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Arnold vs Sergio – The 1972 Battle in Essen!

Arnold vs Sergio – Part 3

1972 – Arnold Schwarzenegger versus Sergio Oliva was truly the Battle of the Giants in the world of Bodybuilding. Although Arnold would face a bigger opponent in Lou Ferrigno in the coming years, it was his showdowns with the genetic freak of nature that was Oliva that pushed Arnold to be better than even he thought possible. Compare the Schwarzenegger physique of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s with the superbly conditioned masterpiece he presented to the world at the peak of his competitive career and you can get a sense of the influence Sergio had on the Austrian Oak.

After being soundly defeated by Sergio in 1969, Arnold made tremendous improvements in size and thickness to beat The Myth in 1970. Sergio made the mistake of competing bigger but smoother at the 1970 AAU Professional Mr. World and the 1970 IFBB Mr. Olympia and Arnold was able to sneak past the reigning champ by virtue of his superior definition along with improved thickness and mass.

Arnold - 1969 Olympia Sergio

Arnold was smart enough to know that the domineering Oliva would be back better than ever the following year. Training like a madman all year at Gold’s Gym in Southern California, Arnold came back in 1971 bigger than ever (over 240 pounds) with improved separation and muscularity in his legs. He was out to prove that 1970 was not a mistake and it was indeed Arnold, and not Sergio, who belonged with the crown on his head.

Unfortunately, circumstances prevented the Bodybuilding world from seeing another Arnold-Sergio showdown as Oliva was suspended from competing in the 1971 Mr. Olympia because he decided to show up at the NABBA Mr. Universe one week earlier. Not only was Sergio denied a chance to try and win back the Mr. Olympia title from Arnold but he was also defeated that year by the legendary Bill Pearl in London. Needless to say, Sergio was not having a good year in 1971.

Pearl - 71 Universe comparison

Unknown to Schwarzenegger, Oliva was planning to compete in the 1972 Mr. Olympia in his lifetime BEST condition. Already sporting more muscle mass than any bodybuilder on the planet, Sergio trained harder than ever and paid more attention to his diet in 1972 in order to avoid losing to Arnold for another year.

Sergio-Japan-2sergio japan 3

Arnold, on the other hand, was lacking that crisp muscular definition as the big event edged closer. At the IFBB Mr. America on September 16th, 1972, Arnold and Franco guest posed and judged the event. Many in the audience who had a chance to view the Schwarzenegger physique up close wondered how he would pull off another Mr. Olympia win with only one week left to whip himself into shape.


The 1972 Mr. Olympia took place in Essen, Germany (“Arnold country”, commented Frank Zane). More bodybuilders than ever before would contend for the Mr. Olympia title that year. In addition to Arnold and Sergio, Serge Nubret, vice president of the IFBB in France, would be making his Mr. Olympia debut. Serge would be joined onstage with Zane and Franco Columbu, who would also be making their first appearance in the Mr. Olympia.

1972 Mr. Olympia - Sergio, Arnold, Franco

This Mr. Olympia contest had a personal meaning for Arnold in that it would be the first time his father would attend a bodybuilding contest and have the chance to see his famous son compete. Arnold always had a fractious relationship with his father and had subconsciously craved his approval. Schwarzenegger would admit later in life that he felt his father always favored his older brother Meinhard (who died in a tragic auto accident one year earlier) over him. His father’s harsh disposition and the strict manner of raising his children created a rift in the relationship between Arnold and his dad. This would be his only chance to show his father what he had achieved with his chosen career. Later that year, on December 11th, 1972, Gustav Schwarzenegger would die from a stroke in Austria.


The eighth Mr. Olympia contest was not the highly organized and huge spectacle that it would become decades later. In 1972, the promoters of the Mr. Olympia did not even know what room they would hold the prejudging on the day of the competition. Schwarzenegger showed his leadership abilities by speaking up and suggesting that the prejudging take place in the warm-up room of the auditorium.

1972 Olympia sergio and arnoldindex-6

Months after the contest, Arnold would admit to writer Rick Wayne that he choose that particular room for a reason. “I was far more interested in the paint”, Schwarzenegger was quoted by Wayne in his book “Muscle Wars”. “It hadn’t occurred to Sergio that my white body would stand out against the dark wall behind us, while his would blend right in. I believe that was how I got the edge. In a nutshell, the judges saw more than I actually had that day in Germany. Sergio suffered for his blindness.”

1972-Mr.-Olympia-Line-up1972 Mr. Olympia - Arnold, Sergio, Sergeindex-1index-5

Standing between Sergio and Serge Nubret during the prejudging, Arnold knew the competition would be very close. Sergio was in extraordinary shape in Essen, Germany. His often bloated condition was replaced by a hard and chiseled physique that helped accentuate his mythical proportions. When Sergio hit a front double biceps pose, his huge arms looked bigger than his head. The tiny waist of Oliva contrasted with his massive thighs and wide shoulders. After two years of frustration and failure, The Myth was back bigger and better than ever!

