by Christian Duque
The death of the legendary NPC bodybuilder Matt Mendenhall shook the world of bodybuilding. Many considered Matt to be one of the greatest amateur bodybuilders who never earned his IFBB Pro League Pro card. He competed in NPC Nationals seven times, finished second three times, and competed in the US and a number of other high profile competitions, particularly in Ohio, which is where he was from.
In fact, Mendenhall was from Cincinnati, a city I know very well. I trained in the gyms there, worked downtown, and know a lot of people from the area, especially because I’ve helped run posing classes in northern Kentucky and southern Ohio. Everyone has heard of Matt, but it goes a lot deeper. When you think of home favorites, you think of a person who often appears in conversations and who is highly valued by fellow athletes, coaches, fans and the press. If we look at the bigger picture, whether in the US or internationally, his name has sparked a great deal of nostalgia among purists of the sport. Unlike today, where competitors carefully choose which competitions they will run, often only one national qualifier and one professional qualifier per year, Matt entered a number of competitions and invested 110% in the acquisition of his professional card. His diet and training were spot on, his poses consistently earned him top honors, but injuries kept sidelining him.
I know it is politically incorrect to say that it is easy to get professional tickets today, but when you look at how the sport was in the 1980s, you really have to admit that it is day and night compared to today . I don’t just mean easier for other divisions, I’m talking directly about bodybuilding – then vs. now.
Today there are a number of ways to get this card. In fact, at certain shows, a player who ranks 3rd in their class may receive a card if 1st and 2nd places have already been awarded by participating in other classes. There had never been anything like it in Matt’s day. Although he retired young, he continued to be a driving force and source of inspiration for countless athletes.
Matt competed a lot, especially the Nationals, and took second place for big names like Lee Haney, Mike Christian and Gary Strydom. If you think about it, very few guys really pushed Haney, but Matt was one of them. 8-time Mr. Olympia has admitted that point many times and has spoken about Mendenhall’s amazing genetics.
What I find absolutely crazy is how many legends consider Mendenhall to be the uncrowned Mr. Olympia. How many non-pro competitors are viewed by their peers and the media as someone who could have made it to the top? This is really special and was not said posthumously. This was an on-going comment throughout the 80s, 90s, and today.
Some suggested that it wasn’t his injuries but his mindset that kept Matt from going pro. We heard similar arguments about flex wheeler in the 90s. I think everyone’s opinion is valid and everyone can argue on whatever point they think necessary; However, I don’t know that this mindset alone could be the reason this incredibly talented bodybuilder received so many top awards but always fell short. Who knows what was the main reason he never achieved pro status, but his physique was timeless. He could bring size, stamina and great symmetry. He had no flaws and had an appearance that could have made him an incredibly marketable professional.
Bodybuilding is about the body. Matt had great arms, a huge torso (with a super detailed back), and wheels that some have compared to Tom Platz. Let’s not gloss over this last point. It’s not that the comparison with square was drawn decades after its run. Platz peaked between ’80 -’83 and Matt tore up the amateur stage maybe 3-4 years later. That was how good Matt’s legs were. As I said, the guy was absolutely flawless.
His posing was a crowd-pleaser, from the poses to the transitions. Although he never won a national title, demand seemed to be increasing. He was a favorite of promoters and made a lot of money doing guest posts and other appearances. Even so, he was never able to get the elusive map. Imagine how his life would have changed if Matt had won the ’86 Nationals instead of Gary Strydom. They were both figureheads of sport and lifestyle. Gary won major bodybuilding titles and was the central figure in Vince McMahon’s World Bodybuilding Federation. The WBF was basically the Strydom Federation; who knows where Mendenhall could have gone if it had been announced as the winner.
Another big question for me is what would have happened if Matt hadn’t retired so early.
In the 80s and 90s, age was a major barrier for professional athletes, especially in physical sports. Some people would actually work hard to keep it a secret. We saw some of this in the early 2000s too, especially when it came to how dietary supplement companies contracted and marketed athletes. Anyone over 40 was essentially on their own. It didn’t matter how great her body was, the industry was all about youth (and their perception).
Today is a different wax ball, with guys competing into their late 30s, 40s, and even into their 50s. With the exception of Al Beckles, most of the guys were pretty exhausted by the time they were 30. Haney retired at 30 and Matt put them on at 31.
It’s crazy how the sport turned out. There are people today who start in their late twenties and early thirties. There are many more ways to go pro today as well, and many more competitions. While the magazines are as good as gone, social media offers so many more options. Imagine if Matt could have rivaled what’s available today. Who knows what he could have achieved and how many people he could have reached.
The fact is, with so many deaths in our sport in recent months, news of Matt’s death couldn’t have come at the worst possible time. We don’t know what caused his death, but we will surely mourn his death and wish he could have been with us much longer. When you think about it, sixty-one is very young by any standard, and this news is truly a tragedy.
What will you remember most about this legendary bodybuilder? I will remember him for his great physique, will to succeed, and love for bodybuilding and fitness. Hope you leave a comment wherever you see this article. Despite all of the deaths and tragedies, I am very proud of the fans and the media for treating these matters with tact. Every video I’ve seen has been respectful and tasteful. This is how it should be – always.
RIP Matt Mendenhall, you are missing.