The Man Who Transformed Bodybuilding & Fitness

There are lots of legends. Joe Weider was one of a kind.
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DEVASTATION

The war between AAU head honcho Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider raged—sometimes via lawsuits, but mostly in the pages of their respective magazines. Hoffman’s relentless rants against Joe were often personal and anti-Semitic, and his Strength and Health ridiculed the same small-waist, broad-shoulder archetype that Muscle Power and Muscle Builder championed. This was to the muscle magazines’ benefit because more people wanted to look like sculptured bodybuilder Steve Reeves than rotund weightlifter Paul Anderson. Meanwhile, the Weider brothers continued to grow the IFBB—which focused only on physiques, unlike Hoffman’s AAU—and that in turn inspired top bodybuilders to appear only in Weider magazines.

Joe eventually won the war with Hoffman, but another industry force devastated his business. In 1958, American News was taken over by financiers who promptly sold the company’s warehouses located in prime urban locations. Overnight, the country’s largest magazine distributor was liquidated. Weider Publications was printing over two million issues per month when those numbers plummeted to zero. The sudden inability to publish while debts mounted nearly forced the company into bankruptcy. Instead, Joe folded every publication except Muscle Builder and Mr. America. (The latter had just replaced Muscle Power and covered bodybuilding as well as men’s lifestyle issues.)

“I’ll never know the exact total of my losses, which went into the millions,” Joe stated. “I had to quit publishing all the magazines I had added with encouragement from American News. But I would not give up my muscle magazines, not as long as I lived and breathed. Somehow I managed to keep those magazines alive.” Rather than declare bankdruptcy, he made settlements with entities he owed.

One great thing did happen for him in 1958—his daughter Lynda was born. The following year, he separated from his wife of 12 years. At the dawn of the ‘60s, Joe had rescued his business and refocused it on his first love—bodybuilding. Another enduring love story had just begun.

RENAISSANCE

The former Betty Brosmer, one of the top models of the late ‘50s, recalls that she and Joe shared a love of philosophy, antiques, and art. At first, there was only a business relationship—she modeled for his magazines. But a friendship formed. “We had a lot in common. And one night we had dinner, and he reached across the table and held my hand and sparks flew,” Betty Weider remembered. Their romance blossomed and grew. Divorces were difficult to attain then, so Joe moved to Las Vegas temporarily to legally terminate his first marriage. There, on April 24, 1961, Joe and Betty wed. (The gambling capital retained a special place in their hearts, and they later purchased a luxury condominium there.)

Rebuilding his business after the distribution disaster, Joe introduced new equipment and nutritional supplements, and he refocused on improving his two muscle magazines. (A third magazine, All-American Athlete, dedicated to sports training, launched in August 1963 and lasted until October 1969.) “With staffing cut back, I was like a publishing one-man band, doing practically everything cover to cover,” he recalled. “I wrote and designed all the ads and wrote a lot of the articles under various bylines. Sometimes I posed for pictures, too. I put Betty’s pictures everywhere—sometimes with dark-colored wigs and disguises so the readers wouldn’t know she was the same model they just saw a few pages back.”

OLYMPIA

As a Jewish immigrant, Joe Weider knew the sting of bigotry and thus was determined to fight it. One of his most comendable legacies was the groundbreaking colorblind treatment of non-white athletes on the stages of the IFBB and the pages of Weider magazines. This is most evident in the contest placings of African-American Harold Poole, who, despite having the superior physique, was second twice in the AAU Mr. America (no black man won that contest until 1970) before jumping to the IFBB and promptly winning its 1963 Mr. Universe. The following year, he won the IFBB Mr. America.

Poole defeated Larry Scott in the 1963 Mr. U. Absent Poole, Scott took the title in 1964. This raised an obvious question–-which Mr. Universe winner was better? Whatever the federation, the Mr. U was then the ultimate title, and once a bodybuilder attained it he had little reason to continue competing. When 26-year-old Scott dined with Joe and Betty, he lamented his inevitabile early retirement, and Betty began talking about a long-gestating idea for a new professional championship open to all major title holders. “Larry got excited about Betty’s idea, and I knew the time had come,” Joe remembered. “For the likes of him and the future of bodybuilding, there would be a new champion’s championship.”

As fate would have it, Joe was drinking a rare beer at that dinner, and his eyes settled on the Olympia beer bottle. That’s it! Heroic, mythic, celestialMr. Olympia. That moment was a turning point from the confusing titles and scant rewards of the past to the prestige and paydays of the future. Sixteen months before Super Bowl I, on September 18, 1965 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Larry Scott won the innaugural Mr. Olympia. Poole was second. The modern era of bodybuilding began.

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