Earlier this year I had the chance to speak with legendary Mr. America and Mr. Universe Mike Katz by phone. In contrast to the seemingly introverted and passive figure he was portrayed as in “Pumping Iron”, I found Mike to be a gregarious and competitive-minded man, but no less the gentleman than his screen persona.
Iron Age: Thank you for taking the time out to do this interview.
Mike Katz: It’s my pleasure.
IA: Well, why don’t we start at the beginning? Can you tell me your stats?
MK: I was born 11/14/44. I have a son and a daughter. Michael just turned 32. Michele is 30.
IA: I understand she has a child.
MK: They both do now. Michael’s daughter is Lindsay and Michele has Kylie.
IA: How do you like grandfatherhood?
MK: It’s wonderful. All the great things anyone ever said about having grandchildren is an understatement. You can’t know until you become a grandparent. It’s different for me from being a parent because I was involved in trying to conquer the world as a young man- trying to get an education, playing pro football, wanting to be a great bodybuilder. The kids were important and, when push came to shove, they always came first, but there are so many other things when you’re trying to earn a living and maintain a house and save for their college, not to mention trying to satisfy your own competitive desires. But now as a grandparent I can just sit back and notice my grandchildren’s eyelashes and the dimples on their fingers.
When I talk to young guys who are fathers I sometimes tell them, “Don’t wait to be grandfathers to be fathers.” I don’t know if that’s been said by others before but there’s a lot of wisdom in that advice. I sometimes wish the clock could have stopped when I was raising my own kids. But I think a lot of grandparents feel that way.
IA: I know you may not have had the chance to visit Iron Age but basically it’s a tribute site to bodybuilding from the 60’s through the 80’s, which was your period. And it was you and your contemporaries that motivated me as a young man to pick up a barbell and try to build my muscles. But after the 80’s I noticed a change in the sport which turned me off to it for a while. It seems that the spirit of it was changing. It became cynical in many ways. One thing that appealed to me about bodybuilding from your era was the camaraderie. But that’s been replaced by individual egos and backbiting.
MK: Well, you know what happened, money came in. The same thing applies to the ‘golden age’ of football because before you had money all you really had was each other. But in football they had the acceptance of the public so if you weren’t making much money you could at least hear 30,000 fans screaming for you. But with bodybuilding, all we had was ourselves, supporting each other and sticking up for each other and justifying what we were doing. Then at times we’d have to defend ourselves against being called ‘gay’ or ‘narcissistic’ or ‘musclebound’ or any of the other stereotypes that the public labelled us with. But football or baseball players at least didn’t have to deal with that. So we had to stick together and there was, as you said, a camaraderie even though we were competing against each other. And we did respect each other and socialize and even help each other, even if we were competing the following day.
IA: That was pretty well depicted in the old magazines and in Pumping Iron as well. I used to train at Steve Michalik’s gym on Long Island and I remember how it seemed like everyone there was one big spotter for each other. We’d all jump back and forth helping each other train.
Mike, “Coach” and Joe Ugolik circa 1973 (George Butler photo from the book “Pumping Iron”)
IA: But it seems now there are many more individualists.
MK: Well, the thing that’s interesting is that when I listen to older guys like myself I wonder if they aren’t living in the past. It’s as if their time was the most special time and no one else can share what they had. But what I’d like to say is that I’m not a dinosaur. I’m older; yes, and I don’t compete; that’s correct. But I’m very much involved in the sport and I’m very much involved in helping certain athletes make health judgments, financial judgments, sportsmanship judgments. The wisdom that I’ve got and the mistakes I’ve made, as well as the things I’ve done right, all go into this. And I tell them that our “Golden Age” was wonderful and I would never want to compete in any other age of bodybuilding. But the point is that this wasn’t the only period of value because there were guys like Bill Pearl before me and guys like Coleman who have competed after me. So the question is, “What can we take from each generation?” From Grimek and Reeves and Pearl to Arnold and myself and Louie and then Haney and then on the the Yates and Coleman eras, I think everybody can learn something from everyone else. They can learn some good stuff from us and we can learn from them.
