THE LEGENDARY CRAIG MONSON
The Legendary Craig Monson
Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva, Frank Zane, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lee Haney… from the mid-1960’s to the late 1990’s during what’s now known as the “Classic Physique” era, these multi Mr. Olympia and prestigious title winners are still etched in the minds of bodybuilding purest that consider this time as the golden age of the sport.
Through indebt articles coupled with numerous photos in multi-million dollar publications such as Joe Weider’s Muscle and Fitness and Iron Man magazines along with having their images plastered on supplements and promotional items, the aforementioned bodybuilders have their legendary status carved in stone.
But revert back to the 1980’s and travel to South Central’s Eastside near 83rd and Hooper and you’d find one of the most awesome physical specimen that you probably never heard of but if given the opportunity to compete in the Mr. Olympia’s of the mid 1980’s may have very well won a title or two. The man I speak of is none other than the legendary Craig Monson.
From the beginning
On November 22, 1963, a bone-chilling announcement echoed over the monotone PA system at Charles Drew junior high school in South Central Los Angeles, that President John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated.
At that very moment, 13-year-old Craig Monson was in the school’s physical education (PE) class working out on their gym equipment. Monson’s love of bodybuilding was a natural gravitation towards the sport several years prior when he began taking his weekly allowance to buy Iron Man muscle magazines which featured the top bodybuilders of the day.
So fascinated by the men’s physical appearance in the muscle magazines the pre-teen who was a novice artist began drawing images of muscle-bound gladiators and Vikings donned in leopard skin holding large swords and wearing medallion patches on their foreheads, which he then posted all over the insides of his school locker. It was also the place where he had stored his vastly large collection of Iron Man magazines which by now dominated the confines of his personal compartment.
Like most schools, periodically, administrative officials would do routine inspection checks of student’s personal lockers to ensure that they were no illegal or unusual contraband being stored on school property. While inspecting Monson’s locker school officials became alarmed at the sheer volume of hand-drawn photos lining his locker walls and mountain like stacks of magazines stored within the limited storage space.
At a time when bodybuilding was mostly frowned upon the staff at Drew began to worry that Monson was dealing with some type of psychological issue. The school vice principal quickly notified Monson’s mother and step-father and asked them to come to his office for a private meeting.
With both parents now sitting in front of the vice principal he began telling the parents about the strange findings in their son’s locker and his unusual fascination he had with bodybuilding. He also went on to say that Craig’s obsession with constantly working out on with the school’s equipment had to stop. “All he wants to do is work out in the gym, all the time and in his spare time,” said the administrator.
Regardless of how the school’s staff felt, young Craig Monson would have none of that and continued working out on the school’s Universal gym equipment and began seeing positive results from his constant training.
Realizing the determination, commitment and dedication her son displayed for weightlifting, Monson’s mother decided to buy her 13-year-old son his first set of weights which consisted of an iron weight bar and plastic coated cement filled plates.
Generally speaking, cement filled dark blue or purple colored weights were quite common in those days and cost-effective compared to iron weights which were much more expensive.
With his own personal set of weights, Monson began working out even more which is when his body started rapidly responding to his training. By age 14, his arms had developed to a point where he cut slits into his short sleeve T-shirts to make room and show off his growing biceps.
At age 16, Monson commanded such a physical presence that he would often cause accidents from drivers gazing at his magnificent physic as he often walked shirtless several blocks down the street to the corner market.
Remember, this was a time, the late 60s, where the average person had never seen a bodybuilder in person, the sport was just that rare.
By the time he reached Freemont high school the tenth-grader arms measured nearly nineteen inches while sporting an extremely narrow waist. Craig was briefly talked into playing football at Freemont but soon realized that bodybuilding, not football was his true calling.
Through a friend who worked as a welder in the shipyard, Monson began designing gym equipment from scratch in his mother’s backyard that would accommodate heavy constructed steel weightlifting equipment and large amounts of heavy weights which were essential for such a man with Herculean strength.
In a backyard that didn’t have much grass due to the lack of sunlight penetrating the overgrown trees, Monson himself mixed and poured eleven feet of concrete which could easily support the mammoth size steel framed equipment that was being designed.
