Matt Mendenhall was one of the most promising youngsters in 1982 along with Lee Haney. He’s considered the greatest bodybuilder to have never turned professional.
Matt was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he grew up with his three older brothers Mark, Scott, Bobby and his two sisters Robbie and Martha. Three of his siblings were into bodybuilding….Bobby and Robbie actually competed.
The Mendenhall family undoubtedly was blessed with the gift of outstanding genetics. As a teenager, Matt was a good football player and a good pole-vaulter. He already had an exceptional physique and draws comments from his fellow students. In 1975, while practicing his pole-vaulting at home, the pole breaks, and Matt falls ten feet into the sand pit, causing a double compound fracture of the forearm. After 16 weeks in the cast, it appears that the arm healed incorrectly. Matt was told by the doctors that he will never regain full use of his arm!
His siblings encouraged him to never give up. Under their guidance, he entered the gym and began rehabilitation using weights. Under their recommendation and following his brothers’ example, he takes up weightlifting. It wasn’t long until he’d proved his doctors wrong – he’d regained full use of his forearm, and packed an impressive amount of muscle mass onto his frame.
After one year of training with weights, he decides to start powerlifting, mostly in his parent’s basement. Matt was 5’ 11” and weighed only 165 pounds. In 1978, Matt had a couple of years of training under his belt and was already showing an impressive capacity at developing muscle mass easily. One of his teachers motivates him to enter his first bodybuilding competition, the Mr Ohio High School, where 17-year-old Matt manages to place second. Matt had no tan, no diet and no posing routine! Then in 1979 he enters the Teenage Division of the Mr Metropolitan in Cincinnati and wins the overall title in the tall class. He also wins the most muscular in the open men’s division!
Matt decides to partner with his brother Mark and open a gym in Cincinnati. Their gym provides a good training environment and a source of revenue for both.
In 1981 he enters the Mr Cincinnati and Mr Buckeye State competitions winning both overall titles.
STEPPING ONTO THE NATIONAL STAGE
In 1982, Matt enters the NPC National Championships weighing in at 223 pounds down from 270 pounds. Matt places second in the heavyweight category, barely losing to Lee Haney and ahead of even Bob Paris and Tim Belknap (the previous year’s heavyweight winner)!
After Matt’s debut onto the national stage, the press and audience were blown away to discover one of bodybuilding’s most gifted athletes. Commentator’s remark on Matt’s inexperience on stage…but after all this is his first national competition. They all marvel at his obvious talent and extraordinary gifted physique.
THE BIG MOVE
In the summer of 1983, after his commendable results at the 1982 competition, Matt chooses to move to the bodybuilding Mecca, Venice Beach, along with his wife, Lori. His parents are not thrilled by the decision, but they remain supportive of their son, as they will throughout his career. While in Venice, Matt meets Joe Weider. On top of an all-night security job in an LA hotel, he gets a job with the sales division of Weider Health and Fitness and will eventually become a regular contributing editor to Joe’s magazine Muscle & Fitness.
As he is preparing for the 1983 NPC National Championships, he contracts the flu virus from his wife Lori three weeks from the competition. As the big day approaches, Matt loses weight and critical hardness and knows he is fighting an impossible battle against the virus. At the last minute, when he learns that his parents are already en route to see him compete, he decides not to withdraw from the contest. Unbelievably, Matt (weighing 219 pounds) manages to place 4th in San Jose, ahead of Richard Gaspari, but behind Bob Paris, Rory Leidelmeyer and Mike Christian. Despite his loss, his popularity with the public continue to grow. The magazines comparing him to Arnold, gave him a lot of pressure as people expected to see something close to God when he stepped onstage.
In 1984 Matt entered the NPC National Championships in New Orleans. Matt delights the audience with a 238-pound physique, straight out of the NPC rule books with his aesthetic perfection. The hall goes crazy each time Matt appears on stage and his superlative calf, thigh, triceps, biceps, pecs and shoulder development should seal his victory. Then to the dismay of the audience and a sizeable portion of the competitors, Mike Christian is proclaimed the winner of the heavyweight class. Many will question a judging system of how someone with such superior overall physical development can lose!
THE CAR CRASH
On the evening of December 8, 1984, Matt was on his way to pick up some material for a bodybuilding seminar which he was to give the next day in Canada. Matt hits another car which had just driven through a red light. Matt, who was not wearing a seat belt, is ejected through the windshield and lands in the middle of the street. He is rushed to the hospital and the doctor’s are puzzled at the fact that he broke neither his neck or his back, a phenomenon which they can only attribute to his outstanding muscular mass and muscular development.
Rumors start to spread that his bodybuilding career is over, but this is counting without Matt’s resilience, and as he begins lightly to train again. Offers for guest posing exhibitions and seminars keep pouring in, which will keep him busy four days a week for most of the following year. In 1985, Matt will guest pose 48 weeks out of the year!
After moving from Ohio to California, it was soon obvious that the Mendenhall’s would have to get used to a new, more public lifestyle. Eventually the pressure proves too much for their marriage, and Lori who is homesick decides to return to Ohio after their divorce.
