One-on-One With Mr. Olympia Lee Haney

By: 
Garry Bartlett

The words “nice” or “gentlemanly conduct” aren’t commonly associated with the fi erce and competitive sport of professional bodybuilding. In spite of having no physical contact, there still is plenty of brutal flexing, aggressive shoving, and often a few choice unflattering words by these monsters of muscledom in the final minutes of a fi ercely contested Mr. Olympia posedown. Make no mistake: This kind of intensity is equal to any contact sport, at least in terms of mentality! So the question is, in an atmosphere where physical dominance and aggression is rewarded with success, is there any room for gentlemanly conduct? The answer to that question can be found in the career of legendary eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.

Before the reign of the massive Dorian Yates, the gargantuan Ronnie Coleman, and the indomitable Jay Cutler, there was the “TotaLee Awesome” Lee Haney. The name immediately brings up memories of past Mr. Olympias in which this popular star dominated the stage with his superb development and magnificent showmanship. He won an unprecedented eight consecutive Olympias from 1984 to 1991, breaking Arnold’s record of seven.

Big Lee’s success and inspiration to others didn’t stop once he left the Olympia podium; in fact, a very religious man, he continues his efforts to preach the health benefits of exercise and healthy spiritual living even to this day. Since his retirement in 1991, his focus has turned to educating others. Within the sports and fitness industry, Lee is revered among his peers for his comprehensive personal approach to exercise. His knowledge and counsel are much sought-after by professional athletes and coaches. It’s no coincidence that former legendary world boxing champ Evander Holyfield sought out Lee to run his training program before fighting in two heavyweight title defenses. Lee has also owned fitness centers in Georgia and South Carolina, which provide supervised weight training, aerobic, and strength conditioning equipment in addition to extensive nutritional counseling.

His quest to give back to the less fortunate climaxed in 1994, when he purchased a forty-acre farm near his home and created the Haney Harvest House non-profit retreat facility for children of all races, creeds, and nationalities.

“I wanted to give something back,” says Lee. “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 time now to give some of that back to this generation, then when will we?”

Considering all the accomplishments of Lee’s relatively short 50 years on earth, it came as no surprise to see him standing onstage at the 2006 Arnold Classic accepting the Arnold Schwarzenegger Lifetime Achievement Award from the legendary governor himself. In 2010, he was awarded the prestigious Ben Weider Lifetime Achievement Award. My association with Lee spans twenty-four years, in which I witnessed just about all of his Olympia wins. The guy is a true gentleman and one of the most liked and respected men to ever wear the Mr. Olympia crown.

I remember the first time I met Lee as if it were yesterday. It was at the 1982 IFBB World Bodybuilding Championships in Belgium. I was a young and impressionable bodybuilding photojournalist and had built up a bit of a reputation in the bodybuilding world. I had traveled to Belgium to cover the world championships for several bodybuilding publications. Standing in the hotel lobby discussing the current scene with industry colleagues, I noticed NPC President Jim Manion motioning to get my attention. “Garry, I got somebody I want you to meet! I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!”

I have to admit that Jim had piqued my curiosity. Even back then, Jim Manion wielded a lot of power. When he spoke, people listened! I followed him to a hotel room, and as we entered, I was immediately shocked to see this huge black man standing in the doorway! “Garry,” Jim said, “I want you to meet the first NPC National Champion and the next Mr. Universe, Lee Haney!”

The big man stuck out his huge hand with the customary greeting. Even then, big Lee’s pleasant personality and gentlemanly manner was accompanied by his famous ear-to-ear grin. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bartlett!” he exclaimed in his now-famous southern drawl. 

Manion was so taken with Lee’s exceptional development that he encouraged him to strike several poses for me. As the 5’11” 235-pound ebony giant hit one incredible pose after another, I knew at that moment that I was looking at bodybuilding greatness! From that initial contact, I sensed that Lee and I would become good friends.

