Longform

Pain & Gain

UPDATE: In 2013, director Michael Bay released an adaptation of this three-part series. That same year, New Times revisited Pain & Gain and tracked down what's become of the Sun Gym Gang two decades later.

In the summer of 1994, the Sun Gym featured a juice bar; aerobic workouts; free-weights; Hammer, Nautilus, and Cam machines; even baby-sitting services; and on the sly, a variety of illegal steroids available in the locker room. Just north of Miami Lakes, Sun Gym was a serious bodybuilder's hangout, run under the watchful eye of Daniel Lugo, its charismatic, fast-talking manager. Anyone could join, of course, but if you were soft and puffy, you were way out of your league here. Sun Gym's favored lads were thick and ripped. This was not a place for weekend warriors.

Supposedly the gym had 571 members, but the books were wrong. Sun Gym was hemorrhaging clients, who were taking their paunches to the newly opened Gold's Gym complex in Miami Lakes. Gold's didn't push a cult of the perfect physique; fitness training there was, by comparison, a casual outlet for exercise and social interaction.

Miami accountant John Mese had opened Sun Gym just seven years before, in January 1987. He'd started serious bodybuilding at Texas A&M, where he earned an accounting degree. In 1962, while in the air force, he was stationed in England and, with a 60-inch chest and 19 1/2-inch biceps, won the title of Mr. United Kingdom. The next year he was accepted as a Mr. America contestant, but the air force denied him leave to compete. Now he promoted bodybuilding competitions. When professional bodybuilders came to Miami to compete, most trained at Sun Gym.

See also: Pain & Gain, From New Times Story to Michael Bay Film | Pain & Gain: Where the Real-Life Sun Gym Gang Characters Are Now

But while Mese was a prominent accountant -- he'd been president of Mese & Associates in Miami Shores since 1970, and occasionally taught accounting theory at two local universities -- no one could say he was astute when it came to hiring his gym employees. One Sun Gym manager, according to lore, had left for vacation and was arrested in Louisiana with massive amounts of cocaine and amphetamines in his car. Another manager, an ex-cop, quit working at Sun Gym then performed the ultimate reverse sting when he led three drug dealers out to the Everglades and executed them. Mese claimed that other employees stole from the gym. One quit, swearing that Mese had swindled him.



The gym's core clientele -- obsessed with developing muscle size, definition, and density -- was problematic as well, described by observers as "cops and bad guys." One Miami police officer ventured that he could "meet my monthly quota of felony arrests in one night at the Sun Gym" by running background checks on the denizens pumping iron all around him.

By 1992 Mese was about to ditch the enterprise. His bright hopes for Sun Gym had imploded. It was about time, his friends and family thought. He'd already lost one partner and many clients at his accounting firm because of the inordinate attention he gave the gym, and the time he spent coordinating bodybuilding contests during the tax season. The gym had been nothing but a drain, another bad investment. His dream that it would become an internationally renowned muscle mecca was all but dead.

Then Daniel Lugo turned up on his doorstep, looking for work. The 30-year-old New York native had moved to Hialeah about four years earlier, along with his wife, Lillian, and their four adopted children, all of whom were Lillian's relations, left to her custody after several family tragedies. He and Lillian were no longer together, though they remained close friends. He'd since remarried.

Lugo was full of ideas for the gym. Like a rainmaker in the wilderness, he promised Mese he could help deliver a virtual torrent of members and cash. They'd work together and build an empire: a Sun Gym clothing line, Sun Gym vitamins, a Sun Gym juice bar, a Sun Gym karate team. But best of all, Lugo said, he was developing computer software that would render obsolete all previous methods of gym management. For Mese, whose accounting firm also owned a computer company, this was perfect. Lugo's software would strengthen the gym's ability to monitor membership payments and accounts receivable.



So persuasive was Lugo that Mese was happy to overlook his past. The new hire had just served a fifteen-month sentence at the Eglin Air Force Base Federal Correctional Institute, a minimum-security prison camp in Florida's Panhandle, and was beginning a three-year federal probation period full of "special terms," which included paying $70,000 in restitution to his victims. In addition he couldn't establish any lines of credit or incur credit charges without the permission of his probation officer.

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Pete Collins