The saying goes that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And, according to my crystal ball, that will be the story at this season's Mr. Olympia, set for September 14-15 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
For defending champ Phil Heath, I'm predicting another Sandow and another 400K. He'll be tied with Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman as the all-time leader with eight wins each. And, as I wrote last year, ultimately I envision 10 straight victories for Heath, then the retirement announcement at the age of 40. With a record that will never be broken, mind you.
Yeah, I know, it's a bold prediction. But how many times has the Swami been off the mark? That said, let's be clear, there are several great physiques in the Olympia lineup, and I would not be shocked if there's an upset. Surprised, yes, but not blown away.
So, let's take a closer look at major players in the show, and who, if anybody other than Heath himself (should he fall ill, suffer an injury, or come in out of shape) has the best chance of stopping the string.
The Defending Champ
If Heath, now 38, comes in sharp, unseating him will be a monumental task.
OK, there's been criticism over the years of the narrow shoulders, weak chest, bloated tummy, average calves, etc. From my viewpoint, I don't think the 5-foot-9, 240-pounder is that narrow. His chest is adequate enough. And he may have solved his distended-belly troubles with hernia surgery several months ago.
People who say the man has weak calves need to move up their annual eye exam. "The Gift" earned that moniker by having few flaws, actually, and presents a great overall package onstage, set off by those terrific guns, deeply etched wheels and hamstrings, and a back that resembles a relief map of Brazil.
Heath's full, round muscle bellies pop when he poses, especially in the front double biceps, and the quality of detailed muscle when he turns to the back separates him from his adversaries.
The Top-Six Challengers
Nipping at Heath's heels will be the second- through sixth-place finishers from last year: Mamdouh Elssbiay (or Big Ramy to most of you), William Bonac, Dexter Jackson, Shawn Rhoden, and Roelly Winklaar. Hey, let's add Nathan De Asha and Brandon Curry to this list as well. Yup, you got it: Seven dudes battling for the next five slots behind Heath. The field is that congested.
Big Ramy allegedly "slimmed down" to about 280 last year, and the six-footer benefited from the change. Enough, in fact, that more than a handful of fans felt the Sandow was his after the prejudging. He's improved each year at the Olympia, so if the law of progression holds true, Big Ramy will be the big winner in Vegas next month. And, he's my pick for the new People's Choice Award. More on that later.
Bonac, who has gone from a relative unknown to one of the best in the game in the past three years, made his Arnold Classic debut this year, and walked off with first-place prize money (130K), trophies, and medals. But, more importantly, he held off the challenge of Jackson again to defeat "The Blade" for the second time.
Bonac, who's about 5-foot-7 and 235 pounds, edged Jackson for third at last season's Olympia as well, but in both shows Jackson stood biceps to biceps with Bonac and could have swapped places with him in many people's eyes. Jackson still doing this well at this point in his career is plain stupid! I've been hearing for the last five years how he should hang up the posing trunks. Damn, the 5-foot-7, 230-pounder (Jackson says closer to 240) must be using some out-of-this-world sun-tan protector then, 'cause he's still great at 48. And, don't forget, he's the all-time IFBB record holder with 28 pro contest wins.
Rhoden has beautiful shape but an injury to his jaw last year forced him to miss 12 weeks of training. So, it's understandable that he fell to fifth last season after a strong runner-up finish in 2016. The 43-year-old Jamaican, at 5-foot-11 and 240 pounds, is the modern-day Kenneth "Flex" Wheeler when he's spot on, making him a real X factor in this lineup. Could he push Heath once again for the crown? I think so.
This brings me to the beast. Nobody—not even Big Ramy—packs as much hard-core beef as Roelly Winklaar. Originally from Holland but training in Kuwait for the past year or two, Winklaar jumped out at me at this year's Arnold Classic in Columbus, Ohio. I had had him as high as second in Ohio, and two weeks later he moved past both Bonac and Jackson in winning the Arnold Australia. At 5-foot-7 and 265 pounds, the 41-year-old Winklaar could finish anywhere from second to sixth; the latter is where he placed a year ago. If Winklaar is really tight, this could be a helluva fight!
The 30-year-old De Asha, from the United Kingdom, stands 5-foot-10 and carries 240 pounds of well-conditioned muscle on his frame. De Asha has been one of the fastest-rising stars in the past couple of years. He was 12th at the Olympia two years ago, seventh last year, and absolutely has the tools to break into the top six this time around.
And, he's got moxie, basically calling out Heath to go pose for pose against him. So, judges, can this be arranged at the Friday night judging on September 14?