Lee went on to win the heavyweight category at the ’82 World Championships and finished third at his first Olympia in 1983. He won his next Olympia in 1984 and was the undefeated champion until his retirement in 1991.

He set a new standard in physique competitions and dominated professional bodybuilding for the next eight years. Up until his win in ’84, only Arnold had surpassed the 200-pound mark as a Mr. Olympia winner. Most of the guys following Arnold weighed less than 200 pounds, and it seemed that the reign of the big guys was over and was destined to be replaced by smaller, more defined champions. The trend favored shape, balance, symmetry, and blinding definition, as evidenced by the highly muscular, 190-pound Frank Zane as well as Samir Bannout, Chris Dickerson, and Franco Columbu.

But all that was about to change, beginning in 1983 when the massive Haney stepped onstage at the Munich Olympia in Germany. Not only did he have shape, balance, symmetry, and muscularity, but he had something the previous guys didn’t have: huge mass. Lee was a hybrid, one of those rare few with the genetics that allowed him to pack on slabs of muscle without sacrificing shape or muscularity. In the past, most contenders had had shape and muscularity but not the size. Lee established a new breed of pro competitor, combining the best of everything into a package that remained unchallenged until his last Olympia defense in 1991, when a young monster from the UK by the name of Dorian Yates unleashed a serious challenge to his dominant reign. Sensing it was time to move on, Lee retired and devoted his energies to family and business.

I recently had the good fortune of sitting down with this bodybuilding legend to get an update on what has been going on in his life and his opinions on the current status of professional bodybuilding.

Garry: Lee, it’s a great honor and privilege for me to interview you for this article, as you’re one of my favorite Mr. Olympias. It has been more years than I want to acknowledge since I first met you back at the 1982 IFBB World Championships in Belgium. What was the last year you competed in the Mr. Olympia?

Lee: My last Olympia was in 1991.

Garry: In the many years since you last competed, what’s been going on with you?

Lee: Oh man, a lot of things. Number one, I spend a lot of time with my kids watching them grow up and hopefully guiding them into becoming successful and happy adults. My son, Josh, is 23 years old and was a very successful college athlete. He is now working with me and is my right-hand man in expanding the International Association of Fitness Sciences (IAFS). My daughter, Olympia, is now 20 and is a beautiful young lady. She reminds me a lot of
Lenda Murray and Cory Everson structurally, with a beautiful, sleek physique!

Garry: Obviously, she got your genetics!

Lee: Yeah, she got my genetics. She is 5’8” and weighs 130 pounds. She is a great athlete and excels in both basketball and track. She is well on her way. Both my kids are excellent students. Then of course I have Haney’s Harvest House, where I do a year-round mentoring program for boys. I have a wonderful group of men that make up the mentors of that particular program. It’s a non-profit organization operated on donations. Its goal is to see kids grow up and become productive members of society. More recently, one of my most exciting business ventures is my work developing the IAFS. I created an exercise and nutritional model that can be used to impact the health and fitness of men and women, young and old alike everywhere—a method that’s simple yet effective.

Garry: Sounds interesting. How does it work, and has there been a lot of interest?

Lee: I’m overwhelmed at how well it’s taking off and the interest generated. We offer online instructional education in certifying trainers in various applications of strength training, core training, cardio training, flexibility, and the understanding of basic nutrition for the average person. Of course, we offer an extensive program to those interested in obtaining an Ultimate Bodybuilding Certification for those serious about creating the best physique possible through various training systems, sports nutrition, and understanding body types and how they work. What excites me about our program and makes it different from others is that it’s the first certification program created by an actual Mr. Olympia. It’s based on real-life experiences, not just book learning. Applied knowledge takes you into a whole other world of learning and teaching. In fact, we’ve been so successful that because of my work creating the IAFS certification program, the Georgia State Senate recognized me with a proclamation for my ongoing contribution to health and fitness. We offered the program online while also requiring students to attend a hands-on training workshop. You can get a better idea and details as to what’s happening with our program by going to my website at www.iafscertification.com.

