Dorian Yates and Shawn Ray / Raymond Cassar: Muscletime
The 1994 Mr. Olympia was a clash between monsterism and classicism, and it didn’t go off as planned. Defending champ Dorian Yates suffered his first muscle tears in preparation, and No. 1 contender Flex Wheeler was absent after a horrendous car crash. That’s why many contended then and more contend now that Shawn Ray, at his career best, should’ve been declared the victor. Let’s journey backwards to the year of Pulp Fiction, Friends, and the Notorious B.I.G. for the 1994 Mr. Olympia.
MR. OLYMPIA 1994: BACKSTORY
When Dorian Yates won his first Mr. Olympia in 1992, he weighed 242. One year, later when the Englishman repeated, he was 257 grainy pounds in one of the most shocking transformations in bodybuilding history. He had to be that great to fend off rookie phenom Flex Wheeler, who finished second in 1993 with a more pleasing but less monstrous physique. In 1994, both of them had their sights set on an Olympia rematch.
But the script was rewritten in the early hours of June 9, 1994. Three days before Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered in Brentwood, California, nearby on the Santa Monica Freeway, Flex Wheeler crashed his Mercedes Benz, totaling the car and nearly suffering paralysis. He broke two vertebrae and a collarbone, among multiple injuries, and spent weeks in a neck brace. Wheeler wouldn’t compete again until the following February, when he won the Ironman Pro.
In 2021, while acknowledging that he was off at the 1994 Mr. Olympia, Yates said: “If Flex had come in ’94 and hadn’t had the car accident, and he came in like ’93, then he possibly would have beat me in ’94. But it didn’t happen.” Instead, it’s another great bodybuilding What if?
And why was Yates off in 1994? More ways than one. Peter McGough painted the picture in this lede to his 1994 Mr. Olympia reportage in FLEX magazine:
“Blood-ee hell!” snarled Dorian Yates through clenched teeth, as he bent over a chair and grimaced into the dressing-room mirror. With 40 minutes to go before the prejudging, his stomach felt like it contained a tennis ball that was growing larger by the minute. In March, he had torn a ligament that impinged on the rotator cuff in his left shoulder joint. In April, still in the throes of sorting out his shoulder injury, Yates tore the vastus muscle in his left thigh and couldn’t train legs for the next five weeks. And then on July 12, less than nine weeks before the Mr. Olympia in Atlanta, just as Yates thought he’d overcome the worst year of his training life, a searing pain shot up his arm as he repped out on bent rows with 405 pounds. Mr. Olympia had torn his left biceps muscle.
Mid-to late July was the watershed point for Dorian Yates. Advisors told him he was still good enough to win the title with a damaged right arm but the unique mentality of Dorian Yates felt differently. For this bodybuilding one-off, it is not good enough just to be able to win. Never mind that the consensus was that he already had one hand on the $100,000 first-place check, he had to be better! Throughout his bodybuilding career, Dorian Yates had been his own nemesis, constantly goading himself to higher levels. Now he asked himself, “Are you a champion?”
Dorian recently wrote this on Instagram about his prep for the 1994 Mr. Olympia:
[The biceps tear] happened when I was performing a set of underhand barbell rows. I’d performed this exercise for nearly 10 years without any issues. But when you’re so depleted and in such a severe caloric deficit, it’s near impossible to lift the same amount of weight and carry the same amount of intensity as when you’re in the off-season. I saw my physio Stuart Cosgrove, and, thankfully, it wasn’t a complete rupture and it would heal itself.
I did think to drop out of this contest initially, literally my first thoughts were: “What about the Olympia?” But I took a little time to manage the situation and came to the conclusion that I’d been dieting for weeks, was in terrific condition, and logically thinking that if I could win the poses where the biceps aren’t a focal point, then I could win the contest overall. I could afford to lose a couple of poses like the front double biceps for example. Mathematically speaking, there was no way I’d lose on the back focus poses and side triceps too. I believed I could still compete and win!
And so defending champ Dorian Yates was among the 23 competitors who journeyed to Atlanta, Georgia, for the 30th Mr. Olympia. This was the second of three consecutive years bodybuilding’s ultimate contest was staged in the 4600-seat theater of the Atlanta Civic Center. It was also the inaugural “Olympia Weekend,” because for the first time the Ms. Olympia occurred in the same venue on the same weekend as the Mr. Olympia. Held the Friday before Saturday’s Mr. O, the Ms. O was won, again, by Lenda Murray.
