Bodybuilders / Profiles · 14 July 2022

Franco Columbu

There have been many notable duos in history. A couplet who gel so well together that they form an unbreakable bond for life. Franco and Arnold were synonymous as an example of true friendship. Working out, competing, living and even working together.

Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Whilst Franco may not have scaled the heady heights of success in as many ventures as his pal Arnold, he carved a career for himself in several fields. He became a world best himself and thus ingrained his persona into history, providing a source of much awe and admiration which would endure for decades, and shows no sign of diminishing in the hearts and minds of those who saw him in his prime and the years beyond.

Franco (Francesco) Maria Columbu was born on August the 7th in 1941, the son of shepherds Maria Grazia Sedda and Antonio Columbu. He was born in the town of Ollolai on the island of Sardinia.

Franco’s childhood was very simple as the son of shepherds he followed in his parents’ steps as a shepherd himself. He was very skinny as a young boy and was regularly the target of bullies, getting beaten up on many occasions. He decided he had endured enough and started fighting back. After the age of eleven in his own words ‘nobody could touch him.

It wasn’t until he took up boxing that his physical prowess started to surface. Franco excelled as a pugilist winning over thirty fights and becoming an Italian amateur champion. He firmly put himself on the map in Sardinia and Italy. All the while he was training for boxing he continued working as a shepherd.

Eventually, he called time on his boxing exploits and switched to weightlifting and bodybuilding. Boxing was too rough on the face and head was his reasoning to switch sports.

Franco then moved to Germany in pursuit of work opportunities. Whilst in Germany he continued to work out whilst working. In 1965 a chance encounter at a bodybuilding contest in Stuttgart crossed his path with that of an 18-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two hit it off immediately and a lifelong friendship was forged.

Arnold would move to California in the late sixties and it wasn’t long before he made sure his friend Franco joined him. Joe Weider provided accommodation and an $80 weekly wage, which wasn’t an inconsiderable sum for the time.

However it wasn’t quite enough to support their career as top-level bodybuilders, so the pair formed their own construction company. They named it European Brick Works and in 1969 the pair would knock on doors touting for business.

Their foray into construction was short-lived as their bodybuilding careers took off, and they were soon financially secure enough to earn enough from appearances and sponsorship. As a testament to their quality of work, a wall the pair built is still standing after over half a century.

Franco joked in a video not long before his sad passing how Arnold would do the talking to clients and he’d be the one doing all the work.

Although Franco was short in stature standing around 5’5” tall and weighing only around 180lbs, he was a powerhouse. He worked his way up the IFBB competition ladder. Winning the European, World and Universe titles. Before taking the lightweight class in the 1974 Mr Olympia but losing out the overall to his friend Arnold.

He’d repeat this result in 1975 as we all saw in Pumping Iron, before finally securing the overall title in 1976 for the first time.

George Butler who produced and directed the Pumping Iron docudrama tells quite a humorous story of his time in Franco’s hometown. Whilst on location in Sardinia the team stayed in Franco’s erstwhile home. As space was at a premium Butler had to share a bedroom with Franco’s three sisters. To ensure he didn’t get any wayward notions toward his daughters Franco’s father Antonio sat by the window all night.

After conquering all in the 76 Mr Olympia Franco like Arnold looked to pastures anew. Unlike Arnold, he wasn’t looking to the acting world but an opportunity to appear on tv did surface.

In 1977 the very first World’s Strongest Man was to take place. It was the idea of Langstar Inc, commissioned by TWI and developed for CBS. Two Scottish gentlemen would be the brains behind the operation, David Webster OBE and Dr Douglas Edmunds. These two men would devise the events and decide who to invite to take part.

The christening of the event would see not one but two famous bodybuilders. Franco and Lou Ferrigno, who himself was looking for new ventures. Franco whilst giving away over a hundred pounds in weight to his fellow combatants far from disgraced himself.

Although he suffered a horrific knee dislocation in the penultimate event, the fridge race. This involved running over a short distance with a 500lb refrigerator on his back. He managed to finish fifth out of eight entrants. Lou placed one spot ahead in fourth. The winner was Bruce Wilhelm of the USA. The third spot going to Ken Patera a weightlifter who would go on to be a WWF wrestler.

The injury was so severe Franco was out of action for three years. He was awarded a reported million dollars in compensation thus softening the blow.

In 1980 Franco would be at the side of his best friend Arnold as he helped him and then watched him win a controversial seventh Olympia in Sydney.

Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Franco went on to emulate Arnold the following year. Making a comeback of his own and taking the 1981 Mr Olympia amidst much controversy and discord.

After mischievously hinting he may be back the following year to make it three wins he wisely retired from competitive bodybuilding.

Whilst Franco’s physique was an awesome package at its best. His chest and back were amongst the best of all time. It was his strength exploits that made him legendary.

