The Incredible Story Of ‘Sardinian Strongman’ Franco Columbu — And His Lifelong Friendship With Arnold Schwarzenegger

Published March 8, 2023
Updated February 21, 2024

Franco Columbu came from a family of rural Italian shepherds but became an international star after winning multiple Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia titles.

Franco Columbu

Arnold Schwarzenegger/MediumArnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu met during a competition in Germany, and when the former came to America, he asked his agent to bring Columbu with him.

As far as bodybuilders go, Franco Columbu was never the biggest man on stage. When he placed fifth in the inaugural World’s Strongest Man contest in 1977, the top four competitors outweighed him by at least 100 pounds.

Yet, the Italian bodybuilder’s name is among the most prominent in the world of bodybuilding, perhaps second only to a man who considered him a friend: the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two met at a competition in Munich in 1965 and became such good friends, in fact, that Columbu served as Schwarzenegger’s best man at his wedding to Maria Shriver in 1986.

Throughout his life, Columbu served many roles — shepherd, bricklayer, boxer, bodybuilder, movie star — proving that there was much more to the man than his muscles.

Franco Columbu tragically died after saying that he felt unwell while swimming off the coast of San Teodoro, Sardinia. But while Columbu himself is dead, his legacy lives on.

This is the life of Franco Columbu, one of the strongest men in history.

How Franco Columbu Went From Shepherd To Bodybuilder

Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu

FacebookFranco Columbu began his career as a boxer in Italy before quitting the sport in favor of weightlifting.

Francesco Maria Columbu was born on August 7, 1941, to Antonio Columbu and Maria Grazia Sedda, shepherds living in the small mountain village of Ollolai in Sardinia.

Though seeing the man he grew into might make it hard to believe, Columbu was actually a rather small, skinny child — one who often got into childhood scuffles for the sake of having fun, even when he received more blows than he dealt.

As The New York Times reported after Columbu’s death, the bodybuilder said in a 1982 interview, “I was always skinny. Until I was 11, I got beat up a lot. Then one day, I started beating people up. Nobody could touch me.”

Franco Columbu Lifting

TwitterFranco Columbu stood only 5’5″ tall and weighed 185 pounds, but out-lifted many of the larger competitors.

He grew up herding sheep and laying bricks in his mountainous homeland, but spent much of his free time at the gym — a 10-mile bike ride from his home — where he trained as a boxer, dreaming of glory and stardom. Columbu’s early victories saw him leaving Italy to train in Munich, and winning 30 fights before moving on from the sport.

“Boxing’s too rough on your face and head,” Columbu said of his departure. Instead, he began focusing his efforts on weight lifting and bodybuilding — and in 1965, met another famous bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom he would establish a lifelong friendship.

Arnold Schwarzenegger And Franco Columbu’s Lifelong Friendship

In a post on Medium following Franco Columbu’s death, bodybuilder, actor, and former politician Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote to his friend: “From the minute we met in Munich, you were my partner in crime. We pushed each other, we competed with each other, and we laughed at every moment along the way.”

“When I finally got to America, I was alone. I’d left my family, my country, my whole life behind,” he continued. “So when I asked Joe Weider to bring you to train with me, it was because I knew I wasn’t the same without my best friend. I could thrive without money, without my parents, but I couldn’t thrive without you.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger eventually went on to have a successful career in film and politics, but his friend Columbu was never far behind. In fact, the two famously appeared in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, a film about bodybuilding that features a scene in which Columbu lifts a car. The film also featured other fellow strongmen like Lou Ferrigno, who once played the Hulk, and Mike Katz.

Beyond Pumping Iron, though, Columbu also had brief roles in the classic Schwarzenegger films Terminator, Predator, The Running Man, and Conan the Barbarian.

His movie stardom never reached the heights of Schwarzenegger’s, but Columbu continued acting in small roles well into his 70s, with his last film role being in 2015’s One More Round.

Off-screen, Schwarzenegger and Columbu continued to compete in bodybuilding competitions, most notably the Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe contests — the former saw Schwarzenegger, the “Austrian Oak,” taking the title seven times, and Columbu receiving the title twice in 1976 and 1981.

Arnold And Franco Walk Down The Street

Arnold Schwarzenegger/MediumArnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu walk with a woman down the street.

Upon his death, Columbu also received public praise from another Hollywood star, Sylvester Stallone, whom he trained in preparation for his role as the titular Rocky Balboa in Rocky.

“The greatest and strongest bodybuilder I have ever met has passed … He taught me many things that I have applied throughout my life,” the actor said in a tweet. “We will NEVER HAVE A MAN LIKE THIS AGAIN.”

The Last Years Of The ‘Sardinian Strongman’

In his later years, Franco Columbu often worked as a licensed chiropractor and wrote a series of fitness books in addition to a memoir. In 2006, then-Governor Schwarzenegger appointed him to the California Board of Chiropractic examiners, and three years later, he was the recipient of the Arnold Classic Lifetime Achievement Award.

Playing Violin

Arnold Schwarzenegger/MediumFranco Columbu playing violin for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Then, in 2019, the 78-year-old Columbu, by then a longtime resident of California, returned to his native Sardinia for a vacation. However, as the Associated Press reported, Franco Columbu’s trip home ended in unfortunate circumstances.

Several outlets reported different causes of death, with some saying that Columbu drowned in the ocean and others simply citing that he had an “accident at sea” while swimming. Both the AP and the New York Times, however, only wrote that he fell ill while swimming in the ocean, just off the coast of San Teodoro’s beach, on August 30, 2019.

From there, he was taken to John Paul II hospital in the nearby city of Olbia, where Franco Columbu died, just 23 days after his 78th birthday.

Like Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno, Columbu is often credited as being one of the men responsible for helping to bring the sport of bodybuilding into the mainstream. His presence on and off the stage was undeniable, and those close to him remember him as a kind soul and an inspiration.

“I love you Franco,” Schwarzenegger wrote. “I will always remember the joy you brought to my life, the advices you gave me, and the twinkle in your eye that never disappeared. You were my best friend.”

After learning about the life of champion bodybuilder Franco Columbu, read the story of “Killer” Sally McNeil and the events that led her to murder her husband. Or, for another legendary figure from modern history, read about Betty Brosmer, the pinup star with the “impossible” waist.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.