The 'REAL' Francis Benfatto
Born in Casablanca, Morocco, on 7th June, 1958, Francis Benfatto grew up with his two sisters just as any average school kid with many friends. In the evenings he used to watch his father train with the dumbbells and barbells he kept in his own little gym. Often his father’s friends would join in, which soon became an after-work training ritual.
From a young age, Francis was intrigued by the look of muscle, and this intrigue led him to read books about muscular heroes like Akim and Tarzan. He immersed himself in his own fantasy world of action heroes. It was these kinds of experiences that lead Francis to strive for something special in his life. He wanted to be extraordinary by doing something different. He challenged himself to learn various skills and tried to be the best he could be at everything.
"I HOPED THAT I COULD MAKE A DIFFERENCE WITH MY COMEBACK AT THE 2006 AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX BY REMINDING THE FANS OF THE CLASSIC PHYSIQUE."
Growing up with horses, owned by his father, it wasn’t long before Francis developed a love for horse riding. By the age of 12 he had already become the youngest Moroccan showjumping and dressage champion. The taste of victory at such a young age soon set a precedent that would dictate the path for the rest of his life. At the age of 13, his life changed drastically when he was told that his family was to leave Morocco and move to France. In 1971, the year they would move to France indefinitely, the realisation that he was leaving Morocco hit Francis hard.
It was the first time in his life that he had to endure such stress and the shock was almost unbearable. Almost overnight he had to leave his school, his friends and the horse riding club he had grown so fond of. Even worse was the fact that he had to leave his two grandmothers. This was all simply too much of a change for a 13 year old to accept. Fortunately, shortly after moving to France, his family was re-united when his two grandmothers came to live with them. However, regardless of this, the move to France brought about a sadness that still plagues Francis, even to this day. His father lost everything and his parents eventually ended up divorcing. Only once everything was gone did they realise the exceptional quality of life that they had had in Morocco. They all regretted moving to France, but by then it was too late!
BOXING AND WEIGHT TRAINING
After finally settling down in France and establishing himself, one of Francis’ close friends, Alain Sanchez, mentioned to him that he had joined a boxing club. He convinced Francis to join him for practice, but not being a great fan of boxing, Francis would make up excuses as to why he could not attend after school. Eventually, after a lot of motivating and convincing, Francis decided he would try boxing. Soon afterwards Alain said to him that if they wanted to become great boxers they would need to start weight lifting so that they could become bigger and stronger. Alain had already begun weight training in his spare time and Francis could see that he was gaining size quickly. He decided that he also wanted these attributes, so he started training with weights. The gym was not well equipped, but it was enough for the two boys to start developing some muscle. Pretty soon they were on a strict training program of 3 days of weight training and 2 days of boxing.
Francis’ life was transformed as his close bond with Alain grew stronger. They would often spend time together eating ‘gouter’, a snack comprising hot milk, chocolate and sugar with biscuits or cake mixed in a bowl. Most of the time Francis’ mother would plead with him to go and eat at Alain’s house. She felt that Alain’s family ate well while there was never enough food in their house to feed both the boys. Occasionally they would walk to the gym instead of catching the bus. With the money that Francis’ mother gave them they would buy two litres of white and chocolate milk.
After the divorce, it became tough for Francis’ mother to pay the rent and provide food for Francis and his two sisters. Francis’ father had lost everything financially and was unable to provide for the family. Their mother had to take on an extra job at the weekend, as an attendant at the local petrol station. On the odd occasion the family would spend a little extra money on red meat, or buy a roast chicken to eat with French fries. Remembering moments like that remind Francis of how hard it was to become successful with his weight training. He would often train in the evenings, so when he got home it was usually quite late and he would often find his mother and sisters already sleeping. Food was always left out for him. Once he had eaten he would battle to fall asleep because of how great he felt from his workouts. He would often stay up reading French bodybuilding magazines until the early hours. It was during this time that Francis’ ambition and interest in bodybuilding grew, mainly through the inspiration he got from these magazines.