1972 Mr. Olympia - Sergio Arnold FDB1972-Mr.-Olympia-Front-Lat-Spread-Group1972 Mr. Olympia - Relaxed Sergio and Arnoldindex

At the evening show, Arnold and Sergio helped each other pump up backstage before heading to the posing platform. This was truly going to be a Battle of the Giants! Both competitors had their “game face” on with the biggest title in bodybuilding in the balance. Arnold, admittedly competing “three pounds heavy”, was still the reigning champ and one of the best bodybuilders in the history of the sport. Sergio, on the other hand, was at his lifetime best and he knew it.

1972 Mr. Olympia - Arnold and Sergio Backstage1972 Mr. Olympia - Pumping Up

The legendary pictures of Sergio posing at the 1972 Mr. Olympia, taken by photographer Benno Dahmen, are still jaw dropping over 40 years later. The incredible proportions of The Myth are fully on display with his massive quads and diamond shaped calves providing the foundation for his huge upper body bursting with muscle thickness and capped off with a tiny dancer’s waist. Sergio looks confident, even relaxed, with a slight Cheshire grin on his face.

Sergio 72 O FDB1972 Mr. Olympia - Sergio Lat Spread1972 Mr. Olympia - Sergio MM

Toward the end of his posing routine, Sergio raises his arms straight over head and hits what would later become known as “The Myth pose” or “The Victory”. It is a pose that very few bodybuilders can pull off but Sergio made it legendary. Looking toward the ceiling, Sergio holds his arms straight over his head with his massive arms and forearms transitioning down to wide, thick lats that taper to a minuscule waistline. Sergio’s huge, flaring quads provide a contrast to his tiny waist and complete the legendary proportions of The Myth. The all-knowing smirk on Sergio’s face says it all.

Sergio Victory Pose 72 Olympia

The picture of Sergio striking the Victory Pose at the 1972 Mr. Olympia is one of the most iconic pictures in Bodybuilding. It is heroic, powerful, dramatic and beautiful all at once. Like the famous picture of Ali standing victorious over Sonny Liston, it is a legendary photo that will stand the test of time, capturing so much in one single image.

The German audience cheered loudly for Sergio who welcomed the appreciative applause from his fans. As Sergio prepared to leave the stage at the conclusion of his posing routine, the crowd screamed for more. Playing to the crowd with the expertise of a stage professional, Sergio showed mock surprise at the rapturous cheers from the audience, at one point holding his hands up as if to say to say “no more, no more” before quickly exploding into several more astounding poses.


If Arnold was intimidated by the reaction that Sergio received from the crowd, he certainly didn’t show it as he stepped up next onto the posing platform. Beginning with an incredible front double biceps pose that showcased his magnificent arms and his wide, sweeping lats, Arnold smoothly glided into a powerful three quarter back pose that displayed a thick, detailed back and highly peaked biceps. Arnold was a more graceful poser than Sergio and his muscles looked clearly defined under the harsh stage lights as he confidently showed the audience and judges why he was the best bodybuilder in the world.

arnold 72 olympia fdbarnold 72 olympia bicep shotindex-4

The posedown between the competitors of the Mr. Olympia featured Sergio, Arnold, Serge Nubret, Frank Zane, Franco Columbu and Kardewizc from France. It was truly a tour de force display of muscle! The Essen, Germany crowd cheered loudly for these mass monsters as they sensed an upset at the Mr. Olympia contest.

Sergio and Arnold stood next to each other during the posedown. Arnold used his height and mass against Sergio and he hit sweeping poses highlighting his arms, back and chest. He could not dominate Oliva this year as he did in 1970 during the Mr. World and Mr. Olympia upsets. That year, momentum was on his side and he felt like a winner. This year, it was Sergio who presented the more dominant physique and was slowly gaining the favor of the cheering crowd. At one point during the posedown, the cocky Oliva turned to Schwarzenegger and hit an astounding most muscular pose directed right at Arnold.

index-9index-81972 Mr. Olympia - Crab Pose

As the competitors were led off the stage, Oliva stayed behind and walked off last. Before finally stepping off the stage, Sergio paused and hit one more Victory Pose while smiling at the cheering audience. This time, Sergio knew he had done his homework. This time, he felt confident that victory would finally be his.


As the competitors lined up backstage for the final announcement, Oliva was positioned first in line. Sergio smiled to himself because this most likely meant that he was the winner of the contest. According to an interview with Oliva conducted several years after the contest, Sergio claims that one of the backstage expediters switched his place in line with Arnold so now Sergio was standing second in line behind his Austrian rival. The suspicious Oliva immediately sensed something was amiss.

1972 Mr. Olympia - Posedown 11972 Mr. Olympia - Serge, Sergio, ARnold

As the final placings were announced, Franco Columbu took fifth place followed by Frank Zane in fourth. The massive and aesthetic Serge Nubret was called out in third place. The crowd waited with anticipation and excitement as Sergio Oliva was called out in the runner-up spot. The disappointment and heartbreak was evident all over the face of the incredible Cuban. Arnold won his third Mr. Olympia contest and even he knew it was a very close victory.


