Bodybuilders of color are a dominating force in the professional bodybuilding circuit. However, this was not always the case.
Black bodybuilders emerged from diverse backgrounds and rewrote the narrative to enter the upper echelons of pro bodybuilding. In the face of historical prejudice and limited opportunities, these trailblazers not only made a mark in the sport but also paved the way for future generations.
Each bodybuilder on this list has a story to tell. Most came from humble beginnings and became household names in the bodybuilding industry thanks to their determination, resilience, and unwavering dedication. These bodybuilders inspire countless individuals to pursue their dreams, irrespective of the hurdles that lie ahead.
This article celebrates 21 black bodybuilders that challenged the status quo. We go over their accomplishments and legacies. Through this article, you will also learn about some landmark moments in professional competitive bodybuilding.
Note: Although many non-white bodybuilders have made it big in the IFBB Pro League (the biggest international bodybuilding federation), I will limit this list to black bodybuilders.
- 21 Most Prominent Black Bodybuilders of All Time
- Wrapping Up
21 Most Prominent Black Bodybuilders of All Time
Here are the most famous black bodybuilders and why they deserve a place on this list:
Like many other sports, competitive bodybuilding was a white man’s sport in the early days. That was until Colbert showed up. Born in 1933, Colbert competed in several amateur contests in the early 1950s.
Colbert was a trailblazer in numerous ventures. He was the first black man to be featured on the cover of the Muscle Power magazine. The African-American bodybuilder was also on the cover of several Weider magazines and won the Mr. New York City (1952) and Mr. Eastern America (1953) titles. Remember, this was all before the 1960 Civil Rights Movement.
Colbert is also credited with being the first man to develop 21-inch arms. The lifelong drug-free bodybuilder was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 2003.
A bike accident that nearly severed his foot ended Colbert’s bodybuilding career. However, his experience working in a Weider warehouse equipped him with the knowledge to open his own supplement stores, where he made a small fortune for himself. He died at the age of 82.
Oliva is one the most famous bodybuilders of all time. The Cuban bodybuilder was known for his immaculate muscle mass, symmetry, muscle separation, proportions, and density.
Oliva’s first major bodybuilding contest in the US was the 1964 AAU Mr America. However, Oliva had to switch from Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB), as it was clear that the former federation had racist undertones and would never allow Oliva to be crowned Mr. America.
The transition paid off as Oliva won the 1966 Mr. World and the coveted Mr. Olympia title in 1967, 1968, and 1969.
Interestingly, Oliva was one of three bodybuilders that defeated Arnold Schwarzenegger in a bodybuilding contest. The three-time Mr. Olympia champ Frank Zane and Chester Yorton are the other two bodybuilders.
Seven other black bodybuilders have won the Mr. Olympia crown ever since. At the time of writing, the eight black bodybuilders hold a total of 30 Sandow trophies among them from the possible 58, proving the dominance of black bodybuilders in the sport.
Oliva died at the age of 71 in 2012 due to an apparent kidney failure. He was the first Olympia champion to have died.
Dickerson was one of the most controversial Mr. Olympia champions of all time. He was the first African-American AAU Mr. America (1970) and IFBB Mr. Olympia (1982) champion. Dickerson was also the first openly-gay bodybuilder to win these prestigious titles.
Although the crowd favorite to win the 1981 Mr. Olympia, Dickerson was denied the title in favor of an injured Franco Columbu, who had come out of retirement to compete at the show. Colombu’s win was “one of the worst decisions in bodybuilding,” said Frank Zane in an interview after the show. Dickerson later acknowledged that his sexual orientation and being black were barriers to his bodybuilding career.
He is also one of the two bodybuilders (besides Dexter Jackson) to win the Mr. Olympia and Masters Olympia titles. Dickerson was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 2000. He died at the age of 82 due to heart failure.
Next Read: 21 Bodybuilders Who Died of Heart Attack
Haney holds the record for winning the most Mr. Olympia titles. He won the Sandow trophy for eight consecutive years between 1984 and 1991. Haney is considered one of the most dominant Mr. Olympia champs of all time and is credited for introducing the mass monster era in the IFBB. He was hands-down the biggest bodybuilder of his generation and dwarfed his competitors on stage.
Haney was the chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports during President Bill Clinton’s term. Haney was inducted into the International Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.
Although Coleman had a lukewarm start to his professional bodybuilding career, he turned around his physique within a few years. He matched Haney’s record of eight-consecutive Mr. Olympia title wins (1998-2005). His sheer size and dominating stage presence earned him the moniker “The King,” cementing his place in the all-time greats list.
Coleman was the first Mr. Olympia champion to break the 300-pound barrier. “Big Ron” was known for his high-volume and high-intensity workouts. He released six training DVDs, which were a hit among bodybuilding aficionados.
