What’s In A Name?

This weekend is the WPF Universe contest in Philadelphia. According to their press release, which was posted to a mailing list I belong to, “the original Mr Universe is returning to Philadelphia after 57 years”. Something similar is posted to their website. (They also state that Arnold has been invited to present the awards. As he was in Tokyo today on a state visit, he must be flying directly to Philadelphia to get there in time.)

“How is this the original Mr Universe returning to Philadelphia?” you may ask. I certainly did. It works something like this. The first Mr Universe was in Philadelphia as part of the World Amateur Championships. The AAU was the host, although the contest was officially sanctioned by the world amateur weightlifting organization of the time.

Then in 1986, 1987, and 1988, the AAU held three Mr Universe contests. In 1989, the AAU dropped out, but the promoter wanted to continue with the contest, so he formed the WPF and held contests in 1989, 1990 and 1991 . I find no mention in any magazine of any WPF Universe contests from 1991 to present, although the WPF website does list one for 2003. (I’d love to add the 2003 contest to my database, but they only list last names and first initials, and I need complete names. I did email them, but never heard back from them.)

So we have first Mr Universe in 1947 —> AAU 1986, 1987, 1988 –> WPF 1989, 1990, 1991 —> 2004

So the AAU was involved with the first Mr Universe. Then 39 years later, the AAU held three contests in a row. Then the same promoter held three more under the name WPF. Therefore, according to the WPF, the Real and Original “Mr Universe” is returning to Philadelphia!

Now it doesn’t matter that in 1948 the second Mr Universe was held in London in conjunction with the Olympics. The contest was again sanctioned by the international weightlifting governing body of the time and run by the people who became NABBA. Then every year from 1950 to the present NABBA has held the Mr Universe also in the UK. (There is a guy in Australia who decided to take his marbles and go home. He formed NABBA International, and holds a World and Universe contest, but he’s been hosting it with NAC, so that’s how I list it in the database. The alternative would be faux-NABBA.)

Nor does it matter that throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and even in this decade the general consensus is that the NABBA UK event is the “real” Mr Universe. The real Mr Universe for this year took place in October, and Steve Sinton won it.

I count at least nine organizations that have used Universe in their title in one way or another. So this may be a lost cause. However, in my database, I only list the 47 and 48 events and the NABBA events from 1950 to present as “Mr Universe”. None of the others get the “Mr” prefix. Hey, its my database.

Now one would expect that a Universe contest would have world class competitors from throughout the world. However I once attended a Universe contest that not only did they only have one or two people from outside the US, but almost all the contestants came from the local Los Angeles metropolitan area. Then they went and boasted that one of the class winners, this was his very first contest!!! So much for the Universe being a contest for the best of the best, a contest for people who have proven themselves at the regional and national level.

I wish the WPF well. But the name doesn’t make the contest. The name Mr Universe became significant because of Grimek and Reeves and Pearl and Hargitay, Sansone, Yorton, Schwarzenegger, Coe, Zane, Petsas, Dickerson, Lawrence, Enünlü, King and DuFresne, all NABBA winners. Not AAU winners and not WPF winners.

But the WPF is not the only organization trying to hook their wagon onto a famous name of the past.

In October, the WBFA held their second Mr America contest. In this case, at least they seem to have the legal right to call their contest Mr America.

In 1938 and 1939 there were two contests held called Mr America. Then the AAU took it over and held it every year through 1999, usually part of the national weightlifting championships. From 1959 to 1977, the Weider organization also held a contest by the name Mr America, but the IFBB was considered an “outlaw organization” and the AAU event was always considered the “real” Mr America. Then in the late 1970s, the IFBB actually promoted a few of the Mr Americas for the AAU, over strong protest by many in the AAU. That only lasted a few years and they went their separate ways. Also the AAU won a civil suit for the rights to the title Mr America. Part of the settlement included that no organization could ban an athlete for entering another organization’s contest. The IFBB via the NPC then called their top amateur event in the USA the Nationals.

The NPC became the dominate force in amateur bodybuilding and the AAU Mr America became less and less significant. Finally in 1999 the AAU washed its hands of bodybuilding all together. In 2003, the WBFA acquired the rights to the title Mr America from the AAU.

Now I have exchanged a few emails with Kelvin Fountano of the WBFA, at least until he got tired of responding. My main question was “Are you sure you want to call your contest ‘Mr America’?” He replied that he “will bring this prestigious title back to its rightful place in the bodybuilding community.”

