Phil Heath isn't called "The Gift" because he walks off the Orleans Arena stage in Las Vegas every September with a $400,000 dowry for another Olympia win. He earned the moniker courtesy of his unbeatable bundle of muscle, symmetry, and conditioning.
Not only will Heath nab his seventh consecutive Sandow but—barring injury—the former high school basketball standout eventually will have slam-dunked his opposition 10 years in a row. Then, at 40, he'll hang up the posing briefs to end his remarkable career in 2020. Yup, The Swami is calling it—10 Sandows in a row, passing both Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman, both currently tied for first with eight Olympia wins apiece.
Mark my words, Heath will etch his name in the record books forever, and with the 2017 Olympia looming closer, it's clear the path of victory stretches well beyond the horizon for this amazing competitor. But I've gotten ahead of myself for a moment. Back to the here and now.
At 37, the 5-foot-9, 240-pound Heath is in his prime and should have little resistance in leaving the venue with yet another Sandow and a hefty victory check in hand.
This is not to say there won't be any competition this season. We will definitely see a battle onstage—just not for first place. The second-place medal is a toss-up between five or six of the sport's finest. Ditto for those fighting to say they made the top 10 at the best contest in the world.
Let's take a closer look at the leading players in this season's Big Dance:
The Champ: Phil Heath.
Phil Heath—enough said.
Top-Six Contenders: Shawn Rhoden, Dexter Jackson, Mamdouh Elssbiay, William Bonac, Cedric McMillan, Roelly Winklaar.
Shawn Rhodensports a beautiful physique, but does he have enough quality muscle to topple Heath? Fans feel the 5-foot-11, 240-pound man should have had at least one Sandow by now, but the judges don't seem to agree. On top of that, he suffered an off-season injury, left Gold's Venice, and stopped training under the legendary Charles Glass. Still, I have him in the top four once more.
Dexter Jackson is still a titan at nearly 48 years old. The all-time IFBB record holder, with 28 wins, somehow looks as good as he did 10 years ago. At 5 feet 6 inches tall and 225 pounds of full, round muscle bellies, "The Blade" finished third last year—though I had him in second. I believe the ageless wonder can still leave with a silver or bronze medal this year.
Mamdouh Elssbiay—aka "Big Ramy"—used to be just plain old big—we're talking 6 feet tall, 300 pounds big. He's managed to tighten up for the past couple of Olympias, improving his symmetry and moving up into fourth last season. Still the largest man in the line-up, he continues to improve, little by little. I expect he'll finish in the top five again, but won't be chasing Heath for the crown, despite the ardent support of his fans.
And then there's William Bonac. A fellow gym member refers to him as "mini Kai Greene" for the tremendous amount of muscle he displays on his 5-foot-6, 225-pound frame. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the show last year, Bonac caused a stir when he dropped into fifth, a spot many felt was too low. But if Heath, Rhoden, Jackson, and Big Ramy are spot-on, Bonac will have trouble moving up higher this season. Best-case scenario, he finishes third.
But let's not forget Cedric McMillan . I'm taking a chance here because McMillan never seems to peak in Vegas. But after winning his first Arnold Classic last March, I think he finally has the confidence that his 6-foot-2, 275-pound frame can do battle with the best in the game. I've been talking about his great potential for years now, referring to him as "the next Lee Haney"—and it's about time for McMillan to help prove this claim and show everyone I know what I'm talking about.
By far the most muscular dude, pound for pound, in the entire line-up will be Roelly Winklaar. This dude carries about 265 pounds on his 5-foot-6 frame. Winklaar tends to jump out early in a show, then start to fade, like he did last year when he was in the mix before dropping to seventh. He has the biggest guns onstage, and the rest of his physique is just as insane. Winklaar gives true meaning to the term "freak."
The X-Factors: Rounding out competition for the top 10 spots are Victor Martinez, Josh Lenartowicz, Brandon Curry, Nathan De Asha, Lionel Beyeke, and Johnnie Jackson.
At 44, Victor Martinezis still a threat for a top 10, if not top six, finish, especially after looking the way he did winning the Muscle Mayhem contest earlier in the year. Great lines, plenty of beef, although legs could always use more thickness. At his best, can go pose for pose with the top players in the game.
I am impressed by the latest version of "The Thunder from Down Under" Josh Lenartowicz. So much so that I feel he could be the surprise of the contest after placing ninth last year, one spot behind his close friend, the late Dallas McCarver. Lenartowicz took most of the year off, waiting until August to compete in—and win—the Tampa Pro. At about 5-foot-11 and 270 pounds, this big cat will rattle the top-six cage, and possibly end up inside it.
Brandon Curry looked the best he has in a long time, winning both the Arnold Australia and the New Zealand Pro. And that is awfully good. If he brings the same package we saw in Australia, the top six is not out of the question.
