By: Doris Vallejo (Diamond Gym member since 1979)
There are many gems in bodybuilding, but there is only one Diamond – Diamond Gym, that is. Far from the sunny climes of Muscle Beach and Venice, the Maplewood, New Jersey, iron palace is gaining a national reputation for producing an astonishing number of national titleholders. Owned by John Kemper (now Dwayne McDaniel), NPC vice-president and a former competitive bodybuilder, Diamond is the house that built not only former Ms. O Carla Dunlap but such current notables as North American champ Johnnie Morant; Carmella Cureton, the 1994 National middleweight champ; USA middleweight champ Guy Ducasse; Renne Johns, Junior Nationals lightweight champ; and Derrick Whitsett, 1994 National light-heavyweight champ.
Literally hundreds of Diamond’s members have qualified for national contests since Kemper opened the gym in the mid-‘70s. When asked to explain its successful track record, most of Diamond’s regulars cite its mystique and magnetism.
“If you were blind and you walked into Diamond Gym, you’d know you were in a gym, a real hardcore gym,” says Cureton.
According to Morant, “You grow from the air because there’s so much energy.” Besides the atmosphere, Morant credits another constant for Diamond’s success: “One of the reasons is John Kemper.”
A MAN WHO’S BEEN THERE
Kemper is indeed the heart and energy that fuels Diamond Gym. With movie star looks, the physique of a gladiator and the poise of a dancer, Kemper is an inspiration to the many ambitious young bodybuilders who flock to his gym from all over the East Coast (and some from the West). Standing at the front desk of his recently expanded gym, surrounded by photos of outstanding bodybuilders (many with personal inscriptions) tacked to the walls, Kemper reigns over his iron domain with the bearing of a king.
“When I stated Diamond, my philosophy was to have a gym that was dedicated to producing good bodybuilders,” says Kemper, talking over the clang of iron and loud music pounding throughout his gym. “At that time [the ‘70s], there weren’t many gym around, and I had to travel a great distance to find a good one.”
Involved in competitive bodybuilding since the late ‘50s, Kemper knows what it takes to successfully train for physique contests. His resume includes winning the Teenage New Jersey in 1960, the Mr. New Jersey in 1974, the USA and World Games in 1981, the Junior USA heavyweight and overall in 1983, the Masters overall in 1987 as well as the mixed pairs with his wife Shirley that same year (she also took the women’s Master in ’87).
That Diamond has attracted such a concentration of competitive athletes without any strong advertising Kemper attributes to “a spiritual thing, in a sense. The gym always had a good atmosphere for training. A lot of people have told me – people like Mike Quinn and other pro bodybuilders who have guest-posed in my contests – that they walked right in the door and felt like training because of the atmosphere. A bodybuilder may feel down one day, but he walks in [to Diamond] and he feels he has to work out.
“Diamond Gym has a lot of character. I equate it with a western saloon in the sense that it’s a rough-hones sort of gym but also very liberal in terms of rules and regulations. Guys can park their motorcycles out front almost as if they were parking their horses outside an old-west bar. I feel it’s important not to chase people around and force them to do things like replace their weights or refrain from dropping their weights or yelling and screaming. I think these are things that people need to do sometimes. Bodybuilding is a form of self-expression for which you need freedom and flexibility and not a lot of rules.”
Besides covering the basics, such as upkeep of equipment (nothing stay broken for long at Diamond), Kemper knows how to get competitive juices going and promotes contests like the Mr. Suburban and New Jersey State Championships.
“I encourage people to compete. One of the reasons I began running contests was because I felt I was victimized a lot of times when I was a competitor by promoters who didn’t really run good contests. I wanted to do shows that projected bodybuilding in a good light. Everything would be real top-notch – the best guest posers, that kind of thing. The year before Dorian Yates won the Olympia, I had him guest-pose.
I’ve always had an eye for good bodybuilders. I’ve been able to pick people who would either be in the limelight or would ultimately be top professionals.”
WHO ARE TOMORROW’S CHAMPS?
“There are a number of people,” Kemper says. “Julio Camacho is just on the edge of becoming well-known. There’s Darryl James, who is going to make an effort to break into the national scene. There’s Jason Arntz, another competitor on the verge of becoming a national champion. Chuck Nwodili – he’s a huge potential. There’s Paul Hendricks and Armand Peri. Dwayne Broadway has been training in my gym for years. He won the Natural USA two or three years ago and continues to be real good. There are probably at least another 10 or 12 people on the horizon.”
Watch for these names, for if the past is any guide, they could one day be as familiar as some of the biggest ever in bodybuilding. Kemper smiles when he recalls some of the notables who have passed through his doors.
“John Hnatyschak [World middleweight champ] trained here for a couple of years when he was in the midst of his pro career. Carla Dunlap pretty much began her bodybuilding career in my gym. When she won the Olympia, that was really a great pleasure for Shirley and me. And when Johnnie Morant won the North America, that was great. It’s always exciting for me to be at a contest when one of the people from my gym is competing.
“There are enough exceptional people in the gym right now that serve as a standard. If you are training at the same time as Johnnie [Morant] or Guy Ducasse or a lot of the other outstanding bodybuilders, you feel a need to try to reach that level. The standard is high, and I think it’s always being raised.”
Morant, a Diamond Gym member for more than 14 years, is so huge that even he doesn’t know his own dimensions, but he thinks he weighs about 256 pounds. Of course, he wasn’t always that astonishingly big.