Curry, eighth last season, is another one of those Flex Wheeler types…Pretty lines with great symmetry. Not a bad tag to be labeled with, eh? The 35-year-old Curry has had a great career, including a victory at the 2017 Arnold Australia.
Both De Asha and Curry are top-of-the-line physiques who could easily crack the top six.
Top 10 Contenders
Steve Kuclo, Cedric McMillan, Juan Morel, Michael Lockett, and Alexis Rivera all have a legit shot at cracking the top 10.
Kuclo is ready to break out. The 6-foot, 265-pound former firefighter should bring the heat to this year's festivities. A 33-year-old from Michigan, who now calls Dallas, Texas, home, he has the size and shape to mix it up with anybody in the lineup. He was at his all-time best at the Arnold Classic this year with a strong fifth-place landing. His upper body now matches his powerful wheels.
McMillan is perhaps the most physically gifted man in the lineup, with height (6 feet, 2 inches), size (265 pounds), and symmetry. If he could just hit his peak, finally, at the Olympia, he could move way up from his tenth-place finish of a year ago. I was ripped by McMillan fans last year when I predicted he would finish exactly where he landed. We've all been waiting a long time to see the "next Lee Haney" show up in Las Vegas. Will the wait be over this year? I'm not convinced, but I could be converted.
Morel, Lockett, and Rivera are very good bodybuilders. But good enough to land in the top 10 at this show? Not likely, but not out of the question. Then there's the feel-good story of the show: the qualification of Sergio Oliva Jr., 34, son of "The Myth," Sergio Oliva. The father won three consecutive Olympia crowns (1967-69), becoming the only competitor to ever best Arnold Schwarzenegger in the latter show. Junior is probably just glad to be here. This marks the first time in history a father and son both will have competed on the Olympia stage.
The People's Champion
A new addition to the show will take place where fans in the audience cast their votes. And those votes will matter! Fans will judge each competitor and rank them. The final decision, of course, will ultimately come down to the judges' selection. If the judges and fans disagree, the person who received the most audience votes will named be The People's Champion.
Considering the dissatisfaction of so many fans over the past few years with the unanimous selection of Heath, I'm going with Big Ramy as the winner of this title, with Winklaar a close second.
The 212 Division
Defending champion James "Flex" Lewis has won the class six years in a row. The 34-year-old Welsh bodybuilder has announced his retirement after the weekend—from the 212 category, that is. Lewis has said he will take a year off, then move up one level to match muscles, shape, and conditioning with the big boys in 2020.
At 5-foot-5 and 212 pounds (235 in the off-season), Lewis presents a great overall package of size, density, conditioning, and shape to be pretty much unbeatable. Not to mention the best calves in the game.
There will be no shortage of challengers looking to end Lewis' 212 reign on a sour note. The likes of Ahmad Ashkanini (second last year), Hadi Choopan (The Persian Wolf), rapidly improving Derek Lunsford, David Henry, Jose Raymond, and Nicolas Vullioud all possess outstanding physiques. If Choopan in particular can make it to Las Vegas (Visa issues prevented him from competing at the 2018 Arnold), this could become interesting.
The Men's Physique Division
Jeremy Buendia, coming off pec tear surgery, is also coming off four straight Olympia MP victories. I thought it would be close last year…and he won unanimously. So, I'm not going against the 27-year-old this time around.
Having said that, I won't be surprised by a Ryan Terry upset. Andre Ferguson and Brandon Hendrickson—second and third, respectively, in 2017—will also be factors. My longshot pick is Joseph Lee, who is improving with each show. He actually turned the tables on Henrickson earlier in the season after narrowly losing to him a week earlier.
The Classic Physique Division
Defending champion Breon Ansley is terrific, but last year I felt the title in this class might have gone to the amazing Canadian Chris Bumstead, who finished second. Of all the divisions in the men's competition, I feel Bumstead has the best chance of upending the reigning title holder when the final judging is completed.
That said, the 5-foot-7, 185-pound Ansley followed up his Olympia victory last year with a win at the first ever Classic Physique competition at the Arnold Classic in Columbus. So, it ain't gonna be easy for his opponents to score the upset.
That's how impressed I was last year with the 23-year-old Bumstead, who carries about 220 pounds on his 6-foot frame. George Peterson, third last year, is made up of championship breed, as are Arash Rahbar and Danny Hester. Rahbar was top five last year, but really showed impressive gains when he was second to Ansley in Columbus in March.
Hester, the 49-year-old wunderkind—yes, he's even nine months older than Dexter Jackson—is, after all, the inaugural CP victor at the 2017 Olympia.