Nathan De Asha
I really like this Nathan De Asha'sphysique. The Brit won both the Toronto Pro and Ferrigno Legacy in 2016, and he would have come out on top at the Cal Pro as well if I'd had a vote. At 5-foot-9 and about 235 pounds, the "Lad from Liverpool" was, from where I sit, the most underrated physique star in 2016. I could see him finishing between seventh and 10th, although a top-six landing wouldn't shock me.
If the contest were based on lines alone, Lionel Beyekewould be battling for a top-six finish for sure. His curse has always been a lack of conditioning. Beyeke could cause trouble for the guys listed above if he shows up dialed in.
Another oldie but goodie is Johnnie Jackson. With two wins this season—Arnold Classic South Africa and Toronto—this 46-year-old still looks great! He has an awesome upper body, while his legs are improved, yet still lagging. Jackson's been 10th here before, and he can do it again.
The Longshot: Michael Lockett.
A potential upset may be in the cards if Michael Lockett has his way. The 34-year-old came on at the end of the season, with a second-place finish at the Arnold South America and back-to-back wins in Vancouver and Chicago. A genetic freak and still in his prime, a top-10 finish for Lockett is within his grasp if he comes in at his best.
212 And Under
The Champ: James "Flex" Lewis.
At 5-foot-5 and 212 pounds, James "Flex" Lewis is to the 212 division what Heath is to the Mr. Olympia. The reigning champ is going for his sixth consecutive victory, and I don't see anybody standing in his way. At 33 years old, he's at the top of his game.
Top-Six Contenders: Ahmad Ashkanani, David Henry, Ronny Rockel, Eduardo Correa, Jose Raymond, Hadi Choopan.
Ahmad Ashkananipowered his way to a victory at this year's Arnold 212 in Columbus, following a second-place finish behind Lewis last season in his Olympia debut. I don't think he'll topple Lewis, but he will at least make it interesting—very interesting. That is, of course, if he can get some separation in those wheels. At about 5-foot-2 and 212 pounds, Ashkanani should have what it takes to finish one slot behind the champ once again.
On paper, the 43-year-old David Henryhas a slim shot of winning, but I like his physique regardless. It's doubtful anyone will have better lines, and his "weak" legs certainly look improved to me. Henry finished one place behind Ashkanani at the Arnold 212 six months ago, so expectations are high.
Still competing at age 45, Ronny Rockel added two more wins to his impressive resume when he took the 212 at both the New York and Toronto Pro shows. Finishing ninth last year, Rockel is out to prove he's still among the elite in this division. Will he crack the top six? It's not out of the question.
I wasn't the only one who thought that Eduardo Correa'shead-to-toe striated display in 2014 could have been enough to upset Lewis, who wasn't in peak form due to illness in the final stages of his prep. It wasn't enough for the judges, though, as Lewis went on to win his fourth straight title. Still, if Correa shows up in 2017 like he did in 2014, it will give the fans something to marvel at.
Still a top contender after all these years, Jose Raymond is one of the most celebrated bodybuilders in NPC history, with nearly a dozen overall titles to his name. Like Ashkanani, he relies on a short, thick physique to overpower his opponents. Raymond lost to both Ashkanani and Henry at this season's Arnold 212, so he needs a strong Olympia showing to prove he's still among the best in the division.
The X-Factor: Hadi Choopan.
Known as "The Persian Wolf,"Hadi Choopan is impressive. As the reigning Olympia Amateur World Overall champion, I don't see him winning, but there could be bit of howling before all is said and done.
The Longshot: Derek Lunsford.
This year's NPC USA Overall champion, Derek Lunsford, jumped into the Tampa Pro 212 and left the arena with another first victory, giving him two wins in one week. A former wrestler at Indiana State University, Lunsford could topple some of the above-mentioned names when the results are read.
The Champ: Danny Hester.
Danny Hester has been competing at a championship level for decades. Hell, I first introduced him from the podium at—are you ready?—the 1993 NPC USA Championships, where he finished second among the middleweights.
He was 24 then, so that puts him a mere 17 months shy of 50. This guy's put a stop sign on the aging highway, for sure.
I have always said Hester's near flawless physique is among the best in the sport, but at 5-foot-6 and 170 pounds, he was overpowered by the much-larger opponents in the 212 category. Then came Classic Physique and—boom!—Hester had his perfect division.
He proved to be an ideal fit for this division by winning the inaugural Classic Physique Olympia in 2016. But with all that said, I'm wavering on whether to pick "Hester the Jester" to repeat his victory—more on that below. I'd put him at even money.
Top-Six Contenders: Arash Rahbar, Sadik Hadzovic, Breon Ansley, Darrem Charles, Robert Timms, Stan McQuay.
Arash Rahbar, 37, only started training at age 33, but has the tools to take the title from Hester—if he tightens up this time around. And if Hester also shows up improved in the conditioning department, this could be quite a fun division to watch.
