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The Arnold Classic From Humble Beginnings to a World-Class Event
The Arnold Classic
From Humble Beginnings to a World-Class Event
By Ron Harris
Once upon a time, the bodybuilding universe was much smaller and simpler. There were literally only a few pros in the world, and only one contest for them to compete in every year – the Mr. Olympia. But eventually as the sport began to grow, there were more pros and more contests. Still, all paled in prestige, prize money, and significance compared to the Olympia. All that changed in 1989 when Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Columbus Mayor Jim Lorimer staged the first Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic. Eventually, it would eclipse the Olympia in terms of prizes (giving away equal money but also a Hummer and a Rolex watch), and grew into a true international sports festival with more overall athletes than the Olympic games. Its expo, which started out as a simple table selling souvenir T-shirts, expanded to over 1,000 booth spaces offering the latest in nutritional supplements, fitness clothing, exercise equipment, and more. But for bodybuilding fans, it was the men’s pro contest that has always been the main attraction. Simply referred to as “The Arnold,” the show was invitation only and kicked off each contest season with many of the very best men in professional bodybuilding. Over the years, many of the winners also came to represent the “uncrowned Mr. Olympias,” men who certainly were more than worthy of the title but for whatever reason never quite got the nod for first place. A few of them, like Jay Cutler and Dexter Jackson, would in fact go on to become Mr. Olympia, yet for others like Rich Gaspari, Flex Wheeler, Kevin Levrone, and Shawn Ray, the Arnold Classic title would represent an achievement that was equal in the minds of many.
1989: The show debuts with Dragonslayer domination
Twenty years ago, the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic crowned its first champion in Rich Gaspari, known as The Dragonslayer for his reputation of handily dispatching much larger opponents. This was no exception, as larger men like Gary Strydom, Bertil Fox, and Ron Love were no match for Gaspari’s insanely deep muscle separations, striations, and granite-like muscle density. Arnold himself held Rich’s hand high in victory that night, setting the stage to quickly turn this spring event into a contest to soon rival the Olympia in prestige. Gaspari never managed to wrest the Sandow out of Lee Haney’s hands, but he became a part of bodybuilding history when he won the inaugural Arnold Classic.
1990: A tale of two champions
Toward the end of the 1980’s, there had been a lot of talk about drug testing in pro bodybuilding. For the 1990 season, the IFBB decided it would test the competitors at the two biggest events in the sport, the Arnold Classic and the Olympia. Many skeptics doubted that the tests would even be administered. And if they were, the doubting Thomases still didn’t think anyone would actually be caught. Not only was the test real, but four men failed and were stripped of their placings and prize money. Of the thirteen contestants, four failed, including Ralf Moeller (who went on to an acting career and a memorable role in “Gladiator”), Samir Bannout, Nimrod King, and most embarrassing of all, winner Shawn Ray. Since the results from the test weren’t known until several days later, Shawn got the honors at the actual event, but was forced to relinquish his trophy, title, and check for $60,000 to runner-up Mike Ashley. This set the stage for a disgraced Shawn to set his sights on vengeance the following year.
1991: Ray’s Revenge
Shawn had warned that anyone else seeking the Arnold Classic title this year would be leaving Columbus disappointed, and the California native was true to his word. Though an ultra-shredded Renel Janvier and Vince Taylor offered some worthy competition, Ray was the clear champion the minute he strode onstage. This fact was confirmed with a glance at the score sheets, which showed that each judge unanimously had Shawn in first place.
Since winning the NPC Nationals in 1988, Vince Taylor had stormed through the pro ranks. By the time he got to the Arnold Classic in 1992, he had already collected eight pro titles, and would go on over the following years to amass a stunning total of 22 pro wins (including four Masters Mr. Olympia titles). The only American in the top six at the fourth annual Arnold Classic, he was pushed hard by runner-up Mohammed “Momo” Benaziza, as well as massive Australian Sonny Schmidt, German Giant Achim Albrecht, Canadian Steve Brisbois, and compact Frenchman Thierry Pastel, with some of the best arms and abs ever seen. Tragically, Benaziza, known as “The Algerian Atlas” for his thick muscularity at 5-2 and 205 pounds, would die from complications related to extreme dehydration that October just hours after his eighth pro win at a grand prix event in Holland. Vince, now 52 years old, is still competing in the IFBB in both Masters and Open divisions.
