The second phase of Arnold's rise to the top was dominated for the first few years by a single rivalry, with Cuban-born bodybuilder Sergio Oliva. And with good reason—not only was Oliva the two-time defending Mr. Olympia, but he won it unchallenged in 1968, something never done before or since. "Nobody dared to jump on the platform with me," Oliva told Bodybuilding.com in 2008. In 1969, only one lifter saw fit to give Oliva a run for his money: Arnold, just 21 years old and fresh off of his second Mr. Universe title. Here's how Arnold remembered the contest in "Total Recall:"
"Finally, we were warming up backstage. Sergio was famous for his lengthy pumping-up routine, during which always wore a long butcher's coats so the rival bodybuilders couldn't see his muscles. When the time came for us to go onstage, he took off the coat and walked ahead of me down the hall. Of course, he knew I'd be checking him out. Very casually, he lifted a shoulder and spread out the biggest lat muscle I'd ever seen. It was the size of a giant manta ray. Then he did the same thing with the other shoulder. His back was so huge it looked like it was blocking out all the light in the hole. It was a really effective psych. I knew right then I was going to lose.
"We each posed, first me and then Sergio, and we each had the house screaming and stomping. Then the judges, announcing that they couldn't decide, called us back onstage to pose simultaneously. Someone shouted, 'Pose!' But for a minute neither of us budged—like we were daring each other to go first. Finally, I smiled and hit my double-biceps pose, one of my best. That brought a roar from the crowd. Sergio answered with his trademark two-arm overhead victory pose. Again the crowd went nuts, chanting, 'Sergio! Sergio!' I executed a chest pose, which he started to match but then thought better of it, shifting to a most muscular shot. More screams for Sergio. I did my best trademark pose—three-quarters back—but it wasn't enough to turn it. He was simply still ahead.
"I just kept smiling and hitting poses. I'd already done what I came to do, and I was much better off than the year before. I'd run over everyone except him. I could say to myself, 'You did great, Arnold, and Sergio's days are numbered.' But for now he was still clearly the champ, and when the judges declared for him, I gave him a big hug onstage. I thought Sergio deserve all of the attention. I was much younger, and I'd be number one in no time, and then I would enjoy all of this attention. In the meantime, he should have it. He was better."
The champ-to-be knew how to find value in a well-earned loss. But he also knew he would come back and face the same challenge for as long as it took.