Around 1967, a rambunctious teen formed a block gang called the Avenues which had been established on a corner near 83rd and Hooper Avenue. The Avenues were both feared and respected by outsiders and other gangs that didn’t reside in the neighborhood.
This Eastside Clique was admired so much by the up-and-coming bad boys in the neighborhood that a young hell-raiser by the name of Raymond Washington who lived only a few blocks off the corner where the Avenues originally formed wanted to join the group as a young teen but was rejected by Craig Monson and Donny Boy leaders of the Avenues.
Without consent from Avenue leaders, Washington formed his own small group and began calling them the “Baby” Avenues.
Resented and shunned by the original Avenues, the “Baby” Avenues disbanded almost as fast as they were created. However, a few years later Washington would go on to create one of the most notorious gangs in U.S. history when he formed the Crips along with Tookie Williams back in the early 1970s.
Several years later a fully developed Monson began competing in local amateur bodybuilding contests in and around L.A. and started making a name for himself in the sport. But as Monson continued deviating from life’s straight and narrow path while still in his teens he would eventually end up at a California state prison in Tracy. After his release, Monson would eventually face yet another critical unforeseen moment in life when he caught a burglar in the act of thievery inside his mother’s home.
The intruder, who had just been released from jail days earlier for the exact same offense was armed with a ball-peen hammer as he ransacked the home. A scuffle quickly broke out, Monson although hit in the head with the tool, during the melee was able to wrestle the hammer away from the intruder and began using it on him which resulted in the man’s death.
Monson saw this unfortunate unforeseen event as protecting the household and self-defense, but the courts disagreed and charged and convicted him of involuntary manslaughter which sent him to San Quentin for several years.
After his release, Monson turned over a new leaf by taking up a trade to become a cosmologist and concentrating on a completive bodybuilding career.
Muscle Beach, an exclusive iconic Santa Monica landmark and the birthplace of the physical fitness boom that started in 1934. During this time, at your leisurely stroll on the beach, you would often see novice gymnast performing predominantly on high bars and traveling rings equipment that was placed on the South Side of the Santa Monica Pier.
Eighteen years later, less than a quarter mile away Muscle Beach Venice was formed and offered a beachfront gym called The Pit, which offered weightlifting machines and tons of free-weights for the hardcore bodybuilder.
Monson recalls the very first time he and his training partner Donny Boy tried to enter the Pit at Venice Beach in 1966 at age 16. With entry money in hand, cashiers refused to accept the two young men’s money which would have allowed admittance into the gym to work out simply because they were Black.
Unfazed by the rejection and realizing that this is something which they had to be a part of… Craig and Donny scaled the wraparound fence and began working out anyway. This scenario repeated itself over and over again each time their entry payment was refused and access to the Pit denied.
Cashiers, tired of going through the same ordeal time after time finally gave in to the boys and began excepting the entry fee which allowed them to work out with the all-white bodybuilders in the Pit.
The Spirit of Europe
Geneva Switzerland, London England, Rome Italy, Paris France, North Africa, the Canary Islands and Madrid Spain! How does a high profile self-admitted gang member from South Central a part of Los Angeles where many youths committed to gang life rarely venture outside of their own neighborhood let alone the state unless incarcerated and shipped off to a prison in another state become an international bodybuilding icon?
Awesome talent and fortunate breaks would be that answer to that rhetorical question and that’s exactly what happened to Monson when Paco Arcie, the vice president of Elizabeth Cosmetics, sponsoring his overseas show. Monson, a regular at the Pit in Venice Beach always entertained large numbers of crowds that constantly gazed at his mythical like physic while witnessing incredible feats of strengths.
As he continued delighting the crowd by stacking plate-after-plate on the bench press weight bar admirers looked in amazement as Monson began benching 585-pounds on the flat bench for five reps then switched to work out with 200-pound dumbbells.
Lurking in the shadows of enthralled onlookers that stretched back twelve rows from the gate of the Pit to a popular taco stand stood an unassuming middle-aged average looking gentleman who approached big Craig after one of his workouts and introduced himself as PacoArcie.
He asked Monson if he was currently competing in bodybuilding. When Monson replied “not anymore,”Arcie insisted he compete in the Mr. World contest.” Monson replied, “I don’t qualify.” Arcie responded, yes you do, you can compete as an amateur.
