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Robby Robinson is a retired bodybuilder who has competed in over 300 amateur bodybuilding competitions in his lifetime.
He is still in pretty decent shape to this day (at the age of 70).
He was born in Georgia, but was raised in Tallahassee, Florida by his mother along with his 13 brothers and sisters. Robby claims that he first started lifting weights at 5 years old, and that his first competition was at 14 or 15 years of age.
He developed an interest in bodybuilding after discovering Jack La Lanne (known as the Godfather of modern bodybuilding). His love for fitness led to him starring on the football field and athletics track while at high school, but his main goal was always to become a bodybuilder.
In his first competition as an amateur he was placed fifth, and was constantly told that as a black man he would never make it as a bodybuilder (this being Florida in 1961).
You have to realise that at this point he wasn’t even allowed access to a gym, instead training with makeshift weights made from recycled metal.
He continued to train, while competing in countless amateur competitions before his budding bodybuilding career was interrupted by the Vietnam war.
Even though he was stationed in the safe area of the Dominican Republic, it still slowed down his training from 1969-71. He continued competing after leaving the army and in 1975 he was offered the chance to become a professional.
Joe Weider sent him a letter inviting him to come down to the legendary Gold’s Gym in California.
Robby decided to quit his job and come down as soon as possible. This was a huge risk at the time, he had a good job, a wife, and three children. But to be successful you just have to take those risks.
On arriving in California he walked down to the gym and immediately set to work.
Professional Bodybuilding Career
Robby talks about his initial difficulty in breaking into Arnold Schwarzenegger’s clique (including Franco Columbu, and many other of his heroes). But after they saw how fast his physique was progressing he was eventually allowed to train with them. This seems to have worked well, because Robby Robinson absolutely tore through the competitions in his first professional year.
In that year alone he won the IFBB Mr America, Mr World, and Mr Universe titles.
What’s interesting is that before coming to California, Robinson had never used any performance enhancing drugs and had been completely natural.
Considering how good a shape he was already in, the experimentation with steroids would have given him a huge edge over the competition (who would have been taking steroids for years).
Between 1975 and 1977 Robby Robinson won every IFBB competition that he participated in, having trained for so long with bad weights and a complete lack of gym access, he was finally reaping the rewards of his hard work.
In this period he and Schwarzenegger fell out, due to racist remarks and jealousy from Arnold, according to Robby.
They also argued over financial compensation for participating in Pumping Iron, a documentary that contributed to Arnie being the colossal star he is today.
He entered his first Mr Olympia in 1977, and won the Heavyweight Title. Between 1974 and 1979 the Mr Olympia held a Heavyweight and a Lightweight competition, before choosing an overall winner.
Robinson placed second behind Frank Zane – he claims due to a racial bias from the judges.
The same result occurred again in 1978, Robby winning the Heavyweight, and Frank winning the Lightweight, before beating Robby again to the Overall title.
By this point Robby was convinced that there was a bias against black bodybuilders, which given the time in history that we are discussing could very well have been the case.
He continued to compete in competitions, winning the Night of Champions, Professional World Cup, Best in The World, New York Grand Prix, and the Night of Champions again between 1978 and 1979.
But in the 1980s his career hit a roadblock of sorts as Robbie placed himself into a part-retirement, due to his belief that the competitions were not being judged fairly. He was eventually banned by the IFBB after voicing his concerns one time too often.
Before his ban he did finally manage to win a Mr Olympia title, winning the inaugural Mr Olympia Masters competition in 1994. He also won the over 50s competition in 97 and 2001.
After his ban he became a personal trainer and coach. He injured himself in a car crash shortly after retirement and this severely affected his physique. Today he is in fantastic shape again (for a 70 year old) and still regularly trains.
Robby Robinson's Legacy
Robby Robinson probably did more for black bodybuilders than anyone else, he has been praised by many as someone who stood up for himself and may have forced changes in equality that might not have occurred.
He has also held a mirror up to the attitudes of other bodybuilders and promoters at the time.
But it’s not just his politics that he should be remembered for, as a bodybuilder he really showed the benefits of a strong amateur career.
All that practicing at competing would have given him an edge over other bodybuilders who might not have had the same level of experience.
This could be one of the reasons why he won so many professional titles, so quickly after becoming a professional.
We’ll never know if Robby’s skin colour was what held him back from winning the 1978 and 1979 Mr Olympia outright titles. Frank Zane looked in incredible shape, and is a deserved champion, but many would say that Robby looked even better.
Robby’s claims that the lighting did not favour black competitors may sound like a weak statement, until you understand just how important lighting is for bodybuilding.
Robby’s victory in the 1994 Mr Olympia Masters event was a great way to find closure, but it is a shame that a bodybuilder who was so naturally talented, never managed to win the most coveted prize in bodybuilding.