On January 18, 1977, the world was introduced to bodybuilding and its most colorful character, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Pumping Iron is a docu-drama that follows some of the competitors leading up to the 1975 Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia shows.
Mr. Universe Competition
The movie starts off with the preparations for the 1975 IFBB Mr. Universe show. Mr. Universe was the premiere amateur show for bodybuilders. The primary focus is Mike Katz, a former NFL player on the New York Jets. Katz was bullied as a child, drawing him to weight training. He also has a bit of a meltdown when his lucky shirt is stolen by another competitor, Ken Waller.
Waller goes on to win the title of Mr. Universe, with Katz coming in fourth place. While the Mr. Universe portion is nice, the meat and potatoes of Pumping Iron is the Mr. Olympia portion.
Mr. Universe Competition
The main story told is the budding rivalry between favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger and rising star Lou Ferrigno. Ferrigno’s first attempt at the crown came in 1974 when he finished as the runner-up to Arnold. Schwarzenegger had won the previous five titles, and he planned on retiring after winning a sixth in 1975.
Pumping Iron framed the training programs for each in a contrasting light. Schwarzenegger was seen at Gold’s Gym and Muscle Beach surrounded by other bodybuilders and scantly dressed women. Meanwhile, Ferrigno was seen training in a dark basement gym with just his father. It helped underscore the balance of Ferrigno’s “hero” facing off against Arnold’s “villain”. Schwarzenegger is the standout star of the movie. He drops quote after quote that anyone who has seen the movie can identify immediately.
We learn about the mental side of the sport as well. Throughout their time together pre-competition, Arnold is putting everyone around him through mental gymnastics. He never misses the opportunity to work in a jab at someone’s physique or posing.
Ultimately, Lou Ferrigno finishes third, quite possibly shaken by Schwarzenegger’s string of negs. Arnold wins the heavyweight division and then defeats his good friend Franco Columbo who won the lightweight division. The movie ends with Arnold enjoying a celebratory joint and fried chicken before heading back home.
The Impact of Pumping Iron
The movie was a success at the box office and brought the sport of bodybuilding to the general public. Most importantly, it launched Arnold Schwarzenegger into superstardom and allowed for Ferrigno to cash in as well. Arnold was only weeks away from winning a Golden Globe for best new actor in 1976’s Stay Hungry when the movie dropped.
You read that last sentence correctly, Arnold Schwarzenegger won a Golden Globe for acting in 1977.
The fitness craze of the 1980s and the rise of the Hollywood action star owes a lot to Pumping Iron. If not for the categoric rise of Arnold leading to him being cast as the titular Conan the Barbarian, it’s hard to imagine if the genre would have taken off as it did. As a hardcore fan, I couldn’t be happier that it did.
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