This has to be one of my favorite times of the year! The bodybuilding world converges on the icy streets of Columbus, Ohio, March 1-4, to witness the second-longest running IFBB contest in history:The Arnold Classic at the Arnold Sports Festival.
This contest is steeped in history with winners including IFBB Hall of Fame members (in order of their victories) : Rich Gaspari, Shawn Ray, Vince Taylor, Flex Wheeler and Kevin Levrone. Three former Mr. Olympias have also taken the coveted Arnold title, Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler and Dexter Jackson (who won this contest three times and guns for his fourth in 2012).
A victory at the Arnold is second only to the Mr. Olympia; the Top-3 finishers qualify for the Olympia, and the winner automatically becomes listed with the IFBB greats.
- Lee Haney, 8 time Mr. Olympia, never competed in the Arnold.
- Dorian Yates , 6 time Mr. Olympia, never competed in the Arnold.
- Reigning Mr. Olympia, Phil Heath, competed in the Arnold Classic three times (5th in 2007, 2nd to Dexter Jackson in 2008 (the year he won the Olympia) and 2nd again in 2010 to Kai Greene).
This year's hotly-contested title doesn't have a stand-out front runner. Kai is out, and Phil Heath is taking some down time. The defending champion, Branch Warren, is back after an injury that would've ended the career of a lesser man. The one-time heir apparent to the Olympia title, Dennis Wolf, is hungry for a major victory. Evan Centopani finished 4th here last year, and took the whole year off to prepare for this contest. We cannot leave out 3-time winner and former Mr. Olympia, Dexter Jackson, fresh off of his Pro Masters World Cup victory. After his break-out performance at last year's Olympia, Brandon Curry is one to watch; he's easily the dark horse in this race.
The competitor list for this contest is strong, with up to five athletes in the running:
Abiad competed at the Flex Pro and finished a lackluster 3rd. When Fouad first came on stage he looked like he was the guy to beat, but as the contest progressed his conditioning regressed.
If he can dial his conditioning in, he will definitely put himself in the running. He has the mass and symmetry to hang with the best of them.
We haven't seen Badell on the Arnold stage since 2009 where he finished a disappointing 11th, especially when you consider the fact that Badell is a two time Olympia top three finisher.
After two years out of competition, I expect to see 'The Freakin Rican' at his best.
Lionel got his 2012 season off to a flying start by winning the Flex Pro.
Although some bodybuilding pundits likened Beyeke to a 'mini' Kai Greene I feel that his conditioning needs to be brought up to par to be truly competitive in Columbus. His tiny joints and full muscle bellies give him a look that few bodybuilders can achieve.
If he can dial in his diet and get that dry crisp look that one expects from an IFBB pro he will most certainly live up to the hype.
Last year's winner of the Arnold Amateur, Botthof will finally get a chance to stand alongside the best of the best.
His conditioning, if repeated, will definitely impress the IFBB elite, but how will his mass, which seemed impressive when competing with amateurs, compare with the likes of Fouad Abiad and Evan Centopani?
When I saw Evan take the title at the first ever Flex Pro, I was impressed. He reminded me somewhat of Dorian Yates, huge with grainy conditioning.
He finished 4th here last year and has not been seen on an IFBB stage since. This is my pick for pre-contest favorite.
Correa displayed some crazy conditioning in Santa Monica last week at the Flex Pro, but lacked the mass to place higher than 5th against the mass monsters that are Ben Pakulski and Fouad Abiad.
But with a different judging panel his conditioning may be rewarded, as I feel his lack of mass (in comparison to the 240-plus athletes) is not that significant.
Without a doubt the most impressive athlete on the Olympia stage (Phil Heath aside.) I am looking forward to what Curry can do here at his first Arnold.
He will definitely be in the running for a spot in the posedown.
The Blade won this contest three times in the past, and also took a Sandow home from Vegas in 2008.
He recently took home the $100,000 1st- place prize money at the Masters Pro World Cup last year where his razor sharp conditioning appeared to be back. But can this old cutlass still hang with the younger guys like Evan and Branch?
The thunder from down under is without a doubt the most consistent bodybuilder on the circuit.
His aesthetics are not the easiest on the eye, but the sheer volume of shredded mass he has on his frame demands respect.
Ben placed 2nd last week at the Flex Pro, and is still without an invite to the Olympia (under the new IFBB guidelines). The Packman will need to dial-in his conditioning another notch in order to be in contention for an Olympia qualification spot.
He will definitely have the mass to hang with anyone, but when standing alongside the likes of bodybuilding's most muscular man, Branch Warren, everyone will need to bring their A game.
Shawn finished a disputed 4th place last week at the Flex Pro, but many thought he could have switched with 5th-place finisher Eduardo Correa. His shape and symmetry are great, and his conditioning was only OK last week.
If he dropped 5 more pounds he could have done even more damage. His hernia is very distracting and takes a lot from his physique.
The reigning Arnold champion last took to the stage at the British Grand Prix where he took top honors. He later suffered a severe injury to his quad while prepping for the 2011 Mr. Olympia which has kept him out of action since.
Going by the pictures floating around the Internet, Branch is looking every bit the world's most muscular bodybuilder that he always has and I am sure he will be hard to beat.
In his first contest of the 2012 season, "The Show Stopper" will surely be gunning for redemption after a poor showing through most of last year's competition season.
He nabbed a late qualification for the Olympia at the Europa Show of Champions, but failed to make the top 15. White has a mountain of dense muscle that is shockingly impressive when he is in shape. He has proven that he has the ability to bring a shredded grainy look to the stage, but it has been missing in recent outings.
If he is to gain redemption in Columbus he will need to dial-in his conditioning.
This guy has to have the most impressive shoulder-to-waist ratio I have ever seen, including Brian Buchannan.
When I first saw Wolf live at the 2007 Olympia, he was so impressive he could have won the contest and nobody would bat an eyelid. I, along with every other bodybuilding fan on the planet, thought Wolf was going to be Mr. Olympia.
He soon found himself out of the top 15 at the Olympia only to bounce back with a vengeance. He took 4th at the Flex Pro in 2011 only to come back at the Arnold to take a well deserved 2nd and followed that by taking the spoils down under at the Australian Pro.
Wolf will without question be hungry for the title.
Who Will Win?
2012 ARNOLD CLASSIC PREDICTION
At the end of the day there will be five men standing, but only one will become the 15th man to win the coveted Arnold trophy. Will past winners Dexter Jackson or Branch Warren triumph again or will a new champion be crowned in the shape of Evan Centopani or Dennis Wolf? Only time will tell, I for one can't wait and I will be sitting front row center watching all the action.
How could I get my customary prediction? Of course I will play it safe as usual, if everybody is in shape, this is how I see the top-5 playing out. (See right table.)
Of course, any of these guys can win this contest; even if they are all in the best shape of their lives it will be a case of apples and oranges. Branch's mass, Curry's class, the grainy Centopani, the shredded Jackson or the sheer freaky X-frame of Wolf. This contest is too close to call but we will do it anyway. Let's see how close I am after finals next week!