SE: Joining us now is one buff dude, Mike Katz. You may have seen Mike if you’ve been to any of the Planet Fitnesses around town, as he owns them. But we wanted to talk a little bit about your past because it’s fascinating.
KATZ: Well, I’m just happy that enough viewers still remember who I am.
SE: Let’s go back to how it all started, in weightlifting. You developed quite a rivalry with a certain guy named Arnold Schwarzenegger.
KATZ: Yeah, as a matter of fact, I just got off the phone with him. We’d been training partners, but he was a pro and I was an amateur, and then when he retired, I became a pro. So we never actually competed. We’ve posed on the same stage, but never actually competed against each other.
SE: So you were a bodybuilder, which required tons and tons of weightlifting.
KATZ: I was always an athlete. In high school, I played three sports, I could have played four. I knew that as I trained with weights, I was going to get stronger. This was in the ’50s. People thought then that I was going to get more muscular and be almost like robotic. But the weight training plus the sports gave me agility, plus the strength, more power, and I became a better athlete, even though coaches, even Weeb Ewbank of the New York Jets, discouraged weight training.
I can remember Jess Dow (head football coach at Southern Connecticut State). The coaching office at the time was above the weight training area. He would hear the weights clanging and crashing on the ground. And he would say ‘Hell’s Bell,’ he had that Texas accent, he’d go ‘What the hell is that Mike doing in the weight room? It’s Friday night before the game!”
SE: You almost won a Super Bowl when you played for the New York Jets.
KATZ: Yeah, the team that I was on, I was injured the year before the Super Bowl. I had a knee operation, and they never gave me an opportunity really to recover properly. They called me Superman, they said ‘How could Superman be hurt?’ And so I played six games on a knee that should have been operated on.
I wouldn’t have traded Mr. America, Mr. Universe, for a Super Bowl ring. I wouldn’t have given up my success as a bodybuilder, because that’s what I’m known for anyway.
SE: So, how did you get into bodybuilding?
KATZ: You know, when you’re little and you’re getting sand kicked in your face, and they’re calling you ‘Jew boy,’ I was dramatically picked on when I was young. I didn’t understand how to protect myself. And I looked at these Charles Atlas cartoons, which showed the 98-pound weakling, he’d get sand kicked in his face, the strong guy would walk off with the girl. And then I went and saw Steve Reeves in the Hercules movies, sort of like kids watching Arnold in the ‘Terminator’.
I said, ‘I gotta do this.’ So a guy next door, Mr. Andre let me have his set of weights, and I started getting bigger. Less kids were fooling around with me, and I was plowing my way through sandlot football and becoming a star, and I started feeling better about myself.
SE: So it was anti-Semitism, and being bullied, that eventually led to Mr. America.
KATZ: Yeah, and it’s a good thing that it did that, because a lot of kids even today will not overcome with an interest or a recreation, whether it’s singing or dancing, or playing sports. A lot of kids today will take their life over this. You know, at times, I thought about that. I thought that would be the easiest way to get out of the pain that I suffered as a kid growing up. So it’s a good thing that I never jumped out of that tree in my backyard, which I thought about doing many times.
Like Arnold said once to me, when I was feeling down and out because I wasn’t getting the money I was owed and I was away from my kids, training with Arnold in California, he said, ‘I never met a Jew who was a quitter.’ His father was a Nazi, and you know, that’s a fact. Obviously with the Holocaust and everything else, it really meant a lot to me. And anytime I ever got negative or started looking at the negative side of things, I always remembered what Arnold said.
SE: And you have not gotten away from weightlifting since. I know that not because I’ve seen you working out, but because I see you. You’re like cut from stone over here. What are you, 70 years old?
KATZ: 70, yeah. I work out about three days a week. I do a lot of core exercises for lower back and abs.
SE: Listen, thank you for coming in. You have a fascinating story, and I’m glad that you’re getting others encouraged to work out.
KATZ: Thanks for having me.