1993: Flex arrives and serves notice
This spring season marked a watershed year for pro bodybuilding, as many felt is represented a ‘changing of the guard’ to a newer generation of dominant younger men like Flex Wheeler and Paul Dillett, both of whom combined size, shape, and condition like nothing that had been seen before. Flex had just made his pro debut the week before at the Iron Man and would compete for nearly a decade in the IFBB before retiring, but many still feel he looked his career best when he won the Arnold in March of 1993. It would be the lightest bodyweight Flex ever competed at as a pro at only 217 pounds, but his condition that day is still talked about in awed tones. Words like dry, grainy, and detailed don’t even do it justice. Runner-up Lee Labrada (who had also been second to Flex the week before) later admitted that seeing how dominant Flex was at those two back to back events was a strong sign to him that the writing was on the wall – the sport was changing and perhaps it was time for him to move on. Flex would go on to win the Arnold Classic a total of four times, a record that still stands and may never be broken.
1994: The Maryland Muscle Machine rolls into town
Along with Rich Gaspari and Flex Wheeler, Kevin Levrone is often mentioned as one of the greatest bodybuilders in history to never win a Mr. Olympia title. The ’94 Arnold was the fourth of what would eventually be an amazing 20 pro wins for Kevin, who combined full, round muscles with tiny joints. To this day, some consider his shoulders and triceps to be the best ever. Kevin Levrone was coming back from a serious injury incurred the year before – a pec tear incurred while bench-pressing 500 pounds. It was one of the best comebacks from injury in the history of our sport. But the most memorable part of the contest that year was when hulking Paul Dillett, in the shape of his life, cramped up and froze during prejudging and literally had to be carried off-stage like a mannequin to be rushed to a nearby hospital. Some felt that had this not happened, Paul may have won the show instead of being taken off the score sheets with the notation “withdrew due to injury.”
1995: A hometown boy makes good
It was almost like something out of a movie script. Ohio’s Mike Francois won the sixth annual Arnold Classic in front of a hometown crowd, and on his birthday no less. The massive former seminary student (he had planned on becoming a priest until meeting his wife Shannon) was another of the sports greatest ‘what if’s?’ At 5-8 and 250 pounds, with some of the most amazing back and leg development ever seen, many compared Francois’ physique to that of reigning Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. Mike may indeed have gone on to win that title or at the very least would have won more than the four pro contests that he did, if not for the disease colitis knocking him out of pro bodybuilding after just four short but highly successful seasons in the IFBB. There was also a dramatic story behind runner-up Flex Wheeler. Flex had actually broken his neck in a horrific car accident just the year before, and it was widely speculated that he would never compete again. He may not have been able to beat Mike Francois this year, but he would most definitely be back.
1996: Kevin does it again
Kevin’s second Arnold win was not without controversy. Very strong arguments were made asserting that runner-up Flex Wheeler was the more deserving victor. Though Kevin out-massed Wheeler, his condition was decidedly a bit off, while Flex was on his game. Some even had Kevin in third place behind Flex and Dillett. But bodybuilding is judged subjectively, so in the end it’s Kevin Levrone’s name that bears the title of 1996 Arnold Classic Champion. It was also becoming evident that the expo, by now at over 300 booths, had outgrown the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium. Soon it moved to the Greater Columbus Convention Center, a much larger facility that now comfortably houses the ever-expanding expo as well as the myriad of other competitions that have been since added to become the mega-event known as the Arnold Sports Festival. A final sad footnote to the Arnold Classic for 1996 was that sixth-place finalist Andreas Munzer died suddenly twelve days later from internal bleeding due to reasons that were never made clear by Austrian authorities. A quiet and unassuming man known for his insanely deep muscle striations, Munzer was not yet thirty years old.