Coleman was inducted into the International Sports Hall of Fame in 2016 for his bodybuilding legacy, a remarkable achievement for someone who worked at Domino’s Pizza after graduating from college. He served as a police officer from 1989 to 2000 and as a reserve officer until 2003.
Phil Heath arguably has the best genetics of all time in pro bodybuilding. He was dubbed “The Gift” because of his perfect shape, symmetry, and proportions. His round and full muscle bellies added to his physique’s illusion and made him look bigger than he actually was.
Heath matched Schwarzenegger’s record of seven Mr. Olympia title wins. The Gift hoisted the Sandow trophy for seven consecutive years (2011-2017). Heath’s dynamic personality played a vital role in taking the sport of bodybuilding to a bigger audience.
Jackon is arguably the most conditioned bodybuilder of the modern era. He is billed as “The Blade” for his deep and well-defined lines. Jackson made waves in the pro bodybuilding circuit by defeating the dominant mass monster Jay Cutler in 2008 to bag his maiden (and only) Olympia gold medal.
Jackson holds multiple bodybuilding records, making his legacy one of the hardest to beat. The Blade has 29 pro show wins to his name, the most for a male pro bodybuilder. Besides being one of the two bodybuilders to win Mr. Olympia and Masters Olympia titles, Jackson is the winningest Arnold Classic champion (the second-most prestigious bodybuilding title), having won the title in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2013, and 2015. Finally, Jackson has 20 Mr. Olympia appearances, the most for a male pro bodybuilder.
The late Shawn Rhoden of Jamaica unseated the seven-time Olympia champ Phil Heath to win the Sandow trophy in 2018. The package Rhoden brought to the Olympia stage that year made many bodybuilding pundits acknowledge that he was one of the most aesthetically appealing bodybuilders ever. Rhoden was 43 years old when he conquered the Olympia throne, making him the oldest bodybuilder to win the title.
The “Flexatron” passed away tragically in 2021 from a heart attack. In Jul. 2019, Rhoden was charged with sexually assaulting a female protege in 2018. The Olympia promoters at the time banned Rhoden from competing at the 2019 Mr. Olympia and future contests.
Shawn “Sugar” Ray was one of his era’s most balanced and conditioned bodybuilders. The 5-foot-6 bodybuilder only failed once to place in the top five in over 30 bodybuilding competitions. He beat bodybuilders much bigger than him in size, earning him the moniker “The Giant Killer.”
Ray won the 1990 Arnold Classic but was stripped of the title after he failed a doping test. However, he returned to the 1991 AC with a vengeance and won the gold medal. Ray has two Olympia runner-up finishes (1994 and 1996).
Kenneth “Flex” Wheeler is arguably the most aesthetically appealing bodybuilder of all time. Schwarzenegger referred to Wheeler as the greater bodybuilder he had ever seen. Although Wheeler won the Arnold Classic title four times, he could never seize the Olympia throne, making him one of the greatest bodybuilders not to win the Sandow trophy.
Wheeler was born with a rare kidney disease called glomerulosclerosis. However, he learned about his condition in 1999 and retired from competitive bodybuilding in 2003. “The Sultan of Symmetry” made a comeback on the Olympia stage in 2017 in the Classic Physique division, finishing 15th.
In 2019, Wheeler underwent amputation of his lower right leg due to circulatory vascular system problems that had become life-threatening.
Kai Greene is one of the most inspiring bodybuilders of all time. Greene came from humble beginnings and took up bodybuilding as a creative outlet. “Mr. Getting It Done” is one of the best posers the sport has ever seen.
Soon after starting his journey, Greene entered the upper echelons of pro bodybuilding. Greene has three runner-up finishes at the Mr. Olympia (2012, 2013, and 2014) behind Phil Heath. The Brooklyn native has won three Arnold Classic titles (2009, 2010, and 2016). The rivalry between Greene and Heath stands out as one of the fiercest battles in the history of bodybuilding.
Robby Robinson is one of the icons of the golden era of bodybuilding. Nicknamed “The Black Prince,” most bodybuilding fans remember him from his role in the cult classic Pumping Iron (1977). Robinson has won several bodybuilding contests, including Mr. America, IFBB Mr. World, Mr. Universe, Night of Champions, and Masters Olympia.
At the time of writing, Robinson is 77 years old. He still trains at the Mecca of Bodybuilding, Gold’s Gym, Venice Beach, CA, and is in incredible shape.
Chris Cormier was one of the biggest bodybuilders of his era. “The Real Deal” competed in over 72 IFBB pro shows, winning 12. He also finished runner-up six times at the Arnold Classic. Although a top-tier bodybuilder, Cormier was known for his hardcore partying lifestyle. He placed sixth at the 1994 Olympia, beating the likes of Nasser El Sonbaty and Ronnie Coleman.