Pound for pound he was and still is one of the strongest bodybuilders if not human beings of all time. His best lifts are listed below and I’m sure we can all agree they’re very impressive for a 185lb guy.

Clean and jerk 400lbs/181kg

Bench press 525 Lbs / 238 kg

Squat (exercise) 655 Lbs / 297 kg

Deadlift 750 Lbs / 340.2 kg (in some training sessions he was reported to have lifted over 780 Lbs / 353.8 kg, all at a bodyweight of 185 Lbs / 83.9 kg)

Powerlifting titles

Champion of Italy

Champion of Germany

Champion of Europe

He was also listed in the Guinness Book of Records in 1978 for being able to blow a hot water bottle to the point it burst in only 55 seconds.

Apart from his physical achievements Franco also developed his mind. He became a fully qualified Chiropracter in 1977 after gaining his degree from Cleveland Chiropractic College.

Franco settled in Los Angeles and lived there from the 70s onward.

He was forced to remove the title of PhD from his name in 2004 by the State governing body for Chiropractors. He had used this since the 80s and was referred to as Doctor however he wasn’t actually in possession of the qualifications to do so.

In February 2006, Columbu was appointed to the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in what was later described as a “coup”.Columbu’s tenure on the Board ended in January 2014.

Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Alongside his other achievements Franco was also a prolific author, and trainer and did quite a bit of tv and film work.

His TV appearances include The Streets of San Francisco (1977), Dead Lift with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and TV commercials, most notably Vitalis (“the pump”). In the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero, the words “A Franco Columbu film” appear on the screen at the beginning of Jack Slater IV (a film within the film) as a tribute to Columbu. The “Columbu Terminator” is featured as a boss character in the Terminator 3 video game. A full list of his filmography is below.

1976 Stay Hungry Franco Orsini (Uncredited)

1977 Pumping Iron Himself

1980 The Hustler of Muscle Beach Himself

1980 The Comeback Himself

1982 Conan The Barbarian Pictish Scout

1984 The Terminator Future Terminator

1984 Getting Physical Himself

1986 Don Rickles: Rickles on the Loose Himself

1987 The Running Man 911 Security Officer #2

1987 Last Man Standing Batty

1988 Big Top Pee-wee Otto the Strongman

1993 Il ritmo del silenzio Nerescu

1994 Beretta’s Island Franco Armando Beretta

1995 Taken Alive Enrico Costa

1997 Doublecross on Costa’s Island Enrico Costa

1998 Hollywood Salutes Arnold Schwarzenegger: A Cinematheque Tribute Himself

2002 Raw Iron:The Making of Pumping Iron Himself

2003 Ancient Warriors Aldo Paccione

2008 Why we Train Himself

2010 Muscle Beach then and Now Himself

2011 Dreamland La Terra dei Sogni

Franco trained Sylvester Stallone for his film roles cementing his reputation as a trainer alongside his other qualifications. He has also written numerous books on bodybuilding, training and nutrition.

Although a permanent resident in LA Franco would return to his ancestral home in Sardinia every year.

It would always be towards the end of August to coincide with local celebrations.

It was on one such visit on the 30th of August 2019 that he suffered a heart attack and drowned swimming off the coast of San Teodoro Sardinia. He was pronounced dead whilst being transported to hospital by helicopter. It was just over three weeks after his 78th birthday.

He was survived by his wife, Deborah, their daughter, Maria, and three sisters: Anna, Gonaria and Celestina. A funeral was held in his birthplace of Ollolai on September 3. A memorial was held in Los Angeles on October 6, 2019.

Franco Columbu

Franco’s bodybuilding entries are listed below.

Bodybuilding titles

1966: Mr. Europe, 4th

1968: NABBA Mr Universe (Most Muscular)

1969: IFBB Mr Europe (Medium)

1969: NABBA Mr Universe (Most Muscular)

1969: NABBA Mr Universe (Short)

1969: IFBB Mr Universe (Short)

1970: IFBB Mr Europe (Short & Overall)

1970: AAU Mr World (Pro Short)

1970: IFBB Mr World (Short)

1970: IFBB Mr Universe (Short & Overall)

1971: IFBB Mr Universe (Short & Overall) *Disqualified for selling bodybuilding booklets – considered as a professional*

1971: IFBB Mr World (Short & Overall)

1974 Mr Olympia (Lightweight)

1975 Mr Olympia (Lightweight)

1976 Mr Olympia (Lightweight & Overall)

1981 Mr Olympia

A little-known bit of trivia is that it is believed Franco actually entered the 1969 Mr Olympia. Having won the Universe it is believed he was asked to appear in the Olympia held the same evening. However due to the closeness of the competition between Sergio and Arnold he was briskly asked to leave as the judges were having difficulty choosing between the leading two. Ultimately Sergio won and Franco was all but forgotten about.

Franco Columbu, was a great stalwart of the Golden Era. It’s a shame those we admire and seek to emulate must grow old and die. Franco is gone but not forgotten.