It's hard to believe that it has already been 25 years since I read about Rich Gaspari winning the first ever Arnold Classic in 1989. Here we are in 2013, without our flying cars or Hoverboards, but at least we still look forward each year to what has grown into one of the greatest sports celebrations on the planet.
The Arnold Sports Festival, as it is called now, features everything from table tennis, to 50-and-over ballroom dancing, to a bench-and-run version of the biathlon, to one of the world's premiere strongman competitions.
If all of those other events are news to you, you can be forgiven. After all, like the career of Arnold himself, the hype around the Arnold Sports Festival began with bodybuilding. It may be second to the Olympia in the eyes of some top-level competitors who skip one for the other, but it is second only to the Olympia—and not by much. Kai didn't beat Phil at the 2010 Arnold by accident; it was because he was the best in the world on that day. It's hard to imagine that Jay Cutler would have ever pulled it all together and made the leap to Mr. Olympia and world number one without his success at the Arnold.
Through this annual extravaganza, Arnold has once again brought bodybuilding to a whole new level. Year after year, the best of the best have shown up to battle for their place in history. Let's take a moment to look back at those who triumphed in the Arnold's first quarter-century.
"The Dragon Slayer" was the Arnold's first winner, capping off an incredible decade of international success. Aside from being a three-time runner-up at the Olympia, he destroyed the competition at IFBB Grand Prix events worldwide and was one of the industry's most popular stars. His triumph at the inaugural Arnold was the last victory in Gaspari's legendary career, establishing the caliber of athleticism that would define the event.
Ashley actually finished second to Shawn Ray in 1990. However, due to a doping scandal Ray was stripped of the title and $50,000 in prize money, and it was all handed to Ashley. Back in the days before the Internet, the news broke in the magazines—just in time to coincide with the Arnold Classic reviews!
Never one to take a backseat to any competitor, Ray returned from scandal to take third place in the following Mr. Olympia, where he passed the drug test. He followed that stellar performance up with a win in Columbus, a fitting capstone to an incredible career in which he only placed outside of the top five once in 30 events.
"The Terminator" continued the trend of bodybuilding greats to triumph at the Arnold. His 1992 victory was an early highlight in an 18-year IFBB career that saw him win an unbelievable 22 IFBB titles.
Considered by many the greatest bodybuilder never to win the Olympia, Ken "Flex" Wheeler nevertheless gave his fans some satisfaction by taking home the Arnold title more than any other bodybuilder. Amazingly, three of these came after a horrific car crash in 1994 that left him paralyzed. His small joints and full muscle bellies put him in the front seat in many a pro contest, and his agility and flexibility were second to none. At the 2005 Arnold, he showed these qualities were still intact when he won a martial arts bout at age 39.
The Maryland Muscle Machine took home two Arnold titles, along with 20 other IFBB wins, during his quest to become the greatest bodybuilder on the planet. If not for Flex Wheeler, we'd probably be calling Levrone the greatest never to win the Olympia. Now he runs the Levrone Report, a solid blog packed with his personal workouts.
Mike Francois had the sort of mid- and lower-back development that could make you stop and say, "I didn't know that was possible!" Health problems caused him to stop competing while he was still in his prime, but on one night in 1995, he brushed aside Flex Wheeler to stand out as the clear champ.
El Sonbaty's Arnold triumph was the pinnacle of a long career that featured many international triumphs. Today, he is synonymous with size. Few who saw him at his peak could help but respond with a single word: Wow.
Coleman was the first reigning Mr. Olympia to contest the Arnold Classic title, and he wasn't just messing around. His victory on the Arnold stage was a crucial moment in the event's history; it cemented its status alongside the Olympia as a title that every top bodybuilder should aim for.
After several runner-up finishes to Ronnie Coleman at the Olympia, the world's number two bodybuilder concentrated on winning the Arnold Classic and using it as a springboard for success. Jay did just that, showing up in legendary shape for his three consecutive Arnold victories. He went on to become a four-time Mr. Olympia Champion.
Who says the Olympia and the Arnold can't be done in the same year? "The Blade" was the second man to hold both the Arnold and Olympia titles simultaneously, but even more impressive was that he dethroned three-time champ Jay Cutler to do it. The way Dexter is looking these days, don't be surprised if he ties Flex Wheeler with a fourth title this year.
After his final Olympia victory in 2005, Ronnie Coleman predicted that Martinez would be his successor. That never materialized, but two years later Martinez succeeded in delaying Dexter Jackson from achieving his Arnold Classic hat trick. Injuries and personal tragedy have kept Martinez from becoming a household name, but on his best night, the Dominican Republic's finest could stand alongside anyone.
