Sergio Oliva may just be one of the most interesting bodybuilders to have ever competed.
He started out life as a member of the Cuban army that fought against Castro’s forces, defected to the United States at a weightlifting competition, and became just the second Mr Olympia winner in history.
He also suffered a banning by the IFBB, then boycotted the Mr Universe for 12 years.
This is a bodybuilder who managed to beat Arnold – and was described by Schwarzenegger as having one of the most intimidating bodies he had ever seen.
Who knows what Sergio Oliva might have achieved if he hadn’t missed 13 Mr Universe Championships in a row?
We could be talking about the most successful bodybuilder of all time here. Instead we will talk about Sergio Oliva the 3 time Mr Olympia winner (1967-1969).
Sergio Oliva was born in Guantanamo, Cuba on 4th July 1941.
At 12 years old he was working in the Sugar Cane fields, but four years later he joined the army on the advice of his father.
This was during the Cuban Revolution, and unfortunately Sergio was on the wrong side, he fought in Batista’s army against Fidel Castro.
After the war Sergio walked away unharmed and then apparently spent a lot of his time lying around on the beach, it was while doing this that a man approached him and asked if he would be interested in taking up weightlifting for the Cuban national team.
He took to the sport naturally and made it to second place in the 1962 National Weightlifting Championships.
When the winner became injured Sergio was given his place in the 1962 Central American and Caribbean Games, this was held in Kingston, Jamaica.
In what must have been a pretty hilarious site to behold, Sergio took his first opportunity to escape to the American consulate, sprinting as fast as he can.
He was soon followed by essentially the entire Cuban team! The Americans took all of them, and soon enough Sergio was an American citizen.
After spending time in Miami, Florida working as a television repairman.
Oliva moved to Chicago in 1963, he signed up to the local YMCA and was soon spending 3 hours a day there, combined with his 10-12 hour days working in a steel mill .
In 1963 he entered his first bodybuilding competition “Mr Chicago” and promptly won it.
He followed that up with a first place in the 1964 Mr Illinois, and a 7th place finish in Mr America.
In 1965 he managed a 2nd place finish in Junior Mr America, and a 4th place in Mr America.
He turned professional the next year winning the Junior Mr America title, managing 2nd place in Mr America, winning the IFBB Mr World, the IFBB Mr Universe, and managing a 4th place in the IFBB flagship competition Mr Olympia.
The Mr Olympia Years
In 1967 Sergio Oliva competed in the 3rd Mr Olympia competition, held in Brooklyn, New York.
He defeated Chuck Sipes to become the second Mr Olympia winner in history. 1967 was also the year that Oliva won the IFBB Mr Universe title.
In 1968 Sergio won what is probably the most unusual Mr Olympia in history – because he was completely unopposed.
This may give you an idea of the state of bodybuilding in general, or at least the IFBB but there were no competitors who could compete that day!
Chuck Sipes was the only other bodybuilder who turned up, but he had competed in (and won) the Mr World that same day.
He had also exhausted himself by performing strongman stunts. In the end he was advised by the competition founder (Joe Weider) to give it a miss.
Though the competition was unusual, it would be unfair to say it was controversial, Sergio Oliva was probably the best bodybuilder in the world that year, and was also the current champion. It would have taken something really special to take that title away from him.
In 1969 Sergio came up against the person who is now considered the greatest bodybuilder of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also beat him! Making Sergio the only bodybuilder to have ever beaten Schwarzenegger in a Mr Olympia competition.
Arnold himself says that he was so impressed with Oliva’s size that he was a beaten man before he even walked out onto the stage, high praise indeed.
The next year though Arnold had his revenge, winning his first ever Mr Universe and establishing himself as the biggest name in bodybuilding. Sergio was second, with Reg Lewis third.
Sergio Oliva was banned from the 1971 competition, alongside Roy Callender, and Franco Columbu for competing in events from outside the IFBB.
This was due to the IFBB pushing for Bodybuilding to become an Olympic sport, meaning that there were to be no unsanctioned events.
Arnold won the 1971 competition unopposed, in the same way that Oliva had in 1968, though this win was a lot more controversial.
Sergio was allowed to pose alongside Franco Columbu, but both were ineligible for a shot at the title.
The 1972 Mr Olympia was held in Essen, Germany. Again it was Arnold who came out on top, winning a split decision. Out of 7 judges, 4 voted for Arnold and 3 voted for Sergio.
Serge Nubret of France came in third, with Frank Zane in fourth and Franco Columbu in fifth.
After the Mr Olympia, Sergio competed (and won) the WBBG Mr Galaxy competition. He was subsequently banned from competing in the 1973 Mr Olympia.
After the competition, Joe Weider (co-founder of the competition) called Sergio the “Cuban Chicken” for not facing Arnold, which probably had some influence on Sergio’s boycotting of the competition.
As great as Arnold was/is, many people would say that he definitely was the favourite of the judges and competition owners, so it is little wonder that Sergio stayed away for so long.
Over the next few years Sergio won many bodybuilding competitions held by the WBBG and WABBA, he came back to the IFBB in 1984 and 85, finishing 8th on both occasions.
He finally retired from bodybuilding afterwards. In 1986 he was shot 5 times in the stomach by his wife at the time, he survived, but their marriage (perhaps understandably) didn’t.
He had a son named Sergio Oliva Jr who is currently making big waves in the bodybuilding world.
Sergio Oliva died of kidney failure in 2012 at the age of 71. He left behind a legacy of being one of the most aesthetically impressive bodybuilders of his (and any) era.