Written by Peter McGough
22 October 2017


The 1995 Arnold Classic

Mike Francois' Finest Hour, Followed by His Direst Days




  So there stood Mike Francois on March 4, 1995, at the conclusion of that year’s Arnold Classic, clutching a $100,000 check, and being interviewed by the contest’s namesake Arnold Schwarzenegger for NBC Sports. Mike had just won the second most prestigious contest on the bodybuilding calendar, in the process beating Flex Wheeler, who many tipped as the Mr. Olympia heir apparent. It was his third pro contest and his third win and to cap it all Mike was in front of his hometown, Columbus, Ohio, crowd and it was his 30th birthday. Surely it couldn’t get any better than this. In fact, sadly it couldn’t, and in less than three years the meteoric bodybuilding career of Mike Francois would be over.


Originally from Iowa, Mike Francois had only taken up working out in late 1989 at a time when the training uppermost in his mind was that of preparing for the priesthood, and to that end he had been ensconced for a year in a Columbus seminary, focusing on becoming a Roman Catholic priest. Eventually he met Shannan, who he eventually married in 1991, and thus dropped plans of being preacher to just being satisfied with preacher curls.

       Entering his first local show in 1990, he rapidly climbed the ladder, and duly won the heavyweight and overall titles at the 1993 Nationals (check out the lineup: Dennis Newman, 2nd; Edgar Fletcher, 3rd; Don Long, 4th; Dean Caputo, 5th; Toney Freeman, 6th). I well remember asking him backstage after that victory whether he would be available for a photo shoot at 10:00 a.m. the next morning, Sunday. Politely he replied, “No, that won't be possible. I have to attend to Mass.” And by that he didn't mean partaking of a deadlift/bench press session. Against that background I christened him The Wholly Most.

       Entering the pro ranks in 1994, the rookie won his first two contests: The Chicago Pro and the Night of Champions in New York. After the Big Apple victory, the scuttlebutt was that here was a guy heading for the top six in the Olympia. But Mike decided otherwise, figuring he had to improve more in order to fulfill such lofty predictions.

       The only strikes against him at that time were that he had a longish torso and shortish legs, and that his back needed more flare and thickness. The 235-pound hard-as-nails package he brought to the 1995 Arnold Classic stage verified that his decision to bypass the ‘94 Olympia was a wise one. His back had improved— it was much thicker and wider, which somehow made his 5’8” structure not the liability it had previously been. Cut to the chase: he scored a straight firsts victory against a seemingly surefire future Mr. Olympia Flex Wheeler. His mindset of lift heavy and lift intensely, and his rock-hard condition augmented by a huge back, quickly prompted comparisons to the then three-time Olympia champ Dorian Yates.


To be sure, both Yates and Francois believed in coming in big, hard and ready for war, and in the ongoing aesthetics debate raging throughout the sport, neither would be mistaken for a re-creation of Michelangelo's “David.” When you looked at the physiques of Mike Francois and Dorian Yates, you saw reps.

       Even their demeanors were similar. Both preferred to live quietly in their own hometowns, keeping away from the often frenetic Venice lifestyle. Yates may have won three Sandows at that time, but if bodybuilding contests were decided on loquaciousness, he would still be struggling to make the posedown at the Mr. South West Birmingham, while Shawn Ray, of course, would have made the Olympia a one-horse race, or more succinctly a one-hoarse race. Like Yates, Francois preferred to let his physique do the majority of the talking, although this humble scribe did elicit the following quotes from the Columbus native minutes after his victory:

       “Competing in my own hometown was more an inspiration than a pressure.”

       “Going into the show, I didn't spend any time worrying whether Flex Wheeler will be in shape or not. All I can worry about was, is Mike in shape?”

       “As far as the improvements I made, I was pleased but not satisfied.”

       “I didn't chase Flex in the posedown, because I was where I wanted to be: in the center, right in front of the judges.”

       “I probably don't look as happy as I am inside. That's the type of person I am.”

       “The Olympia? First I have to do next week’s San Jose show [which he won] before I can give any thought to the Olympia.”

       During his interview with Arnold and my more modest interaction, Mike looked about as excited as Elton John at a Playboy photo shoot. Yates would have been proud of him.


Six months later, Mike Francois finished seventh at the 1997 Olympia, openly admitting that he had screwed up his prep and that he would never make the same mistake again. At the 1996 Olympia he was 10th and a year later slipped to 11th.

       In seeing Mike battle for that 11th place, only a few knew the trauma he had endured to get onstage. In late ’96, he had experienced certain symptoms that were eventually determined to be caused by ulcerative colitis. This condition is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes long-lasting inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract. It cannot be cured, but medication can greatly reduce symptoms and bring about long-term remission. It reduces the body’s ability to absorb protein, fat, carbohydrates, as well as water, vitamins and minerals, which is a disastrous scenario for a competing bodybuilder.

       Three weeks prior to the 1997 Olympia, he was hospitalized, but managed to still compete. After the Olympia, he went on an intensive course of medication and thought he was managing the disease OK. His doctors gave him the green light to enter the 1998 Arnold being staged in March.

       Then all hell broke loose. Ravaged by agonizing symptoms, he was rushed to hospital a week before the contest, and within a few days his colon had been removed. Over several weeks, he ran into problem after problem, including blood clotting, organ failure and pneumonia. He was put into an induced coma and, unbeknownst to him, was given the last rites twice by a priest as his doctors felt he could well slip away.

       By the time his horrendous ordeal was over a few weeks later, he had dropped to 170 pounds— 65 pounds down from his contest weight— but he prevailed through all his tribulations. He reflects, “By the grace of God and many prayers and great doctors I made it through.” But at age 32, his bodybuilding career was over.


Today Mike lifts “for fitness and leanness” and follows a healthy normal diet. He, Shannan and their two boys, still live in Westerville (a suburb of Columbus), Ohio, from where he runs Francois Fitness Consultants, which specializes in the design of customized programs for people of all fitness levels, including professional athletes, bodybuilders, executives, physicians, retirees and housewives. He also promotes the annual Mike Francois Classic, which this year takes place on May 9.

       Mike celebrates his 50th birthday this coming March 4 -- 20 years to the day since he was crowned Arnold Classic champion in his own hometown. Of his competitive career he says, “I would've liked to have gone further, but I did have my time in bodybuilding: I enjoyed it and the victories.” Anyone who ever got to know Mike Francois will tell you what a class act he was onstage and offstage, a man who carried himself with dignity and a nobleness of spirit. Thanks for the bodybuilding memories, Mike; what a grievous shame you weren’t allowed to leave a few more.

  For more information on Mike’s company and the Mike Francois Classic, visit mikefrancois.com