|Though conspicuously absent from the stage, he is not short on commentary, and in the following interview, the first of five parts, he tells all about his bodybuilding career, bodybuilding drugs, judging, the future of the sport and much more.|
An Interview With Nasser El Sonbaty
By: David Robson
1990s bodybuilding star Nasser El Sonbaty has distinguished himself as a true champion in several ways, most notably as the largest, freakiest best-proportioned and conditioned pro bodybuilder never to win the Mr. Olympia title.
In finding his calling in an era that rewarded the kind of massive physique he regularly brought to the stage, Nasser was well poised to become Mr. Olympia, and was convinced he had the qualities to do just that.
Coming from a less than auspicious start where he was, in the early 1990s, considered lacking in potential and just another shapeless monster from Europe, the German born Nasser had, by 1997, worked his way into genuine contention for the Mr. Olympia title as exemplified by five pro show wins and six top three placements including third place at both the ’95 and ’96 Mr. Olympia’s. By 1997 he was a legitimate threat to bodybuilding’s biggest prize.
As history shows, he lost on that occasion, but only on the official scorecards and under the most controversial of circumstances. Torn and tired, five-time Olympian Dorian Yates, clearly fell behind Nasser in almost every category, yet he won the show with a perfect score.
It has been decisions like this that have intensified Nasser’s resolve to tell it like it is, to never hold back on his opinions, a quality that has attracted much criticism and led to him becoming, by his own admission, a persona non grata of sorts, a man shunned by bodybuilding officialdom for speaking when silence is the order of the day. But this is now.
Back in the ’90s Nasser was hot property and even considering today’s Coleman and Cutler era, retains the distinction of being the largest, most symmetrical bodybuilder of all time.
For a man of his 285-pound-plus size, Nasser, in top condition, presented a physique that threatened to collapse the stage every time he made his way out for the top comparisons, complete with a small waist, excellent abdominal development, and the biggest shoulders this side of Marcus Ruhl along with overall thick, massive, proportionate muscular development.
Yes the guy was very, very good. How good? Over his 16 year professional career, Nasser placed no lower then third in 33 pro shows out of 66 entered, won six including the 1999 Arnold Classic and still walks around today, after 26 years in bodybuilding, at over 300 pounds cut.
Although he has lost interest in competing it is clear that he still loves to train hard, which has led to a heavy demand for guest posing appearances. With Nasser the audience are guaranteed 300-plus pounds with ripped abs.
Not only is Nasser one of the first true mass monsters and one of the few to have presented all of the attributes needed to win the Mr. Olympia, he is also highly educated, a man of many interests, rare qualities for one who regularly competed in the upper echelons of an obsessive sport such as professional bodybuilding for so many years.
With a Masters Degree in Political Science, History and Sociology, along with an ability to fluently speak seven languages Nasser is one of bodybuilding history’s more cerebral of iron warriors.
A passionate advocate for bodybuilding and one who believes the media should focus more on the positive side of the sport, rather than all the negative aspects such as drugs, that the public, because of this constant exposure, readily associate with bodybuilders, Nasser, at the same time, is not afraid to speak his mind about anything connected to the iron game.
In today’s increasingly politically correct social climate, it is refreshing to hear from someone like Nasser who is not afraid to discuss certain controversial issues, even if they put him offside with bodybuilding officials and fans alike. He tells of what he understands the truth to be, and for many, the truth hurts.
Today Nasser lives a quieter life in San Diego, California, and no longer competes in bodybuilding, instead choosing to use the weights to stay in shape, rather than to again stand onstage in his red posing trunks covered in several layers of pro tan while hitting his famed most muscular shot.
Though conspicuously absent from the competition stage, he is not short on commentary, and in the following interview, the first of two parts, he tells, in his own indomitable style, all about his bodybuilding career, bodybuilding drugs, judging, the future of the sport and much more.
[Q] – How did you get started in bodybuilding Nasser? What attracted you to the sport to begin with?
I never wanted to become a pro bodybuilder and I never had the desire to look like a bodybuilder when I started out. I was 17 years of age and was playing soccer. At that time I went to a little weight room, which was located next to the soccer field. I just wanted to do some leg presses and some leg extensions in order to have stronger legs for soccer, but at that time I met a former Hungarian weightlifter there that showed me exercises for the upper body, in order for me to have a balanced physique.
He told me that there shouldn’t be one body part overpowering the other, not in strength or from the visual aspect. So I started doing bench presses and started training my arms and this went on for about two years until I joined a real gym.
But again the transition from soccer to building my body took me two years. And in these first two years and experimenting with different exercises and learning by watching others how to execute an exercise I started liking it more and more. At the beginning I even hated the too big bodies, the veins of the guys in the magazines and the crazy eating schedule of serious people.
So it happened by accident. And it was never that I was little, was beaten up and started picking the weights up to get back at people. And even today I would rather watch rather a first class soccer game than a bodybuilding show.
My initial bodybuilding goals were just to get stronger in the bench press.