The point is that I’m happy about when I competed and feel very fulfilled about what I’ve done and whatever young guys today can learn from me I want to give them. I don’t want to be angry and old and grumpy and think that my generation of bodybuilders is the only one should be admired. We can all learn how to be better people from each other. Bill Pearl is still out there and active and I admire him tremendously. He’s promoting bodybuilding in a very positive way and, obviously, Arnold’s doing his thing and I’m doing my thing and we’re all working toward the imporvement and success of the sport.
IA: I’m really glad you said all of that because I state on the website that, while I do have my own personal preference for that era, it was not the only one and good has come out of each.
MK: Yeah. Because all you would really do is anger the hell out of Bill Pearl, who needs to be respected for what he’s done, and our generation, and the Yates and Haneys and Colemans and Cutlers- the new age guys. What I’m trying to do, as part of my generation, is help guide some of the guys today in regards to their health and finances so they don’t end up broke and sick. It’s like in boxing when you hear the story about the punch drunk guy who can’t function anymore and lost his life savings. I’m trying to show guys how to get a financial cushion and invest their money properly, like Kevin Levrone who owns his own World Gym in Maryland and who is doing very well with his music. So he’s kind of spread out, not just relying on bodybuilding. It’s interesting how most of the great, great bodybuilders have got more than just bodybuilding. I know Yates is extremely well off and I know Haney is doing very well. And Franco for our generation. And Bill Pearl.
IA: If I could, I’d like to go back into your past for a moment. We have a few younger readers on Iron Age who are very curious about the history of bodybuilding and so I asked them, “If you could interview Mike Katz what would you ask him?” One response I got was, “Who were Mike’s idols growing up?”
MK: I think probably, when I was very young, it was Steve Reeves. You know, when you go to the Saturday matinee and your throwing popcorn and having a good ol’ time with your buddies and probably driving the usher nuts and instead of seeing “The Three Stooges” or” Our Gang”, you all of a sudden see “Hercules” and you’re like, “Oh my God!”. You’re just going through puberty and you’re trying to find yourself and then, there it is. I’m sure it was the same for guys of your generation who, at 9, 10, 11 and 12 years old first saw “Conan” with Arnold and got inspired. So for me it was Reeves.
But after I started buying the magazines, after I was introduced to the movie part of it, it became John Grimek. So it was initially Reeves and Reg Park and then Grimek from the magazines. But finally, after I started reading about it, it was Bill Pearl. He was big and thick and beautifully symmetrical and he never even have to pose. He had certain poses of course, but I think he was one guy who didn’t even have to pose
IA: Back to you now… what was it like making the transition from professional football (as a NY Jet) to professional bodybuilding?
MK: Well, when I started getting to the point in my career when I was going up to Holyoke with Ed Jubinville up in Mountain Park, I was just starting to devote all of my training to bodybuilding. Before that I was playing with the Jets and could only bodybuild part time. That was ’68 when I was injured, which was the year before they won the Superbowl. So my football career ended with the knee operation.
I had had two goals when I was a kid and one of them was to be a teacher. I was inspired by my health education teacher, Mr. Girosa. So once I stopped playing football I became a full-time teacher and I had a wonderful lifestyle where I would get out of school at 2:00 and could go to the ‘Y’ and train there from 2:30-5:00 or 2:30-6:00 while everybody elsse was working. So I was able to make a living and also work hard as a bodybuilder.
Before I met Arnold I went into Weider’s contests because the AAU wouldn’t let a professional compete in their so-called amateur contests, because I was paid to play football. But this was also a time when they wouldn’t have any black Mr. America’s. Sergio couldn’t win the Mr. America with them so he went to Joe and the IFBB. Everybody that wanted to get a fair shake went to Weider. So I got to compete in the IFBB version. The first time was in ’67 and I won Best Chest. Those shows were all at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Town Hall and promoted by Tom Minichiello, who was like the Jim Manion of the day. He was a great, great guy, along with Ed Jubinville.
Anyway, early on I was all chest. As a football player I didn’t need giant calves or 32″ thighs. They wouldn’t have helped me in football. So, my natural bodyparts that came easy grew bigger and the parts I didn’t need for football didn’t. So early on I didn’t have the proportion or symmetry but I was one of the fastest guys in the NFL. At 265 I ran a 4.6(sec) 40. The backs weren’t running that speed. Plus I was the strongest and biggest guy on the field. But nobody really lifted weights back then. They didn’t understand what I was doing. They thought they’d all get musclebound and slow but here I was, getting big and strong and fast from it. Still the coaches told them not to lift. I knew that the coaches didn’t know what they were talking about.
