One of the world's most respected and popular bodybuilding champions, Ken 'Flex' Wheeler, has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve recognition as one of the true greats of the sport.
Having overcome poverty, abuse and self-doubt, Flex, had already established a remarkable physique and a winning mind-set before endeavoring to turn the bodybuilding world on its ear with his unparalleled combination of size and aesthetics.
Flex has the ectomorph/mesomorph body-shape blend (small bone structure with massive muscle size) which conveys the sought after combination of balanced muscle-symmetry.
Winner of the 1992 NPC USA, in which he qualified as a professional, and holder of three Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic championships, in addition to many other pro titles, Flex has indeed become one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. The only title that has alluded Flex is the Mr. Olympia, which, on several occasions he had only narrowly lost.
Since turning pro, Flex has encountered adversity many wouldn't wish on their worst enemy. A major car crash in 1994 almost ended his bodybuilding career, and a car jacking in 1997, which destroyed his chances of contesting the Olympia that year pushed him further into the depths of despair, before the big one - a diagnoses of aggressive kidney disease called Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis in 2000 - this effectively ruined his bodybuilding career.
Ever the fighter, Flex came back in 2001 to compete in the Olympia. This contest proved to be detrimental, and Flex found himself back in hospital, again facing kidney failure. Following a kidney transplant, Flex committed himself to a training program with a view to competing in martial arts, a sport he excelled in in his early 20s (70 fights undefeated).
Flex won his martial arts fight at the 2005 Arnold Classic, displaying tremendous athletic skill to belie his previous fragile state. Many positively commented on the quality of physique Flex demonstrated in this fight, a physique poised to again become one of the greatest champions of the modern era.
At 39, Flex has said he would love to make a bodybuilding comeback. He is now able to eat and train sufficiently, so long as his kidney disorder remains stabilized. Flex also feels he is ideally positioned to make an impact on the acting world with his 230lb, 5% body fat, physique - naturally, martial arts movies will be his chosen genre.
A major sports related project has also presented itself which, according to Flex, will take the world by storm. This project is a seven-figure deal which will change the face of all sports, but Flex cannot disclose all the details just yet. Stay tuned and remember, you heard it here first.
Are you training specifically for martial arts now, or is a bodybuilding comeback likely at some point?
I am looking at making a bodybuilding comeback at some point. I am hoping they will bring the Masters Olympia back as I am pretty confident I can win this. If not, I am, in effect looking at going back into open competition.
On the martial arts front, and for the record, I am not trying to prove I am one of the greatest fighters in the world because I'm not. It has always been written that I was a martial artist before I became a bodybuilder and no one has really seen me fight before and as you probably know, everybody and their grandmother has a black belt. So I wanted to go out and prove that I am an established, dedicated, martial artist and no slouch.
One of my mains goals, along with the help of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Lorimer, is to lateral-lope into movies. There is no actor out there with my size and my name who can fight the way I can - from this I have already gotten some great offers for movies.
Also, there is no one who was recognized as one of the greatest in the world at one sport who can lateral into another sport and be recognized worldwide. That's what I want to bring to the stage and to the movies.
Do you have any favorite martial artists and what martial art do you train in currently?
I am a big fan of Jet Lee, Jackie Chan and a lot of other martial artists, but they don't have the look that I do. My martial art is called Kemp-Kwon-Do because one of my trainers is a fourth Dan in Tae Kwon Do and another is a seventh Dan in Kempo.
Both styles together are more effective. If you watch Olympic style Tae Kwon Do, this is nothing like the way I fight. In this style, you're not allowed to hit to the face, not allowed to do a lot of things.
Our style is a stand up style where we can throw almost any technique from the groin all the way to the head. I don't want to establish myself as an Olympic style Tae Kwon Do fighter, because I'm not - I feel I'm better than that as I'm equally deadly with my hands or my feet.
What Does 'Dan' Mean?
A rank of black belt, which typically ranges from 1st dan (the lowest) to 10th dan (the highest). Despite the popular image, the 1st dan signifies the beginning of a Karateka's most serious training. 6th dan is typically considered an expert or master grade. The 6th dan grade would require a minimum of 22 years experience in Seigokan Goju-Ryu.
Did your usual bodybuilding regime change drastically as you prepared for the ASC fight?
I've really geared down on the training while keeping as fit as possible, especially since overcoming my kidney problems. I have tried to keep the size on. I ran into a problem not to many people are aware of.
I know some people saw me at the Nationals last year with my arm in a sling and a cast where I had a major tear in my rotator cuff while training for the fight.
They had to put a screw in there to screw the bone back together - this happened in November of last year. Because my arm was in a cast for six weeks, tremendous atrophy had occurred down my right side. As a result, I only had about two weeks to train my right side before my fight.
Your medical problems have been reported widely. Are you in good shape medically Flex?
No other major problems at the moment. I still haven't got 100% of the movement of my shoulder; they said it would take about six-months, so I still have about a month and a half.
