Talking with bodybuilding champion Chris Dickerson, one feels they are taking a step back in time to a place where the personalities were as distinguishable as the physiques themselves. Having competed in four distinct eras (the 1960's, 1970's, 1980's and 1990's), in a career that spans over three decades, Chris has seen and done it all.
He achieved his numerous bodybuilding titles over a period where bodybuilders were more likely to be placed on the individual merits of their physiques, rather than the prevailing trends of the day. Today he talks with great fondness of the days, or should we say decades, he was at the top of the ladder.
One of few men to capture bodybuilding's greatest prize, the Mr. Olympia, Chris, who is also an IFBB, WBBG, and NABBA Hall of Fame inductee, was, in the eyes of many, a man many years ahead of his time.
With an ideal combination of size, balance, conditioning and onstage artistic display (posing would be too narrow a definition when describing Chris's theatrical abilities), Chris was able to do what few men of his day could: present a near-perfect bodybuilding package. And he was awarded accordingly.
Beginning his career in 1966, after a meeting with the legendary Bill Pearl in 1963, Chris won the A.A.U Mr. Atlantic Coast, thereby establishing himself as a man with promise. He would go on to win the A.A.U Mr. America in 1970 before dominating the NABBA (National Amateur Bodybuilding Association) ranks with Mr. Universe wins in 1970, 1971, 1973, and a Pro Universe win in 1974.
In 1979 Chris began his IFBB career in grand style with a win at the Canada Pro Cup. In addition to his many IFBB Grand Prix victories (over 1980 and 1981), Chris, over the same period, placed second in the biggest contest of them all, the Mr. Olympia, before finally winning it in 1982 as the most senior man ever to do so (he was 43).
Many have argued that Chris should have three Mr. Olympia titles, as his '80 and '81 losses (where he placed second on both occasions) were highly controversial and remain the most debated of all time. To top off his competitive bodybuilding rein, Chris donned the trunks once again in 1994 to win the IFBB Masters over-50 Mr. Olympia title. Since then he has kept in fine condition and today, at age 67, still hits the gym regularly.
It could be said that Chris is a true bodybuilding pioneer. After all, he made history by becoming the first African American man to (in 1970) win the A.A.U. Mr America. He has also broken a few records. In 1973 he won the WBBG (World Bodybuilding Guild) Pro Mr. America after winning the NABBA Mr. Universe and before taking the Mr. Olympia.
This makes him the only man to win major titles in all four federations including the A.A.U. Winning the Mr. Olympia at age 43 can also be added to his list of unique accomplishments. I spoke with Chris recently and he gave me a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of bodybuilding's greatest.
[ Q ] How are things with you Chris?
Everything is fine, except my mother died recently. She passed on the 19th of February. So I am just getting over that and learning to accept things as they unravel so to speak. But that is the hardest thing that has hit me of late.
[ Q ] What kind of impact did your mother have on you as an athlete and as a person?
Well the person came first. Growing up with her example proved to be a good learning experience for me. She was quite influential because she was always very disciplined. She was a loving parent, but also she believed in education and acquiring this and accepting nothing but the best from yourself if you had a dream. And my dream changed, as I got older.
As a youngster I wanted to be an actor. Back then African Americans had very little opportunity to become actors. So I did study acting with a view to becoming an actor, but then discovered bodybuilding and nothing could stop me from doing that.
It was an individual effort and it was up to me to do what was necessary. So it had that appeal and I changed my dream. And, as you can see, I did okay in pursuing that. So my mother influenced me to pursue whatever dreams I had.
[ Q ] In a sense you were able to demonstrate your acting skills on the bodybuilding stage through your stage presence and posing ability.
Yes that is true. I studied as an actor in New York in my early years as a teenager after school. During those years I also took up dance with ballet training and all of that good stuff - body movement. I was a pretty good gymnast also and brought all of that with me (to the bodybuilding stage).
[ Q ] And your ability to present yourself was part of your appeal as a bodybuilder as shown in your posing routines. As a bodybuilder many, myself included, consider you to be one of the best, if not the best bodybuilder of the early 80's. Would you agree with this sentiment?
I love the compliment. I think I did a very good job putting all of the elements together, with, of course, the help of my coach and mentor, Bill Pearl. I was very, very lucky from the start, having him watch me lift my first weights. And he would say I was his best student because I did not know anything, I did not have to unlearn bad habits and, of course, I was smart enough to listen to what he said.
So the combination of Bill Pearl as a guiding light and my background in dance and gymnastics all came together. And I worked diligently at the posing. I loved music anyway. But I like the compliment and would like to think that maybe I was (the best bodybuilder of the early 80's) but I can't say it (laughs). When others say it I love hearing it of course.