Serge Nubret of France had a cameo in Pumping Iron (1977). “The Black Panther” amazed Arnie and Columbu with his jacked physique at the show. He placed runner-up behind The Austrian Oak at the 1975 Olympia, while Lou Ferrigno had to settle for a bronze medal.
Nubret has won several bodybuilding competitions, including the 1976 NABBA Mr. Universe and the 1977 WBBG Pro. Mr. World and Mr. Olympus. The Black Panther founded the World Amateur Body Building Association (WABBA) in 1975 to host amateur bodybuilding competitions.
Taylor won 22 IFBB competitions during his three-decade-long career, a record only beaten by the legendary Ronnie Coleman and Dexter Jackson. Taylor competed in six Mr. Olympia contests, finishing in the top six four times. He won the bronze medal at his debut Olympia appearance in 1989. He repeated his performance in his sophomore year at the O in 1991. With five titles under his belt, Taylor is also the winningest Master Olympia champ.
Albert “Al” Beckles is a Mr. Universe and three-time Night of Champions winner. Beckles competed at the Mr. Olympia 13 times, with a runner-up finish behind Lee Haney at the 1985 O being his best outing; Beckles was 55 years old then. He placed among the top five six times at the O. Beckles won the Niagara Falls Pro Invitational at the age of 61.
Michael Ashley was known for his insane symmetry, balance, conditioning, and presentation. Ashley’s career highlight has been winning the 1990 Arnold Classic. The most interesting part? Ashley claims to be a life-long natty. However, Ashley hung up his posing trunks after placing out of the top 10 at the 1991 AC. He believed he could only come this far while staying natural.
Harold “King Kong” Kelley is in a league of his own and is the most decorated Wheelchair bodybuilder of all time. He is a five-time Wheelchair Olympia champion. He has maintained a vice-like grip on the division since its introduction in 2018. Kelley is also a six-time Arnold Classic Pro Wheelchair champ.
Kelley ended up in a wheelchair at the age of 36 after a T11 & T12 spinal injury suffered in a car crash. He competed as a bodybuilder before his accident and resumed his competitive ambitions after he received a go-ahead from his doctors. The rest, as they say, is history.
Murray took the women’s bodybuilding division into a whole new stratosphere with her ungodly muscle mass and definition. Her physique was so outstanding that she won the Ms. Olympia title on her debut in 1990. She held onto the title for the next five years.
Murray retired after placing runner-up to Kim Chizevsky-Nicholls in 1996 and 1997. However, after a seven-year hiatus, she made a comeback in 2002 and surprised everyone by winning the Olympia gold medal. She retired after winning her eighth Ms. Olympia title in 2003.
With 10 Ms. Olympia title wins, Iris Kyle is the winningest pro female bodybuilder of all time. No other bodybuilder, male or female, has ever managed to match or beat Kyle’s Olympia win record. She has also won the Ms. International (Arnold Classic) title seven times.
Kyle ended Murray’s dream run in 2004 and bested her record to become the most successful female Open division bodybuilder of all time.
At the time of writing, Cydney Gillon has won the Figure Olympia title six times (2017-2022) and is the only bodybuilder on this list who is actively competing, which tells you something about her potential. She also has won the Figure International (Arnold Classic) twice (2019 and 2022). Gillon is famous for her perfect figure proportions, muscle separation, size, balance, and flow. She also has some of the best presentation skills on stage.
Are black bodybuilders more genetically gifted than white bodybuilders?
Many people believe that black bodybuilders have better genetics for building muscle than their white counterparts. Although black bodybuilders hold more Mr. Olympia titles than Caucasian athletes, most of these Sandow trophies are consolidated among three or four athletes. There is no scientific evidence to prove that bodybuilders of African descent have better genetics for bodybuilding than white athletes.
Is it easier for black bodybuilders to build muscle?
Besides genetics, building muscle mass depends on several factors, including diet, training, recovery, previous experience, and overall health. No research has been conducted to determine if black bodybuilders build muscle more easily than their peers.
Who is the biggest black bodybuilder of all time?
The eight-time Mr. Olympia champ Ronnie Coleman weighed over 310 pounds in the off-season and is arguably the biggest (and heaviest) black bodybuilder of all time. That said, Nigerian bodybuilder Victor Richards competed during the Dorian Yates era and weighed around 310 pounds. Richard got his IFBB Pro card in 1992 but never competed in a pro bodybuilding show.
These 21 bodybuilders prove that greatness knows no boundaries of race, ethnicity, or background. These famous black bodybuilders embody possibility, showing that you can turn your dreams into reality, irrespective of your skin color or where you come from.
I hope these bodybuilders’ courage, passion, and dedication inspire you to challenge stereotypes, strive for excellence, and embrace greatness, not just in bodybuilding but in your own fields.
Is there any other legendary black bodybuilder that should be on this list? Let me know in the comment section below.