“When I was 16 years old, John used to come to my house [and] get me up at four in the morning,” says Johnnie, reminiscing about Kemper’s early and significant influence on his life. “He used to call at 3:30AM and say to my mom, ‘Tell Johnnie I’m on my way.’ And I’d say. ‘Mom, tell him I’m not here.’ Then he’d ring the doorbell and say, ‘Come on, let’s train.’”
“Johnnie had the propensity of being a little late,” says Kemper with obvious affection. “One day he was really late, so we decided to go to his house and drag him out of bed. That was fun.
“He also once used the excuse that he couldn’t make it because his wife was having a baby. Two weeks later, she really did have a baby, so that meant she had two babies with in a two-week period. Kind of interesting.”
“He set the pace for me,” Johnnie says seriously. “He’s like a father. He took me under his wing. He didn’t give up on me. Times when I was just laid-back, he’d push me. And here I am, I’ve done some serious training under Kemper’s guidance.”
“It’s so hardcore,” he says. “Diamond Gym is not a looker’s gym. You go there because you want to get big.”
Morant says it helps immeasurably to have someone with Kemper’s background and knowledge running the place.
“Some gyms you go to, the owner’s don’t even train. It’s just a business for them. They don’t know anything about the machines or exercises. They may know a piece of equipment is blue, if it’s a brand name, but they don’t know how it works. It could be a s-ty machine. But when John gets equipment, he’s tried it. He works out with it before he buys it. Being a bodybuilder himself, he knows.”
Guy Ducasse has been training at Diamond Gym since 1985 after John Kemper spotted him in a local show, recognized his superb potential and asked him to join. Questioned about his initial impressions about the gym, the soft-spoken middleweight breaks into a radiant grin.
“Diamond was just like a jungle. I walked in there and I was, like, oh man! There were a lot of big guys. Everyone was serious about training. The first day or two, it was strange. After that, I was part of it. It was what I’d been looking for. It was a home away from home. Diamond Gym is the best gym on the planet for me.
“When I won the USA in Raleigh, North Carolina, there were 50 people from the gym there to support me. They rented vans and they just went down there. That was great.” Guy readily credits John with helping him tremendously over the years with advice and by sponsoring him. “Whatever we need, John goes out and gets it. I call him ‘Daddyo.’ He’s like a father.”
But as a training partner, forget it. “He trains too fast for me,” says Guy with an easy laugh. “He takes about 20 seconds in between sets.”
The women in Diamond are no less enthusiastic. Carmella Cureton, a former dancer who took the middleweight crown at the ’94 Nationals, has her unique take on Kemper. “John was sent from God,” gushes the exotic the exotic, sexy muscular woman with eyes as dark as gun barrels. “He could run for the mayor and win. He helps people. He’s given so many people a chance to make something of themselves, to get their lives together. More people in Diamond Gym are saved and believe in God than in a church. People come together here, black and white. There’s a piece of pie in the sky for everyone.”
Cureton, who plans on entering the 1995 Jan Tana Pro Classic, says she wouldn’t train the way she does if it wasn’t for the hardcore atmosphere of Kemper’s gym. “Other gyms are like health spas. Diamond is a gym. You go there and you sweat.”
So impressed was Renee Johns with Kemper and Diamond that she relocated from her home in Ithaca, New York, to Maplewood to train under John’s guidance. A commercial pilot and flight instructor, Johns had just won the Eastern States in New York City, thus qualifying her for the Junior Nationals.
“I knew if I was going to get ready for the Junior Nationals, I needed somebody to really help me and not just a couple of guys in the gym saying, ‘Try this, try that.’ John knows what to do. He definitely is always there. And you can always count on him. He said he’d train me, and that was it. I got my stuff, came down and trained for the Juniors.” Johns took her class at the Junior Nationals, then entered the Nationals, where she took third. Now she’s hooked on Diamond. “I don’t want to leave this gym,” she says.
Derrick Whitsett has had such a success as any of Diamond Gym’s gems. But it wasn’t always that way. Originally from Trenton, New Jersey, Derrick struggled for years.
“I’ve had my ups and downs,” he says of his bodybuilding journey that began 10 years ago. “I used to train at a gym and entered contests for a different bodybuilding organization, but the NPC is better. NPC officials look after their athletes.”
Whitsett moved from Trenton to Maplewood without any prior discussions with John. “I always wanted to train at Diamond Gym. When I came, I saw all these big guys like Beau Matlock, Johnnie Morant and Guy Ducasse. They had placed really well in NPC national shows. All I ever did was place 13th in the Nationals.
“I always liked John. He’s won a lot of shows himself and I always wanted to train with him. But there are so many good guys in the gym, it’s hard [for John] to focus on one person. When I was training for the 1994 Nationals, John saw that I was really determined to win, and he asked me to train with him. He told me I should do the NPC Suburban, so I did it for a warm-up and won the overall. After that, I did the Junior USA and I won the overall there too. Then I won my class at the Nationals.”
Kemper’s down-to-earth attitude has rubbed off on Whitsett. “I’m still the same person I was when I first came here. I’m still honest with people. I still respect guys that just start out. If somebody comes to me for advice, just because I turned pro, that doesn’t mean I can’t help them.
“A lot of guys, when they turn pro, they move to California. I’d like to stay at Diamond to represent John, to represent his gym. I think that’s important. He helped me out a lot. He gives me advice – not just on bodybuilding, but on life in general. He’s like a great father figure. He tells you the truth. He definitely motivates you to work on your weaknesses.
“If you have all the equipment and you have someone like John behind you, you’re bound to become a champion.”
Flex Magazine December-1995 pgs 82-92