[ Q ] Okay, you were the best bodybuilder of the early 80's, period. Did you have any involvement in bodybuilding before Bill Pearl or was he the beginning for you?
He was the beginning. I looked from a distance and always admired it, but never got into it because it was nothing to do with my life then. I was kind of a nerd, almost, although I was athletic and I had the genetics. But I was not the jock, yet. And so I figured I was going to do this (bodybuilding).
I had gone to college and I thought this is what I want as a career. But what triggered it was a Weider magazine, believe it or not, that carried an article on Bill Pearl opening his new health club on Manchester Boulevard in Englewood, a section of Los Angles.
In the magazine they gave the address. Well that is all I needed. And I went there and I still remember the address, 1943 West-Manchester Boulevard. And I marched myself in there, and the rest is history.
[ Q ] And once you started training with weights there was no turning back for you.
[ Q ] Given your 30 year career in bodybuilding, what would be the defining moment for you? At which point did you know you really were a top tier guy competing among the worlds best?
Winning the Mr. Olympia. Not only is it the highest title, both then and now, but also after two disappointments, to finally win it was great. That would have to be the pinnacle of my bodybuilding career. The other one, a close second, would have to be being the first African American to win the A.A.U Mr. America.
[ Q ] Both of these events are big stories in themselves, but the 80 and 81 Olympia losses stick in the minds of many as being two of the more controversial moments in bodybuilding history. How did you feel about losing on these occasions when Arnold in 1980 and Franco in 1981 were clearly not at their best?
Well I accepted Arnold's victory fine. I was so delighted being second because the previous year I had been sixth. From sixth to 2nd was a pretty good jump. With Arnold of course being such a legend, I was happy to place second to Mr. Schwarzenegger (laughs).
Those who were angrier were those behind me. No names should be mentioned, but there were people in fourth and fifth and sixth that were furious. But I had to say if it were not for Arnold I would be Mr. Olympia and I am coming back next year.
[ Q ] I suppose that is the only way you could look at it at the time.
At the time my disappointment and anger was with Franco winning in 1981. That I did not like. I figured they were trying to tell me something and I did not like it at all. I was almost on the point of giving up when a wonderful man, Canadian official, Winston Roberts, called me one day and said, "Chris, if you don't come back you are just going to make it easy for all the others, they won't have to deal with you."
When I see Mr. Roberts at these events occasionally, I tell him I still have his trophy if he still wants it and we both laugh. I really owe him the trophy, in a sense, because I was going to give up.
[ Q ] So you were definitely considering giving up the sport at that point.
I thought if they were not going to let me win, what is the point. But I will never forget that conversation with Mr. Roberts.
[ Q ] Going into the 1982 Mr. Olympia, would it be fair to say you were the favourite given Franco and Arnold were out?
[ Q ] This being the case, just how confident were you? Did you feel the weight of expectation?
I felt confident. It was kind of a do-or-die thing. Bill Pearl travelled with me and he was there in the audience in the front row and I remember lifting up the trophy and making the victory sign and looking down and there he was, all smiles. He was just as delighted as I was, so that was a wonderful moment.
I think I would have wanted any place, but London has always been a very good city for me. The London audience and the people really look for perfection and not just size. We are becoming more of a size audience and the fans go crazy over the biggest guys. But aesthetics play a big part and always have in England. I am not saying it may not have happened in another place, but it did happen there.
[ Q ] Did you train for your Olympia win specifically with a view to improving aesthetically?
I am an aesthetic body. My body does what it does and if I train in the same manner as two other people or ten other people, my body would develop the way it does regardless. And I always say this at my seminars.
You can stimulate the muscles and you separate them, isolate them and put them together and work them in all sorts of directions and angles and positions, but they are going to come out the way the are going to come out. The secret, of course, is to include variety in your training, but your body is programmed for a certain look.
For example, if I were to do a bicep curl and two other people were to do a bicep curl, our arms are going to come out looking unique according to our genetics, not exactly the same.
[ Q ] Would it be fair to say that you were in between in terms of both size and aesthetics. On the one hand we had Frank Zane, a smaller type, and on the other, Mike Mentzer, who was much larger. You came along and brought to the stage size and good proportion, the combined qualities of both these men, if you will.
It is so funny you should use this example David because I have always considered myself halfway between Frank Zane and Mike Mentzer.
[ Q ] So you have the best of both worlds: the ideal shape and the size to go with it.
Exactly. With the Olympia win it was all the more meaningful because it was by a large margin Dave. I mean the second place was way down. That pleased me too.
