My return to Musclemania By Ron Harris

Bodybuilding columnist ron harrisSome of you may know that I was with Musclemania from the very beginning. I began working for Lou Zwick and his American Sports Network in January of 1991, and a few months later the first Musclemania debuted. In the first two years, Musclemania was a tour of NPC national qualifiers held with Fitness America Pageant regional events, and it was a non-tested show. But even then, they set a standard with innovative stage designs, rock-concert lighting and sound. In early 1993, ESPN was growing more and more hesitant to air non-tested bodybuilding contests, as the stigma of steroid use was impossible to ignore. Lou made the decision to turn the Musclemania into a natural event, and to hold one large championship event each November in Redondo Beach. My job title at ASN was Associate Producer, and my main responsibilities lay in the production of the ESPN show American Muscle and the one-hour bodybuilding and fitness specials. I directed video shoots, conducted interviews, wrote scripts, and assisted in post-production. 1993 was pivotal because I met an up-and-coming natural bodybuilder at the show named Skip LaCour who became a good friend in the industry and a champion spokesman for the burgeoning sport of natural bodybuilding.

I myself had been competing in natural contests since 1989 when I was 19. I started here in Massachusetts with the ANBC, and then also entered tested shows promoted by the ABCC and NPC on the west coast. The last natural contest I attended was the 1999 Musclemania Worlds in Redondo Beach, and the last one I competed in was the 1995 NPC Ironman Naturally in LA. Over the past few years you could say I have lost touch with natural bodybuilding in general and Musclemania in particular. I make my living writing for magazines like Muscular Development and Musclemag, and I don't have much contact with athletes other than the freakiest IFBB pro bodybuilders and top NPC amateurs. You could almost say I forgot what natural bodybuilders even looked like, since I didn't see a whole lot of them at contests like the Mr. Olympia or Night of Champions. The local shows I have competed in and watched since I moved back to Boston three years ago have all been promoted by the NPC and were not tested events. When Brian Cannone contacted me a couple months ago about judging the Musclemania contest he was putting on in Boston, I saw a unique opportunity.

Through Cathy Savage I had heard of what a top-notch production Brian puts on in Connecticut every year. Now that he was expanding into Boston, I knew I had to see for myself. Though I would have been happy to be a mere spectator, being on the judging panel would give me a far better perspective on how his shows were run and what kind of men and women competed in them.

The first inkling I had that this was a different level of production was in the venue. The John Hancock Hall was perfectly suited to a fitness and physique contest, with plenty of room for everyone to do their thing, and a very high-class ambience. Before prejudging head judge Fred Yale briefed the bodybuilders backstage on various matters of concern so that they would present themselves to us in the best possible way, even summoning me front and center to demonstrate the quarter turns and mandatory poses - totally unexpected, I might add! Once he was finished with his instructions and fielding questions from the competitors, Fred emotionally prepared the group for the inevitable. "Not all of you are going to win," he informed them. "But if you want to see your real trophy, look in the mirror. Bodybuilding is the only sport where you literally carry your trophy around with you twenty-four hours a day." That really sunk in for all of us. I have now competed myself in over fifteen contests, and only once have I finished in first place. The majority of the time I have taken second place (I might even have the record for this distinction), but even when I haven't done well, I always understood that just having a physique worthy of standing on stage in a top-level amateur competition is a major accomplishment that signifies years of hard training and proper nutrition. It puts you in very elite company. Very few people will ever have the dedication and be willing to put in the work to look like a bodybuilder, and even fewer will ever take it to the next level of dieting down and putting it all on the line up on stage. It's easy to be in a permanent off-season mode and talk about how you could beat this or that bodybuilder in a contest, it's a whole other situation to actually do it.

As a longtime competitor and fan of the sport, I was eager to take on the task of judging the Musclemania. Not having judged a contest in several years, I had forgotten how challenging it is. Judging is progressively more difficult the more competitors you have in front of you at once, and the higher the quality of physiques. The challenge is giving each and every competitor the fairest score you are able to, and doing so in an expedient manner. Nobody wants an eight-hour prejudging. When you have a group of nine or ten athletes standing in a class in front of you, often the winner stands out immediately. And, there is often one man or woman who is either a rank beginner or just plain didn't prepare and diet properly, who you can mark down in last place. From there, it gets harder. Physiques need to be evaluated and ranked in the correct order looking at size, shape, symmetry, condition, and presentation. It can be exceedingly difficult when you have two very close physiques, or two physiques that have opposite strengths and weaknesses. Say one man has an incredible upper body but very thin and underdeveloped legs. Another man has amazing quads, hams, and calves, but his upper body is weak in comparison. It's a tough call, but you have to make it. Nobody wants ties in placings.

As a judge, you realize just how many different types of bodies there are out there. Forget apples and oranges, you also have peaches, nectarines, pears, and plums! As a judge you do your very best to sort each physique out. My opinion may differ from that of the judge sitting next to me, but that's a positive thing. One judge may prize shape, and will place a competitor with better symmetry over others even though he or she may be lacking the size or cuts of the others. Another judge may value muscle mass most of all, or definition, and so on. In the end, bodybuilding is judged subjectively and is a matter of opinion. Even so, the scores manage to come out right most of the time. There is only one person totally satisfied with the outcome, and that's the Overall Champion. The great thing about bodybuilding is that there is always room for improvement, and there is always another show somewhere down the line.

I want to comment on something my wife Janet picked up on first as the major difference between this Musclemania and the non-tested NPC and IFBB events we usually attend. "They look so much healthier and happier," she noted. And it was true. I saw more smiles and felt so much more sheer joy radiating from the men and women on stage than what I am accustomed to seeing. And though I do not wish to speak ill of non-tested competitors, it was refreshing to see none of the customary side effects I have gotten used to like swollen bellies, gyno, premature baldness, and raging acne. The camaraderie among the competitors was infectious. Thanks to Brian, Musclemania got me pumped on natural bodybuilding again for the first time in years.


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