Back In Time To New York City: The 1996 Night Of Champions!

In retrospect - The 1996 Night of Champions had a reputation for being the most entertaining on the earth, mainly due to the audience participation. Here's my review of what could have been the pinnacle of bodybuilding.

Article Summary:
  • Flex Wheeler took first place at the 1996 Night Of Champions.
  • This was Don Long's first pro show; He took third place.
  • Ronnie Coleman & Flex Wheeler battled it out for first and second.
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    The Night Of Champions, 1996
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    Wheeler and Coleman battle it out once again for the big bucks! The big White Hope, Gary Strydom, finally returns to the IFBB stage. Ian Harrison drops out during the pre-judging.

    When I was asked to write an article on a historic bodybuilding show, that stood out in my mind, I immediately thought of my first visit to New York City for the Night of Champions, back in the day, May 1996.

    I was to meet a friend of mine at a hotel not far from the venue, the Beacon Theater, where we were to stay for the duration. Ignorant to how safe NYC had become, even though I had a cousin who was a Cop in Manhattan, I had mixed feelings on my trip from the airport to the city, for fear of my life. What a Wanker!

    I remember it being a scorching hot and humid May and will never forget the sunburn I obtained while queuing to climb the Statue of Liberty. I must have been the only photographer at the show that resembled a big fat lobster.

    The show had a reputation of being the most entertaining on the earth, mainly due to the audience participation. New Yorkers are renowned for voicing out loud. This show was no exception with comments flying in from every area of the auditorium!

    One thing that was guaranteed, it was a long show, as all the IFBB Pro bodybuilders where invited to compete. Unfortunately this opened the doors for some of the worst bodybuilders on the planet (No, neither Kris Gethin or myself competed).

    IFBB Pro Bodybuilders
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    All Of The IFBB Pro Bodybuilders Were Invited To Compete.

    But on the other side of the coin, there where also some of the world's best in attendance. In fact two of the best ever bodybuilders battled it out for a close first and second spots. Please enjoy my original report and photos and I hope they give you an insight of probably, the best ever NOC competition.

    May 18th at the Beacon Theater, Manhattan, New York, was the time and the place for the eighteenth annual Night of Champions pro show. For the first time, the Ms. Fitness World Professional Championships was run in conjunction with the NOC.

    The competition was a total sellout with latecomers paying $60 to view the show standing up at the sides or at the rear of the Theater. It promised to be an exciting show with talk of Gary Strydom, Mike Quinn, Rich Gaspari, Eddie Robinson, Mike Matarazzo, Edward Kawak and newcomers J.D Dawodu, Ian Wadley, Don Long and Phil Hernon entering.

    It Promised To Be An Exciting Show.
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    It Promised To Be An Exciting Show.

    Amongst the audience were a number of stars including Paul Dillett, Shawn Ray, Nasser El Sonbaty, Robby Robinson, Charles Glass and Bev Francis.

    A total of 31 competitors turned up, most desperately trying to qualify for the Mr. Olympia in 5 months time. In the past the Night of Champions had been rumored to be an easy qualifier. Not this year!

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    The Top 15 Finalists
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    dot Edward Kawak dot

      Back competing in the IFBB and probably in his best shape for many years. As big and freaky as ever with rock hard condition to match. Unfortunately his only downfall was the blocky waist. A great return!

    Edward Kawak
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    Edward Kawak At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Ronnie Coleman dot

      On a winning streak at the moment. Beating Flex Wheeler at the Montreal Pro Invitational Show, then taking second to Flex at the South Beach Pro show one week later. Ronnie has finally brought everything together: symmetry, condition and an extra 15 pounds of body mass. He was in tip-top condition, this fact was prominent especially in his glutes.

    Don Long, Flex Wheeler & Ronnie Coleman
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    Don Long, Flex Wheeler & Ronnie Coleman
    At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot J.D. Dawodu dot

      All the way from London, England. As all of J.D's fans know, he qualified for his pro card back in 1992 by winning the overall British Championships, and finally made his long awaited debut. Making a vast improvement in his legs since 1992; he added more mass to his quads and calves.

      In my eyes his physique was more than worthy of a top three placing. More exposure and I'm sure he will place higher, because it sure isn't his physique that's at fault.

    J.D. Dawodu
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    J.D. Dawodu At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Mike Matarazzo dot

      From Somerville, Massachusetts, was in rock-hard condition, his best for a long time. What a great pair of arms and abs! Mike was clearly in the top six.

    Mike Matarazzo
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    Mike Matarazzo At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Don (King Kong) Long dot

      The 1995 NPC champion, also making this his pro debut. Don was on the money, looking big, vascular, symmetrical and ripped. This guy is an absolute monster and the audience loved him.

    Don Long
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    Don Long At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Gary (The Great White Hope) Strydom dot

      Finally he's back! Or is he? ( Gary, incidentally, won this show back in 1987) I read recently that Gary had signed a contract to compete at this show and apparently promised to be in the best shape of his life at 280 pounds. So, as you can imagine, I was excited. Did Gary make his comeback after five years and kick @ss in New York City? No! It was not to be.