[ Q ] Better to win convincingly then to just scrape through. I understand you were on the cover of the very first Flex magazine doing your famous victory sign after you won the 1982 Olympia.
Yes, the shot was captured at that very special moment. I got the Sandow statue later. Initially they presented me with a beautiful trophy, but the Sandow came later.
[ Q ] Do you consider the process of becoming an Olympian as important as the victory itself?
Yes. The discipline part of becoming a top bodybuilder is enjoyable and it is one aspect I miss. The adoration is good also, of course, but the thing that I miss most is the day-in-day-out regimen. I have had a knee replacement and a hip replacement and I am doing what I can do at the gym at the tender age of 67. But it is not the same.
I cannot push those weights the way I used to (laughs). So I miss that whole thing. As most athletes will tell you, it is the preparation that is the main event. Especially in bodybuilding: when you are standing there, you are showing your results. The sport of it is actually in the gym.
[ Q ] Many struggle to reconcile bodybuilding as a sport. They look at the physiques onstage and figure it is more of a performing art, more of a spectacle. But it is very physically demanding and fits every criteria of what a sport should be.
That is right. And it is probably the most demanding sport, with the possible exception of dance. I think ballet dancers are even more regimented than bodybuilders, but we are right up there because we have to have it all together. And it is a sport.
Anytime you are competing, and bodybuilding is a physical competition, you are engaging in sport. But the sport process, or indulgence, actually happens in the gym. What the audience sees is more of a pageant. That might confuse people.
[ Q ] You mentioned a moment ago that you are still training. Describe your current program.
It is not as intense and there is more attention given to aerobics in the beginning. I get myself on the bike and I get that knee going that I had replaced and I get the hip going - that rotary action is wonderful for both.
I am also watching the diet, possibly not closely enough, but I do pay a lot of attention to avoiding salt and things that might lead to hardening of the arteries and other age-related problems. So I am working more internally than I ever was.
I would like a nice-shaped biceps or pectorals and all of that, but these now come last. Whatever I have left will be placed on those body areas. But the initial effort and the main event is the aerobic benefit that I am after.
[ Q ] So you are aiming more for health and if you get some development that is a nice little by-product.
That is right. And how long can you continue taking your shirt off? (Laughs)
[ Q ] At what age were you when you stopped competing in bodybuilding?
I stopped competing at age 55 but I still do bodybuilding. I just had three major interruptions - surgeries. Now I live in Florida and the heat is wonderful for my joints. So I did not really stop bodybuilding. I was just interrupted.
Bodybuilding is something you tend to continue to do. Ed Corney does it, Frank Zane continues as does Danny Padilla and my good friend Anibal Lopez. We don't stop, but you realise that you cannot do it to the extent that you did earlier. You would be foolish to try that; you would kill yourself.
[ Q ] It is obviously in your blood, as you came back to compete in the 1994 IFBB Masters Mr. Olympia.
That is right, and I won the over-50 category and came fourth overall. I would have liked to win the first Masters Mr. Olympia, but it was not meant to be.
[ Q ] How did it feel to come back after all those years to compete on the Olympia stage once again?
I did have some aches and pains, but I worked through them. The preparation took longer. It was harder. The lunges and the stretching movements were put in my routine, but it was harder to get down there. I knew in the back of my mind that this would be my swansong, so to speak. But I did it and I worked myself through it, but it started to get painful.
[ Q ] I understand you have a singing background.
Right, I love singing. I was too late to have had a professional career, but I have sung. I would open the Mr. Olympia with the National Anthem for years when Wayne Demilia ran it. I have sung before the public many times, and have sung some scenes from Richard Wagner's music. It is an operatic voice, a heavy, dramatic, tenor voice.
[ Q ] Did you ever want to pursue singing further?
Yes, but I am getting to the age where getting hired is a bit of a problem (laughs). But the voice is fresh and I have the energy. I practice all the time. It is a wonderful outlet for me and it adds a great deal to my life.
[ Q ] So would you consider your professional singing endeavours an adjunct to your bodybuilding career, something that completed your life?
Yes, it is true. But bodybuilding was what I excelled at to that point. You can only serve one master truly I suppose and I guess he (bodybuilding) has been the one.
[ Q ] You mentioned earlier that you still have a lot of energy for your age. Given that as people age they typically regress mentally and physically, how do you stay young? How do you delay the aging process?
Outlook. I think when you are spiritual, and I do not mean religious as there is a big difference, there is something inside of you that tells you there is a greater power and it is in you too. It pushes you on and when things happen that are not so good, you dig down into your spirit and bring that out.