Garry: Are you now away from the supplement business?

Lee: No. As a matter of fact, I have a very successful line of very unique products. The name of my company is called Lee Haney’s Nutritional Support Systems. I spent a lot of time and effort researching the many formulas that my line of supplements offers! I think our selection is one of the finest out there, such as the Lee Haney Fitness Lifestyle Challenge Supplement Kit or Lee Haney’s Competitive Mass Series for Ultimate Bodybuilding. We offer a line of supplements for all walks of life. I could go on, but I don’t want this interview to sound like an advertisement for my products [www.leehaney.com]! I’ve also done a lot of public motivational speaking for different corporations. Also, one of the things I am most proud of, and get a lot of joy from, is ministering at churches.

Garry: I know that back in your competitive days your faith was a strong motivational factor in your success. Could one say that you are happy with your life and how things have turned out?

Lee: I’m very happy with my life. That’s something I try and share and pass on to others. You only live one time. Living according to the work of God does have a definite benefit!

Garry: How do you see that the sport of bodybuilding has changed since you were Mr. Olympia? Do you think the changes are for the better or worse?

Lee: I guess as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder! It’s up to the judges to decide what they want to see. I modeled my physique after Robby Robinson and of course Arnold. The look at that particular time was wide shoulders and a narrow waist. It’s something else now! You now see guys with a whole lot of muscle and so forth and with a lot more muscle than I thought I could ever carry, but it is as it is! I really admire all these guys, their physiques, success, and all the hard work. However, I judge the total industry by its growth and that determines just how successful it is and if it has in fact gotten better or is stagnant. I don’t see a pool of young athletes coming along. When I came along, there were lots of teenagers competing and we were proud of our accomplishments. Now we don’t see this anymore. So what’s that saying? Somewhere, we’re out of balance. The pool of young athletes coming up to maybe one day go into professional bodybuilding is very small. And it may be because they’re looking at odds that are nearly impossible to reach.

Garry: Lee what do you think of the look of the top physiques of today as opposed to the top physiques 15 to 20 years ago? Do you like the look they have where they keep getting bigger and bigger and don’t have that tight waist anymore?

Lee: I came upon the scene at a time when the guys had a 32” to 33” waist and nice broad shoulders and sweeping back. That’s what a physique is supposed to look like—at least during my era! Today, that’s not the case, and they aren’t very aesthetically pretty!

Garry: You’re close to six feet; how much did you weigh at your best Olympia?

Lee: I am 5’11½” and, at my best Olympia, weighed around 248 pounds with a 31½” waist. Today, it’s totally different. The guys are huge with big waists. A young athlete who one day wants to become a professional bodybuilder will ask how in the world it’s possible to get there, as they are so far away. I looked at Robby and said, “I think I can do that!” I won the Teenage America weighing 212 pounds. Then I looked at Arnold, who weighed around 236 to 240 pounds, and said, “That is possible.” It’s nearly impossible for some of the young guys looking at it now! Look at the statistics of the new bodybuilders. They are just not there. When I look at bodybuilding now and a young man walks up to me and asks, “Do you think I can do that? Do you think I have any potential to go there?” what do you say? How can I tell them how to do it? It’s a total other world; it’s nearly impossible. It’s nothing I want my son to do! In fact, what reward is there, as only six or seven guys are making a living at it?

Garry: Lee do you miss the stage and competing?

Lee: No, when I retired, I was ready to move on. I wanted to take my success and plant it into other areas, which are public speaking, working with young people, and most recently, developing the IAFS.

Garry: Speaking of health and fitness, do you think that back in the days when you were competing, you were more conscious of your health than they are today? You didn’t have to go to the extremes they do today, where you’re left with health problems down the road. You look to be in good health. How old are you now, and do you still train?

