Franco Columbu: Big Thing in a Small Package


As Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best friend, Franco Columbu learned a lot of things over the years from “the Oak.” One of those was not to wait to be contacted by photographers when in your best shape. Instead, the best idea is to reach out to photographers and set up photo shoots.

This twisting back pose was also a favorite of Franco’s good friend Arnold Schwarzenegger Bill Dobbins This is one of the photos shot on the deck at World Gym in 1981. Bill Dobbins Pound for pound, Franco Columbu was one of the strongest men in pro bodybuilding. Bill Dobbins This iconic photo of Franco Columbu was blown up and featured at his memorial in 2019. Bill Dobbins

“It makes no sense to play ‘hard to get’ when it comes to photos,“ Franco told me. Plus, he also learned from Arnold that it was best to do the photos before rather than after a competition. “Flexing and posing for photographers a few days before you compete just makes you harder and more defined,” he explained. Too many bodybuilders avoid this, Franco believed, because they are reluctant to take off their shirts and show their physiques pre-contest. That made no sense to him. Either you are in shape, or you aren’t. If you are not in shape, you shouldn’t be posing for photos. If you are, you have nothing to hide.

So, I was not that surprised in 1981 when I got a phone call from Franco inviting me to shoot him on the deck of the original World Gym in Santa Monica. He was getting ready for the Mr. Olympia and wanted photos for Flex magazine to show off his excellent condition.

It was a hazy day there close to the beach (what they call the marine layer), but the light was great for black-and-white training photos. Franco was in great shape, walking around in shorts and no shirt. In fact, he kept challenging Chris Dickerson to take off his shirt. Chris was having nothing to do with that, and soon disappeared downstairs to the dressing room.

We got some terrific images that day. In fact, one upper-body photo showing that remarkable split in his upper chest was a featured blow-up at Franco’s memorial after this death in 2019. Franco went on to win the Olympia title later that year, which was somewhat controversial because his legs were not at their best due to an injury suffered taping “The World’s Strongest Man” TV show in 1977. That injury happened during an event in which competitors were supposed to run with a refrigerator on their backs, strapped to a metal frame. Since Franco was only 5’5”, the frame was too long for him, dragged on the ground and caused him to fall — hurting his leg. This was all established in the subsequent lawsuit which Franco won.

But despite his short stature, Franco had a history of athletic involvement before bodybuilding. He was an excellent boxer and a champion powerlifter. After years in the gym training for weightlifting, Franco decided to try bodybuilding. “When I told Arnold, I wanted to compete in bodybuilding,” Franco told me, “he tried to talk me out of it. He didn’t think I had the right genetics.”

Arnold is not wrong very often; in this case he was.

Franco Columbu, Rachel McLish, and Joe Weider at an event at Muscle Beach, Venice CA. Bill Dobbins
Franco Columbu Facts

Nickname: The Sardinian Strongman

Born: Aug. 7, 1941 Ollolai, Nuoro, Sardinia, Italy

Died: Aug. 30, 2019 (aged 78) San Teodoro, Province of Sassari, Sardinia, Italy

Height: 5’5″

Weight: 185 lbs

Career Wins: 

1970 IFBB Mr. World (Short)
1970 IFBB Mr. Universe (Short & Overall)
1971 IFBB Mr. World (Short & Overall)
1974 Mr. Olympia (Lightweight)
1975 Mr. Olympia (Lightweight)
1976 Mr. Olympia (Lightweight & Overall)
1981 Mr. Olympia
1977 World Strongest Man (fifth place winner)

Personal Records for Lifting:

Bench Press: 525 pounds (238 kg)
Squat: 655 pounds (297 kg)
Deadlift: 750 pounds (340 kg)

 



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