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Mr. America has bulk -- three decades after winning the title

Jim Morris' bodybuilder physique was incredible when he won in '73. It still is at age 72.

September 04, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Mr. America of 1973 stood in a Marina del Rey gym of 2007, exhorting a new pupil to hold a little longer on the leg extension machine despite that torturous burning sensation in the quads.

"Just get that contraction as intense as you can," he counseled.

Jim Morris, who turned 72 on Friday, wears a loose-fitting gray sweatshirt when he trains clients. Although he entered his final bodybuilding competition at age 61 -- he won -- and plans to stay a personal trainer as long as there's rent to pay, Morris is now shy about the very thing that brought him fame: showing off his physique.

He still has a bodybuilder's obsession with physical perfection and frets that he's far from contest shape. Nor, he contends, is he in the shape on display in the October issue of Iron Man magazine. Those photos of his glossy, bulbous muscles were taken months ago -- and only after months of intensive training, he said.

But when he finally doffed his shirt, Morris appeared startlingly fit. Although he no longer is the size of the Herculean bodybuilders seen in muscle magazines, he possesses ballooning biceps and a sleek waist that most men half his age don't.

"He's a legend in bodybuilding," said Michael Reeves, 45, the owner of Boditron Fitness Academy where Morris trains his clients. "You would not believe the kind of shape this guy is in. Most bodybuilders -- they're the kind of people who like to show their body: 'Look at me, look at me.' Jim is so humble, he puts on big T-shirts. Even when I see him, I think, Oh, my God, I've got to work out harder."

Morris was lured from New York by a fantasy of Southern California life as part beach culture, part burgeoning bodybuilding mecca. Morris flourished as one of those chiseled muscle men of the '70s and '80s who not only helped transform an eccentric pursuit into a popular sport but also helped make weightlifting in gyms as common as jogging.

"I was thinking the other day how many young bodybuilders I've seen come [and] try to make their mark, become part of the whole L.A. thing," Morris said. "They're all gone. That whole fantasy I had about coming out here and making it -- I've been very fortunate."

His success is even more significant considering he's black and openly gay and was competing at a time when it was rare to find such a combination. At age 37, Morris became the second black to win Mr. America.

"In the 1970s, he was one of the very first to break the color line," said Bill Pearl, a well-known former competitor and gym owner who became Morris' mentor. Before that, Pearl said, "if you were black and had the greatest physique in the world at that time, you were not going to win a major physique contest."

Morris' peers have either left the area or left the sport. Pearl now lives in Oregon. Chris Dickerson, who became the first black man to win Mr. America in 1970 and later won Mr. Olympia, lives in Florida. Franco Columbu has left muscle contests behind to focus on his career as a chiropractor.

Others, like gym legend Joe Gold, have died. After his death three years ago, Morris adopted one of Gold's dogs, a longhaired female mix with a limp.

"I think there isn't a day when we don't get a phone call about someone dying," said Pearl, who at 77 writes books and continues to work out.

Even the Mr. America contest that gave Morris his greatest win no longer exists and came to be overshadowed by other contests such as Mr. Olympia -- which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won several times -- and Mr. Universe.

But Morris still revels in the L.A. sun and wouldn't dream of leaving his wild garden of grass, bamboo, planters and trees so full and lush they provide a canopy of shade across his yard. He lives in Venice, a community dotted with landmarks of the bodybuilding culture -- Gold's Gym, Muscle Beach, the cafes where he occasionally breakfasted with a young Schwarzenegger and his entourage.

For 15 years, Morris has rented a small, neat bungalow nestled behind a high fence on one of Venice's prized walk streets. His expanse of greenery was a stop on the annual Venice Garden and Home Tour in May.

Like septuagenarian surfing legends who still indulge in their sport, riding the waves and shaping boards, Morris still weightlifts six times a week. His last contest was the Mr. Olympia Masters. He won in the over-60 category.

Morris believes his austere diet helps keep him fit and healthy. He eats beans, nuts, vegetables, fruit -- and that's about it. No animal products, no processed anything, not even oatmeal. No cheese. No butter.

"God, no," he said with a hint of disgust in his voice at the last item.

Morris comes from hardy stock. His mother, who lives in Georgia, is 92. He also takes testosterone regularly under a doctor's supervision, as do many men and women. "It keeps my fat level down, it keeps my energy up, my libido up," he said.

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