Nasser El Sonbaty was an enigma in the bodybuilding world. Once tipped for Olympia glory, he soon became far more well-known as a man embittered by his experiences within the sport. Rather than retire into a life of guest-posing stints and personal appearances, he chose to launch an offensive against everyone he felt had wronged him throughout his career, attacking officials and fellow competitors in a series of scathing interviews in the final years of his life. (1)
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His increasingly viscous teardowns of the industry made him one of the most controversial — and conversation-worthy — bodybuilders of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But how could a fan favorite who seemed poised to become an Olympia champion become so outspoken and angry toward the entire industry?
To understand El Sonbaty’s later years, it’s necessary to examine his rise in bodybuilding and his brush with Olympia greatness.
The Disinterested Bodybuilder
Born in Stuttgart, Germany, on October 15, 1965, Nasser El Sonbaty did not seem destined for the stage. He only began lifting weights as a teen to get his legs stronger for soccer — and whenever he did see a bodybuilder, he found them repulsing. (2)
Speaking to David Robson of Bodybuilding.com in 2008, El Sonbaty said that he “hated the [too-big bodies] [and] the veins of the guys in the magazines.”
But that distaste began to change when a former Hungarian weightlifter at El Sonbaty’s gym took notice of his potential physique and astutely advised El Sonbaty to train his upper and lower body in tandem to ensure he had balance.
The Passion Grows
El Sonbaty began taking a deeper interest in the sport soon after, increasing his training and competing in more amateur events. At the same time, he continued with his education.
After high school, El Sonbaty attended university where, in time, he graduated with a master’s degree in political science, history, and sociology. He also sharpened his communication skills and was later celebrated for his ability to converse in multiple languages. In later years, these qualities helped earn El Sonbaty the nickname “The Professor.”
On the stage, success started to pile up. El Sonbaty earned his IFBB pro card in 1990 and placed in the top 10 at three IFBB Grand Prix events that same year. By 1993, those top-10 finishes turned into third-place finishes. (3)
His success throughout Europe did not go unnoticed in the U.S., and the initially reluctant bodybuilder soon received an invite to the biggest stage of them all: the 1994 Mr. Olympia. (2)
Rising Through the Ranks
No one expected El Sonbaty to rival eventual winner Dorian Yates in 1994 — and even runners-up like Shawn Ray and Kevin Levrone were out of reach. Still, he put on a solid showing in his Olympia debut, clinching a seventh-place spot and beating out the likes of Andreas Munzer, Samir Bannout, and a young Ronnie Coleman.
Even more important, his physique caught the attention of bodybuilding kingpin Joe Weider, who gave the rising star a full-time contract. As El Sonbaty later reported, the Weider deal, although not widely lucrative, earned him enough money to change his fortunes. (2)
Whereas he previously had to juggle full-time work and training, the contract allowed him to redouble his bodybuilding efforts. It also, just as importantly, legitimized his place within the sport — being a “Weider Guy” carried a certain cache, after all.
The following year, El Sonbaty finished third at the Mr. Olympia, again behind Levrone and winner Yates. He repeated that placing in 1996, albeit with a certain degree of controversy. That year, El Sonbaty received a lot of praise for the improvements made to his conditioning, but he was subsequently disqualified after he failed a diuretics test by the IFBB. (4)
When he received news of his disqualification in October, a full month after the Olympia, he accepted his punishment, noting that he gambled on the IFBB not implementing the test and ultimately had to pay the price for his actions.
The disqualification did little to hurt Nasser’s growing popularity within bodybuilding. He regularly achieved podium finishes in competition and, on his best days, pulled off wins at IFBB Grand Prix competitions. At around 300 pounds of symmetrical muscle mass, he was a threat at any show he entered.
He just needed that elusive Olympia crown to legitimize his career — and in 1997, the stars seemingly aligned for El Sonbaty to finally take that last step toward immortality.
The Victory That Wasn’t
Dorian Yates entered the 1997 Mr. Olympia hoping to win his sixth Sandow trophy in a row. Succeeding Lee Haney as bodybuilding’s top star, the English powerhouse dominated the scene for virtually the entire decade. But now, his body was failing him.
