Becoming one of the best bodybuilders in the world, an IFBB professional, is one of the hardest tasks anyone could accomplish. Given bodybuilding is a sport that requires not only technical proficiency in designing the perfect training program and diet and a great deal of determination and desire to make the most of these, it demands perseverance and an overriding will to win.
One man who has all of these qualities in abundance is New Zealand pro Salah Ibrahim. And when you consider the fact that Salah, who arrived in New Zealand as a Kurdish refuge in 1996 and has since carved a name for himself in New Zealand bodybuilding circles was fighting for his life after receiving six stab wounds in an altercation outside an Auckland nightclub a little over one year ago, it is evident he is a man adept at overcoming the odds.
In a sport where bodybuilders, in many cases, feel depleted if they must work beyond their daily workouts, who rest as often as possible lest they burn valuable muscle, Salah not only maintains his backbreaking bodybuilding schedule, but runs his own supplement business full time (Xtreme Nutrition).
Case in point: Salah was packing boxes for shipment at midnight the day before I met him for this interview. The following morning he was up at 6:00 and at the gym not long after. With this kind of discipline it is incredibly likely he will rapidly progress though the pro bodybuilding ranks.
Despite the odds - adjusting to a new country and culture, surviving an attempted murder, working around the clock to support his family - Salah, at age 24, has become one of the youngest professional bodybuilders ever to compete on an IFBB stage.
Having trained as a bodybuilder for only eight years and being so young, he still has much growing to do, and with his genetically gifted, natural shape - broad shoulders, small waist and full muscle - and a propensity for pushing himself to the limit, his bodybuilding success is all but guaranteed.
I met with Salah two days out from his pro debut, the Australian Pro, to discuss how he achieved so much in such a short period and where he finds the motivation to challenge himself to become the best he can be in the world's most challenging sport. At the time of our interview Salah, along with his training partner and mentor, established pro, Moe Moussawi, who Salah credits with helping him to reach the top, was doing a final weight training session and was on extremely low carbohydrates.
IFBB Pro Salah Ibrahim Interview
The photos featured in this article were taken at the time of my interviewing Salah.
[ Q ] You arrived in New Zealand in 1996 as a Kurdish refuge. Now you are a business owner, professional bodybuilder and I believe a soon to be father. How were you able to achieve all of this despite the odds?
I think it is where I have come from. It is not as easy there so you begin to appreciate things more when you come down here (New Zealand). You don't want to let the opportunities go by so when you get any opportunity you just want to make the most of it.
[ Q ] What is most important to you in life?
The most important thing to me is family and having a stable life. That is what I want to have. Then comes the passion that I love most in life: bodybuilding. Business is also important to me.
[ Q ] What age did you begin training?
Well when I came here they wouldn't let me train in the gym at the age of 15. That was in 1997. In '97 I went to a place called All Seasons and wanted to join this gym; they told me I couldn't get a membership until I was sixteen. So I had to wait until the following year. Before then I trained at the school gym for around six months, until I turned 16.
[ Q ] Did you specifically train to be a bodybuilder when you first began?
No I did not really train to be a bodybuilder, I just wanted to get strong and to improve myself. Then after one year the New Zealand Federation of Bodybuilders (
NZFBB) had a local competition going and it just went on from there. So I did my first competition at 17, the Club Physical Auckland Championships. Then after seeing
Moe Moussawi competing I knew that if you wanted to reach your goals you could really make it if you put yourself into it.
Moe told me if I put my mind into it I could go as far as I wanted to, so I just got a lot of help from him and with his help I am now a professional. Without him I would have probably thought twice about taking up bodybuilding as a professional sport - making a career out of it.
[ Q ] And you had good potential to be a top bodybuilder from the time you began bodybuilding?
I did. With my first competition, the Auckland champs, I wasn't lacking but I was still learning about how to get my
training right. I had the physique to be a bodybuilder but just didn't know what to eat, how to train.
[ Q ] You had a good shape?
Yes I had a good shape even when I was younger.
[ Q ] What are your major strengths as a bodybuilder?
My strengths are my chest and lower back, and also my abs.
[ Q ] The fact you were stabbed repeatedly in the abdominal region has not detracted from this area too much.?
It has a little bit but they have not lost their shape.
[ Q ] Can we call you the New Zealand George Farrah?
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George Farah At The 2007 Colorado Pro.
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6. George Farah.
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Yes I saw pictures of him onstage after he was shot and he showed that you could do it if you put your mind into it. So after looking at him onstage I felt pretty confidant and thought if he can do it then so can I.
[ Q ] So you make the most of every day?
Yes I make the most of every day. The idea is to achieve the most you can today.
And Salah is passing on the message to the public that if something happens in your life, don't give up. If you think you have a problem then listen to this story. He is fighting for his life then 12 months later he is onstage with the best bodybuilders in the world. If he can do it then anyone can do it.
[ Q ] Salah. As you prepare for the 2008 Australian Pro you are training with the man seated to my right, established pro Moe Moussawi. How is that going?
