by Christian Duque
It’s so hard to believe that Mr. 5% Rich Piana has been gone for so long. I’ll never forget discovering him thanks to the late, great Ric Drasin. Ric was actually a part of IronMag TV and I have the distinction of having been Drasin’s first-ever Skype interview. Ric and Rich were two peas in the same pod. They were both California guys, both trained hard on Venice Beach, and both landed movie roles and worked tirelessly in the fitness industry. While they both flirted with competing, Piana actually rose the ranks to the national level.
That being said neither guy ever won a pro card, much less competed on pro stages. They weren’t phased. Competing was never their true calling. In fact, even though Ric was Arnold’s training partner in the 70’s, I don’t know how far he got with competing. That’s because Ric was far more into wrestling and because he was more about using the muscle to open doors for him.
In many ways, I think Ric was a bit of a father figure for Rich. You could tell that Piana looked up to him. Maybe their relationship was more like that of a big and little brother. There was an undeniable bond between them and when I told Ric that I’d be going to the 2013 Arnold, he encouraged me to meet Rich and tell him we were friends. That’s exactly what I did and from then on I had full access to every booth Rich had, from the small 10×10 Love It Kill It booth diagonal to Mutant (which he’d just left) to the days when he was paying six figures for the biggest booths at the expo.
A lot of people who go from modest fame to becoming superstars change from night to day. The fanfare goes to their head and they forget everyone they once called friends, but that never happened with Rich. While we weren’t buddies (e.g we didn’t talk on the phone, train together, or have a friendship outside the industry), he was always way cool to me and he saw me as something between a journalist and a super fan. He also treated me like a friend in that he’d encourage me to hang out at his booth and he spoke freely around me.
I always tell the story about a top European bodybuilder who had just turned pro, talking about high level stuff in the sport and looking at Rich to get the nod if I was cool or not. Rich gave him the greenlight and made an expression like I was part of the crew. I don’t know that I can even describe it because I don’t remember exactly what the did, but it was cool as fuck. That’s just who Rich was. You looked up cool in the dictionary and you saw a picture of him.
I kid you not; Rich was a guy that had it all. He had his own look and his own lingo. He had the muscle, the tats, and a commanding presence that the folks at Mutant just couldn’t pass up. His deal with them was good, but he outgrew it quickly. And when that happened I don’t know how hard they tried to keep him. Maybe him leaving was a foregone conclusion. He was getting to the point where people were hanging on his every word and they just couldn’t get enough of him. They wanted to know what he was thinking, what he was eating, and they just identified with him.
Who can forget all the clothes, the supps, and the constant drug references. This was a time when the most controversial guy out was the late great Bostin Loyd. It was a time when Kali Muscle claimed natty. Bodybuilding was still in an innocent age in that very few people openly talked about gear, but Rich was all about transparency. He didn’t hide his use and he talked about things that a lot of people on top would shy away from. Many were dumbfounded at how open he was. And mind you, the bigger he got, the more he had to lose, but he was a straight shooter, tried and true.
He made it to the top by being real and he was damned if he was going to sell out. People loved what he stood for so much that they’d buy cheap plastic gallons of water at 10x markup just because they had his 5% logo on them. To some that might be mindless adulation, but to others it speaks to the hardest-core levels of loyalty.
Team 5% wasn’t just a supplement line or something to put on t-shirts – it meant something. That’s why you had lines of fans waiting patiently hour after hour. They stood, they waited, and not too many complained. It was worth it. Rich Piana was worth the wait.
I will never forget the fire marshal going to the booth in Columbus, OH, up in arms that the 5% line was four and a half blocks long. And people wouldn’t move. They wouldn’t break the line for anything. After all, that could mean losing your place.
One rumor had it that the line wouldn’t even break for Arnold’s entourage! Could you imagine that? The contest’s namesake and his crew had to walk around Piana’s line because people weren’t budging. When’s the last time a Mr. Olympia had a line like that? Hollywood celebs don’t command that level of respect either. Rich was larger than life. He was Arnold in his prime, but with all the buzz of the biggest social media stars. And unlike the flavors of the week then, Piana stayed on top for 2-3 years. That doesn’t just happen. It’s truly special.
That 5% vibe is as strong today – as ever. A whole new generation of fans have come up and learned so much from Rich’s videos. And that’s because his production value was always through the roof. He put so much time and effort into each video that he made them timeless. Youngsters watch those videos in 2023, some without the faintest idea that the man they’re being inspired by died six years ago. While that’s very sad, Rich’s guidance has stayed alive thanks to a collection of videos that pulled out all the stops. Also keep in mind that in 2017 a lot of what Piana said pushed the envelope, but it fits perfectly in 2023.
When you’re ahead of your time you tend to have that much more relevance as your content ages a bit. 2017 Piana sounds and looks competitive with what’s big six years later. That speaks to Piana’s longevity from above. It’s very comparable to Arnold in Pumping Iron. That film came out in the mid 70’s and continues to be watched and cited half a century later. I predict that in 40 years, physique-based athletes will be glued to Rich Piana videos. It’ll be the same thing as people who watch Pumping Iron today.
Whether it’s been six years, ten years, or however many years it may be, Rich Piana will always be a superstar. Whether he comes up in conversation about a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, some In & Out Burger reference, or training like an absolute beast, Rich’s way of life will continue to inspire lifters of all ages to shut up and train. And the goal isn’t a coke can trophy or a pro card. The goal is being the best you possible and chasing your dreams. Whether that means transforming your physique, starting a company, or leaving a job you absolutely hate, all you need is to watch a Rich Piana video or two and you’re off to the races. He lived his life on his terms. He didn’t give a fuck who didn’t like him and he didn’t walk on egg shells, either. He said what he believed and he believed in himself.
God I miss Rich Piana!