An Opinion Piece by Bill Dobbins
Founding Editor, Flex Magazine
Amateur bodybuilding competition features weight divisions. And the use of weight classes is common in sports in which body size confers distinct advantages. In boxing, the difference between one class of fighters and another can be only a relatively few pounds. The same is true of weightlifting. At the elite level, the bigger weightlifters can always do heavier lifts than the smaller ones.
In boxing, weight classes continue to be used at the pro level as well as with the amateurs. A successful lightweight amateur boxer doesn’t have to fight the heavyweights after turning pro. That would make body size the primary criteria for success, rather than things like skill, conditioning and mental toughness. But the same is not true of bodybuilding. Until 1980, there were two weight divisions in IFBB pro bodybuilding – more than and less than 200 pounds. This weight limit made sense back then because bodybuilders simply weren’t as big back then. At his peak Arnold only weighed about 235 pounds. I remember standing outside of Gold’s Gym,
Venice, back in the early 1980s, after Arnold retired, and listening to a bodybuilding fan bemoaning the fact that there no more “big guys” in the sport.
At that point, Lee Haney was just about to make his entrance into the sport. And we knew nothing about a future in which we would see relative giants like Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman and the current crop of huge Mr. Olympia contenders. Nowadays, the difference between the smallest and biggest bodybuilders, some of them weighing in close to 300 pounds, can be immense.
The NPC features six weight classes for amateur male bodybuilders:
|Bantamweight||up to 143 ¼ lbs.’|
|Lightweight||over 143 ¼ lbs.’ up to 154 ¼ lbs.’|
|Middleweight||over 154 ¼ lbs up to 176 ¼ lbs.’|
|Light-Heavyweight||over 176 ¼ lbs.’ up to 198 ¼ lbs.’|
|Heavyweight||over 198 ¼ lbs.’ up to 225 ¼ lbs.’|
|Super Heavyweight||over 225 ¼ lbs.’|
At the pro level, there are many bodybuilders heavier than 212lbs. but as to compete against all the other competitors, in one class. Since the “big guys” nowadays usually show up super-ripped and in great condition, it makes it almost impossible for a much smaller guy to out-do them on the judges’ scoresheets.
I was very aware of this through the 1980s, when there were a number of outstanding smaller competitors entering pro contests after the system of two weight classes in the IFBB pro division was eliminated. Some of them finished as high as second in the Mr. Olympia and were as good as somebody like the great Lee Haney – just much smaller. There are a number of bodybuilders who fit this description but, in this article, I would like to focus on three of the very best:
Rich Gaspari placed second in the Olympia in 1986, 1987 and 1988. Pound for pound, he was as good as Lee Haney, just too much smaller. Richie always showed up in shape and his posing was excellent. If there has been a lighter weight division in which he could compete he would have several Mr. Olympia titles.
Here is his superior competition history:
• 1983 NPC Junior Nationals Overall Winner• 1983 NPC Junior Nationals Heavyweight, 1st• 1983 NPC Nationals Heavyweight, 5th• 1984 NPC Nationals Light-Heavyweight, 1st• 1984 World IFBB Amateur Championships Light-Heavyweight, 1st• 1985 IFBB Night of Champions 2nd• 1985 IFBB Mr. Olympia 3rd• 1986 IFBB Los Angeles Pro Championships Winner• 1986 IFBB Mr. Olympia 2nd• 1986 IFBB World Pro Championships Winner• 1987 IFBB Grand Prix France Winner• 1987 IFBB Grand Prix Germany 2nd• 1987 IFBB Grand Prix Germany (2) Winner• 1987 IFBB Mr. Olympia 2nd• 1988 IFBB Grand Prix England 2nd• 1988 IFBB Grand Prix France Winner• 1988 IFBB Grand Prix Germany Winner• 1988 IFBB Grand Prix Greece 2nd• 1988 IFBB Grand Prix Italy Winner• 1988 IFBB Grand Prix Spain (2) 2nd• 1988 IFBB Grand Prix Spain Winner• 1988 IFBB Mr. Olympia 2nd• 1989 IFBB Arnold Classic Winner• 1989 IFBB Mr. Olympia 4th• 1990 IFBB Mr. Olympia 5th• 1991 IFBB Arnold Classic 7th• 1991 IFBB Mr. Olympia 10th• 1992 IFBB Arnold Classic 13th• 1994 IFBB Chicago Pro Invitational 16th• 1994 IFBB Niagara Falls Pro Invitational 15th• 1994 IFBB Night of Champions – Did not place• 1995 IFBB Canada Pro Cup 5th• 1995 IFBB Night of Champions 12th• 1996 IFBB Canada Pro Cup 11th• 1996 IFBB Florida Pro Invitational 12th• 1996 IFBB San Jose Pro Invitational 16th
Lee Labrada was another superior bodybuilder of smaller stature, who nonetheless managed to place second in the Mr. Olympia in 1989 and 1990. Labrada was a bodybuilder who kept improving every year and was at his absolute best the year he retired. Earlier on, I always felt his neck and trap area looked under-developed in comparison to the rest of his outstandingphysique. But at the end of his competitive career, he had made an adjustment and had no weak points. Labrada was also an excellent poser and his overall presentation – including color, skin, hair and everything – was impeccable.
