Mike Uzar: Bodybuilding Goes Beyond the Flexing and Posing
The blue table by the dressing room mirror was stained with orange fingerprints from bronzers such as Dream Tan. Michael Uzar scooped some from a jar and spread it across his chest, stomach and shoulders to look statuesque.
Uzar, a 38-year-old Stamford native and Norwalk resident, was then called to the auditorium stage for the men's heavyweight routine round at the bodybuilding contest.
Ten minutes before show time, Uzar walked in his black trunks across the hall and into the crowded warm-up room backstage, where dozens of competitors flexed in front of mirrors, pumping up by lifting free weights and pulling with partners on the ends of towels.
That isn't easy; with the crowd's screams blaring through speakers perched above mirrors the hungry athletes use to size each other up.
In the close and competitive warm-up room, that hunger can turn into aggression.
"One of the guys in another weight class was trying to goad me into posing with him in there," Uzar said, "implying that he wanted to go pose for pose.
"It's a whole mind trip. At first I didn't think he was serious. I didn't see the purpose in it. I'm not there for my ego."
It's up to the judges
Everything is settled on stage, where the bodybuilders, divided into weight classes, are judged in three rounds: Relaxed, mandatory and routine. The first two rounds, together called "pre-judging," are the most important, Uzar said.
Poses include the front double bicep shot, side chest pose, rear double big pose, abdominal shot and the crab, which is, he said, "the most muscular position, made famous by Lou Ferrigno," on television's "The Incredible Hulk."
"Even though I practice those poses a lot -- daily, for four to six weeks before a show -- it's still work out there," he said. "I'm still very conscious of keeping my legs flexed, and doing that with the appearance of feeling relaxed. You want to look confident, but not smug. You sort of gear yourself for that moment of transition from one pose to another and try not to shake. That means you are either not prepared or not properly hydrated."
In the routine round, each bodybuilder poses for one minute to his own selection of music. "I've got some hard rock, some White Zombie," Uzar said before stepping on stage for his routine. "There's some screaming when you go out. I definitely feel the energy."
After the routine round, the judges determine the top five bodybuilders from each weight class and summon them to the stage. Uzar was called out with the heavyweights.
"The judges asked for a pose-down, which is like a showdown," he said. "For two minutes, you can do whatever you want. You may choose to get next to the guy who will make you look better, but I'll never do that -- that's acquiescing that you're worried about someone else. The pose-down may serve as a tie-breaker for the judges, but really it's for the audience," he said.
Backstage after the pose-down, Uzar was told he had won his class. He prepared for another pre-judging round -- this time against the winners of the other four weight classes, competing now for the overall title.
The judges assess the class winners against each other, and while they collect and tabulate the scores, there's an overall pose-down. "That's when the place really goes crazy. Everyone is screaming for their favorites. Sometimes guys jump off the stage. That's really when you find out if you have anything left in the tank."
After the two-minute overall pose-down, the competitors waited backstage. In a few minutes, Uzar was told he'd won the overall title.
"I was elated," he said. "If you work so hard and there's no recognition, you feel deflated. It's just the opposite when you win."
Uzar's victory qualified him for the NPC Team Universe Championships in August. The NPC is the primary feeder for the world's largest bodybuilding organization, the International Federation of Bodybuilders, but Uzar does not plan to join it.
"I never really had an aspiration to become an IFBB professional," he said. "It's not consistent with wanting to be natural. I've competed drug-free my whole life. The IFBB is a different animal to me. I don't look at it as my zenith. There are other, drug-free shows that I consider top athletes aspire to."
The more than 20 different bodybuilder associations often have different rules about drug use. Unless organizers specifically state that drugs are not allowed, competitors are able to use steroids. Uzar said he has never used steroids.
Though he does not begrudge success to bodybuilders who are "on," he said he views steroid-users as athletes in a different sport.
"They have their genre, and we have ours," said Uzar, who works out at Fairfield Fitness Edge and Norwalk World Gym. "Do I see it as cheating? For myself, yes. I wouldn't have the same appreciation because I would know if it's all my work or just my body's response to a chemical."
Though some shows screen bodybuilders with drug tests as well as polygraphs, "it's very common to just do the polygraph because it's cheaper," Uzar said.
Not everyone Uzar meets believes he is drug free.
"Even though I've been tested 70 times, there are still people who think I take steroids," he said. "It's what happens once you have success when you're natural."
Other kinds of preconceptions about Uzar arise at Liquid, the Norwalk night club where he runs security, said Cerina Savino, a 22-year-old bartender.
"People who don't know him think must be unfriendly or very egotistical about his body, but he's not," said Savino, a West Haven resident. "He doesn't walk around with his chest out like most guys built like that. He's a very respectful guy who has a lot of self-respect."
Uzar started bodybuilding in 1984, when his natural ability made it clear that he could succeed.
"I started lifting at 16, when I was in high school," he said. "I was bigger than everyone else, and I actually looked like a bodybuilder before training. My first time on a bench I pressed 220 pounds. By the time I was 17, I was pressing 350."
"I guess its human nature -- if you're good at something you want to see how far you can go with it."
At 19, he won the Natural Teenage Tri-State contest in Naugatuck, then won five of the next eight shows he entered.
That was 20 years ago.
How long does he plan to stay in the sport?
"Barring injury, I don't see myself peaking for another seven years," Uzar said. "I can see myself peaking at 44, 45 years old, and then I may compete in the Masters. It's a competition outlet for me, and I guess I'll do it until I don't enjoy it anymore."
Diet, fun and teaching
Arriving for work on a recent Saturday night at Liquid, Uzar accepted a plate of brownies Savino had baked for him. "I brought them in a month ago and he didn't touch them," she said. "When he's not training for a match he's a lot more fun."
He said his friends like him better when he's eating. "I'll live with gusto after the show until I have to be good," said Uzar, who defines December to March as his off-season. "I'm a participant, not someone to stay back at the party and watch the celebration go by. I like my wine and I've always had a sweet tooth."
But he checks that sweet tooth in season, adhering to a strict high-protein, restricted-carbohydrates diet.
"Your mind is never off the show," he said. "In season I train at around 5:30 p.m., five or six days a week for one hour, working on a specific body part. I don't do any cardio."
That self-discipline impresses 45-year-old Fairfield resident Jim Klinko, one of 15 clients Uzar works with as a professional trainer.
"His patience is incredible," said Klinko, a Westport consignment shop owner who has been training under Uzar's eye for 11 years. "Patience, patience, patience. I'm a little bit off the wall and I could have a really bad day, and he's very patient with me. He has a way of calming me down."
With Uzar's encouragement, Klinko entered and placed third in a bodybuilding show in 1997.
Uzar said he believes training others is about teaching moderation and consistency. He measures his own progress by the mirror. "It's a visual sport and the mirror is a tool," Uzar said. "I won't necessarily say it's your best friend, but it's honest."
So is Jim Coughlin, a friend whom Uzar met at a gym 16 years ago and whom he described as his harshest critic.
"I've seen him compete for so many years that I can tell when he's made mistakes in his diet," said Coughlin, a 36-year-old Norwalk resident and operations manager at Toyota of Stamford. "He trusts my opinion because he knows I won't lie to him."
Despite two decades of competition, Uzar said he still doesn't feel like an expert bodybuilder.
"It's really an art and a sport. You're creating something out of material, which is your body. In anything I've ever studied, I've found that the more I learned, the more there is to know," he said. "How can you feel you're an expert?"