There are two things R Manikandan lives for: the chain of Toneez Fitness Centres he established as a 23-year-old, and bodybuilding.

Over the past month, he has been consumed by both. After opening three stores of Toneez Wellness in Chennai and Hyderabad, he is now in Uzbekistan, representing India at the 12th World Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Championship, which begins today.

This is the third time he will be taking part in this competition, having won the Mr World title twice: gold in 2017 and silver in 2018.

“I want Indians to treat bodybuilding like the challenging sport it is,” says Mani, who will be participating in the above 165 centimetre height category.

“You have to dedicate your entire self to it. It’s not just one hour in the gym, bodybuilding means thinking about it from the moment you wake up to the moment you sleep. Every meal matters, how much water you drink matters, your sleep matters,” he says.

As exciting as it is to represent your country internationally, Mani’s story of how he came to do that is perhaps more fascinating. He discusses it over a video call.

“It started about 15 years ago, when I was 15 —” he begins when a phone call interrupts him, blasting the Popeye ringtone. Apropos, for a team of bodybuilders. A pause here and he continues.

An early start

As a 15-year-old living in Guindy, Mani was bullied in school for being overweight. That led him to hit the local gym, where for the first time, he met men obsessed with sculpting their bodies. “I dropped from 120 kilograms to 70, and entered Class XI as a much fitter person. But then I thought why not build muscle too,” he says.

Impressed by 25-year-olds at the gym who were also competing on stage, Mani followed suit, registering at a State-level bodybuilding competition. “I placed sixth in the senior category, among bodybuilders with years of experience,” recalls Mani, adding that it gave him the push he needed to train more. “All my heroes, from Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Rock, to my coach, Senthil Kumaran Selvarajan were bodybuilders.”

For the next two years, he juggled training and entering competitions with schoolwork and preparing for his Class XII board exams. “My parents did not mind. We are from a poor background and they wouldn’t ask me many questions because I worked my way to pay the gym and registration fees. I would work odd jobs, mostly in small shops and housekeeping in hotels, clean restrooms, and so on,” he says.

When he graduated, he became the first in his family to do so, and received a scholarship to pursue higher studies. However, a year into engineering college, he dropped out, to work at a gym instead.

“I was working two jobs at the time. One as the housekeeping staff at Le Royal Méridien, Chennai and the other as a trainer at a local gym,” he says. As his bodybuilding skills developed, he was promoted to the position of a gym supervisor at Le Royal Méridien.

A chance encounter

It was at the hotel gym that Mani met Sriram Vasantharajan, owner of Blade Energy Partners. “He was staying there for three months for a project. He had an ACL tear and was in a knee brace. I offered to help with his strength training and within three months, his knee brace was removed,” says Mani.

Before Sriram flew back to the US, where he worked, he met Mani again, asking him what his future plans were. “I said I am training for competitions,” said Mani. “But he asked me what my bigger goal is — I thought about it and replied that it was to train others to be fit too. He suggested I open my own gym, but I laughed it off. I was 21 years old and earning 15,000 a month!”

However, Sriram offered to invest in his gym and went on to give him seed money for it. “I quit my job the next day and started looking for places to open a gym. Most places took one look at me, and said, come back with your parents,” he laughs. But with help from Sriram’s friends, he opened the first Toneez branch in Nanganallur in 2015.

Once business picked up, he returned to his first passion: competing. In 2017, he won Mr Tamil Nadu, Mr South India and Mr World. The current competition in Uzbekistan will be his third attempt, and he is now especially careful about his lifestyle.

“You have to be in shape throughout the year,” he explains, “You have to be disciplined, you can’t train just before the competition. If you train for one year, you can gain two kilograms of quality muscle. For 10 kilograms of muscle to show, you would have to train for five years continuously without spoiling your health. That is why I call it the toughest sport in the world.”