It feels really weak and I'm still trying to get the strength back, but other than that there are the broken fingers and bruised knuckles, stuff that comes with the territory.
How does today's quality of physique compare to that of the 90s?
I think you, and others, would be aware that the quality is not the same as it was back in the 90s when Shawn Ray, Chris Cormier, Kevin Levrone, Paul Dillett, Milos Sarcev and myself were at our finest. It hasn't been that way for some time.
In saying that, some guys have really stepped up to the plate tremendously. Guys like Dexter Jackson, and Chris Cormier who has hung in there for a while now.
Melvin Anthony who has really taken things to a new plateau with his posing ability as well as other people like Troy Alves and Victor Martinez, young guys really stepping up to the plate.
But with no disrespect, you can't say it is like back in the day when you had the likes of Lee Labrada, Vince Taylor and the others I have mentioned.
What are your non-bodybuilding goals Flex?
Like I said, I would like to begin acting in movies as I feel I have a physique that is like nothing the acting world has seen. I am also in negotiations concerning a special project that I can't even talk about at the moment. I have got the green light, but I can't say too much right now except that it will be ground shattering.
Can you give a small hint as to what it might be?
All I can say is it is related to all sports on a major international scale.
Look forward to hearing about it. What other businesses are you currently involved in?
I work for Muscular Development and write multi columns for them. I also travel the world talking about kidney diseases as a keynote speaker.
Many consider you to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, bodybuilder of all time. Do you have any regrets and do you feel you should have won this title at some stage?
Obviously I have regrets. I am a predator when it comes to competing. I love to win, hate to lose. Having said that, I think everything happens for a reason. It is a compliment that people consider me to be among the greatest despite never having won the Crown.
So today I get the greatest satisfaction from knowing that people consider me to be one of the best of all time to ever grace the stage. There are even some Mr. Olympia's who aren't even considered the best in the world. So on one hand it disappoints me but it also give me satisfaction to know that people feel the way the do about me.
What do you consider to be your greatest bodybuilding achievement Flex?
I think overall, my greatest bodybuilding achievement has to spawn from my personal and private life. All the turmoil I was involved in, the ground roots that I had to crawl through.
Accomplishing all I did was a major achievement given the obstacles I had to overcome. A kid coming from welfare, who was suicidal, and dealt with sexual abuse.
Kenny Wheeler had to step into Flex's shoes and handle himself on a worldwide stage and I think this sets a precedent for a lot of people who have to deal with one, or all of those things I had to deal with: they can get a feeling that they can accomplish this too.
I want people to know that they can deal with all of these problems and achieve greatness rather than becoming a gangster, a loser, a nobody. Man, if I did, trust me anyone can.
So why did you walk away from competition when you did?
Well it mainly had to do with the disease I found I had back in 2000. They were running tests on me for about a year. After the Olympia I got the news; this put it all into perspective.
They told me that I had the most aggressive kidney disease known to man and there was no cure. They also told me my life was hanging in the balance and I would need a kidney transplant.
Before the diagnoses it was becoming increasingly harder for me and I was running into difficulties preparing for shows. Everybody knows, it was questionable whether I could get harder or not.
They couldn't explain to me how long I had been dealing with this and how progressive it got. That explained to me how I wasn't always able to come in the condition I achieved back at the Arnold Classic in 93.
I was able to hit it one time and not the next, but I did not realize I was dealing with my kidneys back then. I could feel my kidneys fail and as I competed they began to hurt, as I took a break they kind of got better.
The explanation for my illness helped me to understand why I couldn't be consistent with my conditioning.
They basically said that anything I put into my mouth will contribute to how long I have to wait for my kidney transplant. The most dangerous thing was actually the amount of protein and potassium I was consuming.
I had to make the decision as to what was more important: maintaining the body I had built or changing gears to come back down to a normal level. Nine potentially fatal surgeries in 11-weeks, I didn't know it was going to be this hard.
Flex has Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSGS). It effects the kidneys by attacking the glomeruli, the tiny units within the kidney where blood is cleaned. As a result, protein spills over into the urine which can scar, and often destroy, the kidneys.
Yet you came back to compete, drug free. How did you achieve this?
What a lot of people don't know, and I'll admit it right now, even though I competed drug free in 2001, the Saturday I competed and the following Wednesday I was in the hospital.
I had kidney failure right then. They told me: you can't do this drug free or drugs on, you just can't do it anymore. They told me not to train the way I used to as this causes muscle break-down. When you train, the muscles break down and this process goes on in your kidneys.
Today you train for martial arts competition. Does this impact your kidneys in a bad way?
I can come back because of the kidney transplant. But you know, a lot of people don't understand that my disease will never go away. There is no cure. If you have a heart problem, you get a transplant and you don't have a heart problem anymore. That's not the same with this disease. It will never go away.