It is great. I feel I am a very lucky person having a guy like Moe Moussawi around. From day one he has helped me with my training and nutrition and everything. And now as a training partner he is training me and I think this is the best opportunity I could get.
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Moe El Moussawi At The 2008 Arnold Classic.
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Even if I was in the best country for bodybuilding, which is the United States, I wouldn't get a trainer and a partner like that with all the advice he gives me so I feel right now I am in the perfect atmosphere for training and making progress.
[ Q ] I understand you also own a business.
Yes I own an
Xtreme Nutrition business, which is a franchise from Moe himself, as he owns the company. He helped me into this business around two to three years ago just after he had helped me into bodybuilding by assisting me to win the Nationals.
[ Q ] How do you manage to run your store while establishing yourself as a professional bodybuilder?
It is good. There are flexible hours, and as you make a name for yourself people come to your store regardless of where you are. Looking good and being the best in the country also helps. Being a bodybuilder definitely helps. You can be in the worst place but can make the best of it. People come to you because you can give them the right advice.
[ Q ] Being a professional bodybuilder, how are you received by the New Zealand public?
Well a lot of people knew me before I was a bodybuilder. But New Zealand is a country I love; it has been my country for 12 years. And as a bodybuilder I do get a lot of encouragement. But I still don't think that the New Zealand public really knows what a bodybuilder goes through to get to where they are, so I don't think they give bodybuilders any credit compared to a lot of other sports.
A lot of athletes from other sports get so much publicity and attention out of what they do. For bodybuilders it is not the same level. Personally I haven't gotten a great deal of appreciation from the New Zealand public since I was an amateur through to now as a professional. But you will get occasional nice comments; people will come up in the gym and say you look good.
[ Q ] You are doing a very good job as you are bringing awareness to bodybuilding in New Zealand and New Zealand in general.
Definitely we are. But in New Zealand it is still not really known; it still needs to be more publicized. But what Moe is doing this year (2008) with his pro show is bringing a lot of attention to bodybuilding.
I think even one or two shows like that and even the New Zealand amateurs will start getting a lot of attention because he has invested a lot of money in getting the word out there to people. And that is what it is all about. I think if Moe continues doing what he is doing then in two years the whole of New Zealand will know what bodybuilding is.
New Zealand Pro/Elite website: http://www.nzebb.co.nz/
[ Q ] Having a New Zealand pro show of our own will definitely give top bodybuilders like you more of an opportunity to compete.
Yes and it will also give more people an incentive to get into bodybuilding.
[ Q ] How difficult is it for you to manage a family and business while pursuing bodybuilding?
It is very hard. I personally went through a lot to get to where I am because I have a family and business to take care of and on top of that have to train twice a day. It is not as easy as many professionals from the States who get a nice contract then all they have to do is eat, sleep and train.
For me it is hard but not that bad. I own one store and have two stores to manage. Then there is Moe Moussawi who has a million dollar business to run; I have sometimes seen him working until 7:00 o'clock at night when he is preparing for a pro show.
[ Q ] How do you deal with your business demands the last week before a contest?
It is very hard and unfortunately is does not stop. Just last night Moe and I had to work until 12:00 o'clock and had to get up a 6:00 o'clock this morning and go to the gym. Often we only get around two to three hours sleep each night then it is twice daily training in the gym. When Moe was preparing for the
Iron Man (2008) he was up at all hours running his business, yet he achieves third at that show and had a very successful year (so far).
[ Q ] You now find yourself in the same position as Moe, up onstage with the best bodybuilders in the world. How does that feel for you?
To be up there with the best bodybuilders in the world is great because I can help to put New Zealand on the map as a professional bodybuilder. Since this is my first year competing as a pro at the age 24, I am just happy to be there. I am privileged to be onstage with these guys.
[ Q ] Since you are only 24, and have a lot of time to grow and improve as a bodybuilder, what kind of future do you feel you have in bodybuilding?
I don't want to brag too much about this but I feel that with Moe Moussawi's guidance I think over the next four years you are going to see a different story and I will be one of the top guys in the world. Top five in the Olympia some day. I think if I get the right advice, the right sponsorship form Moe Moussawi (laughs), plenty of
Pro Fight supplements. Before the sponsorship I will have to get good first so we will see what happens.
[ Q ] So what is your major aim this year (2008)?
My aim this year is to go out there and do my best and try hard. I am happy with whatever I get this year. I am happy to do very well, but also just happy to be there. Next year will be a different story. Then I will be aiming to place.
[ Q ] What is your current bodyweight two days out from your pro debut at the Australian Pro?
My bodyweight is 89 (kilograms - converted to pounds: 195.8), ripped at five feet six and a half. My body fat percentage is 3.5 percent.
[ Q ] Your ultimate goal would be to increase your weight to at least 210 to be competitive in the pro ranks?
Yes, next year I want to be onstage at, at least, 95kgs (209 pounds) at three percent (body fat). I think that is a good weight for me. I'm not trying to bring one of those big freaky mass physiques. I want to bring mass with class. I want to come shredded. It doesn't matter if I come in at 90kgs; I just want to be the most ripped guy onstage. So that is what I want to bring. 90 to 95kgs is the maximum weight I will go to.
|WHAT'S YOUR GOAL?|
[ Q ] Describe your current diet.