Archie who at the time lived in Madrid Spain was visiting Venice Beach when he had spotted Monson working out. He then sent Craig an itinerary along with performance enhancement supplements to use along with the other performing enhancing drugs that Monson had started taking from a well-known bodybuilding doctor in Los Angeles. Monson followedArcie’s instruction to the tee.
While doubling up on the enhancement performing drugs from both the doctor and Arcie, Monson began blowing up becoming a mass-monster seemingly overnight while working out at City Gym in L.A.
Arcie then sent Monson airfare tickets and provided accommodations to compete in the Mr. Word amateur bodybuilding contest. Upon his arrival in Geneva Switzerland at the hotel, Monson had the opportunity to meet his roommate from Paris France who was also competing for the Mr. World amateur title.
Later that evening, sixty-eight men from around the globe began filing into the Poly Expo building in Geneva where the event was being held.
As the bodybuilding contest started competitors began showcasing their brawn in front of the judges and nearly three-thousand enthusiastic fans. Monson at a chiseled 272 pounds is the largest competitor at the event, forty-two pounds heavier than the next largest competitor.
He uses his size and weight to his advantage by walking extremely hard on the wood floors that echoed with each advancing step.
Some of the fans in attendance that had known of Monson or that once saw him at Venice Beach began shouting his name as he begins striking poses. Moonson, Moonson, Moonson the crowd chants which was the way they pronounced Monson’s last name.
After the routines of the competitors, the judges picked the five finalists with the best physiques. Monson was thrilled when it was announced that he had placed in the top five and gauging from the crowd’s reaction when his name was announced as a finalist which was much louder than when the names of the other competitors were announced, though he had a very good chance of winning the competition.
But soon the cheers became jeers and sheer disbelief when the judges placed Monson 5th and named his hotel roommate the winner of the contest. So upset with the decision the crowd sitting in attendance began shouting Moonson, Moonson, Moonson while defiantly stomping their feet to the rhythm of the chant while others rushed to the base of the stage.
A decked out Paco Arcie who sponsored Monson for the event was also in attendance sitting in the front row laughing asthe whole situation unfolded.
Monson, with the other four other top competitors still standing on the platform, stepped off the raised level and walked up to the edge of the stage, looked down where the crowd had gathered and started posing for them. The crowd now with an up-close view of the massive Monson went nuts!
So much so, that the judges now conferring with each other in their language tried to settle them down but the crowd continued chanting. Finally, the judges gave in and announced… “People’s choice, first place, Craig Monson. Judges choice, Monson fifth place.” Monson’s hotel roommate and competitor was still the judges first place choice.
Nonetheless, Monson received the first-place trophy as the people’s choice, as well as, a box of candy as the judge’s fifth place choice. With the only one winning trophy handed to Monson, his roommate from France left the stage and went back to the hotel as the judges pick but trophyless.
Meanwhile, as the competition came to an end, fans flocked towards Monson now sitting at a table in the auditorium to purchase signed 8×10 autographed photos that he was selling. Eventually, he would sell every photo in his possession as ushers began blinking the lights off and on in an effort to clear the auditorium with thousands of fans still lingering in the room who were still gathered around Monson’s table.
So enthralled with Monson’s power-house physique, one young fan after Monson had sold every photo he had, actually took Craig’s sweat towel and began rubbing it on his back and feet then gleefully asked Monson to sign it. Monson obliged, signed the towel and gave it to the kid.
After finally boarding two charter buses that brought the group of kids to the bodybuilding contest they began hanging out the windows as the buses drove off still while shouting Monson’s name. Monson returned back home with his first place, “people’s choice” trophy a box of candy with the spirit of Europe embedded deep within his heart.
Months later he discovered that his hotel roommate competing in the Mr. World contest from France trained at Serge Nubret’s gym. Nubret who took second place in the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest behind the winner Arnold Schwarzenegger resided in France and was a co-sponsor of the Mr. World contest.
Now his fifth place choice by the judges made sense to Monson and I’m sure he thought back to the very first bodybuilding contest he attended in 1968 that featured a young Frank Zane and the legendary Leroy Colbert, the first man to build 21-inch arms who is also in the bodybuilding Hall-of-Fame.