Towards the end of 1985, Matt lets himself be convinced to take part in the NPC USA Championships and enters the contest in Las Vegas. Weighing in at 226 pounds, he easily wins the heavyweight first place, which earns him to represent the United States in his class at the 1985 World Games in London.
By then, Matt is tired out and jetlagged following his impossibly hectic schedule of the previous year. His confused body clock is making it impossible to control fluid retention, and, despite the support and encouragement of his new girlfriend, Ms. Olympia Rachel McLish, Matt’s massive build and unparalleled symmetry are not enough to win him the day, as he places second behind a tightly-shredded Berry DeMey.
In 1986, Matt enters the NPC National Championships in Atlanta where he battles a shredded Gary Strydom. Gary was shredded like never before and was in the absolute best condition of his career. One thing seems obvious to all the spectators present at the evening show, even Gary’s magnificent physique cannot quite match Matt’s superhuman proportions and symmetry, especially in the legs, chest, delts and triceps.
In Jeff Everson’s own words after the contest, “from a flexed, face-front position, Matt looks like he’s from a different galaxy. He has no flaws in proportion or shape. He’s thick and defined too.” However, Matt seems to have peaked too late, as most of the points have already been awarded in pre-judging, when he had supposedly not shed sufficient fluid, and Gary’s shredded look gave him the edge. Once again, Matt gracefully takes the second place of the heavyweight class, to the disbelief of his numerous fans.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
The unjust defeat in 1984 had left Matt with a bitter taste in the mouth and a new sense of disillusionment towards bodybuilding. After the 1986 Nationals, his body shuts down and Matt becomes periodically ill. He half-heartedly takes part in the 1987 NPC National Championships where he achieves a disappointing 10th place.
Finally, Matt decides to return to Cincinnati, away from the limelight and pressure of the west coast. There, a pharmacist friend introduces him to homeopathy. Matt’s lowered immunity is eventually traced to a long-standing intestinal yeast infection. His friend’s treatment seems to work for him, as his body and health progressively get better; Matt is hooked and starts studying homeopathy, while also working with his older brother Mark on rehabbing houses.
In 1988, he moves to Lakewood, Colorado where his girlfriend at the time goes to college in Denver. Still keeping a foot in bodybuilding, he pursues his own study of homeopathic medicine and eventually with his partner starts a company of homeopathies enhancement products called Natural Heights.
Meanwhile, Joe Weider presses him to renew with bodybuilding and to compete at the 1988 NPC National Championships. Matt reluctantly enters the contest and does not fare well at the pre-judging and consequently leaves the competition before the evening show. But the contest makes Matt realize that there is more to life than just winning contests. At roughly the same time, Matt refuses an offer to join the soon-to-be-formed WBF.
In 1991, after repeated requests from Joe Weider and Jim Manion, he once again returns to the competitive stage, taking part in various shows. He turns up in Pittsburgh for the 1991 NPC National Championships, sporting 253 pounds of tightly chiseled muscles. The crowd greets with rapturous ovations the return of one of the most well-loved and outstanding athletes in the sport. Matt was awarded with fifth place, behind Kevin Levrone, Flex Wheeler, Paul Demayo and Ronnie Coleman.
If it is possible nowadays to gauge the unique position and contribution of this extraordinary bodybuilder, Matt was once the first and forerunner of the best physique legends in our sport and the last of the “classical physiques”.
THE END OF AN ERA
In 1992, Matt moves to San Antonio, Texas, near the headquarters of a supplement company which he accepts to endorse. At the same time, he starts a successful personal training business.
At the beginning of 1993, Matt meets DeShay Ebert, the NPC Texas State Chairperson (female), and later that year she moves to San Antonio with him. She wants him to get involved in other aspects of bodybuilding and gets him to judge in various contests. In 1994, she convinces him to guest pose at the NPC Texas State Championships. Matt looks fantastic and deservedly receives a standing ovation.
However, for Matt, this is it, and announces his retirement from the sport. Because of Miss Ebert’s involvement in bodybuilding, their relationship was from the start under a cloud of uneasiness as Matt’s view of the sport grew ever bleaker. However, after Matt’s retirement, everyone around Miss Ebert nags Matt about getting back into the sport he wishes to leave behind; hence the inevitable demise of their relationship.
In 1998, Matt moves to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he opens a massage therapy clinic, a discipline he had taken up in San Antonio in 1996.
A LEGEND WITHOUT A PRO CARD
One thing we can take away from Matt’s story is you can become a LEGEND in the sport without winning first place and turning professional. Matt placed second on many occasions and didn’t become a professional bodybuilder, but he is still remembered as one of the greatest athletes in the sport’s history.
THE PASSING OF A LEGEND
Sadly, Matt Mendenhall passed away on August 28, 2021 at the age of 61. No cause of death has been officially announced. Everyone at STSFIT extends their condolences to the Mendenhall Family and Friends.
- Articles published in Muscle & Fitness, Flex, Musclemag International, Muscle Up, Muscle and Bodybuilder and Muscle Training Illustrated, by various authors: Bob Gruskin, Bill Reynolds, Jeff Everson, Rick Wayne, Bill Dobbins and DeShay Ebert.