1997: The Redemption of Flex
After narrowly missing the win for the past two years, Flex returned to Ohio in 1997 to regain his Arnold title. To do so, he had to get past a freakishly huge and ripped Nasser El Sonbaty, who pushed him hard for the win. ’95 winner Mike Francois returned in third place, and fourth place went to a rising star from Texas who was just a year away from beginning an eight-year reign as Mr. Olympia – Ronnie Coleman.
1998: Rematch with the same outcome
It was déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, when Flex Wheeler once again squared off against an even bigger Nasser at the tenth annual rendition of the Arnold Classic in 1998. In the end, Flex took home first place, a check for a hundred grand, a Hummer, and a Rolex, while Sonbaty had to settle for second place and 45 G’s. Former champ Vince Taylor looked great in third, and an enormous newcomer from Switzerland, Jean-Pierre Fux, was fourth. The mass monster’s pro career was cut tragically short the following year when he tore both quads in a freak accident during a photo shoot for Flex magazine.
1999: Nasser has his day at last
After taking second place to Flex Wheeler for the past two years here, Nasser finally earned his first and only Arnold Classic title. Rounding out the rest of the top five that year were former two-time winner Kevin Levrone, Chris Cormier, Jay Cutler, and Milos Sarcev. This would also be the final pro contest for Arnold look-a-like and fellow Austrian Roland Kickinger, who had only managed to break the top ten once in nine IFBB outings. Roland went on to a successful acting career on the TV series “Son of a Beach,” played a young Arnold in the TV movie “See Arnold Run,” and will be taking on the original Arnold role of the T-1000 in 2009’s “Terminator: Salvation.”
2000: New millennium, end of an era
2000 would be the fourth and final Arnold Classic win for Flex Wheeler. It would also be the first of an amazing six consecutive runner-up finishes for Chris Cormier, a record I am quite sure he never wanted to set. Steroid testing had not gone well in 1990, but in 2000 the IFBB experimented with testing for diuretics, since they were certainly a far more dangerous substance. Jason Arntz, Craig Titus, Tom Prince, Ahmed Haidar, Patrick Lynn, and Jimmy Mentis all tested positive and were disqualified. As for Flex, he was destined to win just one more pro title weeks later in Hungary. He fought valiantly against kidney disease for two more seasons before finally being forced to retire in 2003. With four Arnold Classic titles, he is still considered by many to be the most dominant athlete in the two decade-long history of the event. Only Mr. Olympia winners Jay Cutler and Dexter Jackson, with three wins each, are close to tying his record, and both would need two more wins to beat it.
2001: A surprise entry
If ever it could be said that history was made at the Arnold, it would be the 2001 edition. Though there had never been any rule against it, longstanding tradition since the inception of the Arnold Classic had held that the reigning Mr. Olympia would never compete in it. Tantalized by the impressive package of cash and prizes, Ronnie Coleman broke this tradition for the first time and won with a perfect score. Not only was Ronnie the winner by a mile, but his incredibly dry and grainy condition that year at an uncharacteristically light 245 pounds is widely held to be his best ever. Many also felt that achieving this nearly inhuman muscular condition in March was what led him to show up that fall at the Mr. Olympia off his best form. There, a much-improved Jay Cutler nearly beat him in a decision still talked about today as controversial. Rattled by the incident, neither Ronnie nor any of the Mr. O champs that followed have dared to compete at the Arnold lest it hurt their chance at maintaining the Olympia title.
2002: Jay’s reign begins
Incensed at the perceived injustice of his loss to Ronnie at the 2001 Olympia, Jay Cutler decided to skip the O for 2002 and instead target the Arnold Classic. Being that he was considered by some to be the uncrowned Mr. O, his win at the 2002 Arnold helped further the notion that the Arnold was every bit as prestigious a title to hold. Making his Arnold Classic debut way down in thirteenth place was a rookie pro named Victor Martinez who would go on to win this show five years later. In third place in ’02 was Dexter Jackson, a man that went on to win three Arnold titles and one Olympia so far.
