popping and foreheads glistening, their bodies trembling with effort. Schwarzenegger looked at Ferrigno and smiled, as if to say, "You are beaten." It was a boxer psyching his opponent, and the crowd knew it and so did the judges. Once more Arnold Schwarzenegger was Mr. Olympia.
Later, as he walked down the crowded streets of the city, people turned and stared unabashedly at him. Tykes at the circus.
CHALLENGER LOU FERRIGNO (RIGHT) WAS STUMPED BY THE MIGHTY AUSTRIAN OAK