Examining the judges score sheets, many interesting facts come to light. There were seven judges were used to judge the 1972 Mr. Olympia contest. Curiously, there were NO American judges on the panel and all seven scores from each judge was used in placing the competitors. Today, it is common practice to cross out both the high and low score on a judges score sheet to eliminate any judge that may be off the mark.

1972 Olympia - Judges1972 Olympia Scorecard

Judge Salassa was from France, a country in which two of the competitors (Serge Nubret and the little known bodybuilder Kardewizc) hailed from. He showed some obvious national favoritism by placing Nubret in first with Sergio in second and Arnold in a surprising third place. Judge Bondarzuk from Poland was also way off the mark. He picked Arnold as the winner but placed Sergio a ridiculous fourth place behind Nubret and Franco Columbu (who eventually placed fifth!).

Judge Van Velden was the only judge from Holland. He was one of several judges who placed the competitors in the order they finished with Arnold in first, Sergio in second, Nubret in third, Zane fourth and Franco fifth. Judge Dennis Stallard from England, who would go on to serve the IFBB for many years as the onstage judging coordinator, also placed the competitors in the same order as the final placings.

Dr. Bacinski from the former CSSR (Czechoslovak Socialist Republic) placed Arnold in first place with Sergio in second. However, he had Frank Zane in the third place spot followed by Serge Nubret in fourth.

There were two judges from the home country of Germany. Zane had called the contest location “Arnold country”, an obvious assertion that Arnold had an edge competing in a country that he called home for many years. However, judge Weimer, one of the judges from Germany, placed Arnold in third place behind both Sergio and Nubret. The score sheet from the 1972 Mr. Olympia shows judge Weimer giving a “1” to both Oliva and Nubret so it’s unclear if this was a clerical mistake or if the judge decided to award a tie for first between those two competitors. Judge Dr. Garbe, the second judge from Germany, placed the competitors in the same order as the final placings.

In the end, Arnold received the majority of the first place votes (5) with two 3rd place votes. Sergio received only one first place vote with five 2nd place votes and a ridiculous 4th place vote, courtesy of judge Bondarzuk from Poland. Serge Nubret actually received more first place votes (2) than Oliva along with one 2nd place, three 3rd places and one 4th. The judges were all over the board when it came to Serge Nubret. Arnold won with a final score of 11 points to Sergio in second with 15 points and Serge Nubret in third with 17 points.

1972 Mr. Olympia - Sergio and Arnold Twisting Backs

Unknown to the bodybuilding world at the time, this historic battle between Sergio and Arnold would be the last time the two competitors met onstage at the Mr. Olympia. The contest left a bitter taste in the mouth of the proud Oliva, who felt confident that he was the winner this night. It also helped to motivate the hungry Schwarzenegger, who was smart enough to know that he barely escaped with a victory on this night. Arnold would return the following year dramatically improved in his physique, obviously motivated by the stunning appearance of Oliva.

Several days later, Sergio would pose for the camera of Wayne Gallasch of Australia for a rare video and photo session in London. The pictures and film footage of Oliva captured in this 1972 posing exhibition shot outside reveals one of the most magnificent physiques in the sport of bodybuilding.

Sergio - Kneeling BDB 72Sergio - Twisting Double Arm

Should Sergio have won the 1972 Mr. Olympia? It is still one of the most hotly debated bodybuilding decisions over 40 years later. Sergio was considered by many to be the perfect bodybuilding physique, a genetic marvel displaying mythical proportions combined with incredible muscle mass and sharp conditioning. Schwarzenegger was equally astounding with great muscular development and shape along with delineated separation and definition. It’s really all in the eye of the beholder and thankfully, the bodybuilding world was able to witness this dramatic confrontation of two of the most perfectly developed physiques in the history of the sport. It is a battle that will live on forever!

Next Month – Arnold vs Sergio – What Might Have Been!

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7 Responses to "Arnold vs Sergio – The 1972 Battle in Essen!"

  1. Ben says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog, it was engrossing and captivated the senses on what it must have been like that night in 72 in Essen.
    With every sentence passion and curiosity filled my veins as it does when people see two giants at the top of their game going to battle!
    Wow! Thank you john, thank you Sergio, thank you Arnold. 42 years later and I’m in awe.

  2. RCG says:

    What was the date of the Essen contest?

  3. mrkela says:

    Fantastic article John and very objective observation on the whole contest.As a true bb fun I must say that its a really shame that Oliva didn’t won this Olympia ,actually it’s sad…

  4. rino says:

    I was seventeen years old and I was in Essen that night. sergio was robbed because he should have won by a mile over everybody. his phisique was the most shoching I have ever seen . perfecf proportions-full mass and believe or not gracefull definition and condition – no one could touch him

  5. 75kilo says:

    Thank you for this piece. Great reading. Judging from these pics, Sergio’s arms and waist were classes better than Arnold’s, as was his most muscular; Arnold had that vaccuum pose, which highlights his ribcage, and lats sweep. From these pics, it’s Sergio, but posing isn’t visible, and that might also have an impact.

  6. gilbert says:

    Sergio was stupendous that year . arnold won by the skin of his teeth . but the Brown wall if the story is true made the rest easier for the oak .

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