By Mario Strong

On January 31, 2015, bodybuilding legend Leon Brown was inducted into the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame. The event was a heartwarming experience that saw eight of the Island’s most gifted athletes honored and enshrined for their exceptional contributions in their chosen athletic endeavors. The big surprise of the event was a congratulatory video (scroll to end of page) from Leon’s close friend Arnold Schwarzenegger. The audience listened intently as Arnold spoke of training with Leon and of the experiences they shared together. Arnold emphasized Leon’s willingness to train like there was no tomorrow and of Leon’s concerns for his fellow trainees. Arnold’s message was a complete surprise for Leon who got choked up with emotion as he heard Arnold talk about their days at the original Gold’s Gym and Muscle Rock. At the end of the video the audience applauded Arnold for his thoughtfulness, and for me, who was announced by the host to induct Leon into the Staten Island Hall of Fame. The following are the words I spoke:

“I would first like to thank the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame committee for their steadfast commitment towards recognizing those who have contributed so much to our Island’s athletic history. The athletes that are honored here today, as well as those past, have all motivated us to strive for greater achievement in our chosen athletic endeavors. And today, with the inclusion of bodybuilding into your sports community, this hall of champions has become even grander.

In his chosen sport of bodybuilding, Mr. Leon Brown has excelled to the highest levels, having received national recognition for his efforts while always remaining loyal to his peers. This is a fact that Sports Illustrated recognized decades ago, when, in 1972, it published a story from author Charles Gains titled “Cutting Some Fancy Figures.” The story was of Leon’s dominance in winning the Mr. East Coast competition which was held in Massachusetts that year. Leon’s inspirational story made him the first bodybuilder ever featured in an American mainstream magazine and it was this very story that helped propel the sport of bodybuilding and Arnold Schwarzenegger into the public arena.

This however was just the beginning. A couple of years later, Charles Gains teamed up with filmmaker George Butler to create their landmark 1974 documentary, “Pumping Iron.” The book was and still is considered the Bible of bodybuilding. Gaines and Butler were looking to capture the essence of what the sport of bodybuilding was, and who did they choose to motivate and inspire their readers, who else, but Staten Island’s very own Leon Brown, whose images are peppered throughout the book, beginning with the very first page. Several years later, when the film version of Pumping Iron was premiered in Times Square, Leon’s images were once again used, this time on a giant billboard in front of the Plaza Theater in Manhattan. Moviegoers were amazed by his herculean appearance as they flocked into the theater by the hundreds to meet the legend himself.  

But as successful as Leon would become, bodybuilding wasn’t the primary reason why he initially trained with weights. When he was a little Brown Bomber; Leon weighed only 115 pounds and had a tremendous desire to play on the Curtis High School Football Team. The coach, realizing Leon’s unfortunate situation, encouraged him to workout with barbells to put on more bodyweight. Not knowing how to train, Leon bought a muscle magazine and came across an article on a bodybuilder named Billy Russo, who was then the current holder of the Mr. Florida title. Leon was so inspired by the story that he decided to follow Mr. Russo’s training routine exactly as written. He purchased a barbell set and trained 7 days a week, 2 hours each day. He wouldn’t smoke or drink and went to bed at nine o’clock sharp every night. At the start, he worked out in his basement with several of his buddies. As the weeks passed on, many of them lost interest, and at the end of three months Leon was the only one left. By this time his strength and muscle mass had increased tremendously, and his interest in football began to diminish.

When Leon turned 18, he entered his first physique competition, which was the Teenage Eastern America. He himself didn’t think he was ready for such a big contest at this early stage but to his own surprise he placed second in his weight-class while also winning some sub-division awards. The competitive fire was now lit in Leon’s heart and from this point on he would never look back. After a couple of years of steady victories, Leon decided to enter his first major contest. It was the 1968 Pro Mr. America, a heavily sought after title in which he placed fourth in a competition that saw many of the nation’s most famous bodybuilders battle it out for top honors.

The following year, while visiting the original Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, Leon met Arnold Schwarzenegger for the first time and finally changed his exercise routine. Arnold at the time was training twice a day. Leon, after noticing Arnold’s results decided to follow this type of routine and soon became Arnold’s training partner. The duo would train for two hours in the morning, then have lunch and go to the beach, and then it was back to the gym in the evening for two more hours of heavy steel. Training with Arnold propelled Leon’s physique to new heights and soon he was winning a string of west coast titles including the biggest one of all, Mr. California.

Eventually, Leon returned home to his roots on Staten Island. He continued his dominance in the sport of bodybuilding and soon stories of his rise to the top began to appear in the major physique publications. It was in one of these publications that I first learned of Leon Brown. One day in 1972, I picked up a copy of Dan Lurie's Muscle Training Illustrated and while thumbing through its pages became inspired by all the informative articles written by the champions of the day. One story, however, stood out about a skinny young kid who wanted to make his high school's football team. The story was about Leon Brown, a young man who rose to fame from his home town of Staten Island and became a national physique champion during the golden days of bodybuilding.