We are challenged all the time, especially in the modern-day world, with so much cynicism. I often don't even turn on the news. My brother laughed at me the other day because I had to ask who Anna Nichole Smith was. Of course she was the lady who died recently. People are fighting over who is the father of her child. Now that shows how I follow the news.
[ Q ] Not necessarily a bad thing with the amount of negative press these days.
That is right and that is what my brother said. He said it was compliment that I did not know who she was.
[ Q ] You mention spiritual outlook as being an important way to manage your life as you age. How would you define spiritualism as it applies to yourself?
Being a spiritual person has helped me to get through many things. Now what made me think I could be the first African American to win the Mr. America? Better men than I have tried and they did not win it. What kept me going? And I honestly feel that the things that count, that matter, are the things we cannot see.
Spirituality, love, hate unfortunately, all of those emotions. An idea. We can't see an idea; we can't feel an idea or touch it. We are motivated from all these things that are totally untouchable; they are intangible.
[ Q ] We are often strongly influenced by our emotions. Do you think this could be something that works against bodybuilders as they prepare for competition?
I think the worst thing a bodybuilder can do is to have a bad attitude, to go into a contest feeling they may not win because they learned beforehand the names of the judges. Or they are not from the gym that is sponsoring it.
I hear all this negative talk. So these competitors feel like they are going to be cheated already before they even go onstage. And I say you are better off not knowing who the judges are or what gym they come from, and just let your body do the talking.
Once you are standing up there, you are the instrument - that is all that you have. And to bring that negativity to it, you are defeating yourself. A lot of bodybuilders put too much time into finding out the names of the judges. They want to be reassured that they will get a fair shake. Well, already they are defeating themselves.
[ Q ] The judging process is something that is not often elaborated on. How do you feel about the current state judging in bodybuilding?
I think the rules of judging are perfect, but unfortunately the rules are not always followed. I have always felt that at every event the sponsor of the meets should stand up and go over the rules. "Ladies and gentlemen, here is what we are looking for."
What degree of symmetry, proportion and muscularity and muscle separation they are looking for should be defined for the audience. It should be explained that it will not necessarily be the biggest man that will win, but the one who has even development. And then everybody has been refreshed. Even the judges; it is for the judges too. A judge might have a favourite, but after having heard the criteria may be better positioned to do the right thing.
[ Q ] How has bodybuilding influenced your life?
It has been a terrific influence. As I go about my life, I sometimes think that being Mr. this or that does not define Chris Dickerson, but this has been the area of success. I look at my trophies - I have a wall of trophies here in my house - as a reminder.
In moments when there is a little self-doubt or I am not feeling particularly good, all I have to do is look at that wall. We all need reminding. So I really think my bodybuilding career has influenced me more than any other thing. I was very fortunate. There are those who train as hard, as long, but they somehow don't put it all together or get the recognition. I have been very lucky.
[ Q ] Do you think you would still have the same outlook regarding bodybuilding today if you had not excelled to the highest level?
Yes, most definitely. I came to Joe Weider having already had a major career with the A.A.U. and NABBA. So I brought that to it. I would have felt good about my career, had I not won anything with the IFBB, but I did - all the Grand Prix events, the Championships, the Couples, the Canada Cup.
All those titles are there and it is a history that I am very proud of. At the same time it is all very humbling because it brings a responsibility with it.
Like right now, with what I am saying to you, I have to think very seriously and deeply before I speak because I might influence someone in the right way or in the wrong way. That places a bit of a weight on your shoulders, but I welcome it. So if Chris Dickerson says it he better be thinking and living it.
[ Q ] You alluded earlier to not being particularly in favour of bodybuilding's evolution toward massiveness. Why do you think in these terms?
I do think this Dave. I just think we have lost a lot of the public support. We were going in the right direction in the 1970's and 1980's and even the 1990's - around Lee Haney's era. Now we have gotten to the point where we have lost the audience and the respect of the public because now we are so big on the chemicals.
And unfortunately it gives a look that does nothing to distinguish one bodybuilder from the next. If you look at a bodybuilder now, he looks a lot like the one standing next to him. And all of the Human Growth Hormone and insulin and things like that, you have to be a chemist.
So the health aspect of the sport is gone and along with it, the individuality. For example, back in the 1970's and 1980's you could put a sheet over a line-up of pro bodybuilders to cover their faces and you could still make out whose body you were looking at.
My body next to Danny Padilla's, my body next to Casey Viator's or Boyer Coe's. We were all different. You didn't need to see the face. Now you need the face.