The problem is that when people look back fondly on the Mr America contest, they’re not looking at the contests from the 1990s, and very seldom at contests from the 1980s. They’re looking back at contests from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and into the 1970s, when the Mr America was a significant part of pop culture. After that, it was dying a slow death.

The Mr America contest did not die because of mismanagement of the AAU. It died because times changed, tastes changed. The reason for the contest no longer was relevant.

The Mr America was not just a physique contest. It was not to determine who was the best built man in America. It was to determine who was the best representation of the American male. The most muscular man in the contest rarely won the overall title. Points were given for appearance, grooming, the ability to speak well, moral character. Points were also awarded for athletic ability outside of bodybuilding.

The Weiders decided to go a different route. They would judge on physique only. It took time, but the fans and athletes decided they liked that better.

The AAU tried to adapt, but once you take away the interview and the athletic points, it becomes just another contest. The NPC Nationals is the top amateur contest in the USA today. But no one looks back fondly at past winners the way they look back at Mr America winners from the 1970s and before.

Without the rules of the old Mr America contest, it is just another contest. (This new Mr America contest isn’t using the old rules. They’re even allowing winners to come back and defend their title, which the AAU Mr A did not allow.)

But the rules from the hey-day of the Mr America contest are from a different era. The Mr America contest died because the world changed. Perhaps we’re more jaded. We’re not interested in who’s the best representation of an American male. We’re just interested in who’s the biggest. Perhaps it’s difficult to talk about moral character when you need to commit multiple felonies to get the drugs required to compete at the national level (even in drug tested contests). Then again, Miss America and Miss USA contests aren’t doing too well, either. The world changes.

The WBFA wants to return the Mr America title to its previous glory. But being a national level contest isn’t what made it glorious. And claiming a lineage to the AAU Mr America won’t make it glorious. Nor will being the best built bodybuilder outside the NPC. I do wish them well. I just wish they’d use a different name. The Mr America title belongs to the past.

3 Responses to “ What’s In A Name? ”

  1. Don Says:

    The Universe name thing is very confusing. I consider the NABBA Universe to be the “real” Mr. Universe title.

    It’s interesting when you talk about a title and its holders having a certain kind of cache as the Mr. America title holders used to have. I’m guessing that today the title that comes closest is the Mr. Olympia and its reputation is slightly different from the wholesome image of the Mr. Americas.

    But getting back to the Universe. I’m not sure why but that title also has a special cache not only for its fascinating past but for its current winners as well. When you look at even the most recent winners these men have not only fantastically developed bodies but exude a star like charisma. It is really interesting to compare them with the Nationals or USA winners. I want to take nothing away from the excellent athletes who win the US contests but they don’t consistently exude the same power onstage as the Universe winners do.

  2. Richard Goodman Says:

    The NPC Nationals are undoubtedly the most prestigious amateur bodybuilding competition in the country today — among bodybuilders.

    For marketing to the average American, however, the WBFA’s Mr. America title has a lot to recommend it. Go to your local dry cleaners or supermarket and tell the clerk that you just won the NPC Nationals. You get a blank stare of incomprehension, a pair of eyes looking back at you that look as though they have been poached. Tell the same person you just won the Mr. America title and the person you’re talking to will understand and probably appreciate what you’re talking about. Probably they have good feelings about the title. It means something to them. Nothing the NPC does has anything near that cachet with the American public.

    In the outside world, which is a lot bigger than the bodybuilding world, being a Mr. America winner is a lot more possible to parlay into mainstream commercial success. To the outside world, the Mr. America title means something. Being the winner of the NPC Nationals doesn’t. You may not like the public’s perception of things, but you cannot easily change it. You have to go with the flow.

    And as we know, Arnold showed that the money is in the outside world, not in bodybuilding.

  3. Stan Morey Says:

    I was directly involved with the AAU vs NPC struggle over the Mr. America title. In fact, I was sued by John Carl Mese and the NPC in 1982 over the Florida Mr. Titles. They lost. I did feel the AAU was mismanaged. Carlos Rodriguez, Dennis Stallard, Stan Morey, Pete Miller promoted the Mr. Universe title (WPF) in Tucson until Carlos untimely death of Cancer. Dennis Stallard still promotes in Europe under the WPF banner.
    To me the NPC was corrupt in its beginning. I only wish the AAU had been more proactive.