The Curious Case of the World Bodybuilding Federation

In the first of a three part series, we look at the brief life of the World Bodybuilding Federation, an organisation financed by wrestling mogul Vince McMahon that tried to take on Joe Weider’s formidable stronghold on the sport.

While the WBF ultimately failed, its influence on the sport cannot be underestimated.  

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Part One: Kicking Ass and Taking Names

Bodybuilding is an interesting sport in more ways than one. Aside from the bulging muscles, oiled behemoths and flashy lights, there exists a fascinating business element to the sport.

For the greater part of the 20th and 21st century, bodybuilding has been ruled and prescided over by the International Federation of Bodybuilding, the IFBB. Every major professional bodybuilding tournament boasts the IFBB logo and many of the greatest bodybuilders from Arnie to Ronnie have cut their teeth in the organisation.

Created by Joe and Ben Weider, the IFBB spent the mid half of the 20th century fighting off and finally defeating Bob Hoffman’s AAU organisation thereby becoming ‘THE’ bodybuilding organisation that all the athletes wanted to be a part of for the remainder of the century. From the 1960s onward, the IFBB became a monopoly that few dared to challenge.

It came as a surprise then when Vince McMahon, a man associated more with pro-wrestling than bodybuilding, sought to overthrow the Weider’s in the early 1990s and establish his own bodybuilding federation, labelled the World Bodybuilding Federation. Whilst the WBF only lasted for two years, it diveded the bodybuilding community, bringing in reforms of varying success and making the sport somewhat more mainstream.

McMahon’s Attack

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Vince McMahon, the man willing and able to take on the Weiders

On September 15th 1990 a strange atmosphere permeated through the Arie Crown Theatre in downtown Chicago. The IFBB’s 26th Mr. Olympia, the defining date in the bodybuilding calendar, was winding down but not before one last twist. After Lee Haney won the title for the umpteenth time, rumors emerged in the auditorium that Vince McMahon, President of WWF, was making an announcement that would change the course of bodybuilding history.

But what was Vince, the President of the WWF, doing at the Olympia? 

Well it’s a long story, beginning in early 1990.

In early 1990 the wrestling tycoon officially opened Titan Towers in Connecticut. The towers were a state of the art television facility costing over 9 million dollars with production facilities comparable to anyone else in the business. The ribbon cutting was accompanied by the news that McMahon was henceforth president of Titan Sports Inc., a new business entity primarily concerned with wrestling but with an eye for new opportunities.

It didn’t take long for Vince to seek out new sports to dominate. Why wouldn’t he? After all by 1990 WWF was one of the biggest wrestling entities in the world, rivalled only by Ted Turner’s WCW. In the ‘80s Vince had thrown his hat at movie making and other business ventures with little success. The ‘90s would see Vince move into other sports and remarkably it was bodybuilding, the niche muscle sport that Vince identified as a new and immensely profitable opportunity.

McMahon’s fascination with bodybuilding led him to establish Bodybuilding Lifestyles magazine in 1990 and invest in a fitness nutritional brand called Integrated Conditioning Program (ICO for short). At the opening ceremony for the magazine, McMahon continually made reference to his own love of bodybuilding, pointing out that he had spent the better part of the 1980s as Hulk Hogan’s training partner. It was a desperate attempt to improve his street credit with a bodybuilding community highly suspicious of his actions, specifically Joe Weider. After all, Weider had routinely countered Vince’s attempts to sign bodybuilders up for the WWF in the ‘80s as Vince sought out bigger and more muscular athletes. Vince’s announcement that he was entering the bodybuilding realm was met with derision from the established IFBB.

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At first it seemed that Vince was content to focus on magazines and supplements…

Nevertheless, McMahon’s investments soon began to gain further and further traction with the announcement that Tom Platz, the golden boy of ‘80s bodybuilding, would be joining Bodybuilding Lifestyles as a consultant and talent scout.

Tom Platz at his best

The signing of Tom Platz to the WBF instantly added to its reputation

It was Bodybuilding Lifestyles that brought McMahon and Platz to the Olympia in 1990 with Vince renting out a booth in the Arie Crown Theatre to promote his new venture. Well at least that’s what the Weider’s thought.

Guerrilla Marketing at the Olympia…

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During the Olympia Vince and Platz shook hands, signed autographs and talked about what Bodybuilding Lifestyles would be focusing on. It was an uneventful debut from McMahon, a man known for his aggressive marketing techniques. Sadly for the Weiders, McMahon wasn’t done. Before the 4,600 spectators in the Arie Crown Theatre could retire to their homes, Tom Platz took to the stage with a surprise announcement.

