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Lee was a standout competitor of the late 1980s and early ’90s. He earned his pro card by winning the middleweight division at the 1985 Amateur World Championships in Sweden. In those days, the only road to a pro card was winning a World Championship — a national title wouldn’t cut it.
In his pro career, which commenced in 1986 and ended in 1995, he won seven pro shows and was twice Mr. Olympia runner-up (1989 and 1990) to Lee Haney. At 5’6″, he packed 180 classy and symmetrical pounds on his physique, putting him in the running to be granted the mantle of the best short bodybuilder of all time.
After missing out on the 1994 competitive season he announced that the Arnold Classic, slated for March 4, 1995, would be his last contest. Win, lose or draw, at age 34, it would be his final hurrah. I was FLEX senior writer at the time and was assigned to track Lee during the contest as he completed his competitive finale. He was to finish fifth with Mike Francois taking top spot ahead of Flex Wheeler.
Like an obedient bloodhound I dogged Lee throughout the day. Prior to the prejudging he told me, “I was starting to get burned out in 1993, especially mentally. I was starting to not enjoy myself so I decided to take a hiatus. I stepped off the merry-go-round and instead of being part of it, observed and took stock of it. I could see bodybuilding’s tectonic plates were shifting. Lee Haney was a big guy but was well proportioned with a small waist; which was a different look than the bigger guys that came after him.
“The sport had started taking a different direction. I realized that the sport was outgrowing me and I was outgrowing it. I thought that personally I’d done everything I’d set out to accomplish with the exception of winning the Mr. Olympia, but I felt that with the direction the sport was going in that title was now beyond me. And I didn’t want to go on like an aged prize fighter who starts getting beaten by guys who back in the day would not have been a threat. So I made the decision to exit the stage at this contest.”
In the evening I was backstage as this future hall-of-famer prepared to go out and execute his last-ever posing routine, which were always works of art. As he checked himself in the mirror I saw he had a tear in his eye and I asked him, “What’s the matter Lee, what’s wrong”? He replied, “I’m looking in the mirror and I know I’ll never, ever, ever look like this again.”
And with that he walked out to deliver a show-stopping routine, which was a fitting punctuation mark to a unique and unforgettable career.
THE LEE LABRADA FILE
Peter McGough is a legendary bodybuilding journalist, and former editor-in-chief of FLEX Magazine.