And because I do love art and have a sense for symmetry and proportion I wanted to have an evenly proportioned and evenly developed body – but nothing too big and too covered in veins.
I did not have an idol in bodybuilding or sport in general either. I did not want to look, for example, like Arnold because I realized from my analytical way that as a person he had weak legs, droopy shoulders and a huge waist. I could and to this day can take people apart. I can immediately tell you who has what and where his flaws are, his physical weak points, his strong points.
My further goal wasn’t just to get even stronger but also bigger. The aspect of competing came up when other people in the gym asked me if I was competing. They did not encourage me, but as I said, they asked me if I did compete. And this was somehow the trigger point. I wanted to see how good I looked next to the show-offs.
Going to school is a contest within yourself but also you get recognition from the other students as well if you are good. And now I slowly developed an appetite for and to be better looking physically and to be better than the next guy when it came to the look and not just strength.
So my first show was as a junior in a State Show and not just a city show. I came in sixth. I was told at the show that I had the best abs of any one of the junior contestants. And this 6th place gave me more confidence and motivation to continue. Success is always a great motivator. And maybe subconsciously I became more motivated because of my dad who was very concerned about my grades at school and University and did not like this sport or having me in this environment. He was not supportive regarding my physical progress. My mom was.
Nowadays I am thankful to my dad that he was not supportive. He saw bodybuilders as simply dumb, narcissistic people. And it was, to him, a waste of time, energy and money. I have realized that guys who get lots of help from their dad in bodybuilding mostly go nowhere in the sport.
[ Q ]. You seem quite critical of Arnold’s physique. Were you ever a fan of his, like so many bodybuilders were, when you were starting out?
Honestly, and not to be arrogant and not to sound degrading, but definitely when I started training I looked at pictures of him and also of other bodybuilders.
I am a pretty analytical person whether it comes to the world and what is going on politically and so on and when it comes to bodybuilders body-parts. Bodybuilders have to realize that they can have very good body parts but it takes all the body-parts to be good together to make a balanced physique.
He (Arnold) was never a person I wanted to look like or to be like. He was definitely somebody who has made fantastic achievements but at the same time, I went to University for many years and am not just reduced to bodybuilding, so there are also other people I admire who are mentally well developed and have achieved in other areas such as the arts, for example. So my perspective when I started lifting weights was not just bodybuilding. I remember Shawn Ray once saying that when he first touched a dumbbell he knew where his destiny would lie and he knew he would be a pro bodybuilder. When I touched a dumbbell for the first time I didn’t like it at all, so people are different when they start out and different at the end.
[ Q ] At what point did you know you could become one of bodybuilding’s top champions?
I did my first amateur show in 1985, where I came in 6th place in the junior category of a German State show. My competition weight was 192 pounds.
And in 1990 I did my first pro show/pro debut at the Finland Grand Prix in Helsinki where I came in 8th place. At that time I competed with greats like Padilla, Benaziza, Strydom, Nimrod King, Ron Love, Samir Bannout and I thought that there must be a second category for the pros. One for the established guys and one for new pros like me. Seriously, I was in deep shock. I qualified for the first time for the Olympia in 1993 in Germany and France where I came in third place behind Wheeler (Flex) and Vince Taylor. Until then (from 1990 to 1993) I went from shock to shock. Even through I made it to the top 10 I still needed four years to find myself and realize where I was standing among the pros. You should never listen to your friends, buddies, and wife and girlfriend regarding how you look. You have to find it out by going from show to show. You can’t get robbed in 10 to 15 amateur shows in a row. So it is like trial and error to find out how good you really are. And there was still nobody who took me under his wing or sponsored me and told me how good I would and could eventually become.
In 1994 I came second in the Night of Champions in New York City and 6th at the Olympia in Atlanta, Georgia. Still no immediate contract or contract offer. Ed Connors – the so-called discoverer of talent told me to talk to Joe Weider in order to work as a translator for the Weider Company. But he (Ed) did not see my potential either, regardless of my top-six finish at the 1994 Olympia. But in 1991 I got from Joe Weider an invite to compete in the Night of Champions in New York City. He paid for my flight and two week stay in the U.S. He had seen photos from my first three pro shows in Europe in 1990. So Joe was at all times the only one who ever saw any further pro potential in me. But again in 1991 I did not finish in the top 15 in New York; my dieting capabilities had yet to be improved. For most guys, when they enter the pro ranks their bodybuilding careers are basically over. It is a huge difference between being a top amateur and being a top pro. The difference is like day and night. Finally at the end of 1994 I got a Weider contract from Joe, the most helpful person in my career as a bodybuilder and the only one who saw my potential. And from my second place at the 1994 Night of Champions in New York City I thought: “I can make it” (in the pro ranks).
Nasser’s Pro Victories:
- 1995 – IFBB Houston Pro Invitational
- 1995 – IFBB Night of Champions
- 1996 – IFBB Grand Prix Czech Republic
- 1996 – IFBB Grand prix Russia
- 1996 – IFBB Grand Prix Switzerland
- 1999 – IFBB Arnold Classic