Speaking to the slightly bemused crowd, Platz told them

“I have a very important announcement to make. We at Titan Sports are proud to announce the formation of the World Bodybuilding Federation. And we are going to kick the IFBB’s ass!”

The first shots in Vince’s battle with the IFBB had been fired and with that, the doors to the auditorium burst open to reveal an army of attractive women bearing sashes emblazoned with the WBF logo. As the women handed out pamphlets detailing the new bodybuilding federation, the Weiders stood by seething. Vince had chosen the biggest event of the Weider calendar to announce his own federation. In terms of bravado, it didn’t get much bolder.

The pamphlets detailed what the WBF was intended to be accompanied with bold claims that it would change the course of bodybuilding history with “dramatic new events and the richest prize money in the history of the sport”. While the public ceremony took place, McMahon had his associates slid WBF contracts under the hotel doors of every Olympia contestant.

Vince only wanted the best.

The following day’s press release saw Vince claim the WBF would be “bodybuilding the way it was meant to be” and for many this meant no drug testing. 1990 had seen the Weiders crack down heavily on drug abuse in the sport, with roughly 20% of that year’s Olympia competitors failing for drug usage. The Weiders were trying to clean up bodybuilding’s reputation after a series of controversies, something that Vince was all too keen to take advantage of.

The response from the Weiders to the WBF’s announcement was cryptic to say the least. Although Ben Weider told reporters that “I’m not angry, you can quote me”, his actions proved otherwise. Soon after the announcement of the WBF, the IFBB issued a memo that any bodybuilder who dared to join the WBF would be banned from IFBB’s competitions for life. That meant no Olympias, no Mr. Universes, heck no Mr. Regional Titles! It was a lot to give up and was exactly the same tactic the Weiders had used in the past to crush former competitors like Arthur Jones and Bob Hoffman.

There was only one problem. Vince had big, big bucks to spend and could compensate athletes in a way the Weiders refused to do so. Whilst IFBB bodybuilders would be giving up a lot to join Vince, there was even more to be gained with contracts upwards up $100,00 a year being touted in muscle circles. Putting that into context, Lee Haney received $70,000 in prize money for coming first in the ’90 Mr. Olympia.

It was only a matter of time before he snapped up stars.

The WBF Team

 Within three months of the WBF’s creation, any questions of who would defect were answered during a press conference at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Ever the showman, Vince made sure the announcement was as dramatic as possible with the lights to the room dimming to introduce the silhouettes of 13 men to enter the room. Dressed in neon green jackets, black tank tops and shorts, the thirteen WBF bodybuilders were introduced one by one. They were

Aaron Baker, Mike Quinn, Troy Zuccolotto, Danny Padilla, Tony Pearson, Jim Quinn, Berry Demey, Eddie Robinson, Mike Christian, Vince Comeford, David Dearth, Johnnie Morant, and Gary Strydom.

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The Bodystars made an impressive team

The key man in Vince’s Bodystars team was undoubtedly Gary Strydom, the 6 foot, blond haired bodybuilder weighing in at over 240 pounds. Strydom had the charisma and look that Vince wanted something that led McMahon to offer Strydom a contract in the range of $400,000 a year. At the time no one in the IFBB made more than $50,000 annually. In his own words, Vince was finally giving bodybuilders the money they deserved, although for a price.

Vince insisted that the WBF would take a page from the WWF and have his Bodystars cut dramatic promos, develop alter-egos and partake in publicity stunts. Furthermore Titan Sports would be producing a weekly show detailing the Bodystars’ training programs, diets and lifestyles coupled with games and contests. It was WWF for bodybuilding and was a marked change from the traditional way bodybuilders had conducted their business. Importantly, Vince also announced the date of the first WBF show. June 15th would be the big day.

Whether or not the WBF experiment would work or not was a different matter but both Vince and Platz were confident it would. Platz told reporters that soon the day would come when an WBF star would be sitting on an airplane, and Magic Johnson would lean across the aisle and say “I saw you on television last night.”

Needless to say Vince’s actions forced Joe Weider to change his own organisation’s tactics with the bodybuilding mogul announcing that the 1991 Olympia would boast a $100,000 prize fund for the winner. Furthermore rumours emerged that Weider was searching for a way to create a pay-per-view bodybuilding in a bid to counter anything Vince was planning. Weider soon showed how hurt he had been by the defections with his May 1991 Night of Champions contest featuring thirteen tombstones on stage, each containing the name of a WBF Bodystar. As the show opened, IFBB bodybuilders destroyed the tombstones on stage in an act as bizarre as it was funny.

Just one month after the Night of Champions, the WBF would be debuting and the bodybuilding community waited with baited breath. Would Vince’s experiment work? What would it mean for the sport? And who would be crowned the first WBF Champion?

Find out in the second part of our series coming next week!

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