By Samantha Yardley
Mr. Universe, Max O’Connor talks beer for breakfast, overcoming addiction, and suffering a triple heart attack.
“I was always a massive He-Man fan” grins Max as we sit down to commence what would become the most outspoken and candid interview of my life. “He was the Master of the Universe. So, I thought, ‘right, what can I do that I would have loved when I was a little boy?’ Win the Mr. Universe title!
“I thought how cool it would it be to have a little boy one day who could go into school and say to his friends ‘my daddy’s Mr. Universe’. That became my goal for ten years. It took me six attempts, and three second places, until I finally got first place.”
“I pushed the envelope with what you can take before you get put in a fucking box”
The tumultuous journey to the top of the podium didn’t come easy though as Max pushed his body to the limits of breaking point. The near-fatal side effects of long-term performance-enhancing, and recreational drug use took their toll, tragically culminating in a triple heart attack.
“Everything I did was channeled towards winning that competition, and I wound myself up so tight thinking ‘I can’t have another second place’. I exerted myself so hard with anabolics, that I pushed the envelope with what you can take before you get put in a fucking box.
“I was going to bed at night with heart palpitations and I genuinely didn’t know if I would wake up in the morning” he reveals earnestly. “I wasn’t worried about it because I was so fucking pig-headed, I thought ‘I’m doing this, regardless of the consequences.’
“Out of courtesy, I wrote letters to my family in case they found me dead. I told them ‘I died doing something that I enjoyed, chasing a goal that I wanted for so long’. I was so close that I couldn’t stop.
“If I was bodybuilding, I was bodybuilding. But if I was partying, I was fucking partying. If in doubt, flat out, so whatever I was doing, I was doing it to an extreme” he says.
“It was 2015 when I felt painful shooting pains down my arm. I thought at first it was my pec cramping, but it was too deep down. Then, I felt a massive rush of blood to my head, and I woke up on the floor.
“I was 29 and had suffered a triple heart attack. I had a pacemaker put in because I had a third-degree heart block, and my heart rate was dropping down to 32 beats a minute. Nothing I did could get my body to elevate it, I could go and train, I could be shagging, taking drugs, doing whatever, but nothing would get my heart rate up” he says. “When I was sleeping, my heart rate would drop down as low as 18 beats a minute.
“It was a double-edged sword, if I hadn’t taken anabolic steroids, I wouldn’t have survived the heart attack. My heart was so enlarged that it was strong enough to live in the heart block.”
After achieving a lifelong goal, the euphoric high of victory was soon replaced by melancholy, as a tragic string of events exasperated his already delicate mindset.
“I achieved my goal, which, for a competitive athlete, can be a very dangerous thing. I’d gone from being Max the bodybuilder to Max the nothing, and all the drugs I used in the build-up to the competition didn’t put me in a good place mentally. After the show, I had this huge relief but a crash and a depression at the same time.
“If I was bodybuilding, I was bodybuilding, but if I was partying, I was fucking partying”
“Couple that with becoming a father nine months after winning the title and having a very bad motorbike injury where I broke my kneecap, my arm in three places, and tore my tricep completely off the bone. I just went fucking mad, and I lost myself.
“I was desperate to find some kind of new identity. I couldn’t train and I was isolated from friends because I had a newborn baby, so my main release became alcohol” says Max. “Because of my addictive personality, I thought, ‘well, if I’m going to drink, I’m going to fucking drink harder than anyone else drinks’, and then the same with drugs.
“My new identity became Max the party animal. It was so negative and so destructive, but it was an identity. It went on for the best part of 18 months, and then that led into lockdown, which wasn’t a healthy place to be for a young guy struggling with a drug problem. Then stuff really went sideways.
“I started with alcohol, cocaine, ketamine, MDMA, and then moved on to harder drugs like crystal meth. I’d take anything I could get my hands on; it became my new hobby.
“I would get up and without even flinching, go to the fridge and get a can of beer. My morning protein shake had been replaced with a can of Stella or a cocktail. Then, it only takes a couple of those and before you know it, you’ve got bags of cocaine in.
“When lockdown ended, I didn’t want to go back to normal life. I’d got too comfortable in horribly unhealthy habits.”
It took the blunt intervention of a close friend to highlight the dire extent of Max’s substance abuse.
“After my first therapy session, I hung up the phone and sat and cried for 20 minutes”
“One of my friends said ‘mate, you’re not Max anymore. I don’t know who you are’. After that, I sat down and had a word with myself. I reached out for help and went through therapy and Narcotics Anonymous. That taught me so much about myself.
“After my first therapy session, I hung up the phone and sat and cried for 20 minutes. How had I got into this position? I achieved a life goal, had a beautiful son, and amazing friends and family around me. How the fuck had I got here?
“It was only after I’d been clean for eight months, that I realized how many other people were struggling with similar problems” says Max. “If Mr. Universe can say, ‘I’ve lost my way here, I’m struggling and I don’t give a fuck who knows it, I need help’ then I could encourage others to step forward and seek help too.
“That’s what made me think I can help others and start the Wolfe Pack, my online training program. We do a lot of mindset stuff to make sure everybody’s on top of their game mentally.”
“I’ve lost my way here, I’m struggling, and I don’t give a fuck who knows it. I need help”
Ultimately, it was the experience of hitting rock bottom, and surviving the turmoil of the dark side of addiction that gave Max the strength to overcome adversity.
“I broke every bone in the right side of my body. I put more drugs in myself than the body should be able to humanly take. I lost all my motivation and didn’t want to go near a gym.
“I have no doubt that if I’d carried on living the way I was living in lockdown, I’d be dead” he reveals. “But I learned how to fix it, to look after myself and build a healthy lifestyle, and a healthy mind, not just for me, but for all the people around me that benefit from it. Especially my son.”