The Universe Championships include the following classes:
- Amateur Mr. Universe
- Professional Mr. Universe
- Ms Universe (Figure)
- Ms Universe (Toned Figure)
- Mr. Universe (Masters Over 40)
- Mr. Universe (Masters Over 50)
- Junior Mr. Universe
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David Johnston, editor of Health & Strength, and his team organised the Mr. Universe in London, the same year in which the Olympic Games were held in the city.
When Oscar Heidenstam became the NABBA Secretary in 1955, after a highly successful competitive career, he quickly became the main driving force. A network of area shows was established to increase the membership, and to help financially. It was difficult in the beginning as many shows lost money, but it didn't deter the organisers. Those who were involved did it with love for bodybuilding and the camaraderie it engendered.
The success of the Universe also came from the support of many of the big names taking part. John Grimek, twice Mr. America, and Mr. USA, was already a legend by the time he came to London. Steve Reeves, 1947 Mr. America, defeated by Grimek in '48, returned to claim the title in 1950. A year later, we[who?] had our first home-bred winner when Reg Park became champion. In 1953 Bill Pearl added the Universe title to his Mr. America crown, and from then on became part of the Universe history. Later, in 1966, a young man from Austria, Arnold Schwarzenegger, finished runner-up to Chet Yorton, but returned the following year to become the youngest ever winner - the first of four victories. These were the most influential champions, who not only took part, but encouraged others in America and Europe to support the Universe. Their inspiration still encourages many young bodybuilders today.
First held in 1948, the contest was initially only for amateur male bodybuilders. A separate class for professionals was included in 1952. Although the NABBA UK Constitution traditionally defines an amateur as someone who has "never entered and accepted prize money in an advertised professional event", today NABBA International offers a Pro Card to the four men's height class winners at the Universe Championships and the NABBA World Championships. Between 2011 and 2013 there was no professional Mr. Universe class held. In 2013, following a seven-year absence from competition, Lee Priest returned and won the overall title as an amateur. Following his victory, the NABBA International Council determined that in 2014 the NABBA Professional Division would be reestablished with the inaugural professional contest being the 2014 World Championships in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In 2014, Dave Titterton won the Professional Mr Universe title in Southport, England.
Women's bodybuilding classes were included from 1968 as Ms Physique and then divided in 1986 into Ms Physique and Ms Figure. The Ms Physique class has since been discontinued at the Universe Championships however a Ms Toned Figure is now offered.
In 1988, a Junior Mr Universe class was included for men under 21 years. The class was discontinued between 1990 and 1999 but returned in 2000.
In 1991, a Masters Over 40 class was introduced. The inaugural winner was Graeme Lancefield from Australia, narrowly beating NABBA legend John Citrone for the title. A Masters Over 50 class was introduced in 2002 with Mr Universe veteran Ian Lawrence from England capturing the new award.
The athletes are judged on their symmetry, proportions and the size and clarity of each muscle group. Most of the judging occurs during the day (this is called the pre-judging) before the distractions of the evening show, the finals.