The familiar sounds of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” reverberated through Finland’s Helsinki Ice Hall in September 1992 as 290 pounds of dense, well-defined muscle walked onto the stage. The massive frame belonged to none other than Lou Ferrigno, one of the men who had put bodybuilding on the map in the ’70s.
Seventeen years had passed since Ferrigno last competed in a bodybuilding show. Though he was 41 years old at the time and seemingly belonged to a different era, he still looked every bit the comic book monster that made him an icon. And he would need every pound of that muscle if he hoped to capture the title that had eluded him his entire career: The Mr. Olympia.
It was a comeback that fans had longed to see — though it was one with an all-too-familiar ending for the veteran.
From Olympia Stage to the Television Screen
Lou Ferrigno first made a mark in bodybuilding back in 1971 with a fourth-place finish at the Amateur Athletic Union’s (AAU) Teen Mr. America show and a first-place win at the World Bodybuilding Guild’s Pro Mr. America show in the teen division. He began competing as an adult the following year, and by 1973, he was already gracing the cover of fitness magazines like Iron Man. (1)
That same year, Ferrigno won his first major titles when he came out on top at the Mr. America and Mr. Universe shows run by Joe and Ben Weider’s IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilding). Soon after, he got the invite to compete in the 1974 Mr. Olympia, where he placed second to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, by then, had five Mr. O crowns to his name. In just three years, Ferrigno went from fourth place in a teen show to sharing the stage with the sport’s biggest star.
If his trajectory was pointing up in 1974, it went into overdrive the following year when he traveled to compete in the Mr. Olympia in Pretoria, South Africa. That show was later immortalized in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, and it gave Ferrigno his first taste of the limelight that would guide his career.
The film revolves, in part, around the tension between reigning champion Schwarzenegger and the upstart Ferrigno. Training in sunny California, Arnold came across equal parts confident and arrogant, dripping of his patented superstar aura. Ferrigno, in contrast, trained in a dank, dungeon-like gym in Brooklyn, New York, with his father. The documentary’s director, George Butler, delighted at the differences between the two:
“Louie would work out in these tiny little rooms with one person around him and his father, and Arnold would work out in a gym in California that had its doors open, was wide open, right on the beach. And it was light and airy, and Louie’s was dark. Louie was dark and brooding…” (2)
Ferrigno hadn’t originally planned to be in the Olympia that year — instead, he was training for ABC’s Superstars, which was a competition show that included various weightlifting events. But once Pumping Iron was put into production, he rushed through a shortened nine-week prep to be a part of it.
The result was a disappointing third-place finish.(Arnold took first and Serge Nubret of France took second.) During a 2021 podcast interview with fellow bodybuilder Kevin Levrone, Ferrigno says he still regrets not having another month to prepare properly for the show to beat Arnold. (3)
A Fork in the Road
When Arnold originally retired from bodybuilding in 1975, many expected Ferrigno to take over — but he went in another direction. He tried out for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League in 1976, lasting only a month before he realized that he “didn’t like hitting people.” (4)
Ferrigno next tried his hand at strongman, appearing in the inaugural World Strongest Man competition, where he took fourth place. He was training for a return at the 1977 Mr. Olympia when destiny came knocking: It was CBS with an offer for Ferrigno to play the lead in the new Incredible Hulk television series.
Though he struggled with the decision to leave bodybuilding and give up on his Olympia dream, he followed Joe Weider’s advice and took the role. (5)
The show was a smash hit, debuting with a two-hour pilot movie in late 1977 before ending its series run in 1982 (though a handful of TV specials would follow.) Ferrigno had officially gone from bodybuilding star to Hollywood mainstay.
Enter: Vince McMahon
The Incredible Hulk wrapped up its final made-for-TV movie by 1990, and Weider put the wheels in motion to bring Ferrigno back for a highly anticipated comeback at the 1992 Olympia against reigning champion Lee Haney.
By this time, though, Vince McMahon, president of the then World Wrestling Federation (WWF), had been trying to get his nascent World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF) off the ground. Though he had poached a number of Weider athletes — such as Gary Strydom, Aaron Baker, and Mike Christian — the audience still wasn’t there. What McMahon needed was a superstar.
The late bodybuilding journalist Peter McGough wrote that McMahon got wind that Ferrigno was in play and decided to go after him. The wrestling tycoon offered Ferrigno a two-year contract reportedly worth nearly $500,000 a year, which seemed to be enough for him to leave Weider and the IFBB. (6)
McMahon began to advertise that the 1992 WBF show would pit the legend Ferrigno against the company’s reigning champion, Gary Strydom. Ferrigno even appeared on the cover of WBF Bodybuilding Lifestyle magazine opposite Strydom, setting up the monumental clash to come.
