By Mario Strong

In 1996, I got the urge to once again promote bodybuilding shows on Staten Island. Years earlier, I had walked away from my role as a bodybuilding promoter because of the anabolic drug scene and the politics within the sport. Now, I eagerly wanted to return to promoting, but without the drugs and politics. I contacted my friend Andy Bostinto. Andy was the president of the National Gym Association (NGA), an organization dedicated to natural athletes throughout America. I met Andy in 1979 when he first formed the NGA, and I knew he was an honorable man who was committed to his cause. After meeting with Andy and his wife Francine, it was decided that I would promote the first natural bodybuilding and women’s fitness competition ever held on Staten Island. The show was called the Eastern Regional Classic. I hired Gregory Baker, a well-known artist, who under my direction, created a dramatic drawing of a Herculean muscle builder soaring through the galaxies on a comet with a fitness woman riding its dusty tail. The drawing became the show’s logo and was printed on posters, fliers, and magazine ads. The logo was also used on the official Eastern Regional Classic t-shirts, which was complimentary to all the competitors and sold to the audience.

The tone was set and the premiere event would be held at the College of Staten Island’s Center for the Arts. The auditorium was a professional theater used for plays and musicals. The sound system was state-of-the-art and the lighting was excellent for physique competitions. Both the audience and competitors were in for a exciting evening.

My brother, Domenic, also joined me in promoting this historic event and was responsible for getting sponsors for the show. Sponsorship was important for the NGA Eastern Regional Classic as the cost of producing such a competition at the time exceeded $12,000 per event. Domenic was the manager of Cornucopia Health Foods, which was located at the former World Trade Center. He was well-liked by the supplement companies he did business with and was able to get more than twenty sponsors to help cover the cost of running such a big show. The premiere of the NGA Eastern Regional Classic was a huge success. During the opening ceremonies, I gave the following speech to the sold-out crowd:

“I would like to thank all of you for coming here tonight in support of natural bodybuilding and women’s fitness. Tonight’s event is more than just another competition. It is an historic moment in time! Tonight, in this auditorium, a milestone will be crossed and a new era in the art of physical culture on Staten Island will begin. A long time ago, in September of 1976, I opened the door to the Staten Island Bodybuilding Club, which at the time was Richmond County’s first bodybuilding gym. Back then, the bodybuilding lifestyle was not only about muscle and power, it also meant striving for excellence in fitness, health, and longevity. Even though we were, no one was ever called a natural bodybuilder; it was just assumed. Physique competitions on this Island use to be standing-room-only events, with loads of competitors and an atmosphere of camaraderie among the lords of Muscledom. That is the way it use to be! Since the early 1990s, sports enhancing substances have become a staple among this Island’s muscle builders. These illicit pharmaceuticals are constantly being supplied by some very enterprising individuals throughout the many gym locker rooms on Staten Island. Today, the world of bodybuilding has become nothing more than a sick lie. It is a game of chemical warfare that has put a dark cloud over every physique stage it has ever touched. Modern anabolic bodybuilders have forced the hand of true physical culturists to evolve and create competitions such as this where competitors can compete on a level playing field. If there is one thing you can be sure of, it is that drugs, lies, and deceit will have no place on a stage that carries the name of Strong. Nature has given us the gift of life and tonight we as physical culturists celebrate this gift in our own special way. Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present to you the 1st annual NGA Eastern Regional Natural Bodybuilding and Women’s Fitness Classic. Enjoy the Show."

As I finished the speech, the crowd erupted into a loud sustained applause, not only for me, but also for all the competitors who sacrificed to compete that historic night. As the theme from Rocky blasted off the walls, the excitement in the room rose – history was in the making. In all, we had seventy-two competitors and several star attractions to help promote natural bodybuilding on my home turf. WNBF World Bodybuilding Champions Eddie “The Rock” Hernandez, and Kathy Unger guest posed to standing-room-only applause and the WNBF Fitness Team performed so flawlessly that the crowd demanded an encore. The anti-steroid tide was rising all across America and now its surge was splashing onto the shores of Staten Island. The show was a huge success; the Staten Island audience and media outlets loved it. All the competitors were winners that evening. Each and everyone performed with pride in knowing that they were healthy and natural. It could not get any better than that!