2003: Jay makes it two
Cutler’s domination of the Arnold continued in 2003, while Chris Cormier scored second place for the fourth year in a row. The surprise hit of the show was German Giant Markus Ruhl, who arrived with the customary freakish mass he was already known for, but also with crisp conditioning.
2004: The Real Deal’s near miss
Jay earned a third Arnold title in 2004, but this time his victory was nowhere near as clear-cut. Chris “The Real Deal” Cormier looked impeccable, and both fans and judges had a hard time deciding who the rightful winner should be. In the end, just one point separated Cormier and Cutler. With Dexter in third, the rest of the top five was rounded out by a combination of nearly 600 pounds of German-engineered beef in the form of Gunter Schlierkamp and Markus Ruhl. 2004 also marked the only Arnold appearance of Canadian Colossus Greg Kovacs, heralded for years as the world’s biggest and strongest bodybuilder. His last place at the Arnold would seem to fly against the adage that bigger is always better.
2005: The Blade slices his way to first place
Apparently satisfied with three Arnold titles, Jay Cutler moved on to focus on finally capturing the Olympia. This left the door open in 2005 for Dexter “The Blade” Jackson to swoop in and claim the big prize in Columbus. Disheartened at being the bridesmaid for the sixth year in a row, as of 2009 Chris Cormier never again competed in the Arnold Classic. In fact, though he had won eleven shows up to that point, he has yet to win one since. “The Arnold is like my Olympia,” he told me on more than one occasion. With his heart set on having that esteemed title, the realization that it would probably never happen seemed to have taken the wind out of his sails for good.
2006: The Blade pushed by Branch
Dexter earned a second Arnold Classic title in 2006, but not without a tooth and nail battle against Texan Branch Warren, with a pair of the meatiest wheels since Tom Platz. Hot on the heels of both of them was a rapidly improving Victor Martinez.
2007: The True Victor
Jackson’s plans to win three Arnold Classic crowns in a row were thwarted by an unstoppable Victor Martinez, who was Dexter’s equal in shape and symmetry but beat him on size. Later in the year Martinez would take a highly controversial second place to Jay Cutler at the Mr. Olympia. The 2007 Arnold was also the first time that ’05 USA Champion Phil Heath competed in the event.
2008: Steppingstone to the Mr. Olympia?
Another milestone occurred at the 2008 Arnold Classic. Though Ronnie Coleman had won the Arnold in 2001 and went on to successfully defend his Olympia title later that year, never before had a man won the Arnold and then proceeded to win the Mr. O for the first time. This is exactly what Dexter Jackson did in 2008. Other highlights of the show included a vastly improved Phil Heath in second place, effectively serving notice that it would only be a matter of time until he became unbeatable, and Kai Greene taking third place at 255 pounds, up a full twenty pounds of muscle from the previous season. Another longstanding Arnold tradition was shattered when Branch Warren received the coveted Most Muscular award, which had always gone either to the winner or the runner-up. For Warren to be awarded the handsome crystal trophy only to be called out in fourth place minutes later left many in the audience scratching their heads. The other main topic of discussion was the absence of Victor Martinez, who would likely defended his title had he not suffered a severe knee injury weeks earlier.
2009 was the first of what would eventually be three wins so far for Kai Greene. His closest victory was the 2010 battle against Phil Heath, who I personally gave the edge to in that show. 2011 was the first of two back-to-back wins for Texan Branch Warren, who would tear his quadriceps completely that summer, yet somehow roared back to successfully defend his title in 2012. Dexter Jackson’s 2013 Arnold win tied Flex Wheeler’s all-time record of four ASC wins, and The Blade would go on to beat it with a fifth Arnold title in 2015. 2014 witnessed the biggest career win so far for Dennis Wolf, as well as the introduction of a 212 division at the Arnold. Flex Lewis won that premier event. And finally, the 2016 showdown came down to Kai Greene and Cedric McMillan. The judging format had been changed for all Arnold Classic pro bodybuilding events that year, with posing now being counted for a full one-third of the score. That helped Kai beat Cedric. And Arnold, in his typical blunt style, told Kai on stage just moments later that he personally preferred Cedric’s physique, but it was Kai’s masterful posing that gave him the win!