Lee: I didn’t have to resort to the extremes they do today to win, and fortunately, I got out with my health. I just turned the big 50 and still train. I still have a good workout, which consists of a combination of things, not just weight training but cardio conditioning also. For the Mr. Olympia, I also trained Evander Holyfield, Gary Sheffield, and Shannon Sharpe. So I actually sprinted with these guys. I did the various types of drills, cardio, and the whole nine yards. So bodybuilding is total shape—the shape of the total person, not just being 270 or 280 pounds and unable to walk up a flight of stairs. That’s not health. It’s meant to be health and fitness.

Garry: You were always well-coordinated onstage and conducted yourself like an athlete when you competed. Were you athletic in other sports?

Lee: Oh yes, in football. My dream was to become Jim Brown. I ended up getting injured in junior high school and again in my senior year. For the next event, I got bigger and larger, and that’s when I decided to get involved in bodybuilding competitions.

Garry: You had some good days. What are some of your most memorable events in your career?

Lee: The IFBB World Championships was very different. I didn’t win anything like money, you know. I was just standing there, a hero. Gunnar Rosbo was there and that big 6’6” giant from Germany, Ralf Moeller. That was very special to come from where I came from, a little boy from a little town standing onstage with these guys that you admired from seeing them in the magazines. Of course, my first Olympia was very special as well!

Garry: Did you find it difficult to prepare for your final Olympia? Was there any problem getting motivated for it?

Lee: The last show was in fact my easiest show to train for. Garry: Which Olympia do you think was the one that you were in your best shape for?

Lee: I was in great shape in 1985 in Belgium. I was in superb shape for the one in Sweden. Looking back, I think I was the tightest for the one in Sweden. Then I was in top shape for the one in California, I think it was ’87. It’s hard to keep the years straight, as they all seem to run together now!

Garry: Do you still watch your diet? Give me an example of what you eat in an average day?

Lee: Yes, I eat the same way as I did in my career. The positive
health consequences come from following a good diet. For breakfast, I have bran cereal with soy milk, walnuts, a banana, maybe two or three eggs. Then I go into the gym to train. Lunch would be baked salmon, salad, and maybe a small portion of pasta with that. My snack would be a protein shake. Then later in the evening would be steak or chicken with steamed vegetables.

Garry: Obviously, the discipline for dieting you learned in getting in contest condition carried over to your post-life habits. What’s your favorite junk food? What did you crave after winning a Mr. Olympia contest?

Lee: [big laugh] I love oatmeal cookies! I like ice cream but have to be careful with that one. I also like chips.

Garry: How long does your training routine last?

Lee: I usually train forty-five minutes to one hour. Usually circuit training, boom, boom, boom, and I’m out of there! I like training, the way it makes me feel. Of course, training keeps me in shape to perform my daily tasks with energy and enthusiasm. I’m having a great time, and I’m very fortunate for the sport of bodybuilding. Yes, we don’t have any type of pension plan; I wish we did like the NFL and other sports do, but we don’t, so I’ve tried to make the best of my accomplishments. I’m my own enterprise. I can sell health and fitness to the general public. I can’t sell NFL or baseball to the general public, but I can sell the sport of bodybuilding. Everybody wants to look good and be healthy, and if I market my success in the right way, I can provide myself with a good living. That’s my advice to all bodybuilders out there: Since we don’t have those other things to fall back on, market your success in the right way. Don’t waste time; be smart with your money!

Garry: A lot of guys think that because they win a show, opportunities are going to come along and knock on their door automatically, but you have to go out there and grab them?

Lee: Exactly, you have to get out there and grab them, and then use your intellect to find your niche!

Garry: When you look back, is there anything you regret not doing in your career as a Mr. Olympia? Do you think you missed out on anything? Is there something you might have changed if you had it to do over again?

