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A Total-Lee Awesome Career: 8-Time Mr. Olympia Haney Set the Mark
Arnold Schwarzenegger is by far considered to be the best bodybuilder of all time. The Austrian Oak is the most recognized name, face and even voice within the sport and mainstream media. His multiple Mr. Olympia titles are very impressive, but fall short of the record by one, and are not consecutive.
By winning eight straight Sandow trophies, Lee Haney set the benchmark for all to follow. Although Ron Coleman eventually tied the mark, the first one to accomplish that feat will be the one to chase. After finishing in third place in 1983 in Germany, Haney unseated Samir Bannout the following year and was never defeated on a bodybuilding stage for the remainder of his career. He also beat more bodybuilders – 83 – than anyone else in IFBB Olympia competition.
“Who would have thought that I would have won eight,” Haney asked himself. “To accomplish one is a feat in itself. Words couldn’t express (what it feels like) to win eight.”
When Haney stood alone that first time back in 1984 at New York City’s Felt Forum, the line-up read like a ‘who’s-who’ in bodybuilding. To give you an indication of how deep the competition was, the following names did not even finish in the top 10 – Chris Dickerson (1982 Mr. Olympia), Tony Pearson, Boyer Coe, Bill Grant, Charles Glass and Robby Robinson.
Even the men who finished just out of the top six are worthy of superstar status. Bob Paris, the Myth Sergio Oliva, Tom Platz and Bob Birdsong were the next group that walked off the stage to hear the placing announcement from behind the scenes.
Bannout, Roy Callender and 54-year-old Albert Beckles went six through four and the top three then fought it out. Jusup Wilkosz’s physique appeared to back up his claim of training five hours a day in preparation for the contest and the bearded one finished in third place. The runner-up was Mohamed Makkawy, who used his posing routine to cement his high placing.
Even with all of the tough competition, the 5’11” Haney was the clear-cut winner that night and his size was noticeable right off the bat. The one complaint heard about his physique was his biceps being small in comparison to the rest of his huge body, especially his wide lat spread. That had little affect on the outcome of the contest and Haney had won his first Olympia at the young age of 24.
The following year in Belgium, Haney held off the forever-young Beckles and a newcomer on the scene, Rich Gaspari, who had an impressive third-place finish in his first time on the big stage. In 1986, Gaspari closed the gap but still couldn’t grab the top spot. The Dragon Slayer’s bridesmaid position continued for two more years before he fell to fourth place in 1989.
Those three Olympia contests (1986 in Ohio, 1987 in Sweden and 1988 in Los Angeles) were famous for the battles between Haney and Gaspari, who were close friends even though they continuously tried to knock each other off.
“It was great,” remembered Haney. “Rich was one of the better competitors. I used to call him ‘Rich the Itch.’ He made me be my best and brought out the best in me. I love him like a brother. Our relationship has remained solid. Rich even lived with my wife and me at one time for a few months. If anyone knew my habits, it was Rich.
“It was kind of like sleeping with the enemy.”
Their partnership began back in late 1983 when Gaspari was working as a manager at Gold’s Gym and Haney was just coming off his third place Olympia finish. After seeing how serious the youngster from New Jersey was about bodybuilding, Haney asked him if was interested in the two of them training together.
They paired up in preparation for their respective contests in 1984 and the results were impressive. Haney won his first Sandow and Gaspari won the Nationals. Although Gaspari was never able to get over the hump, he has stated that Haney was the bodybuilder that impressed him the most and he always showed him great respect before, during and after their wars.
Going for his sixth straight Olympia win in 1989 in Italy, Haney had to contend with not only Gaspari, but a vastly-improved Lee Lebrada, who moved up two spots to second place. The following year in Chicago, the 5’6” Labrada once again challenged Haney but was unable to defeat his taller adversary. That set up the famous 1991 Orlando contest, which would end up being Haney’s final show.
The defending champion still had to deal with the likes of Labrada, Gaspari, Vince Taylor and Shawn Ray, but in order to make it an even eight, he would have to outscore a newcomer from Great Britain that possessed size never before seen on a bodybuilding stage.
They say to beat the champ you have to knock him out, and Yates came as close as you can to doing that. He eventually settled for second place, which is still amazing considering that it was he was an Olympia rookie. It was also the last time that Yates would ever be defeated, going on a six-year run as champion before retiring himself.
Many people have said that bodybuilding changed the day Haney hung up his posing trunks and the wider Yates took over his reign. Haney agrees with that assumption. “That’s where it began, the more massive physique,” he said. “I feel that a type of symmetry was lost then. We had smaller waistlines and were more sleek with our physiques.”
Haney weighed in at 248 pounds in his last show and at the time was the heaviest Mr. Olympia ever. In comparison, Yates stood only an inch shorter and had a contest weight of 270 pounds and eclipsed 300 during the offseason.
That humongous trend continued throughout Coleman’s era (1998 through 2005) and Jay Cutler’s two wins (2006 and 2007), only changing with a more aesthetic Dexter Jackson winning the last Mr. Olympia this past September in Las Vegas. “Now they’re so much bigger,” continued Haney. “They’re more massive now. Not as sleek as during my era. I’m not saying it’s bad, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Although he is best known for his supremacy on the Olympia stage, Haney also excelled earlier in his illustrious career, which began in 1979 with a Teen Mr. America championship. In 1982, he won three titles (Junior Nationals Heavyweight and Overall, Nationals Heavyweight and Overall and the World Amateur Championships Heavyweight).
Haney was the first winner of the National Physique Committee (NPC) Nationals that year and hosted the 2007 show in celebration of the contest’s 25th anniversary, which was held in Texas. The past met the present when Haney presented the overall winner, the massive 240-pound Evan Centopani, with the award.
“Before that, the NPC was known as the AAU Mr. America and bodybuilding was a secondary sport to powerlifting,” said Haney. “We would go on stage after they (the weightlifters) were finished, even as late as one o’clock in the morning. The NPC is an arm for the IFBB; the only recognized organization in America by the international bodybuilding community.
“I (was) very happy to be a part of it and the celebration of 25 years.”
These days, Haney, 46, resides in his home state of Georgia. He still works out regularly and in addition to having his own line of supplements and hosting the TotaLee Fit Internet Radio Show (Monday through Friday at 11 AM and 3 PM), he is also a personal trainer for a number of athletes and celebrities. “I’ve trained Evander Holyfield (boxing), Shannon Sharpe, Fred Stokes (NFL), Kevin Willis, Shawn Bradley (NBA), Gary Sheffield (MLB) and even (comedian and actor) Steve Harvey,” he said.
The Total-Lee Awesome one has been recognized by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, the United States Sports Academy and was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 1999. Haney was part of that initial class of legends chosen, which also included Schwarzenegger, Oliva, Frank Zane, John Grimek, Reg Park, Larry Scott, Steve Reeves, Bill Pearl, Carla Dunlop, Rachel McLish and Cory Everson.
Perhaps more importantly than all of his athletic accomplishments, the creation of the Haney Harvest House in 1994 may be his most impressive yet. Along with his wife, Haney purchased a forty-acre farm and turned it into a non-profit retreat facility for youngsters from all different backgrounds that include nature tours, a petting zoo and an eight-week summer camp for 12 to 15-year olds.
“I wanted to be able to give something back,” he said. “I’ve been so fortunate to have a lot of good things come my way, and it all comes from values I learned from growing up. If we don’t take the time now to give some of that back to this generation, then when will we?”
Spoken like a true champion.
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