The only problem was that Ferrigno had yet to officially sign with the company, despite reports and media appearances saying the contrary. One of the issues delaying Lou’s signature, according to McGough, was McMahon’s insistence that the WBF, rather than the athletes, would own the rights to their merchandise.
As the back and forth with the contracts dragged on, Ferrigno was negotiating with Weider on the side. Though he was already being hyped to compete at the 1992 WBF showpiece competition, Ferrigno pulled out and announced that he was returning to the Olympia after all.
Building the Return
Weider’s original vision of Ferrigno locking horns with Haney went up in smoke with the latter’s retirement after the ’91 Olympia. But the 1992 contest still had plenty of intrigue: At 41 years old, the returning Ferrigno was going to test his mettle against the man who sparked the term “Mass Monster,” Dorian Yates.
Going into the show, Ferrigno kept his training similar to what he did in his heyday, except he says he paid closer attention to his lifting form to maximize each exercise. The biggest change, however, was to his diet.
Ferrigno says he ate twice as much, give or take, as he did in 1975, and he spread his food out over five meals, rather than three. Turns out, the older, wiser Lou had learned a few tricks about metabolism on the comeback trail. (7)
A Bodybuilder Out of Time
On the night of the Mr. Olympia in Helsinki, Finland, Ferrigno seemed to defy age. He walked on stage vibrant and tanned with a physique that he says was around 290 pounds. And despite the mass, he had plenty of definition to turn heads. (5)
But the sport had advanced considerably since Ferrigno last stepped on stage, and he felt the effects in two major ways.
He also admits to mistiming his preparation. Although he stepped on stage with muscle mass to spare, he later said he was even bigger six weeks earlier.
“[It] was a learning experience for me back then after so many years away from the stage,” Ferrigno later said. (5)
The result was a 12th-place finish, which put him ahead of the veteran Samir Bannout and a young Ronnie Coleman (8). But he lagged well behind the likes of Shawn Ray, Lee Labrada, Kevin Levrone, and Yates, who finished fourth, third, second, and first, respectively.
“Well if I could do it all over again, I would probably do a few posing exhibitions before the contest to learn how to peak out properly,” Ferrigno later said in an interview. (6) “There was a greater amount of muscularity [in bodybuilders when I returned]; they were bigger and much more superior in their leg development and in the back.”
The following year, Ferrigno returned to the Olympia, this time finishing 10th. In 1994, he took part in the first-ever Olympia Masters competition for older competitors, where he finished second behind Robby Robinson.
Perhaps fittingly, Lou’s 1994 journey was recounted in the 1997 bodybuilding documentary Stand Tall. Where Pumping Iron tells the story of an up-and-comer determined to overthrow the “Austrian Oak,” Stand Tall focuses on the veteran Ferrigno coming back for one last shot at Olympia success.
Though both stories end with Ferrigno ultimately coming up short of a victory, none of that has hurt his reputation as one of the most well-known and popular bodybuilders of the Olympia era.
- “Lou Ferrigno,” Muscle Memory. https://www.musclememory.com/show.php?a=Ferrigno,+Lou
- Shawn Perine, “Pumping Iron: Interview with George Butler,” The Barbell (originally on IronAge.us), 2002. https://www.thebarbell.com/pumping-iron-the-george-butler-interview/
- “The Incredible Lou Ferrigno,” MD Levrone Report, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJ99IkDpSC4
- CFL.CA Staff, ‘The Hulk Lou Ferrigno Talks His Brief Stint in the CFL,’ The CFL, https://www.cfl.ca/2018/10/26/hulk-lou-ferrigno-talks-brief-stint-cfl/
- Shawn Ray, “The Incredible Lou Ferrigno Interview,” Muscular Development, February 7, 2014. https://www.musculardevelopment.com/news/bodybuilding-news/12677-the-incredible-lou-ferrigno-interview-muscular-development.html
- Peter McGough, “Lou Ferrigno: The WBF/IFBB Battle of the Hulk,” Muscular Development, November 6, 2014. https://www.musculardevelopment.com/news/the-mcgough-report/13732-lou-ferrigno-the-wbf-ifbb-battle-of-the-hulk-muscular-development.html
- David Robson, “Lou Ferrigno Tells All: Find Out How He Overcame Adversity,” Bodybuilding.com, January 22, 2019. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/lou_ferrigno_interview.htm
- “Competitor History of the Mr. Olympia,” IFBBPro.com, https://www.ifbbpro.com/competitor-history-of-the-mr-olympia/
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