Photographing Benny Podda, the Bodybuilder Turned Martial Artist Turned Cave-Dwelling Medicine Man
Photographer Ray Lego recalls sipping hallucinogenic potions, hanging out in the desert, and watching the man drown himself.
Photos by Ray Lego
There's a glimpse of Benny Podda in the ESPN documentary about the rise and fall of Todd Marinovich: "Martial artist Benny Podda," the voiceover says, was a coach for the former Raiders quarterback. Podda also trained Chuck Norris and made a cameo in one of his movies. A Pennsylvania-born bodybuilder who won a National Physique Committee championship along with a smattering of other titles, Podda was eccentric even in a world of weirdoes: he allegedly robbed a pharmacy for painkillers using a bow and arrow, posed for bodybuilding competitions wearing a werewolf mask, spurted blood out of his nose on command, and could dangle more than 200 pounds from his testicles. He once hung himself from a noose at a bodybuilding show in Newark, New Jersey; swayed for five minutes; then opened his eyes and gave the audience the finger. An aside in the Los Angeles Times says he studied martial arts in China for five years, and he claimed to have traveled to China to compete in (and win) martial arts tournaments that took place on tabletops.
That Marinovich footage was taken during what was probably Podda's last stint in society. A celebrity who checked out before the age of Google to live in a cave and treat the sick and desperate on an Indian reservation, Podda doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. His whereabouts today are unclear. Nearly every second-hand word about his legend comes from a November 2004 feature in Men's Fitness . When photographer Ray Lego got the call to fly to southern California for a photoshoot, he didn't know what to expect. "I didn't know squat about him," Lego says. "All I really had to go by was that he was a dude that wore a werewolf mask and lived in a cave." What followed was a hallucinogenic journey through the rattlesnake-riddled home of the Cahuilla Indians, sipping a concoction made from homegrown marijuana and undisclosed herbal add-ons, and watching a then-47-year-old man abuse himself for a camera to demonstrate his Iron Palm prowess.
Ray Lego: My assistant and I flew in to California and they put us up in some super-nice hotel in Palm Springs – every time the wind blew you could smell the rosemary growing outside our window from one floor down to the next. We had everything ready and were just waiting and drinking margaritas at the pool floating around and having a good old time. I had no idea what I was going into.
The next day we get a call, and an Asian woman said, "Benny's ready. Meet at this place." It was a phone booth right outside an [Indian] reservation. We drove two hours through the [San Bernardino Mountains] to where she told us to go, she came down in a car and said, "Follow us." It was desert with tumbleweeds blowing through, chicken wire, junk and car parts everywhere – it wasn't beautiful at all. You could see someone shooting a gun at a target in the background, there was a jeep with all the wheels off of it and it looked like it had rusted into the ground. We followed her into the Indian reservation and came to a beat-up ranch house, and out in the backyard was this fenced-off trail where illegal immigrants would come through to America.
Benny was waiting for us and he looked insane. He looked like the biggest person I'd ever seen, he had these black kung-fu-MC-Hammer pants on, these kung fu shoes, and a ripped-up white T-shirt. His hair was so black and his face was so muscular – even his jaw, everything. I remember him coming up to me and saying all this stuff like, "I know what you're going through. I can feel your pain."
Benny wasn't Indian. The reason why he was allowed on the reservation was because he healed one of the chiefs' daughters or something like that. He started telling me a story – and I have no idea if any of this was true – about how he'd heal AIDS patients, people with addiction, all sorts of stuff, with acupuncture, acupressure, and this medicinal potion, which was basically the pot [of stuff] he grew in the backyard mixed with grain alcohol, ginger, and herbs.
He must have had 100 jars of it, all lined up on a shelf over a bed on the floor with sheets hanging over the windows – the older the jar, the darker it got. We started drinking it and right off the bat it burned. I've had grain alcohol and super-proof liquor, but I thought this was some other chemical. The first one went down really hard and I almost lost my mind. But he's like, "You gotta drink a couple more." Benny had his own little gallon he was drinking like it was water, and he kept saying, "This is so important. This is part of it. You have to get in the right state of mind." After about three or four shots we started talking, and all of the sudden it was like, boom.
I almost felt like I was hallucinating, but not like mushrooms or acid. Everything went really quiet, I was really focused, and it was bizarre. I could hear people talking from the other room, everything was very bright – it was intense, but I enjoyed it. It wasn't scary. It could have easily had peyote in it, but I don't remember him saying anything because I would have been like, "Eh, no thanks." Peyote is like an all-day kind of thing and I had to work – kind of.