I can now train hard and eat what I want and I can have as much protein as I want but do need to watch the sodium. I can act normal now because I have one kidney that is working well, but I have to be smart and not kill off that one kidney.
Even now, I am still much more muscular than the average man so I have to be careful. But in saying that, I think a lot of people thought it was steroid related and that's why I didn't come out with it early on.
If people did their research they will find that the disease is what it is.
I have been a spokesperson for the foundation (NephCure) now and I've literally talked to parents who have 13, 12, or nine-year-old children with this disease.
If that's the case then how has my drug taking contributed to it? I'm very lucky that I haven't had a reaction or lost the kidney to disease. I know of nine-year-old kids who are on to their 3rd kidney. Once they get that transplant, they experience more ravaging of the kidney and are on to their next one. I'm blessed that hasn't happened to me, but it could at any time.
I truly believed it was the cost of what I'd done throughout my career so I figured I stopped doing all these things I would look forward to living a long and prosperous life, and I won't have to worry about my children. But it is the way it is and I do have to worry about my son, daughter and grand kids for the rest of my life.
One physician stressed that Flex's steroid use had nothing to do with the onset of his disease, which mysteriously appears in young people, more commonly in African-American males around age 25.
So now you can eat what you want, within reason? What is your diet like at the moment?
I am truly an ectomorph so I don't require a large amount of food. I wouldn't eat half the amount of food I ate when I was a bigger person and I don't really run into any danger as a result.
It's weird; my body only demands food when I'm active. If I'm not active, I can eat maybe one or two times-per-day and be completely fine. It's just when I get more active, I also get hungrier.
Whether I'm active or not it is unlikely I will run into a weight problem. As everybody knows, I was a skinny person to begin with and I pretty much transformed my physique through diet and proper training.
It's hard to imagine you as a skinny person
It's easier to see I was a skinny person when you look at me now (laughs). People only knew me as the athlete on the stage and not when I was younger. Now when people look at me it's hard for them to really see how small I am and I need to remind them I am not a naturally big person.
Now, although I am bigger than the average person, I am definitely not as big as I was before. I hope they can appreciate how hard it was for me to bust my butt to hold the kind of size I developed. I damn near gave my life to the sport to look that way.
What do you weigh at the moment?
I weight about 230 or so, and do not want to be too much bigger than this. I am not competing at the moment so it is not a necessity to carry around excessive weight, and I want to be very active and agile as a fighter now - I carry what is necessary for me to do what I do at a particular time. 230lb is very heavy for a fighter in saying this.
What sort of shape are you in at that weight? Your body fat percentage is?
I'm not too sure what my body fat is but I would estimate about 5%. Once again, I'm not a naturally fat guy, so the body fat percentage rests at about 5% if not lower.
Do you think bodybuilding should be about building mass at the expense of balance? What do you consider to be the perfect physique?
I think it should be a balance, a perfect package. Not just one thing, but many. I love Ronnie to death, he is everything and more than what the people think. What he has accomplished is well deserved, and I am immensely proud of him.
I still go to his house and one of the only pictures that is still on his refrigerator is of him and me posing down at the Mr. Olympia. I asked him, why do you still have these pictures up there? He said, "You were my inspiration man".
Those were great times back then. So when Ronnie talks about smaller physiques I know he is not talking about me so I don't take it negatively. I carried a considerable amount of muscle on my frame also. It should be a balance - a tremendous amount of muscle complimented with good symmetry.
Who is your favorite bodybuilder competing at the moment?
Yes, Ronnie is high on my list, as well as Dexter Jackson and Troy Alves. Lee Priest is definitely there as he is a modern day freak. Melvin Anthony, Chris Cormier, Mark Dugdale and Marcus Ruhl I like also.
Dexter and Ronnie were there competing with me along with Paul Dillet; we were like dinosaurs roaming the earth. I don't have one favorite. I just appreciate all the physiques on the pro stage today.
What are your thoughts on the future of bodybuilding?
I think more needs to be done for the athletes. The major companies are making millions off the athletes. These guys (the athletes) are trying to climb to the top and are paid very little by comparison.
The IFBB have considered a steroid ban. What are your thoughts on this?
You know, I did what I did and even competed after taking steroids only to contradict myself and come back drug free. I honestly can't say that I'm against it (the steroid ban), I'm for it.
And I know this might hurt some of the other guys who are not for it but I hope they respect my opinion, that I'm for the drug testing as I respect their opinions that they're probably not for it. Let's just say that we agree to disagree, rather than me just attacking them - I'm not.
What can we expect from Flex Wheeler in the next ten years?
Well, the best I can give. I will continue to pursue martial arts competition, and keep my body in the best possible shape. As mentioned, I am also involved in a venture which will change the face of sport as we know it, but I will elaborate more on this as the time nears.
Acting is something I am looking at getting into, and with my type of physique; this should happen in the very near future. And, of course I would like to compete in bodybuilding again.