Yates said of that Saturday morning: “On the day of the contest, I felt sick and bloated when I woke up. Just a small stomach bug or even a cold can make a noticeable difference in a physique that is super lean as the inflammation causes water retention.” It was the opening Flex Wheeler could’ve seized to seize the Sandow trophy, but fate had intervened. Could another top contender overtake Dorian Yates when the champ was less than his best?
THE REST OF THE LINEUP
Let’s focus first on the 17 men who failed to crack the top six. In such a deep field, there were some interesting stories. Two 20-something German rookies, Roland Cziurlock and Gunter Schlierkamp, failed to place. Schlierkamp, at 24, was making his pro debut, and no one would’ve suspected then that eight years later, in the midst of Guntermania, he’d defeat the reigning Mr. Olympia. A couple of guys who’d competed in Vince McMahon’s short-lived World Bodybuilding Federation, Aaron Baker and the late David Dearth, also made their Olympia debuts. Baker, at arguably his career best, was criminally overlooked for the first and not last time.
In his second Mr. Olympia, 30-year-old Ronnie Coleman, placed for the first time, but just barely, in the 15th slot. The future eight-time Mr. Olympia still had some filling out to do.
On the other end of the career spectrum, 1983 Mr. Olympia Samir Bannout was in his 11th and final Olympia. And the late Sonny Schmidt, one day after his 41st birthday, was in his next-to-last Mr. Olympia, though he was still great enough in Atlanta to crack the top 10 in this stacked lineup. He would win the Masters Olympia the next year.
Just outside the top six were two ’90s legends. Charles Clairmonte, a Barbadian-born Englishman, was a classicist. With flowing lines, aesthetic symmetry, and deeply etched abs, he presented a superbly shaped package that could rack up victories in the classic physique division today. He came into this Olympia with momentum, having won four European contests after the 1993 Mr. Olympia, some over Kevin Levrone and Flex Wheeler. But Clairmonte, eighth place here, never won again, and competed only three more years, retiring at 34.
Charles Clairmonte got shouldered out as size standards continued to expand. One of the mass monsters doing the shouldering in future years would be Nasser El Sonbaty. But Nasser, in his Olympia debut in 1994, was not yet monstrous. In fact, he was still something of a classicist himself. The 5’11” Yugoslavian-Egyptian El Sonbaty (born in Germany, living in California), had, in retrospect, only begun to grow. He’d supersize the following year, when he would leap all the way to third in the Mr. Olympia.
1994 MR. OLYMPIA: THE TOP SIX
The top six made the posedown and earned five-figure paydays, and, for the winner, six figures. So it was a huge accomplishment for 27-year-old Californian Chris Cormier, to climb all the way to sixth in his rookie year, presenting himself as a top contender. His legs were the best in the contest, with his trademark sartorius muscles on bold display. His baseball-like biceps were another strength. With his tight waist and flowing lines, the Real Deal deserved fifth place in his Olympia debut, but wouldn’t crack the Olympia top five for five more years.
Though he won five pro shows over his first two years as a professional bodybuilder, Porter Cottrell, only competed twice in the Mr. Olympia, finishing eighth in his rookie year of 1992 and fifth this time. The 5’6″ Kentucky fireman was consistently good at the pro level but never great. Cottrell possessed a very balanced physique, but not enough muscle to stand out in posedown comparisons.
Paul Dillett, the 6’1″ Canadian colossus, was one of the most gifted bodybuilders of all time. With his gargantuan arms and legs, wispy waist and capacious shoulders, no one in the ’90s made a greater impression in a T-shirt and shorts than Dillett. I remember well the awe he inspired when he first started training at Gold’s Gym Venice, which was already filled with many of the world’s best bodybuilders. But those who are blessed can also be cursed. Dillett had everything, except a back. He would dominate front poses, but, when he turned around, he got dominated, as his narrow lats were exposed. In a career that lasted nearly twice as long as Cottrell’s, Dillett won two fewer pro shows (3). He made the Mr. Olympia posedown four times in the ’90s, but this was his highest placing. As great as his strengths were—and they were phenomenal—judges and fans just couldn’t overlook the letdown when Dillett struck his rear shots.