      Gary looked good in his front poses but when he turned around his back was narrow and soft with no separation. His timing was off. Had he come back looking like he did when he dominated the WPF, maybe he would have made the top three.

    Gary Strydom
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    Gary Strydom At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Pavol Jablonicky dot

      From the Czech Republic; was in the best shape of the whole competition. Ripped from head (his face looked like a skull) to toe! His symmetry was bang on but he was not carrying the freaky mass of some other competitors.

    Pavol Jablonicky, J.D. Dawodu & Eddie Robinson
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    Pavol Jablonicky, J.D. Dawodu & Eddie Robinson
    At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Achim Albrecht dot

      Originally from Germany, now residing in California, was rock hard at a bodyweight of 280 pounds but lacked symmetry with a blocky waist and small arms. He did not get one callout in the comparison round.

    Achim Albrecht
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    Achim Albrecht At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Eddie Robinson dot

      Bodybuilder's answer to Mel Gibson, was not on form. His chest, delts, abs and arms appeared to be hard but like many of the competitors, Eddie was to soft in the lower back and quads.

    Eddie Robinson
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    Eddie Robinson At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Flex Wheeler dot

      Who has been battling it out recently with Big Ronnie Coleman. I do not know how Flex has maintained his condition for so long, competing in shape since the Iron Man in February. Will all this competing take its toll on the Olympia stage? Flex was in awesome form, but had less detail in his glutes and hamstrings than Ronnie, but then again he has superior shape.

    Flex Wheeler
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    Flex Wheeler At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Milos Sarcev dot

      Mr. Consistency always manages to come in great shape, never swaying from his condition (he has competed in 45 Pro shows in the last five years). Milos shows no weakness and has managed to appear bigger. He deserved to place in the top five.

    Milos Sarcev
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    Milos Sarcev At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Gunter Schlierkamp dot

      All the way from Germany. This man is a monster at an onstage weight of 300 pounds and he's only twenty-six years of age. He was in far better condition than when I saw him at the Arnold back in March. He will go far in this sport if he continues to improve his condition and symmetry.

    Gunter Schlierkamp
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    Gunter Schlierkamp At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Dave Fisher dot

      Former Mr. North America Champion, originally from Canada. He was probably in the best shape of his life, showing off ripped glutes and a Christmas tree, but he definitely needs more overall mass to make the top placings.

    Dave Fisher, Edward Kawak & Gunter Schlierkamp
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    Dave Fisher, Edward Kawak & Gunter Schlierkamp
    At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

    dot Derick Witsett dot

      American National Light-Heavyweight Champion. This was the first time I'd seen Derek and let me tell you, I was very impressed. His symmetry was near perfect, displaying a very pleasing shape and he was in phenomenal condition. Very impressive.

    dot Phil Hernon dot

      Also making his pro debut after winning the NPC Nationals. Phil was big and hard but did not show any separation. When he hits his peak, watch out boys. He was very popular with the New York crowd.

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    Posedown Time
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    The top five where announced and called back on to the stage to a wave of cheers, boos and whistles.

    Wheeler, Long, Sarcev, Coleman and Matarazzo. There was a little show boating and a lot of shoving going on between Coleman and Matarazzo, but it was all in good fun. It was a real thrill to watch these guys battle it out and seemingly enjoying themselves along the way.

    Don Long, Flex Wheeler & Ronnie Coleman
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    Don Long, Flex Wheeler & Ronnie Coleman
    At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

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    The Final Placings Were Announced
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    • 5th place and taking home $2000 and an invite to Olympia was Mike Matarazzo, He seemed very pleased with his result and came forward to the front of the stage to thank the judges.
    • 4th place was awarded to Milos Sarcev, taking home $4000 and his invite to the Olympia. He too seemed pleased with his placing.
    • 3rd place receiving $5000 and an invite to The "O" was Don Long. What a great result for his first pro show.
    • 2nd place was awarded to Ronnie Coleman. It could have gone either way, it was that close between Ronnie and Flex. Ronnie earned himself $7000 and his invite. It will be interesting to see how Ronnie holds up against Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates.
    • 1st place and winning the grand prize of $10,000 and a ring worth $5,000, was Flex Wheeler. When 2nd place was announced, Flex jumped all over the stage, throwing his fist in the air. I've never seen Flex so excited (except when I offered to do a photo shoot with him, LOL!). More power to you, Flex.

    Flex Wheeler & Ronnie Coleman
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    Flex Wheeler & Ronnie Coleman
    At The 1996 Night Of Champions.

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    Reflection
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    On reflection 12 years later, I still think this period in time could have been the pinnacle of bodybuilding, before the blocky waist look arrived on the scene and ruined the pleasing look that inspired many new people to get involved in the sport. Unlike today's bodybuilders!

    On a darker note, one of the competitors from the 1996 NOC has died at the age of 47, Edward Kawak. Two have had kidney transplants (Don Long and Flex Wheeler) and one has luckily survived another health complication, Mike Matarazzo.

    Photos and report by Gary Phillips.