In the contest, a seasoned Colbert won awards for best arms, best back and best legs, but the overall winner was the much smaller Frank Zane who even during his three Mr. Olympia wins seemed to weight about 185-pounds with below average 17-inch arms. Frank has always had an aesthetic physic which resembled the body of a fitness model more than a bodybuilder. As the second place Colbert bear hugged his numerous individual trophy’s, Frank Zane received his first-place trophy and money.
NIGHT OF THE CRYSTAL
Days later, once back in the U.S. Monson received a pleasant surprise, the DJ of the bodybuilding contest in Switzerland had contacted Monson inviting him to return to Europe and compete in an all-expense paid trip to London in an event he was hosting called“Night of the Crystal” which would be held in the Midlands, a cultural rural area which spans through central England.
Monson, knowing absolutely nothing about London other than its geographical location and certainly nothing about the Midlands, eagerly accepted the invitation to appear in the show.
While walking through the airport Monson was astonished to see large posted banners of himself posing that read “First time in London, Craig Monson competing at the Night of the Crystal.”London “Bigger than the Hulk!”
Now at the Upon receiving his airfare tickets, Monson flew to London’s fame Heathrow International Airport. Inside the show, there’s standing room only. To the blaring trumpeting sounds of Cecil B. DeMille’s iconic movie “The Ten Commandments,” Monson walks out on stage to a packed house as he unfolds his pre-planned routine. Timing each pose flawlessly to the increments of the sounding horns Monson strikes several poses whipping the crowd into a frenzy striking one pose after another.
As his hulking routine comes to an end Monson walks to the edge of the stage peers down at the crowd and lets out a mighty growl like an agitated lion. So resounding was his growl that Paco Arcie, his sponsor of the Switzerland bodybuilding contest that was in attendance of the contest said that he could feel Monson’s breath, as far as, four rows back.
The often stoic faced, hard-core Monson through the advice of a posing expert and friend John Brown, who was also a winner of several Mr. Universe titles at the pro level convinced Monson to drop his lugubrious exterior and adopt a more fan-friendly appearance by showing his teeth and smiling. “Be a showman, and crowd pleaser, let the audience know you are having a good time, say’s Brown.
Being a self-confessed gangster from the hood and never having the opportunity to show any kind of humility or charm, Monson took Brown’s advice that really paid off at the show in London.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
Feats of Strength
What fascinates many about big Craig Monson is not only the fact that he was a humongous bodybuilder but that he was as strong as he was big. In the world of bodybuilding, it is extremely rare that you find a hybrid of the two.
Yes, most bodybuilders have large muscles esthetically pleasing to the eye but and are much stronger than the average person but generally lack superior power like those who partake in the world of powerlifting.
Craig Monson was different. His legendary tales of strength is second to none as a bodybuilder. Monson’s incredible feats of strength are well documented. He has several videos posted on this website and YouTube from his work out days, back-in-the-day.
At Venice Beach Craig’s physical preparation for a heavy bench often started with 400 pounds of 25 reps for 4 sets which eventually led to a 500 pound plus bar-bending payload of numerous double-digit sets then finishing up with 200-pound dumbbells for all at the beach to witness.
He was also known to manhandle 315-pound skull crushers as he reached back grabbing the weight from off the floor. So end heavy were these six plates that Monson’s hefty training partner had to actually hold down his legs to keep from toppling over. He was also known to leg press over 1300 pounds on a leg machine stacked with numerous 45-pound plates along with several individuals sitting atop the rack.
At the height of Monson’s bodybuilding fame in the mid-1980’s, he could often be seen riding in chauffeured limousines and Mercedes Benz on the streets of Hollywood while hobnobbing with Tinseltown’s “It Crowd” at private parties and nightclubs.
“Everybody wants to be seen with the big man”, Monson once said. This was true and yes, they would pick up big Craigin expensive automobiles and party-hardy the night away, but ultimately Monson also picked up their drug habit as well. After all, this was the turbulent times of the 1980s where the cocaine epidemic during President Regan’s administration began spreading throughout both the tony enclaves of the rich and ghetto neighborhoods of the poor.