I don't think those guys had a car that was legal to drive, so I'm driving and Benny gets in right next to me, right in the centre, and his assistant gets in on the passenger side with all the goodie bags – more potion, all these homemade energy drinks and weird concoctions in little Ball mason jars. I'm driving and I wasn't really worried – I didn't feel intoxicated at all. I've never felt more alive to drive. But my assistant was in the back babbling like a lunatic, back and forth like a ping-pong ball.
We drove 45 minutes out to the waterfall where Benny cleanses himself and cleanses other people before going into his cave. It was part of this Iron Palm thing – he never said Iron Palm, but that's the only term I can come up with to describe what it was. It's a martial arts technique where you get a piece of wood, tap it on your hand for a day, then the next day you do it a little bit harder, the next day a little harder, until months down the road you can smash it against your hands, and you can do that all over your body – arms, chest, whatever. It builds up your bones and skins to be able to take and deliver punishing blows. That was the whole philosophy.
The water [from the waterfall] was coming down so hard and there was so much of it. He told me if I went underneath I probably wouldn't survive it – I wanted to do it, and he said, "Well you'd probably end up snapping your neck." But he jumps in and goes right under the waterfall, taking the full brunt of it, doing all martial art katas mixed in with werewolf poses. He stayed under there for about 20 minutes going in and out of it. I can hear the water hitting him and it sounded so violent. I was just waiting for him to fall down, but this guy is like a cinderblock. He's older, but he's so thick and stout and I don't think anything could have knocked him down.
We went to this little pond where the water would pool up, and Benny was saying how he could control his breath, stay submerged for a long time under water, sometimes almost drowning himself, taking water into his lungs, then expelling it and coming back to life. He started submerging himself – the first time he must have done it for about five minutes before he came back up. The second time he did it it must have been like 10 minutes. And the third time he did it, the Asian woman was standing on his chest, not letting him get back up – he said he knows his body can take it. He basically drowned and the Asian woman pulled him out of the water, and he brought himself back by just puking up the water.
You know how swimmers drown, let out a big cough of water, and come back to life? It was like that. It was insane. I think that's why I didn't even really take photos: I was so in awe of it all that I really wanted to enjoy the experience in real life instead of looking at it through glass. And it wasn't part of a script – he just did it.
Next we went to the cave, which was in the middle of a desert like you'd see in a movie with a rock formation, which was the cave, about half a mile in the background. As soon as we started walking through the desert, the rattlers started going off – rattlesnakes were everywhere and I kind of freaked out. And it was rattling like crazy everywhere we went, which meant the snake is threatened by us and could see us and is rattling to try to scare us away. And we were walking through it. I had flip-flops on.
When we got to the cave Benny told me stories about the nights he'd spend there, the peyote he would eat, how people would bring him stuff from town, and how he'd talk to the spirits. You'd go inside the cave and it opened to an auditorium type of thing where it almost looked like [a place] where a band would play. He said the spirits would sing to him, talk to him, and they'd chase him through the catacombs of rocks. He slept with a rock as his pillow, people would come bring him food, cases of beer – I remember him talking about the beer as one of his luxuries. He'd train at the cave, lifting rocks and doing spiritual types of things. He broke his ankle when he lived there, getting chased through the rocks by the spirits and stuff. Instead of going to the hospital, he'd heal it by walking through deep sand that he said was over 200 degrees and the heat from the sand would heal his ankle. I stuck my hand in the sand and I couldn't even keep it in for a second because it was so hot.
We went back to his house on the reservation, and we started drinking a lot more of the potion and talking about whether we were going to do the swinging ball shot. Benny really wanted to do it, and it was probably something I should have done. But hanging 220 pounds of weight from his balls while I took pictures of it just seemed very strange at the time. I've done a lot of crazy sex-type photos, but that just seemed too weird.
We started doing photos of the beating stick thing – this 180-spoke baton. It looks like a whisk, but it must have weighed 15 pounds. This goes back to the Iron Palm kind of thing where he could mentally tune out the pain and strengthen his body, his skin and bones through the constant pounding of this metal baton. We set up the camera, set up the lights, and he starts whacking himself like crazy, just beating every part of his body one after another, and just enjoying it. Every time he hits his skin with those spokes, I waited for his skin to slice open and start bleeding, but it never happened. He was doing it on his face, his neck, his balls, his legs, every part of his body. And it was almost like he was immune to it. I think the last shots of the day were the shots of him drinking the potion from the big jar with a chain whip on the table and stuff.
Benny was super nice, a really nice genuine person. He was super mellow. He did crazy things, but he was so level and down to earth. He was just living life on his own terms. Sometimes you get really big and think, "This sucks, I don't want the fame," but he never really got huge. He wasn't like Schwarzenegger: he was always on the fringe. Right now, he could probably come back and do something pretty crazy.