Chris Dickerson – Achieving the Impossible Dream by David Gentle

Named after his father Henry, and an 18th century Haitian General Christopher, who once vanquished the British in Haiti, Henri (Chris) Dickerson was born  August 25th, 1939, in Montgomery Alabama, USA, one of a set of triplets.  Life right from the very beginning was a competition. The triplets were Alfred, Chris and John. Later sadly his brother Alfred was drowned in cold Alaskan waters. Chris said a long time ago that he belonged to two minority groups, “I am short and I’m a Negro.” Neither setback prevented him, however, from making bodybuilding history, when he became the first black man to win the prestigious Mr. American title, thus achieving the then impossible dream. He actually believed being short, at 5’6”, was a greater handicap than being black.

Chris Dickerson, bodybuilder
Chris Dickerson, Photo Credit: Russ Warner – Courtesy of David Gentle’s photo collection.

Gracious as always, Chris’ win of the Mr. America was an incredibly significant advance in bodybuilding. Previous black contenders for Mr. American included Harold Poole and Sergio Oliva, but the AAU judging procedure in those days, included an in-depth interview of the candidates presuming (quite rightly I believe) that all the top title holders should be more than able to represent their country and the sport of bodybuilding itself, with honour, some panache and a fair degree of intelligence, rather than simply being regarded by many as some overdeveloped muscle-head or introverted freak.

Many rue that such standards no longer apply, even the great Serge Nubret once said,
“Sometimes, I feel disappointed with bodybuilding. To be able to have such big muscles, I feel, should make man’s character strong, but sometimes, this is not the case.” Chris went on to prove himself remarkably articulate and became one of the greatest ambassadors bodybuilding ever had.

At the tender age of 13, his mother, an attorney, remarried and Chris’ entire family moved to Indianapolis. A conservative and religious family, Chris attended Quaker school and after High School, in 1957 he went to the New York Academy of Dramatic Art, and studied acting, dramatics and music, aiming to sing opera. His singing coach, later suggested that weight training would help to improve his chest and lungs and therefore his singing voice. He then went on to California to visit his aunt, and saw a photograph of Bill Pearl in a muscle magazine. The picture inspired him to enough to take the plunge into the world of weights and visit Bill’s gym to seek guidance from the top.
Thus at what would now be considered quite a late age of 24 years, Chris first began his quest for the impossible dream of a short, black man to win the top bodybuilding accolades. So in September 1963 Chris went from his LA home to Bill Pearl’s gym on Manchester Boulevard where he was personally coached and also encouraged by Bill, at first training three times a week, whilst then working at an LA hospital as an orderly.

His first contest was in October 1965 where he came 3rd in the Mr. Long Beach line-up and said later, “To this day, this trophy remains my sentimental favourite. I was never to be the same again after winning my first trophy.” He returned to the East Coast in 1966 and won the Mr. New York State. Mr. Eastern America and Junior Mr. USA winning a total of 12 titles in 12 months. All the while his acting abilities, dance and mime from dramatic arts complemented his posing to make the most of presenting his ever improving physique, along with his now famous diamond-shaped calves, which Chris admits were a gift of genetics. Asked then of his views on what constituted an award winning physique, he said, “The ideal physique is one with broad shoulders, a small, tapered waist, shapely and developed legs. The neck, arms and calves should all measure the same or close to it. It is equally important to work on your posing in order to show off what development you have attained to your best advantage”.

He then trained using a carried schedule of the most basic of bodybuilding exercises, never too concerned about building up overly massive pectorals, and always suggested one must treat bodybuilding and training seriously.

The Dream that Became Reality

By this time Chris’ widely appealing muscular and shapely physique appeared in all the muscle magazines, adding to his popularity.
Photo Credit: Russ Warner – Courtesy of David Gentle’s photo collection.
He went back to Bill Pearl’s gym to seek further advice and in 1967 won the Mr. Californian contest, helped by his fabulous calves, which caused a considerable stir. Calves, which as mentioned earlier were based in the main on good genetics, but were certainly helped along by school sports. In fact Chris rarely worked his lower legs, instead devoting most his energies to abs, arms and his even greater love, posing.
It was after his Californian win that his real dream began, that of winning Mr. America. He tried at first in 1967 placing 6th, and in 1968 placed 3rd. In 1969 Boyer Coe beat him by the closest margin in bodybuilding history – just a quarter of a point!