Powdered cocaine was prevalent in affluent, well-to-do neighborhoods because after all, the drug was very expensive. But when someone concocted the recipe of adding different ingredients and cooking the drug in order to turn it into a hard crystal-like substance called “Crack,” the product had now become cheap and potent enough to sell in poorer neighborhoods.
Like the Biblical plague, seemly overnight, crack cocaine infiltrated mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods destroying communities and individuals at every level.
But be it in powder or rock form, cocaine is an equal un-opportunity offender which did not discriminate against class, race or gender. From film executives to the average Joe or Joe-et, those who trifled with this drug often found themselves grasped firmly in its treacherous grip.
Through his newfound running buddies, the “Mighty Monson” who could hoist massive amounts of weights by the pound began hoisting and snorting powdered cocaine by the gram. The drug had taken such a toll on Monson that for over a period of six years he had forsaken bodybuilding as he fell into a deep depression.
Subsequently, Monson realized that he needed intervention to overcoming his addiction and thereafter sought help. It would cost him over four-thousand dollars and a stint at a drug rehabilitation center in L.A. before he was finally able to kick his addiction.
In 1996, at age forty-six Monson, after a long hiatus joined a nearby gym and was finally able to get back into rebuilding his body which by now had lost a considerable amount of weight, size, and strength.
A NEW BEGINNING
A New Beginning
Distancing himself from the Hollywood crowd, he was able to obtain employment working at a local club called Dublin’s which was only a few blocks from the gym. Although Monson had not worked out in years with free-weights he still had a home regiment that consisted of pushups and other bodyweight exercises that keep him in decent shape.
Three weeks after joining the gym Monson’s muscles had responded to his workouts. Testing his comeback strength Monson’s training partner Pete spotted Craig on an attempted 315-pound bench press. This was the amount of weight that Monson actually used to train his back arm doing triceps extensions years prior.
With each rep, his training partner continues counting out loud, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50. Monson had benched the weight an unbelievable fifty times. Even though Pete had just counted every single rep he was still in disbelief and questioned what his eyes had just witnessed.
“Did you just bench 315-pounds fifty times asked Pete?” “You counted them, didn’t you?” Asked Monson?So impressed with Monson’s feat, Pete who also worked as security for Dublin’s went back and told the other sixteen guards employed at the club of what had happened. Naturally, they scoffed at the notion of any man being able to bench three-hundred pounds 50 times; in their minds, such a feat was just not possible. Pete convinced the entire crew at Dublin’s to come to the gym to watch big Craig work out. A few days later with all sixteen guards circled around the bench press inside the gym Monson once again with 315-pounds on the bench press took a spot from Pete and began completing rep after rep.
When it was all said-and-done Monson had completed four sets of 315-pounds for 50 reps. Astonishment instantly engraved itself in the minds of the men to what they had just seen. When Monson told the small group that at one time in his career he used to back-arm this amount of weight, one man shouted “Bull Shit.”
Monson reaches into his worn leather portfolio bag pulls out the photo of him doing lying triceps extensions with three 45-pound plates on each side of the bar then showing the picture to the non-believer. Monson continued working out over the next several years and had gotten back physically to pretty much the way he had been prior to his cocaine habit.
Around 2003, he began experimenting with growth hormones to improve his overall size and strength. Over the next few years, training with the growth hormones really worked. Monson strength wise was pretty much back to his glory days but noticed that the growth hormones had a horrific cosmetic effect.
Monson over the past years had shaved his head bald and notice that when a friend took a photo of him working out on the bench Monson could see what appeared to be a brain print pushing up against the back of his head. Horrified at what he had seen he and attributed the abnormality to his extended use of growth hormones, Monson abruptly stopped taking.
In late 2016, Monson would experience yet another unforeseen setback when he was hospitalized and eventually had to have his gallbladder removed. Not being able to work out Monson saw his hard-earned muscles begin to shrink while his skin sagged due to his rapid weight loss.
Months after the surgery, Craig’s doctor gave him the go-ahead to start stretching and training with light weights. Two forty-seven, two fifty-seven, two sixty-seven, then two seventy. Before you knew it Monson once again had packed on weight while sculpting his muscle.
Monson has long since paid his debt to society and is currently having a book written about his life. A documentary film is also in the works.