The year is 1982, and everyone is ablaze about the Mr. Olympia. After two controversial contests in a row, it finally seems that bodybuilding is returning to some form of normality.
To the dismay and shock of many, Arnold Schwarzenegger came out of nowhere to win the 1980 Mr. Olympia. So incensed were Arnold’s rivals that several refused to participate the following year, and one athlete, Mike Mentzer, outright retired.
In 1981 Franco Columbu returned from a horrific leg injury at the 1977 World Strongest Man competition to claim his second Olympia title. Franco’s win was also contentious, with many competitors claiming that the contest was rigged.
But in 1982 there were no debates. Chris Dickerson and Frank Zane brought incredible packages to the stage, and Dickerson edged out Zane to claim his only Olympia title. It was a feel-good moment and an indication to fans that bodybuilding was once again more about the bodies than the politics.
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Finishing seventh that evening was Mohamed Makkawy, later nicknamed the “Magic Egyptian.” The 1982 event was Makkawy’s first Olympia, and despite his placing, his posing routine would go on to be considered one of the best in bodybuilding history. At the time, Makkawy stood 5’4″, weighing around 170 pounds on stage, and is the only bodybuilder with a consistent win record over eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.
Since he wasn’t the largest athlete, Makkawy distinguished himself through his leanness and posing mastery. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Makkawy is widely regarded as the best poser of his generation.
Due to a combination of bad luck and exceptional rivals, Makkawy never won a Mr. Olympia title. And despite being victorious in a recorded 13 IFBB contests (between the overall and the “short” category), Makkawy’s inability to capture an Olympia win means he’s sometimes forgotten by fans — both old and new — of bodybuilding.
Meet Mohamed Makkawy
Born in Tanta, Egypt in 1953, Makkawy came of age when Egyptian weightlifters regularly dominated the international scene. (1) At the 1936 Olympics, for example, Khadr El-Touni won a gold medal in the under 75-kilogram class. (2) In Health & Strength magazine and Strength & Health magazine, two of the most prominent weightlifting magazines of the mid-twentieth century, the country was written about as a hotbed of weightlifting activities. (3)
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Such activities boded well for a young Makkawy who, although short in stature, drew inspiration from his home country. Egypt was also not entirely dominated by weightlifting. Bodybuilding had similarly captured the nation’s attention. For Makkawy, who was regarded as a proficient weightlifter and powerlifter in his own right, it was in this sport that he would truly shine.
In 1969, Makkawy entered and won his first bodybuilding contest — the Mr. Egypt show. Supposedly weighing around 155 pounds, Makkawy’s victory was an indication of future success. Over the next several years, Makkawy would rack up a series of impressive wins: first place in the “Short” and “Overall” category at the 1972 Mediterranean Amateur Championships, first place at the 1975 Mr. International competition, and then he logged his most impressive win to date at the 1976 Mr. Universe contest.
He placed second the following year and then moved to Toronto, Canada, to more easily compete in the North American IFBB circuit. (4)
Makkawy’s Pro Career
Based in Toronto, Makkawy finished seventh in the 1978 Mr. World contest. It was a promising debut, but the young athlete was still learning the ropes. Makkawy ranked sixth in the same year at the Mr. Olympia contest in the under-200-pounds division. Frank Zane won the event overall.
From 1978 to 1981, Makkawy was a respected athlete but rarely failed to break into the top five of IFBB contests. Starting in 1982, however, Makkawy began to win shows outright, gained a reputation as a fantastic poser, and was considered by many to be a viable Mr. Olympia contender.
What changed? Most notably, Makkawy enlisted the help of the “Iron Guru,” Vince Gironda.
Gironda saw enormous potential in Makkawy, and the “Iron Guru” mentored the young Egyptian during his most successful competitive years in the 1980s. Makkawy was, in many ways, the perfect Gironda disciple. He was smaller than the mass monsters of his age, had smart training habits, and was devoted to symmetry and the art of posing.
Gironda’s presence helped bring Makkawy from the mid-card to the top of the ticket. In 1982, Makkawy won the IFBB Grand Prix in Belgium and Sweden after two 10th-place finishes and an eighth-place finish the year prior. Despite his seventh-place finish at the Olympia, it was clear that he turned a corner.
The following year was Makkawy’s most successful Olympia showing as a bodybuilder. He won four separate IFBB competitions and finished second at the 1983 Mr. Olympia, losing narrowly to Samir Bannout. Notably, Makkawy finished ahead of Lee Haney, who placed third in his Mr. Olympia debut.
Haney went on to dominate bodybuilding from 1984 to 1991, winning eight consecutive Mr. Olympia titles. In 1983, however, Haney struggled to compete with Makkawy. That same year, Makkawy placed ahead of Haney in five IFBB contests (including the Olympia), according to musclememory.com.
What makes this feat all the more impressive is the size difference between the two. Haney stood 5’11” and around 250 pounds on stage, a stark contrast to Makkawy’s much more compact frame.
He took home the silver medal again at the 1984 Mr. Olympia. Makkawy would make one final run at a Sandow in 1985, but finished fourth and retired from the sport shortly thereafter.
