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Bodybuilding’s Battle for Recognition

Mr. America Shunned in 1974 by ABQ Sports Media

Accepted Three Decades Later as a Model of Fitness by the LA Times

How far weight training has come! 

In 1954, my high School coach warned me that athletes don’t lift weights. In 1968, Dr. Kenneth Cooper wrote that muscular fitness is “like putting a lovely new coat of paint on an automobile that really needs an engine overhaul.” In 1974, the Albuquerque sports media refused to interview reigning Mr. America Jim Morris on the grounds that physique competition is not a sport.

Three decades later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Jim Morris helped transform bodybuilding into a “popular sport” and make weight training in gyms “as common as jogging.” (September 04, 2007)

I didn’t listen to my high school coach (an otherwise wonderful person and family friend who was parroting the orthodoxy of the day). Fortunately, I had read in Strength & Health magazine about men like John Davis (many times world champion Olympic weightlifter) and John Grimek (twice Mr. America), who were both amazingly flexible and athletic. Coach was elated when I won a statewide fitness competition, but I’m not sure whether he understood that lifting made that possible.

Dr. Cooper, who coined the term “aerobics,” later changed his mind about weight training and now recommends it to everyone, especially those over 40. The Cooper Fitness Center is fully equipped with both aerobic and weight training equipment. I see Dr. Cooper (now in his 80s) going and coming from the fitness center when I go to the Cooper Clinic.

Carol was recently going through an old file labeled “Personal Weightlifting Correspondence” and came upon the following letter that I wrote on April 17, 1974:

LeRoy Bearman
Sports Editor
Albuquerque Journal
7th & Silver
Albuquerque, New Mexico  87102

Dear Mr. Bearman,

I called the Journal Sports yesterday to tell them that Jim Morris, the current AAU Mr. America title holder will arrive in Albuquerque on the morning of Friday, April 19 to appear at the Mr. New Mexico Physique Contest to be held at the Highland High School Theater the following evening. 

I was told that you do not consider physique competition a sport, that you were not interested in interviewing Mr. Morris or covering the Mr. New Mexico contest.  I don’t want to argue with you over the subjective question of whether physique competition is a sport.  The fact is that the AAU recognizes it as a sport, as does G.A.A.F. the international body which recognizes governing bodies for sports on a worldwide basis.  Jim Morris is the current holder of the highest title awarded in this field by the AAU.  I know him personally and he is an outstanding gentleman in every way.  He is one of the oldest men to win the title – 38.

I believe you make a mistake by not taking the opportunity to talk to this man and see what he has to say about his sport.  Why not pose the objections to this type of competition to one of the world leaders in the field.  Maybe you will go away from the interview with the same opinion you originally had, but nevertheless you will have heard what this type of competition is about from a man who knows what it takes to reach the top.  

Having been involved in all aspects of weightlifting, Olympic lifting, Powerlifting, and Physique competition for 20 years myself, I know the type of training and discipline that it takes to excel in the field.  To be blunt, out of condition spectators are the rule in this country and are growing in numbers.  I believe your readers would be interested in hearing what a man who is at his physical peak at almost 40 years of age has to say. 

Why not have someone on your staff talk to Mr. Morris, or better yet, do it yourself.  I believe you would come away from the conversation with a better understanding of the fast growing sport which is likely to receive exhibition status at the next Olympics. 

Clarence R. Bass
New Mexico Association AAU Weightlifting Chairman

I had forgotten about this incident, but my letter was spot on.

As I recall, Mr. Bearman was unmoved, but a similar letter to Jim Wagner, Sports Editor of the Albuquerque Tribune, our evening paper, was successful. The difference was that the second letter enclosed a photo of Jim Morris. (You’ll find many photos of Jim Morris online. He still looks incredible in his 70s.)

Whether the photo made any difference I don’t know, but I remember taking Jim down to talk a reporter at the Tribune. I told Morris nothing about my letters and we had a very pleasant conversation, which resulted in a positive article in the Tribune.

Unfortunately, we have been unable to locate a copy of the article; the Tribune closed down a few years ago and their archives are not readily accessible. We have, however, found references to the Tribune article marked “unavailable.”

What Jim Morris has accomplished over the years is a matter of public record—and it is impressive.

He was swimming against the tide as both black and openly gay. (I didn’t know he was gay until later.) He was only the second black to win Mr. America. “In the 1970s, he was one of the very first to break the color line,” Bill Pearl, who was Jim’s coach and mentor, told the Los Angeles Times. “If you were black and had the greatest physique in the world at that time, you were not going to win a major physique contest,” Pearl continued. (September 04, 2007)

Clearly, there is something special about Jim Morris.

Jim was Elton John’s personal bodyguard from 1974 to 1988. Between tours, he acted as a private trainer for a number of entertainment notables.

He is perhaps the only one of the 1970s era Southern California bodybuilder group (Arnold, Joe Gold, Franco Columbu, Pearl, Chris Dickerson, Dave Draper, Frank Zane, etc.) who continues to live, train, and thrive as a personal trainer in the Venice area. His longtime rented bungalow was and perhaps still is a stop on the annual Venice Garden and Home tour in May.

In 1975, Iron Man magazine called him “The best sportsman in bodybuilding.”

“[Jim is] one of the most respected fitness trainers in the business,” Bill Pearl wrote in Legends of the Iron Game (2010). “If I wanted a trainer for myself, I would get Jim,” Pearl has added

Morris has recently become an outspoken proponent of the vegan diet. His interview explaining his reasoning, recorded at age 77, has garnered over a million hits on You Tube. To watch, Google “Jim Morris Vegan Bodybuilder Interview”

*  *  *

Knowing what I know now, 40 plus years later, I’m even more proud of what I wrote to LeRoy Bearman (and Jim Wagner), God rest his soul. Like Jim Morris, weight training has served me extremely well.


Special note (1-31-2016): Jim Morris passed away on January 29, 2016:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Morris_(bodybuilder)

That's all we know at this time.

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