IA: George Butler related to me how, when the “Pumping Iron” crew went to visit you at your school you ran the football field with a bunch of the student athletes trying to catch you and he said that no one could. He was shocked how someone your size could move so fast.
MK: (Laughing) I remember. I can also dunk a basketball from a standing position. At 6’1″ and 260-270 I could dunk a basketball with two hands. I did some pretty unprecedented things. But today there are a lot of big, talented guys who’ve benefitted from weight training. You’ll see 6’8″ linemen today who weren’t talented enough at basketball but who are incredible athletes on the football field. Back then a 200 pound athlete was considered big.
Mike circa 1970
IA: It’s like in boxing where you had Rocky Marciano who was the heavyweight champ in the 50’s at 5’10” and 185 lbs. Even Joe Frazier, only 30 years ago, was something like 5’11” and 200 pounds. But today you’ve got Lennox Lewis who’s 6’5″ and 250 lbs.
IA: Let’s talk about your chest a little. On the Iron Age website we’ve ranted your chest as being among the best of all time– even to this day. Your ribcage is unbelievable. Is this a product of your training or is it your special brand of genetics?
MK: I think it’s a combination of both. I think my xyphoid process, the tip of my sternum, is very high, compared to most people’s. So I think the skeletal genetics create the potential. It’s like Platz’s thighs. Why doesn’t everybody have thighs like his if they’re all doing the same exercises? Or Schwarzenegger’s arms. I still think that he has the best arms of all time. He just has that certain bicep and roundness to his tricep that’s one of a kind. So I think I’m just fortunate, skeletally, to have a my structure, along with a lot of pullovers and learning to control my diaphragm.
Arnold would always make fun of me because he thought I was holding my breath. He had this little Volkswagen and no money, except what Weider paid him and he had this little third floor walkup in Santa Monica with Franco. So he’s tell me to wait in his car while he went in so I’d fall asleep. Then he’d come out to check on me to see if my chest deflated when Iwas sleeping. But it wasn’t and that’s how he knew that I wasn’t holding my breath. That was his little trick.
IA: (Laughing) That’s a great story! Speaking of Arnold; what was it like training with him? I know you guys would hook up when you were in L.A.
MK: Well, I’d stay with my aunt Vivi. She was my mom’s sister and a nurse and she and her husband lived in Brentwood. I used to go visit her before I was really even into bodybuilding. Iloved the surf and the hot rod card- still do. Anyway, after school would let out for the summer Weider would invite me to come out to L.A. and so I stayed at my aunt’s house. A lot of times she’d either bring me to Arnold’s and we’d go to Gold’s from there or he’d come pick me up.
So we had a really good relationship. i’m not saying we were best friends because he had Franco and i wan’t there all year. But the little but that I was there he took a liking to me and we just trained together. He didn’t like training legs and I did so I was perfect. He knew he had to train legs but didn’t get too excited about it. But that was one of my strongest points. even though my legs weren’t like Platz’s my legs were extremely strong and I pushed him. We were the same height and the same weight and he loved to aggravate me and I was a good target to be annoyed, but not come up swinging. (Laughing) Our personalities just meshed and we became real good friends and training partners and so I learned a lot from him. He learned a lot from Weider and all of the great California bodybuilders out there. So I learned from him and then brought all of the information back to the east coast where I disseminated it to the people back in Connecticut and New York.
IA: Did you see ‘star quality’ in him at the time?
MK: Oh yeah. It reminded me of Joe Namath. I saw that star quality in Joe back in ’67 when he and I were good friends, and we still are to this day. So Joe had it and then Arnold comes along and I see the same star quality on him. So, I mean, I knew it. And when people laughed when he said he was going to become a movie star I said “Just wait.” And when people laugh now when he says he has certain political aspirations, I wouldn’t laugh too hard. Because the last laugh’s gonna be on you when it comes to him wanting to be anything.
