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I remember standing outside of Gold’s Gym in Venice back in the early 1980s and listening to a young bodybuilder complain that there were no more “big guys” in the sport. At that point, Arnold had retired, and top competitors included Samir Bannout, Chris Dickerson, and Frank Zane. Excellent bodybuilders, but not very big ones. But little did I or that young bodybuilder realize that a sea change was about to occur in physique competition, and it would be announced by the arrival of the massive and aesthetic Lee Haney.
I run into massively mesomorphic physiques all the time, bodies that look like they were designed for linemen in the NFL. Lee Haney does not have that kind of body. The story I heard was that he got into bodybuilding because he broke his leg twice playing high school football. That would indicate that Lee has mastodon muscles but not mastodon bones. And, of course, that is the key to his outstanding aesthetics. With smaller bones and joints, you can end up with more shapely, tapered muscles. Otherwise, you end up with thick, massive but more blocky muscles. Look at photos of Lee and see how small his wrists are. I always noticed the same thing about Arnold. Huge forearms tapering down to surprisingly small wrists.
In the age of 300 pounds plus Mr. Olympia competitors, Lee Haney might not seem that massive. But when he won the NPC Nationals in 1982, he seemed like one very big dude, indeed. He was the first of a line of future massive competitors such as Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman, and Jay Cutler – leading eventually to Big Ramy, who is so massive he looks as if he might be a member of a different species.
Back in the 80s, the Nationals champion went on to compete in the IFBB Mr. Universe. I remember talking to Lee on the flight to Belgium for the Universe and having him tell me he had never been to Europe before. “You are not really going to Europe now,” I told him. “You are just going to another contest. An airport, a hotel, a theater. The same thing you are already used to. Concentrate on that and enjoy a trip to Europe later, after you’ve won the contest.”
Needless to say, Lee did win the Universe and went on to victory in eight Mr. Olympia events. The last was in 1991 in Florida. The question at the time was whether “newcomer” Dorian Yates would be able to beat the champion and become the new Mr. Olympia. I remember being backstage when Dorian came in to pump up. He was of course very impressive. And then Lee came in took off his shirt. Photographers and journalists watching immediately realized the contest would be for second place. Lee was one of those bodybuilders, along with others like Lee Labrada, who was at his best the year he retired.
I had occasion to photograph Lee Haney many times, on stage, in the gym, and in the studio. He was always a total gentleman, easy to deal with. Joe Weider sent me twice to Atlanta to shoot Lee in his gyms. The original one had no air conditioning. You would think, doing photos in November, would not be a problem. But I’m from very dry Los Angeles and Atlanta was extremely humid, so although it was not super-hot, I ended up with a collection of Lee Haney tee-shirts since I kept getting replacements when I sweated through the ones I was wearing.
The next Lee Haney gym shoot was at his newer gym, all chrome and air-conditioned. It was common for photographers at the time to spray subjects with water to mimic sweat. I sprayed Lee several times, but the gym was very chilly at that point, and he found this uncomfortable. So, he finally said to me in his gentle but very pronounced southern drawl, “Bill, please don’t spray me with no more water….”
That was about as “difficult” as Lee Haney was capable of being. A super-nice guy, everyone would agree.