PATH TO VICTORY

 

 

I was a bodybuilder. I trained religiously, followed a natural diet, practiced my posing, and looked like a real he-man. I also admired the bodybuilding champs and it was my dream to compete on the physique stage one day. In May 1976, I attended Dan Lurie’s WBBG Mr. Staten Island Competition and witnessed a future member of my club easily win the show. His name was Russell Cunningham. Russell was a rough sort of character, with thickly proportioned muscle who was as strong as he looked. I remember watching him pose and vowing to myself that, I too, would one day win the coveted championship. Over the next several months, I became relentless in my training and on Valentine’s Day of 1977, I made the decision to really Go For It. In preparation for the upcoming show in May, I increased the intensity of my training and began to workout more frequently. Since I owned my own bodybuilding gym and spent most of my day there, I had plenty of time to bomb and blitz. I designed a regimen where I would workout three times a day, seven days a week, working each body part every other day. It was over-training, but I was so determined that I worked past the pain and fatigue. And train I did, pushing the cold steel several times a day, sometimes with partners, sometimes alone, but nevertheless, pumping the iron without pause. As the months went by, I gradually reduced my calorie, fat, and carbohydrate intake to bring out my muscular striations. Whenever possible, my good friend Jerry Valente, who was also a member of my club, would bring a posing dais to my gym to help me with the art of muscle display. Jerry was no stranger to the competitive stage. During his prime, he trained with Lou Ferrigno and competed against some of the biggest names in the sport. I was glad to have his help.

On Saturday, May 28, 1977, after fourteen weeks of competitive training, it all came together for the show. Dan Lurie was a major physique promoter in the 1970s. He also published several magazines including Muscle Training Illustrated. The Mr. Staten Island competition, as well as the other four borough shows, was being held with the Mr. New York City and Eastern America championships, in one big World Body Building Guild (WBBG) production at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan. One of the qualifications for registering to compete in a borough competition was that the athlete actually had to reside in that borough. During the morning registration process, I, along with other Staten Island bodybuilders planning to compete, saw several faces that were unfamiliar to us. These guys were not from our hometown but were registering for the Staten Island competition. They were able to do so by falsely providing the addresses of family members that lived on the Island as their own which the person in charge of the registration process had no way of verifying. Instead of challenging the process, we just looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, not realizing we’d be competing with even more people than we originally thought.

The Staten Island prejudging was the first event held that day. One by one, the athletes walked on stage and flexed their stuff for the judges. The comparison rounds were tough since we posed on demand and squeezed our fibrous muscles into sinew. Fifteen competitors vied for top honors in the Staten Island competition and the results wouldn’t be known until the evening show. Back in 1977, there were no class divisions in local physique competitions. Everyone was grouped together in one division and competed against each other. For me that meant having to flex against all fifteen bodybuilders to see who would be that year’s top gun.

Standing on a physique stage in front of an audience of a thousand or more cheering people and wearing nothing more than your posing suit can be somewhat intimidating, even for the most seasoned bodybuilder. This was my first competition and as I stood there onstage in the prejudging lineup, I felt butterflies racing through my stomach as I saw both the judges as well as the audience analyzing my physique. Bodybuilding is such as subjective sport, that the ability to deliver a winning look requires not only a well-developed physique, but also a positive attitude that transcends to the judges’ scorecard. After the initial butterflies subsided, my ego awakened and I got the crowd into an uproar by jumping in front of the other competitors to hit a few ‘most muscular’ poses. This electrified the other competitors and before we knew it, we were having a pose-down before the scoring even began. As the competition heated up that morning, I became more confident onstage as the audience reacted favorably to my physique and as the judges continued to call out my number for comparisons. After twenty minutes of battling with the other competitors, the judging had been completed for the title of Mr. Staten Island. The scores were tallied and the results would not be revealed until the evening event.

After the prejudging, I joined a group of fellow competitors and took a walk to a nearby park to relax and let the time stroll by. It was a hot sunny day and temperatures were well into the 90s. While hanging out in the park, we received a lot of strange looks and stares from the local patrons. Who could blame them? There we were, this group of well-tanned muscular he-men, whose skin was paper-thin and whose veins were gorged with blood. We definitely stood out amongst the everyday folk and enjoyed the attention as we anticipated what was to come at the evening show.