IA: That’s basically what George Butler said.
MK: You know, the only thing that could happen, which is unfair, is that everyone has an imperfect life. Nobody’s perfect. And it just seems today that at times people want to dig up the past and find these imperfections or indiscretions that everybody’s got. You could find something on everybody. We’d have nobody left to run the government if you wanted to dig deep enough.
At this point I asked Mike about the infamous “T-shirt” scene from “Pumping Iron”. At his request I am keeping this part of the interview off the record. Mike told me that there will be a “time and place” for him to discuss this matter in detail. Hopefully it will be for Iron Age.
IA: Let’s bring this conversation up to date. I know you’re busy these days as an IFBB judge and a promoter of NPC shows, so you have a breadth of bodybuilding knowledge spanning several generations. What are some of the positive changes you’ve seen in bodybuilding since your days competing and who are the guys you see as being really positive leaders in the sport?
Myself, Mike and Franco Columbu at “A Night of Iron” at the Whitney Museum in NYC.
MK: Well, I think by virtue of the fact that bodybuilding is so much more popular today, there are so many more gyms and health clubs. It enables people in general to get off the street and get healthy. Today you don’t have to face the stigma we had to when it came to wanting to have a nice body. So now that more people are lifting weights there are more competitors in bodybuilding shows. There are also more drug-free ‘alternative’ bodybuilding shows. People are much more concerned about nutrition and supplements. You’ve got to look to Weider. Even as he’s gotten older he’s still working, with his brother Ben, to promote fitness and bodybuilding throughout the world. They’re helping to educate the public about bodybuilding.
I think Jim Manion is doing a great job with the NPC. I think he’s really been successful at spreading the word of bodybuilding throughout the U.S. We also have guys like Bill Pearl who’s still running around promoting the heck out of the sport at nearly 70 years old, like he’s a young man.
As for the new guys, I know that Kevin Levrone did a wonderful job with the Special Olympics. When the World Games came to New Haven thanks toTim Shriver, Arnold’s brother-in-law, Arnold came and I got Kevin Levrone to come and participate and he was wonderful. Lee Haney does a wonderful job doing charity work. He’s very religious family man and a great representitive of the sport.
IA: How about on an athletic level? Who from the new crop really impresses you?
MK: To me Cutler is like the Bill Pearl of today. He doesn’t even have to pose. In fact, I think he looks even better relaxed. And I saw that years ago when he was just starting out. I saw his bone structure and I knew he was just special. And this is not to take anything away from Coleman. Coleman has been great in his time and Yates before him. But Cutler is like Haney, only freakier– almost unbelievable. I mean, with Haney, he had bodyparts that were believable. But Cutler, he’s got the genetics of a Haney or even a Flex Wheeler, but just a monster. A monster that’s still beautiful. Not that monsters are ugly. I mean, Yates’ back was beautiful. It was to him like my chest was. And Coleman is just a genetic marvel. But, and this is just one man’s opinion, but I don’t think either one has the overall beauty to their physique of a Cutler. There’s this huge amount of mass with these sweeping lines… When I emceed the Southern States show in Florida he guest posed at over 300 lbs. and he still had serratus, still had those lines.
IA: So, Mike, why don’t we let you plug your upcoming shows.
MK: My partner, Jerry Mastrangelo, and I are going to run the Connecticut and we’re going to run a “Northern States” a la Peter Potter’s “Southern States.” I had invented the title “Northeastern” years ago and then we stopped it for a year and then somebody took the name. So I think we’re going to run the show with the Mantenari’s from Gold’s Gym. We’ve promoted successfully with them in the past. So it will be a Gold’s-World production. We call it Connecticut Productions and that should be sometime in May or June of this year. It will be an open contest whereas the Connecticut will be a closed contest.
IA: How can we purchase tickets to either show?
MK: You can get them at either our World in Branford or the Manteneri Gold’s in New Haven. We are also going to run the 2004 and 2005 Jr. USA in New Haven in April of those years.
IA: I want to thank you very much for your time Mike.
MK: Thank you Shawn. It’s guys like you who keep the whole thing alive.
Sadly Iron Age is now defunct, but you can access its content through the Wayback Machine. Click here to access the original interview.