Yates had always gambled with his training. The high-intensity routines he employed transformed him into a larger-than-life superstar, but eventually, he would have to pay the price for his punishing style. And now, his body was wracked with pain, thanks to a torn triceps suffered just weeks before the show. (5) Few knew it at the time, but this would be Yates’ final Olympia. And he was far from his best.
El Sonbaty, on the other hand, entered the Olympia that year following a string of strong showings. His physique had improved, coming in larger and leaner than before and still possessing his famous symmetrical midsection. Still, few would have predicted how close he would be to winning that year’s trophy.
When Dorian stepped on stage beside El Sonbaty at the Olympia in Long Beach, California, at that year’s Mr. O, it looked like a new champion would be crowned. “The Professor” rivaled Yates in terms of sheer size, while keeping an aesthetic quality few could match.
The big advantage Yates had was his famously large back, which rarely failed to impress. But the pain from his torn triceps severely hampered his posing routine, somewhat mitigating any advantage he had. (6)
But when it came time for the winner to be announced, it must have felt like deja vu throughout the arena. Yates again came out the winner, as El Sonbaty looked on from the runner-up spot.
Depending on your point of view, this was either the story of Yates surviving El Sonbaty’s onslaught to become a six-time Mr. O — or of El Sonbaty being robbed in yet another controversial Olympia decision.
Bodybuilding is subjective by its very nature, and that’s partly why the debate surrounding Yates’ victory at the 1997 Mr. Olympia continues to this day. And for El Sonbaty, it marked a drastic turning point in his career and life.
The Media Crusade
In many ways, 1997 was the beginning of the end for El Sonbaty as a bodybuilder. The following year, he finished third at the Olympia behind Flex Wheeler and surprise winner Ronnie Coleman. And as bodybuilding fans know, no one would upend Coleman’s dynasty until Jay Cutler in 2006. A victory at the 1999 Arnold Classic signaled the last hurrah for El Sonbaty as he fell rapidly down the bodybuilding card until his retirement in 2005.
Upon stepping away from the stage, El Sonbaty got more outspoken in the press about his thoughts on bodybuilding. In 2008, he took part in an infamous series of interviews with David Robson of Bodybuilding.com in which he cast a wide net of criticism, taking aim at his fellow competitors, judges, and organizers.
While speaking to Robson, El Sonbaty famously went after fellow competitors without remorse. He chastized Miloš Šarčev for owing him $2550 for steroids and having silicone calf implants. (7) He then moved on to mocking Greg Kovacs, who he described as “so big that he could hardly function.” And then took aim at Dave Palumbo, calling him “Jumbo Palumbo,” and criticizing his physique as looking “distorted.” (8)
But he was far from done. He dubbed Shawn Ray “Chihuahua Ray” and described him as a man with a Napoleon complex. For Canadian bodybuilder Paul Dillett, he settled on the derisive nickname “The Great Plains” because of “all the wide open spaces on his physique.” (9)
It was open season on anyone and everyone who El Sonbaty felt had crossed him. Still, he reserved his most acrid attacks for those involved in the ‘97 Olympia.
From El Sonbaty’s point of view, the bodybuilding establishment — starting with Joe Weider and the judges and extending all the way down to journalists like the late Peter McGough — wanted Yates to remain champion at all costs. And to do so, they had to keep El Sonbaty down.
“There are multiple reasons why I did not win,” El Sonbaty said. (2) “Some judges did not want to upset their friend Dorian and they did not want him to go out of bodybuilding with a defeat after all his injuries and tears. They did not want to give another non-U.S. guy the most prestigious title in bodybuilding because it would underline the U.S. inferiority in bodybuilding compared to non-U.S. athletes.”
And the attacks only got more personal from there.
