The Death of Fitness Icon Tonya Knight

by Christian Duque

News of the death of legendary icon Tonya Knight sent shockwaves throughout the world of bodybuilding and fitness. When Shawn Ray tagged me on his post this afternoon I simply couldn’t believe it at first. Knowing how close Shawn and Tonya were the bad news sunk in and I was left wanting answers. Although I never met her, I have countless magazines that featured her. Unlike a great many who read and toss print media, I’ve kept them over the years and also have purchased countless editions from eBay and Amazon.

One of my favorite decades in muscle was the 80’s and between that decade and the 90’s Tonya reigned supreme. To have found out that she died after a long battle with cancer just about broke my heart. Her time on American Gladiators was a prime example that not only are muscular women in demand now but they always have been. The producers of the show saw it and the ratings didn’t lie. This highly decorated Arnold Classic champion and top Olympia competitor would be inducted into the Bodybuilding Hall of Fame. Just one look at her resume and you knew she was fitness royalty and was highly celebrated by the fans. Just think about how many people Tonya brought to bodybuilding.

I have to say I absolutely dread writing these articles. Many of the stars that we look up to – people like Tonya – we don’t hear much about post-stage and post-public life, but we just assume they’re doing well. And in reality many of the biggest stars of yesteryear have this way of living on through their past achievements.

When I think of Tonya Knight, I think of the magazine covers or her posing on video or her talking about her many achievements. It’s very much the same when I think of Lou Ferrigno or Robby Robinson or Iris Kyle or Lenda Murray. I think of them in their prime, winning the biggest titles, and getting all the accolades.

I had no idea about Tonya’s cancer diagnosis and I honestly don’t know how many people in the industry did either. That being said, I’ve known of several people who have survived terminal cancer and gotten themselves into remission. They’re of course a tiny minority of patients, but we all have a tendency to hope for the best. If just one person could beat cancer, we automatically hope that our heroes will do the same.

When you looked at Tonya – whether in photos or videos – it’s like art came to life. She built such a beautiful and flowing physique that people just couldn’t get enough. Her symmetry was spot-on and she had a presence where you knew she was living her best life. She was kind and sweet; she was humble. Imagine that. Imagine being all over Muscle & Fitness and mobbed wherever she went, but at the same time keeping her head on right and being gracious to the fans and humble before the press. She was a highly-driven and disciplined athlete, but there was more to her than that. She was a real ambassador for the sport.

You often read in my articles where I say many pro’s today lack the ability to turn more critics into fans. Tonya’s work on the stage, at expos, and on tv had an undeniable impact on countless fans – both existing and new. She was also a very positive role model for girls and women. She built tons of muscle but kept her femininity and she was always very much aware of the power of marketing. That’s key because I don’t think she ever looked back with regret for any company she worked with or any campaign she was a part of. This is the case when athletes think clearly before signing on the dotted line.

Tonya knew what she brought to the table and she knew that not all opportunities were good for her brand. That’s because Tonya Knight was bigger than just being a competitor or bigger than just being a sponsored athlete. To put things into context, she was like the Dana Linn Bailey of her day, but without the social media. Imagine someone being that popular without smart phones and without there being social media giving people a gajillion updates 24/7 on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Tiktok. She made it when it was all about the magazines, VHS tapes, and word of mouth. If Tonya Knight had been in her heyday during the days of Facebook and YouTube her level of popularity would have dwarfed DLB’s. People just don’t realize how popular she was and how many different segments of the population loved her.

I can assure you that a lion’s share of the American Gladiators’ audience had no clue about bodybuilding. They may have known there was a sport all about muscle and they may have known about Arnold’s show, but they weren’t in the seats cheering during the night shows. They knew Tonya from the program and they watched every week. The fans she earned through the show may have then looked her up and wanted to find out more about their favorite star. And that’s undoubtedly how countless of her fans were led to the iron game.

Think about how many young women saw her on tv and were inspired to take charge of their lives? Seeing her on tv and seeing how she built a beautiful physique that included a lot of functional muscle (meaning she wasn’t just some muscled-up chick but was super athletic). That probably created a lot of interest.

So many women today – and in yesteryear – stick to cardio and maybe some machines. Thanks to legends like Tonya Knight, countless women were bit by the iron bug. They started benching, squatting, and pulling.

I can’t speak enough to the passing of Tonya Knight. I know she was involved in social causes after her time in fitness. One cause that I really identify with was her passion for animal rights. That being said, the family has asked for their privacy from the various sources I’ve read so that’s something I hope the mainstream media will take into account. Whenever we lose a star, especially a legend, the mainstream media tends to provide some less than favorable coverage. I hope that won’t be the case here.

I sincerely send my deepest and sincerest condolences to Tonya and her family and fans. Everyone here at Iron Magazine will continue to celebrate her many, many contributions to Women’s Bodybuilding, heath and fitness, and beyond.