Leading up to the 2017 Arnold Classic, it was clear that Kai Greene had either retired from competition or had no intentions of competing any time soon. That left the door wide open for Cedric McMillan to finally score the big title at last. But standing in his way was the 25-year-old big old country boy, 275-pound Dallas McCarver. In the end, Cedric’s classic, aesthetically pleasing shape and graceful posing presentation triumphed. Meanwhile, the 212 division saw a tooth-and-nail battle between veteran David Henry, with full, round muscles and granite conditioning, and Kuwait’s 212 superstar, Ahmad Ashkanani. Going into the finals, it was unclear who would take it, but the judges gave Ashkanani, proudly representing his nation and Oxygen Gym, the nod. Meanwhile, Cedric won over legions of new fans with his moving and inclusive victory speech, setting the stage for his title defense in 2018.
Dexter Jackson already held the all-time record of five Arnold Classic wins, and it seemed as if he was poised to smash the record once more and make it an even half dozen. Defending 2017 champ Cedric McMillan wasn’t going to lay down and let The Blade take his title, and massive Roelly Winklaar was also hungry for his first Arnold win. But the real threat to Dexter turned out to be former 212 competitor William “The Conqueror” Bonac, who had solidified his A-list status six months before with a third place behind Phil Heath and Big Ramy. Bonac had many of the rare qualities that had help make Dexter so tough to beat over the years: round muscle bellies, astonishing muscle density and detail, and razor-sharp cuts. In a close call, Bonac scored the big win. In what would eventually be known as the fifth and final iteration of the 212 division here in Columbus, the anticipated battle for the title between 212 legends Jose Raymond and David Henry never materialized, as both were a touch off their best. That left the door wide open for Kamal El-Gargni to surprise us all. Originally from Libya, the 46-year-old had won every major international amateur title possible, some several times. In his first appearance as an IFBB Pro League Pro, few outside of the UK thought he stood any chance at victory. But his package of shape, density, condition, and masterful posing presentation put him in the winner’s spot. Finally, this was the first year Classic Physique was introduced. Just as Flex Lewis had done at the Arnold’s first 212 show in 2014, reigning Classic Physique Olympia champion Breon Ansley decided to be the first man to claim the Arnold Classic title in his division. Most of us assumed heading into the show that this would be an easy payday for Ansley, but no one expected an improved Arash Rahbar to push him to the brink. Arash was thicker and equally conditioned. In the end, Breon’s overall shape and superior muscle detail carried him.
It’s often been said that the Arnold Classic can be a foreshadow of the Mr. Olympia contest to come later in the year. Never has this been truer than in 2019, when defending champ William Bonac was edged out by a rounder, fuller, and shredded Brandon Curry, a similar scenario that would play out again in Las Vegas when Curry won the Mr. Olympia title. This contest was also where we all witnessed the full potential of the UK’s Luke Sandoe for the first time. The massive Brit had shown glimpses at several shows before, but here we saw him with the sharp conditioning that finally brought out the impressive package of size, shape, and complete development we all knew he had. Cedric and Roelly rounded out the top five. Meanwhile, the battle for the Classic Physique title at this year’s event probably changed the course of how the developing division would be judged moving forward. Two men who both train at Bev and Steve’s Powerhouse Gym in New York, Steve Laureus and George “Da Bull” Peterson, went head to head in a battle too close to call. Laureus displayed a far more aesthetically pleasing shape and structure, ideals which ostensibly carry more weight in the Classic division, while Peterson was thicker and had tighter condition. In the end, George got the win, sparking a debate that many feel led to a shift in judging standards that resulted in Chris Bumstead claiming that division’s title at the Olympia.
I had been attending this event since 1995, and this was by far the most bizarre iteration thanks...
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