By 1970 Chris was in the gym with Bill Pearl training hard for 5 days a week, using the 6th day for posing practice and it paid off and on Sunday June 4th 1970 in Culver City, California, after spending the entire day deciding between the 29 contestants, the judges finally voted Chris the winner. He also annexed the Most Muscular and Best Legs awards, with a symmetrical and muscular physique. His strong point being his ability to demonstrate his physique to its best.
The June 1970 Muscular Development magazine, which featured Chris on the cover, said he was “much improved over his 1969 appearance in Chicago, where he had been a close runner up.” Thus his dedication, persistence and long training under Bill Pearl had came to fruition and Chris had achieved his impossible dream to become the first black bodybuilder to win the Mr. America 1970. (Bertil Fox was Junior Mr. Britain in 1970).

In 1971 Chris came over to the UK to take his height class in the NABBA Mr. Universe and in 1973, he became the WBBG Mr. America, an award organized by Dan Lurie (of now defunct Muscle Training Illustrated magazine) who sponsored Chris for the NABBA Amateur Mr. Universe in London, which he won returning the next year to take the professional title in ’74. Our own Roy Duval was the Amateur winner.
Owing to his career in bodybuilding, Chris was able to travel extensively, giving lectures, guest appearances and TV spots including an invitational posing tour of Japan. Always a great and positive example of bodybuilding. He now trained 5 days a week, using mainly free weights. Chris always preferred free weights, saying” Nothing else comes close when building the necessary foundations for title winning physiques.”

Chris Dickerson, bodybuilder
Photo: Cover of Bodybuilding pamphlet

He would recommend chins for back, both width and power, and squats for legs, and to raise intensity he would decrease rest time between sets. He never encouraged any to use over-heavy weights or low repetitions. He suggested when not training that a bodybuilder should, “Invest your time in education” and as for muscle building, “Do what you body tells you and do your absolute best to avoid injuries.”
He himself always warmed up with plenty of sets of light to medium weights and used basic exercises and routines. Personally using around 400 lbs for his bench presses in reps, and around 200 lbs for the press behind neck, heavy dumbbell curls, seated, bent over rows and chins. One of the best if simple back exercises of all, and Chris had one of the very best necks in the business. Both his arms and calves measured 18 inches at 5’6” height, 185 bodyweight.

A man of hidden talents. For relaxation he enjoys classical music, arts, plays and eating good meals. His advice to beginners as “Be prepared, have your poses down pat, practice, practice and practice. Expect to be nervous, but try to enjoy yourself on stage, and if you do not place number one, blame yourself and not the judges. Keep in mind no one will remember your losses. People only remember the winner.”
On being a competitor, Chris says, “Being a competitor can often be very rough. Physique competitions are difficult to judge. Learning to win is easy but knowing how to lose is a much truer test of the stuff we are made of. Being a competitor can bring out the very best and the worst in our nature.”

Mr. Olympia

At an age when most bodybuilders would have long retired on his 40th birthday, on the 25 August 1979 he entered and won the Diamond Cup in Vancouver. Terrific enough in itself, but Chris was to continue to make bodybuilding history by becoming the first AAU Mr. America to win the Mr. Olympia title. His ambition as an Opera singer may well have been to appear at the famous Sydney Opera house. This ambition, although in another capacity, he fulfilled when he entered the 1980 Mr. Olympia. A contest which still carries its share of controversy for it’s debatable results, Arnold won the titles but also the boos. Dickerson came second but was eventually awarded the winner’s trophy by the ABBA (Australian Bodybuilders Association) and received the ovations.

