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Father of Arizona Irongame

Johnny Gibson


Johnny Gibson was five-foot-four—and unforgettable. The first time I saw him was in 1954 on stage at the Junior National Weightlifting Championship in Tucson, Arizona. He was the meet organizer. Bigger-than-life personalities such as Bob Hoffman, the self-proclaimed—and true—Father of American Weightlifting, and other Irongame icons were in full view. But Johnny was clearly running the show. I can see him now; darting here and there making sure that everything was on track.

He also lifted in the contest, placing a close second in the 148 pound class. Johnny made the highest Clean & Jerk of his career and lost by only five pounds--an amazing showing considering his many responsibilities that day.

I recently learned that Johnny began promoting Arizona contests in 1947, and personally set the first AAU state records in his weight class the same year. He was eight times Arizona champion over the next 16 years, as well as winner of the Mr. Tucson (1951) and Mr. Arizona (1950) physique titles. 

He was also a World War II hero, winning the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster.  

I was to have many more contacts with Johnny over the years, but that first impression in 1954 contest stands out in my mind.  

I had just completed my junior year in high school and was beginning my career as an Olympic lifter. My dad and I traveled to Tucson to see our first Jr. National Championship. (I competed the next year when the contest was held in Florida.) My young eyes took in the whole scene, but everyone who was there remembers the appearance of Norbert Schemansky as a guest lifter. Already world famous—he was a National, World and Olympic champion--Norb had moved up to the heavyweight class and was using this setting as a tune-up for the Senior National Championship a week later in Los Angeles. He electrified us all by lifting 300, 300, and 400 (Press, Snatch, and Clean & Jerk) effortlessly. His appearance standing over the bar and the manner in which he lifted was beyond awesome. (He went on to win the US Championship and his first World Championship as a heavyweight, making World records in the process.)     

After that, I competed in Tucson a number of times. I don’t remember how many, but I do remember the fun of checking in at Johnny Gibson’s barber shop in downtown Tucson. Johnny greeted all of the lifters like long-lost brothers.

He cut hair at that location from 1949 until a few years before his death. The front-page story in the Arizona Star (link below) a few days after his death was headlined Tucson’s Barber for Six Decades Dies. “[He] must have cut the hair of half the men and boys in Tucson over the years,” the newspaper opined.

Muscle-heads were not alone in loving him. Everyone loved him.

Johnny also conducted a thriving trade in reconditioned fitness equipment. Ken O’Neill, who penned an article on Johnny’s life in 2004 (link below), wrote this about the equipment business in a blog after he died: “When the chrome plated gym schemes of the 50s went bankrupt, between haircuts Gibson bought up truck loads of used equipment—in a time when no one else wanted it, hence pricing was pennies on the dollar—bringing it to Tucson, refurbishing it, then reselling nationally. He was a salient element in the growth of independent gyms from the mid 1950s. By the late 60s he developed his own equipment line, bringing orthopedists, chiropractors, and others together to design optimal equipment.”

You can see why Johnny Gibson deserves the title Father of the Arizona Irongame—and more

My last direct contact was as a customer of his equipment business. I drove to Tucson and brought back a Nautilus leg extension and Nautilus leg curl, which are still going strong in our office gym. I slept on the couch in Johnny’s front room. But what I remember most is the yard sale for which he and Pearle—they were married 63 years—were preparing. To my surprise and delight, they were planning to offer a snazzy looking old car for sale. Johnny said they liked to have “something big to draw a crowd.”

Finally, Johnny never stopped walking his talk on exercise and fitness. He began competing in Senior Olympics in 1987 and continued until a few years ago. He kept moving and stayed lean. As Ken O’Neill wrote, “Fitness, health, and athletic excellence [were] at the core of his life.”

Johnny Gibson was indeed unforgettable.  

May he rest in peace.

(Thanks to our Arizona lifting friends for help with this remembrance.)

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The front-page story and photos in the Arizona Star, Tucson’s Barber for Six Decades Dies:


Ken O’Neill’s short history, including photos of Johnny with Irongame legends John Grimek, George Eiferman, Jack LaLanne, Bob Hoffman—and more: http://www.longlifefitness.net/Pages/Gibsontextframe.htm

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