After two years of training he decided to join the best gym in Toulouse although he would have to ask his mother to help pay for the membership. However, the fees were too expensive and the journey to the gym meant that Francis had to catch two buses across town, which was another cost they just couldn't afford. But it was the most well equipped gym of its time and Francis knew that if he wanted to compete he needed to train there. Eventually he was able to afford the membership. The gym was owned by Serge Olivier, a man whom everyone looked up to for advice, so naturally Francis went to him for help with his bodybuilding and with Serge’s assistance, he was able to win the first competition he entered. Following that he qualified to compete in the Mr. France event in Paris; he was only 17 years old and was placed in a line-up with boys ranging from 18 to 21. Some of the competitors were much bigger than him and weighed up to 85 kg. He placed fifth overall, but it wasn't a setback for Francis. On the contrary, it only made him hungry for more. Not long after the competition, Francis spent some time with his friend Jean Luc Boronat in Casablanca. It was after this holiday that he went to live with his father again and his life began to change once more. By this time his father had been successful in opening the repair shop he had originally planned to open when they moved to France. Francis worked for him for some time, but he was not fond of the work his father did. Fortunately, his time there was only temporary as Francis then opened his own gym with his partner Anne. He was only 22 years old and Anne was only 19.
They decided that with his knowledge on training and Anne’s knowledge on dance they could cater for both men and women. The business went well and although neither had any qualifications, they were able to make money and take care of an established client base, and to this day, Francis remains proud of what he accomplished. Within their first month of business they were able to pay the rent and have some money spare. In 1980 Francis and Anne were married and the same year he competed in another Mr. France competition, placing fourth.
During the first years of their marriage, the couple lived with Anne’s family in an apartment and as they didn't have many expenses, they were able to save up. Anne’s family were very supportive and assisted them in any way they could. The family helped establish the gym, and without their love and support nothing would have been achieved. The membership increased on a monthly basis and work went well for the two of them. Francis’ bodybuilding career progressed positively. In 1982, after a very difficult pre-contest preparation under the supervision of Jose Rabanal, he won his first Mr. France title. It was only his seventh year of training to compete in bodybuilding. A daughter, Jennifer, was born in 1985 which brought a lot of joy and strength to their lives. Following his daughter’s birth Francis put in three months of hard work and preparation under the wing of Lambert Bernard. He qualified to represent France at the Mr. World contest as a middleweight. At 73 kg he was in the best shape of his life.
He placed fifth at the competition, which was held in Gutenberg, beating Daniel Coussieu who at that time was Francis’ idol. Coussieu was in brilliant shape, so Francis knew that his true potential had been achieved. At that point Francis and Lambert began performing seminars and it was at these events that the topic of steroids began to rear its ugly head. The crowd’s attention would always move onto this topic, even though much of the dialogue in the seminars was based on good solid facts about discipline and training techniques. Francis and Lambert always stressed the importance of eating well and being consistent, but they had to continually stress the fact that steroids didn’t make you a champion. Lambert would always state that the desire to win was stronger than any steroid. By now, the name of Francis Benfatto was spreading throughout the bodybuilding community. He was starting to make a name for himself as a top bodybuilder. Francis and Lambert began assisting people with their diets and supplementation plans and even though the assistance came at the hefty price of 5000F (about £500), which then was a great deal of money, business was great! They continued to perform seminars and do guest posing on a regular basis and, combined with the income still coming in from the gym, Francis was making good money. He was famous and he was wanted by everyone. He had become a superstar in his own right, which was something he had been aspiring to for years.
START OF A PRO CAREER
In 1988 Francis decided to turn pro, which enraged Lambert because Francis hadn’t yet won the Mr. Universe title! Francis and Lambert stopped seeing eye-to-eye and the problems soon began to multiply. Lambert was set on finishing Francis’ amateur career on a high note and in his opinion, the Mr. Universe title was the only reasonable way to do this. But Joe Weider had given Francis the opportunity to become a pro, and he was not prepared to let this opportunity slip through his fingers.
