Bill Pearl (1930-2022)

A tribute to the inspirational life of a bodybuilding legend

Bill Pearl left us on September 14, 2022, at age 91. Many remember him for his athletic accomplishments that put him in the discussion as the G.O.A.T. during his peak years. Many remember his work as a trainer, mentoring a Mr. Olympia, and the author of one of the most popular bodybuilding books of all time. Charles R. Poliquin remembered him as both, often mentioning him in his writings.

Pearl competed for the first time in 1952, accepting the third-place trophy. Just one year later he won the prestigious AAU Mr. America title followed by the NABBA Amateur Mr. Universe, an event that included future James Bond legend Sean Connery. Pearl never stopped winning, capturing the Pro Mr. USA and the Pro NABBA Tall Class in 1956. He went on to win the overall titles in the 1961, 1967, and 1971 Pro NABBA competitions.

Pearl never competed in the IFBB Mr. Olympia, but in the 1971 event defeated past and future Mr. Olympias. Although he was 41, Pearl defeated 3x Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva and future Mr. Olympia winners Frank Zane (1977-79) and Chris Dickerson (1982). Arnold didn’t take part because of a non-compete clause in his IFBB contract that prevented him from competing in non-sanctioned IFBB events, and it has long been debated who would have won that day.

One quality that impressed the Strength Sensei about Pearl was that he was as strong as he looked, even performing a strongman act that included ripping license plates in half, bending spikes, and blowing up hot water bottles until they burst. In the weightroom, at a bodyweight of about 218 pounds, he did a seated behind-the-neck press with 310 pounds, a bench press of 450, a front squat of 500, and a back squat of 605.

Regarding this last statement, Pearl’s feats of strength were legendary, a fact often mentioned by Coach Charles R. Poliquin in his articles and seminars about bodybuilding. Pearl’s personal bests in major lifts included a 310-pound seated behind-the-neck press with 310 pounds, a 450 bench press, a 500 front squat, and a 605 back squat. At 5-feet-10 inches, Pearl eventually sported 21-inch arms and a 53-inch chest. He won the 1953 Mr. America title at a bodyweight of 201 pounds and the 1971 NABBA Pro Mr. Universe at 242 pounds.

Pearl expanded his influence in bodybuilding by giving seminars, appearing at fitness events, and writing. His book, Keys to the Inner Universe is a classic reference book with over 1500 drawings of weight training exercises. It sold over a quarter of a million copies.

Bill Pearl’s classic weight training reference book Keys to the Inner Universe sold over a quarter of a million copies.

For a first-person account of this bodybuilding legend, pick up a copy of Pearl’s 2003 book, Beyond the Universe. In addition to including over 200 photos beginning as a toddler, Pearl gives an insider’s look into the world of competitive bodybuilding and the fitness industry.

As a sneak preview, in Beyond the Universe Pearl discusses preparation for the 1971 NABBA event along with many other interesting topics, such as his dealings with Nautilus and MedX founder Arthur Jones. In fact, Jones offered Pearl a Nautilus franchise but became outraged when Pearl modified his machines and still championed the value of free weights.

One book that should also be on your bodybuilding bookshelf is one that he co-authored with Mr. Universe Dave Draper, another of the Strength Sensei’s favorite authors, is Bill Pearl and Dave Draper: A Conversation (2011). It’s a 51-page transcript of a conversation these two champions had in 2005 about all things bodybuilding.

Bill Pearl is unquestionably one of the greatest bodybuilding champions of all time, winning the biggest titles and taking on all comers. He inspired millions with his accomplishments, personal appearances, and writings. Bill Pearl will be missed but he will never be forgotten! (TSS)

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