“[Yates] won despite a huge belly (looking like he was pregnant in the sixth month), a waist like a drum, a torn up left biceps, a freshly torn left triceps, a quad tear left, a quad tear right, a torn right hip,” El Sonbaty said. (2) “He won it with a perfect score, which was just unbelievable. This was a completely staged outcome and the biggest bodybuilding robbery of the 20th century by the clique of judges…”
Even more than a decade after the Olympia, El Sonbaty would never forgive bodybuilding for “robbing” him at the biggest show of the year.
“I got so badly cheated,” he said. “My trust will never ever be the same. The lost trust is beyond possible repair.”
Nasser El Sonbaty’s Legacy
For the bodybuilding community, this series of interviews in 2008 defined El Sonbaty’s post-retirement life. And for many of the people he targeted, there wouldn’t be a chance for reconciliation as El Sonbaty died on March 20, 2013, at the age of 47. (9)
At first, people within the sport were unsure how to evaluate his legacy. In a telling series of exchanges on a bodybuilding forum, former competitor Shawn Ray wrote that El Sonbaty had alienated himself from his fellow competitors and the sport at large. But he was also clear that El Sonbaty was well-liked within the sport when he was younger and remembered him as something of a prankster backstage. (10)
“[Nasser] became very disenchanted with the infrastructure and our industry after some years,” Ray wrote. “He had nothing good to say about the sport which brought him to us. Very disappointed and very broodish behavior regarding the people who participate in our industry[.] On the other hand during his early years and competitive years he was [likable], approachable and friendly.”
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McGough, despite being one of El Sonbaty’s targets years earlier, remembered him as a fierce competitor who was driven to succeed but still found time to see the humor in life.
“[Nasser El Sonbaty] was a bodybuilding one-off: A maverick who trod an individual path through his chosen sport,” McGough eulogized in 2013.
It’s easy to discount the fact that El Sonbaty found incredible success throughout the ‘90s, even without an Olympia. From 1993 to 1999, he placed in the top three at 31 shows, and he proved that a 300-pound mass monster could still bring a physique that touted symmetry and aesthetics.
Instead, his career is often defined by that one loss in 1997, and the bitterness that took hold afterward.
- David Robson, ‘Nasser El Sonbaty Interview,’ Bodybuilding.com, March 16, 2008. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/nasser_interview_main.htm
- David Robson, ‘Nasser El Sonbaty Interview Part I,’ Bodybuilding.com, March 16, 2008. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drobson317.htm.
- Nasser El Sonbaty. Muscle Memory. http://musclememory.com/show.php?a=El+Sonbaty,+Nasser
- Peter McGough, ‘Throwback Thursday: Nasser El Sonbaty Fails 1996 Mr. O Drug Test,’ Muscular Development, 7 January 2016. https://www.musculardevelopment.com/mdtv/photoshoots/14845-throwback-thursday-nasser-el-sonbaty-fails-1996-mr-o-drug-test.html
- Peter McGough, ‘The Last Hurrah,’ Muscular Development, 26 March 2015, https://www.musculardevelopment.com/news/the-mcgough-report/14125-dorian-yates-the-last-hurrah-his-traumatic-finale-at-the-97-olympia.html.
- David Robson, 6-Time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates Interview: Now-Famous 1993 Gym Shots, Injuries, & Current Affairs!, Bodybuilding.com. 2008
- David Robson, ‘Nasser El Sonbaty Interview Part II,’ Bodybuilding.com, March 16, 2008. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drobson322.htm
- David Robson, ‘Nasser El Sonbaty Interview Part IV,’ Bodybuilding.com, March 16, 2008. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drobson329.htm#3
- Peter McGough, ‘Nasser El Sonabty: He Did it His Way,’ Muscular Development, 23 March 2013. https://www.musculardevelopment.com/news/the-mcgough-report/5440-nasser-el-sonbaty-he-did-it-his-way.html
- ‘Why Was Nasser so Disliked?,’ Muscular Development Forums, 10 July, 2013. https://forums.musculardevelopment.com/forum/md-bodybuilding-forums/no-bull/141209-why-was-nasser-el-sonbaty-so-disliked-in-the-bodybuilding-community
Featured Image: @nasserelsonbaty on Instagram