Flex Interview 1997
“Ask Nasser El Sonbaty what makes him tick and what drives his personality. He will reply, “Who cares?” He remains the only bodybuilder to decline to be profiled in FLEX Big Picture series, saying, “People only want to know about me in a bodybuilding sense, they don’t want answers to silly questions like ‘What is Nasser’s favorite movie?’ What does that prove?”
That being said, Nasser is possibly the fans’ favorite bodybuilder, and they want to know what makes him tick. Not that our subject is secretive; ask him a question related to bodybuilding and he will answer in a no-holds-barred style, expanding his reply in a manner that offers a glimpse into his unique character.
Lauded as bodybuilding’s nice guy, Nasser’s approach to PR took a radical turn after his loss to Flex Wheeler at the 1997 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic in Columbus, Ohio. Feeling that he has been the target of unwarranted criticism from his fellow pros in the past, he decides what’s good for the goose is good for Nasser, and he made it known that he wanted to go public with his own assessments of his peers.
This feature was in the pipeline before the Arnold show (March 1997), and it represents a series of conversations Peter McGough has had with Nasser since the 1996 Mr. Olympia contest – updated to include his thoughts post Columbus (where he had placed second.)
What emerges allows us an insight into what kind of man he is and, dare we say it, makes Nasser El Sonbaty tick. A little bit of insight, at any rate.
- Peter McGough
The right to reply
Much has been written about my “weak back” but all the top finishers at the last Olympia (1996) have weaknesses that are never written about in depth, and the bodybuilders themselves never discuss them. Why is my back the only weak body-part that is constantly being discussed? Because I am the only top pro who is prepared to say, “Yes, I am not perfect, I do have a weakness. There is still plenty of room for improving my physique.” Because of my honesty I have been the target of criticism, much of it exaggerated, about my back. Therefore, I feel justified in pointing out the weaknesses in others.
Dorian (Yates) never admits he has weak points. He never admits that his arms are weak, that his rear deltoids are poor or that his quads lack separation. Everybody asks me, “Have you improved your back?” Nobody asks Dorian, “Have you improved your arms?” When I am training, people will come by and ask, “How is your back coming along?” Do they ask Dorian how his arms are doing?
I think Dorian is an outstanding champion, but I honestly feel his back overpowers the rest of his physique. Is it wrong to suggest we call him – in the way Paul DeMayo was nicknamed Quadzilla because his quads overpowered the rest of his physique – Backzilla? Also, Dorian said he was 255LBS for the 1995 Olympia and that for the 96’ Olympia he had put on 2LBS. How is it possible to gain 2LBS more in size but look smaller at 257LBS than 255? When did he step on the scale – after breakfast, before going to the restroom?
Flex Wheeler, at first glance, seems to have a balanced physique.
People do talk about his “nice lines,” but he has them because some essential muscle mass is missing from his frame. For instance, when he does the abs – and – thighs pose, his lats disappear. Take away his arms and you are left with a juvenile body. I am 5’11” and compete at 285LBS; Flex is an inch shorter and competes – he says – at 224LBS, but I think he is about 10LBS lighter. He has a small waist for sure, but he also has a big butt and narrow shoulders, just like Shawn Ray. Check abs shots of both of these guys. I call Flex the Lord of Illusion.
Shawn Ray should apply for a job at Fed-EX, because he tells everyone he has the perfect package. But he is short, his calves are high, his shoulders are narrow and his back lacks width. He calls bodybuilders like me mass monsters, so I feel to call him a mini-monster. It is not my fault that Shawn doesn’t possess the physical capability to put on added size and still look proportionate, symmetrical, hard and ripped. Is he another victim of the misconception that someone over 250LBS can’t have a balanced physique, and is he betraying the naked fears that he belongs to yesterday and not tomorrow?
Kevin Levrone calls himself the “most genetically gifted bodybuilder,” but his chest, back and calves are in need of further development and have been for at least three years. And I’m not going to get into talking about his long torso or skinny neck.
I call Paul Dillet the “Great Plains” due to all the wide – open spaces his physique contains. From the side, he is flat, and his arms take up most of the space. He has large varicose veins on his chest that create an Illusion of having pec development. If these guys are upset by my comments, though! They weren’t too upset to criticize my physique.
Coming up the hard way
I am the only current top professional who struggled with his placings on the way up. All the other top pros – Dorian Yates, Shawn Ray, Flex Wheeler – made it to the top very quickly. I received my pro card in 1990 and made my debut at that year’s Finnish Grand Prix by placing eighth behind Van Walcott Smith. At the 1991 Night Of Champions, I didn’t make the top 15. Dorian Yates won that contest and was tipped as the future Mr. Olympia. Me? People told me to pack up bodybuilding, said I would never make a decent pro. But I preserved. I had no publicity, no endorsement contract, and no real support other than my own desire to improve. But against the expectations of others I made it.
That’s why I am different from a lot of other pros in being grateful for what I have. They came through so quickly (that) they think contracts and publicity are their right. I remember the hard times, the days of struggling, of doing all sorts of jobs to earn money, so I look at the current benefits I enjoy as a privilege. That is why I didn’t get too upset about getting third place at the last Mr. Olympia (a placing that the audience booed vociferously) and subsequently losing my prize money of failing the drug test.
Nasser the third
At the 1996 Olympia, I thought I would be at least second. When they announced me as third, I didn’t hear the crowd. It was like someone switched the volume off. It was eerily reminiscent of an incident that happened when I was 12. A car hit me and I was flying maybe 10 meters (33 feet) through the air, and I didn’t hear a thing as all this happened. I was so shocked with third I became disoriented and didn’t hear anything at all. Then after a few seconds, which seemed like an eternity, I heard the booing and realized I was really third. So I just hit a couple of poses and smiled to the crowd. The three athletes awarded sixth through fourth had already walked off because they were disappointed in their placings, but I didn’t. If I lose or win, it is only part of life; it’s not my whole life. Rich Gaspari once said he’d die trying to win the Olympia and he is still walking around. I didn’t like the result, but what should I do? The other three walking off didn’t surprise me. In fact, I expected even worse – somebody to show the finger or throw the medal away.
Many pros have such a low self-esteem that they feel unable to assess and criticize their own physiques honestly. They are fearful about confronting their own weak points and are therefore unable to give fellow competitors credit. They only like to hear how great they are, not how great somebody else might be. Self-criticism seems to be taboo. Listening to them makes me smile; they are their own biggest audiences. Even through reality checks like contest results, they don’t wake up. I suggest to these guys that they should tape their most awesome thoughts about themselves and play the tape back before they go to the gym so as to motivate them for a workout.
I started training seriously in 1985 back in Germany. I had none to instruct me. There were no personal trainers in Germany in those days, and I wouldn’t have had the money to pay a personal trainer anyway. Through American muscle magazines like FLEX – to which I had limited access – I gathered information about training. I also used to watch more experienced people train and learned from them. In my early years of training, a lot of people advised me to stop working out, saying I would only create a big unaesthetic body. Others tried to convince me that working out was a waste of time, warning me that I would have to invest in a new wardrobe of bigger and more expensive clothes. Even my own father tried to stop me (from) bodybuilding. He is an engineer, and he had the opinion that only people with inferiority complexes take up bodybuilding.