The battle for the 2013 Arnold Classic has officially begun. Dexter Jackson is gunning for his fourth Arnold Classic title to tie Flex Wheeler's legendary record, but Ben Pakulski, Toney Freeman, and nine other champion bodybuilders stand in his way. Twelve titans took the prejudging stage this afternoon, and it looks like tonight will bring a close fight for the title.
Dexter "The Blade" Jackson is the favorite this year, though many experts and fans worried that his sharpest days have already passed. Based on Jackson's last few contests and his prejudging physique, The Blade has reinvented his body and brought back the conditioning that made him famous. Battling for second and third place are Toney Freeman and Ben Pakulski.
The pump-up room before prejudging was pretty quiet. You might expect the athletes to pace back and forth like fight-ready tigers, but they were too tired to do much prowling. The calorie-deprived competitors moved slowly as they waited for expeditors to shout directions. A few guys stretched and hit some light lifts to get a pump.
When the countdown reached the 15-minute mark before the contestants filed on stage, the atmosphere changed and things came alive. Warm-up suits were removed; last-minute tan and oil touch-ups were applied. Photographers started jostling for position, trying to capture that perfect shot before anyone else.
All eyes were on Dexter when he started to pump, pose, and flex. He was covered up most of the time and it looked like he was eating a hamburger a few minutes before pumping up. Once uncovered and under the right lights, he looked like the Dexter of old. The Blade is still sharp.
It wasn't much of a surprise to see Dexter and Toney in the first callout this afternoon. I expected to see Cedric McMillan in that lineup, but Ben Pakulksi was there showing off some extra muscle in his back and stellar conditioning. Even so, Dexter's physique was so sharp that he'll probably grab first place tonight, making the real battle for all the other placings.
Hidetada Yamagishi, Fred Smalls, Johnnie Jackson, and Cedric McMillan landed in the second callout. Hidetada and Fred looked equally matched, though Cedric's physique looked weaker than usual. His color looked washed out compared to the other competitors.
The third callout included Darrem Charles, Ed Nunn, and Fouad Abiad. Fouad looked best, though Darrem held his own. Ed Nunn's flat chest took away from the rest of his physique.
The fourth callout included Michael Kefalianos, Marcus Haley, and Ronny Rockel.
The fifth callout featured Toney Freeman, Hidetada, Fred Smalls, Ben Pakulski, and Cedric McMillan. Cedric really started to fade in this callout. Pakulski looked a little stronger and Toney held steady.
Ben and Toney were removed from the sixth callout. Jonnie Jackson was brought in again. Although most competitors hope to land in the first callout, the last callout is usually more indicative of the final outcome. The funny thing here is that Dexter wasn't included. I think it's safe to say the judges had already made their decision. They didn't need a second look to confirm the Blade was in a class by himself.
Abiad's army of fans has been eagerly awaiting his return to the stage. He took nearly a full year to add size before storming the stage again. He dubbed it his "2013 Rebuild," and the plan was to put on some serious mass.
Last year at the Flex Pro, Fouad's conditioning was very good, but he was a bit flat. A couple weeks later at the 2012 Arnold Classic he was fuller but smoother. He looked big and dense this afternoon, coupled with good conditioning. His color was also very good.
Darrem has kept a low profile lately, especially compared to the normal four or five shows per year he's competed in for the last 10 years. He competed twice in 2010 and placed 10th at the Tampa Pro. In 2011, he only competed in the Masters World, where he placed sixth. His only show in 2012 was the Masters Olympia. Even though he brought back some of his amazing conditioning for that show, he only managed to grab seventh. Today in Columbus, Darrem held his own and displayed great conditioning.
The "X-Man," now 46, is still placing ahead of guys a decade younger than him. He stated if there ever was a year that this is the year for him to win the big one. Without Branch Warren, Dennis Wolf, Evan Centopani, or Kai Greene, there seems to be a good chance for Toney to take home the title. Of course, Dexter Jackson will give the X-man some serious competition.
The X-Man looked great. He was sharp and retained his fullness, which is the struggle that Toney has had for most of his career. He might land in the top three, but he probably won't be able to overcome Dexter.
I saw a glimpse of Haley earlier this year at the L.A. FitExpo at the end of January. Seeing only his arms, I thought Marcus was in great shape already. His arms were covered by paper-thin skin, as evidenced by the massive veins that popped out of his biceps and forearms.
This afternoon Marcus showed some excellent conditioning and was sporting some newfound striations. His legs have made a remarkable recovery from the injury he sustained a few years back. His waist is a little large and needs to be more streamlined.
Dexter Jackson, Mr. Olympia 2008, has 16 IFBB pro wins. Three of them are Arnold Classic victories. He's battling to tie Flex Wheeler's record of four Arnold titles. Based on his conditioning today, he is on track to add one more bronze Arnold statue to his collection. His oil was a little rich and shiny, but his physique was on point.
Even though Branch Warren was not competing, MetroFlex Gym was still represented at the Arnold Classic by Johnnie Jackson. I was really impressed with his showing at the Olympia. His back was tremendous in September and it was again today. I hate to harp on Johnnie's legs, but they really need some more size. The crowd loved Johnnie.
He doesn't have the size of many of his fellow competitors, and his structure didn't come from the Flex Wheeler mold, but when it comes to conditioning, Michael Kefalianos is always at his best. He didn't look any larger than I've seen him the past, but he looked as diced as ever.
I've seen Cedric several times at various expos, but today was the first time I've seen him on stage. Based on the pre-game lineup and photos from other competitions, I figured McMillan would give Dexter some trouble. I still think so.
He has a beautiful physique with round, full muscle bellies. His conditioning was good and he moved very fluently. It reminded me of how Lee Haney used to pose. The more he posed, the more I liked Cedric's physique. Unfortunately he faded during the comparisons.
Ben Pakulski's ability to fire up a crowd reminds me of Hulk Hogan or the Rock. He's fun to watch and has a ton of energy on stage. Known for his tremendous legs, Pakulski didn't disappoint anyone today. The crowd went nuts during his back poses. He carried a very impressive level of conditioning.
Nunn has a shape similar to Toney Freeman. He is tall with an accentuated X-frame and tiny waist. He actually followed Freeman in the lineup. I was hoping Nunn would have added some size and thickness to his chest and back, but he still needs a little more muscle in those areas.
A few years ago I thought Rockel should have placed ahead of Dexter Jackson at this competition. His conditioning was extraordinary, but since then Rockel has struggled with coming in really shredded and dry. Today was no different. He still has the size, but he was smooth compared to what I've seen from him in the past.
Smalls is big and has good structure, but he has struggled with conditioning in every show I've seen him. He looked great today, and he appears to have beaten his battle with conditioning. It will be interesting to see where he places tonight.
Yamagishi has a broken wrist and is still on stage! A couple years ago, Hidetada injured a quad muscle a few days before a show and could barely walk, but he still competed. It will take more than torn muscles and broken bones to keep this Samurai off the competition stage!