Chris Dickerson, bodybuilder
Chris Dickerson – Photo Credit: Russ Warner – Courtesy of David Gentle’s photo collection.

Bill Pearl, the chief judge earlier had refused to adjudicate became he had actually coached Chris. Arnold, ever the showman, won! Chris ever composed, confident and gracious was patient and unprovocative in defeat and didn’t complain, he simply reset his sights for the next Olympia. Just a month after the 80th Olympia he wont the Canada Cup in Toronto at 186 lbs. bodyweight.

More trophies came along in 1981 from the Grand Prix in Washington, Louisiana and New York. But his greatest achievements was to come in 1982 in London at Wembley Conference Centre in front of 2,600 people, on Saturday, 13th November when he, at the age of 43, out-pointed and also out-posed 16 of the World’s best bodybuilders to beat Zane, Viator, Beckles, Bannout, Fox, Platz et al for the Olympia title.

At which point he announced his decision to retire from competitions. His dreams had finally reached their fulfillment. This year saw Chris receive the top honours award from the Oscar Heidenstam Foundation, and he was, as always, a true ambassador to bodybuilding.

  • 1963:  Began bodybuilding, training under Bill Pearl at Pearl’s first Los Angeles gym on Manchester Boulevard. 
  • 1965:  “Mr. Long Beach” – 3rd place (first physique contest) 
  • 1966:  “Mr. Novice” Winner “Mr. Muscles” Winner  “Mr. Delaware Valley” – 3rd place  “Mr. Metropolitan Sr” – Winner  “Mr. Atlantic Coast” – Winner  “Mr. Suburban” – Winner  “Mr. Region 9” – Winner  “Mr. New York State” – Winner.  “Mr. Gotham” – Winner  “Mr. Capital City” – Winner  “Mr. Junior United States” – Winner  “Outstanding Bodybuilder 1966” – Winner  “Mr. Eastern America” – Winner
  • 1967:  “Mr. California” – Winner 1968:  “Mr. America” – 3rd place “Jr. Mr. America” – 3rd place  “Mr. USA” – Winner 
  • 1969:  “Mr. America” – 2nd place “Jr. Mr. American – 2nd place 
  • 1970:  “Jr. Mr. America” – Winner  “Mr. America” – Winner (first black man to win AAU Mr. America title)  NABBA “Mr. Universe” – Winner (short class division)
  • 1971:  NABBA “Mr. Universe” – Winner (short class division) 
  • 1973:  NABBA “Amateur Mr. Universe” – Winner
  • 1974:  WABBA “Professional Mr. America” – Winner NABBA Professional Mr. Universe” – Winner 
  • 1976:  WABBA Mr. Olympus – 4th place 
  • 1979:  IFBB Diamond Cup 2nd place (re-entered bodybuilding competitions on 40th birthday) Mr. Olympia – 6th place IFBB Canada Cup – Winner 
  • 1980:  IFBB “Florida Grand Prix” – Winner IFBB “Louisiana Grand Prix” – 2nd place  IFBB “California Grand Prix” – Winner  “International Pairs Competition” – Winner (with Stacey Bentley) IFBB “Pennsylvania Grand Prix – 2nd place IFBB “New York grand Prix – Winner IFBB “1980 Grand Prix” – Winner Overall “Mr. Olympia – 2nd place (Arnold Schwarzenegger Winner) IFBB “Canada Cup” Winner 
  • 1981:  1981 “Pro World Cup” – 2nd place IFBB “California Grand Prix” – Winner  IFBB “Washington D.C. Grand Prix” – Winner IFBB “Louisiana Grand Prix” – Winner International Pairs Competition – Winner (with Lynn Conkwright) IFBB “Massachusetts Grand Prix” – 2nd place IFBB “New York Grand Prix” – Winner IFBB “1981 Grand Prix” – Winner Overall “Mr. Olympia” –  2nd place 
  • 1982:  1981 “Mr. Olympia” – Winner

    ©Chris Dickerson – Achieving the Impossible Dream by David Gentle  History of Physical Culture All Rights Reserved

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