• 1982 National Physique Committee [NPC] Texas Collegiate Championships (1st Place)• 1982 NPC Junior Gulf Coast Championships (1st Place)• 1983 NPC Texas Championships, 1st Middleweight, and Overall• 1984 NPC USA Bodybuilding Championships (2nd Place, Light Heavyweight)• 1984 NPC National Bodybuilding Championships (5th Place, Middleweight)• 1985 NPC National Bodybuilding Championships (1st Place, Middleweight)• 1985 IFBB Mr. Universe (1st Place)• 1986 IFBB Night of Champions (1st Place)• 1987 IFBB Pro World Cup (2nd Place)• 1987 IFBB Mr. Olympia (3rd Place)• 1987 IFBB Pro German Grand Prix (3rd Place)• 1987 IFBB Pro French Grand Prix (3rd Place)• 1988 IFBB Mr. Olympia (4th Place)• 1988 IFBB Pro German Grand Prix (3rd Place)• 1988 IFBB Pro Greek Grand Prix (1st Place)• 1988 IFBB Pro British Grand Prix (1st Place)• 1988 IFBB Pro Spanish Grand Prix, Madrid (1st Place)• 1988 IFBB Pro Italian Grand Prix (2nd Place)• 1988 IFBB Pro French Grand Prix (2nd Place)• 1988 IFBB Pro Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona (1st Place)• 1989 IFBB Mr. Olympia (2nd Place)• 1989 IFBB Pro Dutch Grand Prix (1st Place)• 1989 IFBB Pro Finnish Grand Prix (1st Place)• 1990 IFBB Mr. Olympia (2nd Place)• 1991 IFBB Mr. Olympia (4th Place)• 1992 IFBB Mr. Olympia (3rd Place)• 1992 IFBB Pro World Cup (1st Place)• 1993 IFBB Ironman Pro Invitational (2nd Place)• 1993 IFBB Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic (2nd Place)• 1993 IFBB Mr. Olympia (4th Place)• 1995 IFBB Arnold Classic (5th Place)
Shawn Ray is another bodybuilder from the 1980s and 1990s of smaller stature who placed second in the Olympia in 1994 but was at a disadvantage on the basis of size compared to the massive Dorian Yates. Shawn Ray really had no weak points and approached bodybuilding with admirable discipline. I remember being at lunch with him off season and seeing he kept himself to a modified contest diet all year around. As somebody who has studied bodybuilding training for 40 years, I have a very good idea as to what the best techniques are. Over the years, watching bodybuilders work out, there are only two to whom I could never give advice on how to improve their workouts – Lee Haney and Shawn Ray.
1988 Mr. Olympia – 13th Place•1990 Mr. Olympia – 3rd Place• 1991 Mr. Olympia – 5th Place• 1992 Mr. Olympia – 4th Place• 1993 Mr. Olympia – 3rd Place• 1994 Mr. Olympia – 2nd Place• 1995 Mr. Olympia – 4th Place• 1996 Mr. Olympia – 2nd Place• 1997 Mr. Olympia – 3rd Place• 1998 Mr. Olympia – 5th Place• 1999 Mr. Olympia – 5th Place• 2000 Mr. Olympia – 4th Place• 2001 Mr. Olympia – 4th Place
Titles and honors• 1983 California Gold Cup• 1984 Mr. Teenage Los Angeles (Short & Overall)• 1984 Teenage Mr. California• 1985 Teenage Mr. Orange County• 1985 Teenage National Championships• 1985 Jr. World Championships• 1986 Jr. National Championships 12thPlace Light heavy)• 1987 Mr. California (Light heavy & Overall)• 1987 National Championships (Light heavy & Overall)• 1990 Pro Ironman Champion• 1990 Arnold Classic Champion (lost title due to failing drug test)• 1991 Arnold Classic Champion
As admirable as the top pro bodybuilders are nowadays, it is a common observation that they have become so incredibly huge that some of them look as if they belong to a different species. This makes it difficult for most bodybuilders and the vast majority of the bodybuilding fan base to really relate to them.
Lack of more weight classes in pro bodybuilding also means lot of excellent amateur bodybuilders in the lighter weight divisions have no chance of competing in the pro ranks. Of course, there are other competition categories such as men’s physique and classic bodybuilding. But there are not truly BODYBUILDING events in the traditional sense.
One easy way of restoring the ability of smaller bodybuilders to compete against the giant super-heavyweights is, of course, creating another weight division to sit between the 212 class and unlimited. This would increase fan interest and the number of amateur bodybuilders deciding to turn pro. What do you think? What would you like to see? Evolution of the Weight Classes or business as usual and may the best man win regardless of height or weight.
Editor in Chief.
12x Olympia Top 5 Finalist, Pro Bodybuilding Hall of Fame Inductee, International Master of Ceremonies, NPC Contest Promoter, Motivational Speaker, Social Media Influencer, Fitness Journalist