Sadik Hadzovic was one of the best Men's Physique competitors in the world, but decided to switch divisions when CP was created. Hadzovic placed third last year and could just as easily end up winning it all in Vegas.
Breon Ansleywas last year's fourth-place finisher, but many unofficial judges had him no worse than second. Yes, Ansley—who trains out of Gold's Gym in North Hollywood—is that good. But it won't be easy passing up the guys who finished ahead of him in 2016.
Darrem Charlesis a terrific competitor, and another cat who looks nearly as good now as he did in the early 1990s. He's always in great shape. Expect him to battle for a top-six position again.
Robert Timmsis very, very good and could squeeze into the top six, depending on how he shows up on contest day—and how his foes show up, of course.
I know, I know— Stan McQuayonly took tenth last year. How could I have him in top-six contention? Because of the "eye test," knuckleheads! Look at Stan "The Man's" physique, for crying out loud. He finished down the road last year because of a huge tanning error—too much to explain, just trust me—and I say McQuay will make his way back into the thick of things this time around.
The Longshot: Ken "Flex" Wheeler.
Ken "Flex" Wheeler is a living legend and everyone has been asking me where he will finish in his comeback as a "special invite" after retiring from bodybuilding some 15 years ago. Did the man have a breathtaking physique? Of course. Does he have a better shot at doing well than Kevin Levrone did last year? Yes.
Classic Physique, with its weight restrictions, is a better fit for Wheeler than bodybuilding was for Levrone. But there is one reason I believe the original "Sultan of Symmetry" will not crack the top six. 52. As in years of age. Who has ever been as good in their 50s as they were in their 20s and 30s? Jackson is an anomaly—plus he's not quite 50 yet.
I will say the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Wheeler will make a pretty good showing at the Olympia, especially for someone his age. But he will not finish in in the money, much less win it as some fans have predicted. By the way, has anybody seen Wheeler's lower body? As the "Big Nasty" himself has said, the wheels fall off after age 50—and who am I to argue with Ronnie Coleman?
The Champ: Jeremy Buendia.
Already a seasoned vet at 26 years old, Jeremy Buendia aims for his fourth consecutive victory. Yes, he barely hung on a year ago, but that scare may have pushed him to an even higher level of training.
Fending off the strong challenge of Ryan Terry, Buendia defended his title by a narrow one-point margin. And third place finisher Jeremy Potvin could beat either one after his terrific performance in 2016.
Will the Buendia reign continue? Maybe. I can see him winning again. I can also see the streak ending. This will be a real Las Vegas crapshoot.
Top-Six Contenders: Ryan Terry, Jeremy Potvin, Andre Ferguson, Jason Poston, Brandon Hendrickson, Sergi Constance
Ryan Terryhas a great shot at ending Buendia's domination in Vegas. He looked great winning the Arnold Men's Physique in Columbus, and murmurs rippled through the auditorium that this chap from England could very well jump past Buendia at the Olympia. Easier said than done, but a victory would not necessarily be an upset.
Most people don't realize that Jeremy Potvin was a third dog in the fight between Buendia and Terry last season. With only a two-point spread among all three, Potvin is one competitor to keep your eye on. This Army vet is about the same age and size as Buendia at 5-foot-6, 170 pounds, yet Potvin's waist-to-shoulder ratio may be the best in the lineup.
Andre Ferguson's outstanding physique won the Toronto Pro and New York Pro last year. After finishing one slot behind Hendrickson at both the 2016 Olympia and last season's Arnold Classic, Ferguson is always a high-placing threat, even in stacked lineups like this one.
Once a title favorite, Jason Postonhas been dropping a bit in the placings in the last couple of years. However, I think the guy has a championship-winning physique—perhaps top six in an absurdly strong show like this one. He did finish seventh last year, so it's not much of a leap to include Poston in the top-six conversation.
Brandon Hendricksonhas a very pleasing physique, which is why he's a former NPC Nationals champion and a fourth-place finisher at the 2016 Olympia. He also picked up first-place prize money at the Arnold Classic a few months earlier, so it will be tough to keep him out of the top six.
X-Factor: Sergi Constance.
Some of you may think I'm including 6-foot-1, 200-pound Sergi Constance in the elite group above just because he dominated my NPC West Coast Classic in 2015. But in all seriousness, I think Constance has a great look and can hold his own against anybody in the division. A victory, I admit, would be the upset of the weekend, but based on physique versus physique, this guy can hang with the rest of them.
Whew, that's it. This prediction stuff isn't easy…especially when it involves the greatest physiques in the world and spans several divisions. We'll soon find out if my crystal ball needs a little dusting, but for now I stand by my predictions, and look forward to another impressive show under the Vegas lights.
Disagree with the Swami? Tell us who you think will win in the comments below!