Lee: You know what? You can look at it monetarily, or you can look at it from the aspect of what is the right thing to do. Monetarily, I could have stayed in California and been a much bigger financial success than I am today. But money isn’t everything! What was important to me was fulfilling my obligation as a father. I wanted to see my kids raised, I wanted to be there, and I wanted them to be in an environment which they knew their father loved them and was there to support them and to help and coach them. I also thought it was important for them to know who Grandpa and Grandma are. I don’t think I would have been happy in California and the bodybuilding scene there. It’s not true to reality. I’ve always been a realist. Thank God for the foundation I was given. I’ve been married now for over 28 years to the same beautiful lady that was my secondgrade sweetheart, and we share a wonderful life together. She’s my business partner, my friend, all of those things. I haven’t missed anything! I am without a doubt the richest man in the world. I really feel and know that from the bottom of my heart!

Garry: Lee, you’re one of the most admired Mr. Olympias that we’ve had. Dorian Yates came a long way and has done well. Another former top Olympia contender that comes to mind who’s a great guy and hard worker that achieved tremendous success in business is Lee Labrada. He didn’t beat you, but he was always nipping at your tail! That was the good thing about the sport 10 to 12 years ago. A 5’6” guy who weighed 185 pounds could take on a
240-pound guy and give him a good run. You don’t see that today.

Lee: Yes, they were given a chance, an opportunity, because that’s what a real professional physique is supposed to look like. Lee had perfect symmetry, shape, and balance. Look at Mohamed Makkawy and Frank Zane. Those were physiques! In those days, each guy brought something different, like Rich Gaspari, Lee Labrada, Frank Zane, and Mohamed Makkawy. They all had unique physiques, which made the competitions so exciting.

Garry: One of your strong points, other than your massive size, was your showmanship—your ability to pose and entertain an audience. Are you of the opinion that the current crop of competitors has lost the art of physique presentation?

Lee: I don’t see the same level of showmanship and commitment
to really give the audience what they deserve in terms of mastering their physiques to draw the audience’s emotions—to get them to say, “Wow, look at that! Look how he moves!” I came up in an era of seeing Frank Zane and Ed Corney. Arnold introduced me to his ballet coach. It was so important during that time. These guys now, I don’t know what they’re doing! They wave their hands, trying to get the audience to clap. It looks like you’re in a nightclub. I’m not saying that all of them are in that class. I do see some great routines from guys like Dexter Jackson, Dennis Wolf and Phil Heath, who pour their hearts into posing. Darrem Charles is another guy who’s a fantastic poser. I also get a great kick out of watching Kai Greene pose. They take their time and put on a great show. In fact, they also have the best-looking physiques, close to the era that I came from. Those are the physiques that can display that kind of poise and stage presence. You have some physiques
now that just try and intimidate you with their size and mass.

Garry: What is your opinion on women’s bodybuilding today?

Lee: Since the days of Oscar State, it’s been confusing. There’s never been a clear direction as to where women’s bodybuilding should go. Carla Dunlap, Cory Everson, even Lenda Murray all had beautiful physiques. Lenda was, I guess, the epitome, and I don’t think it should have gone beyond that, and when it did, the sport died! Now what’s the public saying that they want to see? They want to see the Ms. Figure, Bikini, and Ms. Fitness. The new resurgence of interest is in those particular areas, not in professional female bodybuilding.

Garry: If you had control to change things in professional bodybuilding, what would you do?

Lee: There would have to be a coming together of the minds. Where do we want to go? What do we want the general public to see? What the general public is seeing now, is it helping or destroying our sport? Obviously it’s destroying it, because we don’t have a pool of young athletes coming up. You have very few teenage competitions taking place. If you don’t have a pool to feed from, all of a sudden you have no base to feed your bigger shows. That’s one area that has to be looked at. There has to be some sort of criteria established if we are to save the sport.

Garry: Lee, I know you’re a busy man, and I want to thank
you for this opportunity to share your information and
opinions with MUSCLE INSIDER. It’s much appreciated!

To find out more about Lee, go to his website: www.leehaney.com