When we returned to the school later that afternoon, a crowd had gathered to see the competitions. Friends, family members, and fans had come to cheer on their favorite bodybuilders. It was a large crowd, which meant the evening event would witness another WBBG standing-room-only production. As the crowd stood around mingling, a large chartered bus pulled up in front of the school with an enthusiast group carrying pom-poms and cheering loudly. They were from Staten Island and had come to the show to cheer for me as well as support the other Staten Islander bodybuilders. At 6 PM, the doors to the high school finally opened and the crowd of more than two thousand took to their seats as the competitors went backstage in preparation of the upcoming competitions. Dan Lurie had a live band at the show to entertain the audience as well as perform for every bodybuilder that flexed their stuff that evening. After the Star Spangled Banner was sung and opening remarks were given, the bodybuilders from Staten Island eagerly walked onto the stage. One by one, they posed, receiving applause and cheers from the enthusiastic crowd.

I was the 8th competitor to walk onstage that night. When the MC announced my name, the band began to play my selected song, which was The Impossible Dream. As I stepped onto the posing dais, a massive ear-shattering roar filled the auditorium. Without pause, I began to pose, slowly transitioning my body from one angle into another. There I was onstage, flexing my muscular physique to the crowd’s delight. I had trained and dieted to the max for several months in anticipation of this moment and I absorbed every cheer and applause that came my way. As cameras flashed away like charges of lightning hitting my body, the thunderous roar of the crowd became louder and more deafening with every oil-filled pose I gave.

The Staten Island fans had been previously orchestrated by me to give it their all, and give it they did; swaying pom-poms in the air and cheering my name loudly as they produced such a ear-shattering scene that the NYPD officers posted outside the school ran into the building to see what was happening. Backstage, fellow competitors from all the upcoming competitions flooded the sides of the stage to see what was causing the commotion. It was a crazed scene that had produced the effect I wanted, and would later be written about in the physique publications. Decades later, I still smile when I think about it.

After all the Staten Island competitors finished their individual posing routines, the top five athletes were asked to step forward from the group to receive their awards. I was in that group and gave a double-biceps pose when my number was called. The other four competitors jumped in to match me and soon we were posing down with every ounce of strength and sweat left in our bodies. The screaming audience, whose frenzy electrified everyone onstage to give it their all, continued with their chorus of cheers as the band played to its chant. As the MC pleaded for silence, the top five competitors began to receive their placing. After the fifth and fourth place finalists received their trophies, it became apparent to everyone in the audience that I was going to win the show. The other two competitors, while well proportioned, did not have the same mass, symmetry, and quality muscle as my physique displayed. As the deafening roar of the crowd hit a high-decibel level, I stepped onto the winner’s portion of the trophy platform and posed my heart away. In my mind, I had already won the show and I began to congratulate myself on the victory. Then third place was announced and I said to myself, “Something’s wrong.” The guy deserved second, not third, and the audience showed its displeasure at the placing with angry boos.

As I stood there in disbelief, I told him that he was robbed and then without notice I heard my name announced as the second place finisher. I felt like a ton of bricks had just hit me. It was bad enough that the remaining competitor did not even reside on Staten Island, as the rules stated was essential to be allowed to compete in the borough’s competition, but to add insult to injury, this guy was not even close to the condition that the third place finisher or I were in. I, along with the other previous place finishers wondered what was happening. However, I had my chance earlier in the day to file a grievance about where some of the guys’ really resided, but didn’t do anything. I waved to the crowd, accepted the trophy from the renowned bodybuilding author Leo Murdock, and left the stage. This did not sit well with the Staten Island fans that were in the audience. They stood up, stamped their feet, and began shouting fowl towards the judges as the rest of the crowd joined in to demonstrate their dissatisfaction towards those responsible for this debacle. As it turned out, I should have given more attention to what was going on around me and not have been naive as to the games in bodybuilding. After all, the 1977 Mr. Staten Island competition had at least six competitors in it that were not from the Island, and I, along with the other local muscle builders, should have demanded that this wrong be righted before the show began. Nevertheless, the damage was done, so I accepted the outcome and went backstage with the rest of the competitors to plan for the next year’s competition.