After turning pro, his main goal was to beat Lee Labrada. He wanted to become as famous as Labrada was at that time. Labrada was already winning many competitions, so Francis wanted Lambert to help him with his preparation. He wanted to make a living as an IFBB professional bodybuilder, but needed Lambert’s help. However, the problems between the two men continued and Francis was often left to his own devices. This made preparation for the Night of Champions show of that same year difficult. This was a qualifier for the Mr. Olympia, the show that every bodybuilder dreams of winning. Fortunately, Francis managed to convince Lambert to go to New York with Anne and himself for the competition. They arrived a few days before the show, which was on 21st May, 1988. The organiser, Wayne DeMilia, told Francis that if he was in the same shape as he had been in Madrid, there was every chance he could win. By this time, however, Francis was burnt out. He was definitely bigger, but he was battling with his conditioning and he didn’t achieve the success he wanted. After the show, Lambert suggested that they go to Los Angeles. After all, it had always been Francis’ dream to visit the city. They immediately noticed how relaxed everything was compared to Europe. The weather was perfect and it was hot, to say the least. It reminded Francis of Casablanca, which made him feel at ease.
LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
Francis fell in love with America and knew that he was destined to live there. Sadly Anne said that if he decided to live there it would be without her. It was clear to Francis that he stood alone in his quest to live out his dream in the USA. But he still dreamed of living like Arnold in the land of opportunity. He wanted to succeed as a bodybuilder, have recognition, fame, glory and money. He wanted to be the man the audience applauded at the end of the show, and he would stop at nothing to achieve his dream. Back in France, his relationship with Lambert, sadly, deteriorated beyond repair and it was not long before he decided to follow a different path on his own. It was a tough but important decision to make and 1989 would turn out to be the most important year of Francis’ life. He decided to compete in five different shows throughout Europe, known as the European Tour. He was to compete in countries like France, Spain, Sweden and Germany.
He knew that the contests would be tough because all the top Americans and Europeans would be there. It was also going to be the first time he would compete in the open division. This was a most grueling part of his career as the travelling took its toll on his body. Moving from one hotel to the next made it difficult for him to keep his mind on the contests. However, by the last show in Germany, Francis had found his peak condition. He was completely shredded, with striations on every muscle group. This, combined with his classically styled posing routine, won him the favour of the crowd and earned him fourth place. Once back in France, he had six months to start preparing for the most important show on the bodybuilding calendar, the Mr. Olympia.
It was a good time in his career as he was that little bit closer to signing a Weider contract which would allow him to become a full-time pro bodybuilder, the dream he had pursued for so many years. He immediately began training again, ensuring he kept his diet clean to maintain his great shape right up to the show. He was completely focused on the Olympia for those six months. Unfortunately he only placed 12th, which he wasn't very pleased about. Nevertheless, it was a huge achievement for him to step onto the Mr. Olympia stage, especially as he was so burnt out from the European Tour.
The following year he had to face the most difficult time of his life: he lost everything that he and his wife Anne had built over the last decade. His wife had an affair with his best friend Jean Michel and they decided that they wanted to live together. This destroyed Francis and he became depressed, but he still had to stick to his preparation for the Olympia, which was now only four months away. He eventually did what he thought best and went to live with his mother in Toulouse. Times were tough, but living with his mother proved to be the perfect precontest preparation. He could rest and prepare food without any outside distractions. His sister and her husband had recently opened a new gym and he began training and preparing for the show there. It was like a fresh start which helped him regain focus. He was determined to rise above the pain and hurt. He wanted to prove to everyone that he was indeed a man of strength and character; he was determined to show everyone that he could do it and nothing was going to stop him. He realised that living with him probably hadn’t been easy for Anne, but he was programmed for excellence and he wanted fame, glory and success. To Francis, bodybuilding is the hardest sport in the world and although many may think that the life of a pro bodybuilder is a luxurious one, it takes years of dedication and discipline to reach its pinnacle. His story demonstrates that the path to greatness is never an easy one.