Having known Leon since the early 70s, I can honestly say that his commitment towards being healthy, fit, and strong has never wavered. He has served as an inspiration for generations of bodybuilders, continually guiding them as a motivational force through the barriers of time. In 2007, many of the country’s top bodybuilders gathered at the Arnold Expo in Columbus, Ohio, for a special occasion, that being a surprise birthday party for Leon, who turned 60 years young that weekend. The following year, he was inducted into the World Bodybuilding Hall of Fame as recognition for his positive influence on the sport of bodybuilding. That’s how much Leon is respected and cherished in the bodybuilding community.

In a world where athletes are measured by their accomplishments, Leon Brown has more than satisfied this requirement. During his competitive career he has out muscled many of the biggest names in bodybuilding, including TVs “Incredible Hulk,” Lou Ferrigno. Mr. Brown not only has a rich history in the sport, but is also active today both in the gym and on the stage as an example of what dedication in a chosen field can accomplish. His good friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, calls him frequently to chat with him, and recently invited Leon to be his guest of honor at a function at the Waldorf Astoria, in which Arnold was the keynote speaker.

Mr. Leon Brown has heart. His love for the sport of bodybuilding is what keeps his passion burning and his enthusiasm soaring. Following the principles of bodybuilding, he has the fortitude within himself to go the distance as he continues his quest of being healthy, fit, and strong. As a representative of the sport of bodybuilding, I can think of no one more deserving to be inducted into the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame than him. Thank you.”

After I spoke, Leon stood up and took to the podium. He received a cheerful standing-room-only applause from the crowd as he reflected about his younger days in bodybuilding and of his climb from poverty to fame as a national physique champion. Leon’s story reached into the hearts and aspirations of everyone that day and knowing him his journey has just begun.

Overall, I found the Staten Island Sports Hall Of Fame ceremony to be extremely well organized and run by people who truly care about the Island’s athletic history. I highly recommend that everyone put visiting the actual Hall Of Fame on their Bucket List.



Note: I would like to thank Ms. Lynn Marks of Oak Productions for her professionalism and help in coordinating the logistics of having Arnold record the following message. Her efforts meant a great deal to everyone in attendance that day, especially the Staten Island Sports Hall Of Fame Committee, Leon, and myself. Thanks Lynn!

Click here to see Arnold's video tribute to his good friend Leon Brown

Arnold's tribute transcribed:

"Well Leon Brown, the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame is finally giving you an award. It’s about time, because you deserve it. I mean, I met Leon Brown way back in the late 60s. I was working out at Gold’s Gym and he was walking in and he had this perpetual smile. And he was standing next to us and we were training doing our squats and at that point we were at 315-lbs and he asked ‘can I work in with you guys’ and I said ‘okay where are you from’, he said ‘I’m from New York, from Staten Island’, I said ‘okay, why don’t you just jump in and join us, I’m from Austria. This is a mismatch of different people here, everyone is working out together’. So he joined in, he right away, cold, did ten reps with 315-lbs. We then went to 405-lbs, he then again did ten reps. We then went to 455-lbs and he did another ten reps and we were like really amazed and said wow this guy is really strong. And then he took his long pants off and all of a sudden we all saw how ripped his legs were, and then he took his shirt off and said he had to put his tank top on and then we all saw his 6-pack, and he was just ripped and we realized that this guy is a great training partner. And then we started training with him and we all trained together. And after that he started winning all these titles, one after the next. I think this guy has won more trophies and awards then anyone I can think of. And then he was always happy in the gym, happy to train. He was unlike the other guys. The other guys would say oh my god I have to do another 500 reps of sit-ups, but Leon was yeah ‘I can’t wait to do another 500 reps of sit-ups.’ So he was always happy, always excited, and this is why he had such a terrific body, this is why he was so strong and this is why I say he was such a great athlete. He was such a great athlete and I remember one time when he said to me and to my buddies, ‘let’s go up to Muscle Rock,’ which is higher up because when it gets foggy in Santa Monica the bodybuilders can’t get a tan. So we went to Muscle Rock because it is above the fog and the clouds. So I said to Leon ‘why are you so interested in getting a tan.’ He said ‘no it’s not for me I want you guys to get a tan so you’ll have an equal chance when I compete against you.’ So I mean he was selfless, he always thought about everyone else and never about himself. This is what I love about this guy and even today he comes every year to the Arnold Classic World Bodybuilding Championship in Columbus, Ohio and he helps out there, he inspires the bodybuilders, give them advice and stuff like that and he’s been such a wonderful friend. He’s been a friend of mine now for more than 40 years and I think we’re going to be friends the rest of our lives. So Leon congratulations on receiving this wonderful award. You deserve it. You have a wonderful personal life, you have a wonderful professional life, you’re a great athlete, you should be in the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame. Thank you."