[ Q ] Many from your era say that. That physique's from that time were more distinguishable.
Yes, and they were attainable, they kind of made sense. It was still God's creation taken a little bit further. Now nobody looks like that. And nobody really wants to. I know I sound like I am talking about the good old days, but I suppose I am. They really were the good old days.
[ Q ] But even people from today's era might agree in terms of the way the sport his heading.
Yes, some competitors today have a certain look. For example, the distended stomachs caused by the internal organs are sticking out as well as the external muscles pushing out. That is a look that is not pleasing.
[ Q ] What do you feel might need to be changed to improve bodybuilding?
I think it needs to start from the top: the judging, what they are looking for. You see, everybody wants to win, so you are going to do what the winner does. So if that winner is Ronnie Coleman year after year, you better look like Ronnie Coleman.
Only when somebody decides that probably the better look belongs to a Shawn Ray for instance or to my current favourite, Dexter Jackson, can things really change. Dexter is very consistent and I feel is the best man, pound for pound, onstage. He always impresses me, more so than anybody else.
[ Q ] So it is a case of looking at the judging criteria and setting a new benchmark as far as you are concerned.
Right. That is what it is. If the judges continue to look for the biggest guy up there, you better be the biggest guy up there.
[ Q ] They handed the Olympia to Jay Cutler last year, a pretty big man himself, so they do not seem to be shifting toward the Dexter Jackson look just yet.
No they did not change much. They just went with the smaller, big man last year. But at least it is a change. And I really admire Ronnie Coleman very much, but I think it is a little disheartening anyhow to have the winner being the same man year after year.
[ Q ] You mentioned earlier your careers in the IFBB, A.A.U and NABBA. I understand you also won the WBBG Pro Mr. America in 1973?
Yes, I am proud that I won that title. They were looking for the same criteria at the Pro Mr. America for each competitor. It was a good experience right in New York City, so I did not have to travel for it. By the way, the Pro Mr. America trophy is the biggest trophy I have - it is huge, it practically hits the ceiling. I was also inducted into the WBBG Hall of Fame, which was another nice honour. Yes, I have competed in the IFBB, A.A.U, WBBG and NABBA.
[ Q ] How did you find WGGB founder, Dan Lurie, to deal with?
Very loving and kind of like a father. Also he always wanted to please everybody. He wanted everyone to be happy. And he extended himself a great deal and I think a certain federation, which shall remain nameless, was kind of mean to Dan, kind of tried to undermine him all the time.
There was room for both federations. But he ran his shows and he did the best he could. He ran them a little bit on a shoestring, he had his own magazine - he did the whole thing like a little country store. God bless him. It was a family affair: his wife Thelma, son Mark in the office. They operated out of their Brooklyn office. It was unique.
[ Q ] What do you consider to be the major differences between the different federations you competed in?
I think the most distinguished federation is NABBA. They do it with a little more admiration and respect and thought behind it and I was very fortunate again to be inducted into their Hall of Fame in 1999. I was also inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame.
[ Q ] What impact do you feel you have had on the bodybuilding as an athlete and spokesperson for the sport?
I am amazed when I still get letters from people. I think people were very, very happy and kind of relieved in 1982 when I brought it back to a thing that was legitimate, not because it was Chris Dickerson, but because I was the best man onstage that day in London. And they were waiting for that to happen. That was good.
And I think I have the respect of people for not just being the biggest onstage, and because I can speak fairly intelligently. I bring all these elements. I think that I have represented the sport well, at least others have told me so.
People who have pre-conceived ideas that bodybuilders are mentally slow and not able to talk on their feet, might change their view when they hear me speak. So I have broken some of those stereotypes. I am really honoured to say that. My influence has been greater than I ever dreamed it would be.
Actually, I am holding a seminar next fall here in Florida. I am getting a lot of feedback from that. And David Chapman, who wrote Sandow the Magnificent - Eugene Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding, is writing a book on me now. So my biography is finally getting done.
[ Q ] So mentally and physically you are doing well right now.
Yes. I am working around a few injuries I had, but still look better than a person who has never lifted a weight.
[ Q ] Well Chris, it was a pleasure talking with you. Thank you for your time. To finish would you like to thank anyone for helping you in your career?
Well of course Bill Pearl is at the head of the line. Just for being who he is and for taking a sort of fatherly interest in me from the time I first walked into the gym back in 1963.
Others who have influenced me include Cliff Swan God rest his soul, who took most of my photos during the early stages of my career. The list could go on and on. There are many others. We can't do anything without help from somebody. I had a lot of help. I recognise this fact and I'm very grateful for it.