In the late 1990’s, Makkawy made a brief but sensational return to competition, taking part in six different IFBB shows. Failure to place higher than seventh at any of the events did little to diminish his mystique. Much like Kevin Levrone’s 2016 Olympia return, Makkawy’s reemergence allowed a new set of fans to experience the “Magic Egyptian.”
Training and Feeding the Magic Egyptian
To compete with the big boys of bodybuilding, Makkawy was methodical in his training and eating. In this regard, it was no surprise he joined forces with Vince Gironda, who was one of the generation’s most thoughtful trainers.
The following routine comes from Gironda’s training book Unleashing the Wild Physique, which detailed Makkawy’s approach to training for the 1983 and 1984 Mr. Olympia contests. (5)
- Neck Press: 8 x 8
- Low Bench Flye: 8 x 8
- Decline Pulley Flye: 8 x 8
- Wide Parallel Bar Dip: 8 x 8
- 90-Degree Short Pulley: 8 x 8
- Chest-to-Bar Pull-Up: 8 x 8
- High Bench Row: 8 x 8
- Short Lat Pulley: 8 x 8
- Alternate Front and Back Press: 8 x 8
- 70-Degree Lateral Raise: 8 x 8
- Bent-Over Pulley: 8 x 8
- Kickback: 8 x 8
- 90-degree Cradle Bench Rope Pulley: 8 x 8
- Close-grip Bench Press: 8 x 8
- Nautilus Triceps Pressdown: 8 x 8
- Dumbbell Preacher Bench Curl: 8 x 8
- Alternate Incline Bench Curl: 8 x 8
- Spider Bench Curl: 8 x 8
- Concentration Short-Range Pulley Curl: 8 x 8
- Decline Wrist Curl: 5 x 10
- Reverse Barbell Curl: 5 x 10
- Zottman Curl: 5 x 10
- Hack Slide: 8 x 12
- Roman Chair Squat: 8 x 12
- Thigh Extension: 8 x 12
- Flat Leg Curl: 3 x 20
- Power Leg Curl: 3 x 20
- Pulley Squeeze: 5 x 12
- Prone Hack Heel Raise: 8 x 20
- Seated Heel Raise: 8 x 20
- Leg Raise: 8 x 8
- Crunch: 8 x 8
In an article with Muscle Magazine around this time, Makkawy described his pre-contest diet as follows:
“My diet has been the same as it always is when preparing for a contest. In other words, I start by eating only meat, chicken, and fish (zero carbohydrates). Then as the contest gets nearer, I reduce the amount of food, and I take amino-acids and liver tablets instead until the last week when I am living entirely on amino-acids and liver tablets and no food.” (6)
This was a time before calorie counting had become the norm for professional bodybuilders. One can see the lengths Makkawy was willing to go to get lean. He was known among his contemporaries for the extremes he would go to in his preparation. That he trained so intensely and on such little food (and no carbohydrates) is a testament to Makkawy’s willpower and dedication.
Such training and eating brought Makkawy into competition shape, but what he did on the stage solidified his legend. Bodybuilding is part art and part sport. The artistry comes in the posing, and Makkawy was simply masterful when it came to showing the strengths and masking the flaws of his physique.
Today, Makkawy is an online coach and “performance specialist.” He sells online training courses and offers training videos on his YouTube channel.
Summing Up The Magic Egyptian
By today’s standards, Makkawy would have been dwarfed on stage next to the likes of 2020-2021 Mr. Olympia Big Ramy, who stands 5’11” and around 295 pounds on stage. That said, he may have given the competitors in Classic Physique a run for their money.
However, what the stats don’t show was Makkawy’s symmetry, leanness, and impeccable posing. Makkawy competed when Frank Zane, Chris Dickerson, and Samir Bannout were challenging for and winning Olympia titles. This was when mass monsters did not yet define bodybuilding; variety and competition were at the heart of the sport.
Makkawy never won a Mr. Olympia. That should not, however, detract from his accomplishments in the sport of bodybuilding —13 professional wins, multiple victories over titans like Lee Haney, and posing routines that are still lauded by fans today for being works of art. Makkawy was often outsized, but he proved that bodybuilding could, and should, be open to all.
- Mohamed Makkawy, Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. https://www.encyclopediaofbodybuilding.net/mohamed-makkawy.html
- Khadr El Touni, Childlovski https://chidlovski.livejournal.com/1131452.html
- More on Egyptian physical culture can be found at Jacob, Wilson Chacko. Working out Egypt: Masculinity and subject formation between colonial modernity and nationalism, 1870–1940. New York University, 2005.
- Mohamed Makkawy, Muscle Insider, https://muscleinsider.com/canadian-profiles/mohamed-makkawy
- Gironda, Vince, and Robert Kennedy. Unleashing the Wild Physique: Ultimate Bodybuilding for Men and Women. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1984, 163-167.
- Bill Dobbins, ‘Mohamed Breaks Through – To An Unbeatable Back,’ Flex, July (1995), 26-32.
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