Right now we are strictly on chicken breasts, fish, tuna. We do have some
carbohydrates but they are under control.
[ Q ] So the carbohydrates you consume are just to get you through your training sessions?
Yes just to give us the energy to train at this point (in the final week before competition). The rest is protein. It's high protein and very low carbohydrates.
[ Q ] How do you train in the off-season?
In the off-season I try to go to the gym as often as I can. I'm a heavy lifter and I try to go as heavy as possible, keeping the reps around eight to 12. I get up to 260 kgs on
squats, 220 on
bench. I am generally a pretty strong guy. When it is contest time I do go lighter and just try to get the reps up to 15 to 30 at a moderate weight.
[ Q ] Do you do most of your training with Moe?
I do. When we train together I just follow what he does; follow his lead. He's the best out there and he has been doing it longer than me. I figure if you are going to train with someone, train with someone better than you or don't train at all. If you want to improve you have to train with someone who is better than you. Then you aim to beat him. So I am aiming to beat him in two to three years if he (Moe) doesn't retire (laughs).
Moe speaks: [...] and that would make me the happiest guy around. To have a guy who has trained so hard with me one day beat me. That would just make me even more proud.
[ Q ] You two seem to have a close relationship. I suppose you would need to have a deep level of trust given the fact you are training together and competing against one another?
Moe: Oh yes. Salah is probably the one person in this country I have the most trust in. The amount of trust we have between us is something I can't begin to explain. I am happy to announce that out of the many people I have met in this sport over more than 10 years, Salah is one of only ten or 15 people I would put all my trust in. He is humble, has no jealously, respects the guy who is better than he is, and he knows who he is. His aim is to better himself.
He is not looking at beating someone or at who is better than him; it is about him being his best. And that was the first thing I mentioned to him when we started our relationship: To me if you are going to concentrate on who looks like what and who is in shape and all that kind of stuff, you are eliminating concentration that you could be placing on yourself. And if you are not concentrating 100 percent on something you are going to lose that percentage that you are not focusing on.
If you concentrate 100 percent on yourself you are going to get that 100 percent result. If you concentrate 90 percent on yourself and ten percent on the other guy you are only going to get a 90 percent result, probably less.
[ Q ] And when you retire from bodybuilding Salah, people will remember you more for who you were as a person rather than just your bodybuilding achievements anyway.
Yes there is more to it than just building your physique.
[ Q ] Would you agree with this Moe?
The first thing I tell people when I do seminars all over the world is the first thing you should focus on is having respect for yourself and for others. Unfortunately bodybuilders don't get a lot of respect from the public and I will tell you why; it is pretty obvious. It is because we don't respect each other.
If you want someone to respect you, you have to be a respectful person. If you want somebody to look up to you, you have to be a good person, with your manner, your attitude, the way you are and your personality. The more respectful we are, the more people will like us and this is how we grow the sport. You must build more than just your muscles.
You must use your brain in this sport; this is a very technical sport. I don't think there is another sport in this world that is more technical and more sophisticated than bodybuilding. Just because I am a bodybuilder does not make me a better person than you who might be a basketball player or whatever.
One thing I always try to emphasize when discussing how we can grow bodybuilding in New Zealand is appreciation for our athletes. If we are not going to give our athletes the respect they deserve, how can we expect the public to respect bodybuilding?
[ Q ] Good points Moe. So Salah, who else, other than Moe, has inspired you as you have made your way up the bodybuilding ranks?
My uncle who lived in the States for 25 years, he was a bodybuilder. He still trains and he is 96. He sent a letter to my dad. I had a look at his photo and said, "Man he looks good." That gave me some motivation to begin training hard. But at the beginning I did not want to compete; I just went to the gym to lift weights and get big. Then a year later I got serious and met Moe and it went from there.
[ Q ] At one time you were New Zealand's best junior bodybuilder. You were winning everything and this was only after having trained for a few years.
I was the only junior actually win an overall open title. But when it came time to compete in the Nationals they would not let me win at this contest. Jim Pittman was in charge then and everyone was telling me I should have won. I'm not sure what happened. They qualified me for the Universe but I declined and instead went with the NZFBB to try to gain my pro card. And that is when I said, "okay that is it, this is me." I was told I had the potential to turn pro and I never looked back, and two years later I won my pro card.
[ Q ] Who do you respect among those competing in the professional ranks?
I see Dexter Jackson and I see something else. He is very symmetrical and I personally like that look. But my ideal would be Ronnie Coleman. Freaky muscle and shredded - that was something. To me, of those competing right now, Dexter would be the most pleasing bodybuilder.
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Dexter Jackson At The 2008 Arnold Classic.
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[ Q ] And you will be onstage with Dexter two days from now.
Exactly, I just can't wait to see him and to be onstage next to him.
[ Q ] All the best for this contest Salah. You will do New Zealand bodybuilding proud.
Thank you and thank you for this interview.