The 2009 Arnold Classic was Greene's triumphant entrance to the global elite of bodybuilding. "The Predator" beat out both former champ Victor Martinez and future champ Branch Warren, who walked away with the "Most Muscular" trophy. The following year he defended his title against an ascendant Phil Heath. Heath then focused his attention squarely on the Olympia, but it's worth noting that he's the only Mr. Olympia among the last five not to have an Arnold Classic title to his name.
The Texan Titan has won more "Most Muscular" trophies at the Arnold than anyone in history. He had four before he won his first Arnold title in 2011, beating back the likes of Victor Martinez, Dennis Wolf, and Dexter Jackson. Despite tearing his quadriceps tendon just before the Olympia in 2011, Warren worked his way back into condition in time to defend his Arnold title in 2012. Unfortunately, he won't compete in 2013.
The Arnold's past champs are in interesting mixture of undeniable legends of the sport, and guys who burned quick and bright before fading away. Which of these types will the next champ be? Only one former champ is in the running this year, but what a champ he is! Dexter Jackson will appear for an unprecedented 13th time at the Arnold. Is this 43-year-old force of nature up to the task of dashing the hopes of 11 other hopefuls? Let's meet the competition.
In two prior outings at the Arnold, Abiad has failed to crack the top 10. However, his physique is one of the thickest and most symmetrical in the IFBB. If he nails his conditioning, he could find himself standing among the top six.
With 10 pro victories under his belt, Charles will be one of the most successful athletes on the stage. It has been five years since his last dance in the winner's circle, so this future bodybuilding hall of famer has to prove he's not past his prime.
"The X-Man" is almost as much of a fixture at the Arnold as Dexter Jackson. Now 46, Freeman has proven that he can still hang with the young guns. If he nails his conditioning he could be battling for a place on the podium come the posedown. Based on the pre-contest pictures floating around Facebook, Freeman has dialed it in for this year's Arnold. He knows this is the best chance he has ever had at winning—and exacting revenge on Jackson after losing to him at the Masters Olympia.
"The Comet" has battled year in and year out, improving after every contest. Now 40, he could find himself in the mix to make the posedown if he plays his cards right.
As a three-time Arnold Classic Champion, former Mr. Olympia, and the reigning Masters Mr. Olympia, Jackson is without a doubt the man to beat. He has regained the conditioning that earned him the nickname "The Blade," and he has been justly rewarded with his placing in his last two outings on the IFBB circuit. This year he is on a mission to tie Flex Wheeler's record and further cement his status as one of the greatest of all time.
The Greek from Australia has earned a reputation as one of the most consistent athletes in the IFBB. Kefalianos has competed in an amazing 25 pro competitions since 2009, and yet his conditioning is always second to none. He carries more mass than one could imagine would fit on such a small frame. His comparative lack of symmetry is the only thing holding him back. I don't see him making the finals but he will definitely cause some serious problems for all onstage at his second Arnold.
This will be the Army instructor's fifth professional bodybuilding contest. He is fresh off a victory at the New York Pro. McMillan will be in the running for a top six finish, and he has the size, the symmetry, and conditioning to go all the way. He just needs to put it all together on one special day to give the likes of Jackson, Freeman, and Pakulski a run for their money.
He finished fourth here last year, and with the absence of last year's top three, Pakulski has a clear shot at the title. On the other hand, he has to overcome seasoned IFBB superstars Toney Freeman and Dexter Jackson, both of whom beat him at last year's Olympia. Depending on which version of "Pak-Man" shows up, this could be the greatest night in the young IFBB pro's career.
With two pro wins to his credit and a fourth-place finish at the best Masters Olympia lineup in years, Nunn will most likely duke it out with the likes of The Blade, Pak-Man, and The X Man for the coveted Arnold trophy. His combination of mile-wide shoulders and a tiny waist never fails to impress.
"The Rock" has the muscular development to beat all comers, but his inconsistent conditioning has kept him out of the upper tier over the years. If Rockel comes to Columbus with everything dialed in, he has a good chance to stand in the final three.
Smalls is making his Arnold Classic debut, after he did the same at the Olympia last year. He has some ground to make up; he placed 16th at the 2012 Olympia. If he brings his conditioning to the level that is required at top competitions like the Arnold, he'll find himself taking some names.
The Japanese warrior has been running hot and cold for the last few years. He'll look like a legitimate title contender at one show and settle into the back of the pack the next. Hide needs to step it up a notch if he wants to contend for a place in the posedown.
Who Will It Be?
The lineup is small, the competition fierce, and the title is monumental. But at the end of the day only one man can walk away with the title. The fans have their favorites and will make their voices heard come contest time. With only a few weeks remaining before the greatest sports event on the planet gets underway, the excitement is building with every day that passes.
Here are my predictions for the top five:
- Dexter Jackson
- Toney Freeman
- Ben Pakulski (Most Muscular Winner)
- Cedric McMillan
- Ed Nunn