If Kevin Levrone had been as crisp as he was in 1995, when he finished second in the Mr. Olympia for the second of four times, he could have challenged Yates for the Sandow in 1994. As it was, he was a little too murky, clearly sweating out excess water as prejudging progressed. Like Dillett (but to a much lesser degree) his back was also still a weakness. The Maryland Muscle Machine was firmly in third place.
After a third at the drug-tested 1990 Mr. Olympia, Shawn Ray had steadily climbed back up the Olympia ranks going from fifth to fourth to third in subsequent years, so a second this year was the logical progression. Outside of his rookie year, the 5’6″ Californian was always on. Ray would finish in the Mr. Olympia top five an amazing 12 straight years from 1990 to 2001 (he rarely did any other contest). At 29 this year, Ray was in his prime, and all the prime Ray qualities were on display: high-def conditioning, proportionate development, elegant posing, deep quad separation, and the contest’s best abs. Should Shawn Ray have won the 1994 Mr. Olympia?
Peter McGough wrote this of Dorian Yates at the 1994 Mr. Olympia:
With Dorian hit by the triple whammy of injuries—shoulder, thigh, then biceps—many doubted his ability to win the show. Then, illness on the day of the show seemed to seal his fate. Throughout prejudging, Yates found it impossible to pull his distended stomach in and flex his thigh at the same time. Yates was not at his best, but when he turned to the side or to the back, his size, thickness, proportions, and detail were too much for his rivals.
As he thought he would, Yates lost front poses. With his noticeably deflated left arm, he clearly lost the front double biceps. He more narrowly lost the other three front poses, too—lat spread and abs and thigh to Shawn Ray, and most muscular to Kevin Levrone. And the side and rear shots were closer calls than McGough suggests. The champ just wasn’t himself at prejudging. As a result, he’d lost the unbeatable aura he’d established the year before. Yates was eminently beatable. “And to top it all off, my tan was starting to run during the long prejudging too,” Yates wrote of the nightmarish event. “But by the evening show, I had sweated out a lot of water and fixed the tan situation, making a noticeable improvement.”
1994 MR. OLYMPIA: POSTSCRIPT
Dorian Yates won the 1994 Mr. Olympia, his third of six straight Olympia titles, but not without controversy. Shawn Ray never won bodybuilding’s Super Bowl. Neither did Kevin Levrone. Neither did Flex Wheeler. A lot of people point to 1994 as the year bodybuilding took a turn for the worse: When a belly-bloated (from illness), disproportionate (from injury) mass monster defeated a smaller but tight-waisted, superbly proportioned classicist. One of the many people who says something like that is Shawn Ray.
Dorian Yates had an answer for Ray in the documentary Dorian Yates: The Original Mass Monster: “Shawn was always questioning something, why I should be Mr. Olympia, and he shouldn’t. I think one of Shawn’s things one time was Dorian’s physique is too extreme, it’s too far out for the average person to reach. That just sounded like f**king nonsense to me. Mr. Bolt, can you slow down a bit, please, or we’ll put someone else in first place because you’re running too fast for the average guy; he can’t relate to that.”
And so Dorian Yates kept running and all the others kept chasing.
1994 MR. OLYMPIA RESULTS
September 10, 1994 / Atlanta, Georgia
1. Dorian Yates ($100,000)
2. Shawn Ray ($50,000)
3. Kevin Levrone ($30,000)
4. Paul Dillett ($25,000)
5. Porter Cottrell ($15,000)
6. Chris Cormier ($12,000)
7. Nasser El Sonbaty ($8000)
8. Charles Clairmonte ($7000)
9. Andreas Munzer ($6000)
10. Sonny Schmidt ($5000)
11. Alq Gurley ($1000)
12. Aaron Baker ($1000)
13. Milos Sarcev ($1000)
14. Thierry Pastel ($1000)
15. Ronnie Coleman ($1000)
16. John Sherman ($1000)
17. Achim Albrecht ($1000)
The last six competitors did not place. They are listed alphabetically.
Samir Bannout ($1000)
Roland Cziurlock ($1000)
David Dearth ($1000)
Mike Quinn ($1000)
Gunter Schlierkamp ($1000)
Henderson Thorne ($1000)
The 1991 Mr. Olympia (Dorian’s debut)
The 1998 Mr. Olympia (the first post-Dorian Olympia)