While sitting in a dressing room backstage, I listened as the word spread among the other competitors as to the incident that had occurred. Suddenly, several bodybuilders that were scheduled to compete in the other four borough competitions began to express their concerns to whether they had gotten a fair deal on that day. As this was occurring, my father, who was in the audience, also learned that the first place victor didn’t reside on Staten Island and began to petition the judges to award the first place trophy to the real winner. As the show continued, the capacity crowd watched my father argue his point with the judges. Gradually, the audience once again joined in the argument and rose to its feet, while insisting upon the judges to correct what was wronged. It had been nearly twelve years since my father introduced me to the world of bodybuilding and he was not about to watch me be denied the title I trained so hard for. As the clock ticked, the incident slowly transcended into scandalous overtones as the audience demanded that the real winner be awarded the title.


Mario Strong backstage at the 1977 WBBG Mr. Staten Island competition

Finally, Dan Lurie, who had been busy elsewhere and oblivious to what had happened, entered into the chaos. After learning about the incident, Dan located the previously announced Staten Island victor and took the first place trophy from him. As my father continued to express his displeasure towards the judges and as the audience shouted for justice, Dan Lurie walked into the auditorium and handed my dad the first place trophy. Then Dan led my father backstage to wait behind a curtain.

While still backstage, I had no knowledge of what had occurred between the judges, my father, or Dan Lurie. Other than hearing the near riot pandemonium of the crowd that continued to shout for justice, I was blind to what was about to happen. Without warning, Dan Lurie came into the dressing room, grabbed my right arm, and told me to go with him. As he brought me onto center stage, he directed me to step onto the winner’s platform and hit a few poses. A few minutes earlier, I had been on this same spot, but now, the outcome was going to be much different. As I stepped onto the platform, I listened and watched as the crowd went into a thunderous cheer of approval. Dan then called my father from behind the curtain to present me with the overall Mr. Staten Island trophy. As my father joined me on the winner’s platform, I felt a sense of accomplishment as he raised my right arm and the trophy in a victory salute. Then, for the first time at a bodybuilding show anywhere in the USA, the newly-released theme song Gonna Fly Now was played by the live band to help celebrate the occasion. It was an historic moment in my life and I was ecstatic to hear the trumpets play, while I flexed for the cheering crowd and watched as dozens of flashing cameras electrified the stage to capture my somewhat tarnished but much deserved victory.

I was shocked, relieved, and thankful at the outcome of events as they unfolded and was especially grateful that I was going to be able to take the Mr. Staten Island trophy home to my gym where it rightfully belonged. The media coverage of my winning the Staten Island title would compare it to a scene right out of the movie Pumping Iron, where Lou Ferrigno’s father was shown to be constantly by his son’s side, guiding him on to victory. Like big Louie’s father, if it was not for my father’s guidance early in my bodybuilding career, and for his efforts that evening, I would have never reached the winner’s platform on that historic day. Now, after all the sweat and pain, my father was there onstage with me to share in something he began a long, long time ago, and I couldn’t have been happier for him.

In a way, all the craziness of the evening made for great entertainment and would become folklore among the many legendary stories of the Staten Island bodybuilding community. The one good thing that came out of all the madness that night was that bodybuilders competing in future Mr. Staten Island shows would be guaranteed that every competitor registered would be personally screened by me to make sure they lived on the Island. In the weeks and months to come, I found myself to be a local celebrity of sorts. The local media featured my victory in its newspapers, and soon strangers came to my gym to meet with me and perhaps get an autograph for their kids. Winning the title meant a lot in 1977. Back then, being Mr. Staten Island was an honor that was respected by not only the local muscle builders but the public as well. On Staten Island, it was like being the heavyweight-boxing champion of the world. Wherever I went, whether it was shopping at the mall or getting a haircut at the local barber, the subject of my victory and what it took to get there became the topic of the day. I even experienced my own club’s members seeking my advice more readily, as bringing home the title to the gym made them not only feel proud of their club, but also made them believe in my bodybuilding concepts even more. It was my first competition, my first win, and my first award to be placed in my gym’s trophy case. I had won the title fairly and now it was time to build on this victory.



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