Ronnie Coleman vs. Flex Wheeler / Muscletime: Raymond Cassar

His senses were reeling, battling to come to terms with the scene unfolding around him. He stood next to pre-contest favorite Flex Wheeler at the top of the ramp erected at The Theatre at New York’s Madison Square Garden, gazing out over the seething maelstrom of a sellout crowd of 5600. They were in an uproar as a chant of “RON-NIE! RON-NIE!” filled the auditorium, as it had throughout the day. He, Wheeler, and the 5600 were waiting to hear Wayne DeMilia make the second-place announcement at the 1998 Mr. Olympia contest. The man not called would go down in history as the best bodybuilder in the world, the successor to Dorian Yates, Lee Haney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sergio Oliva, et al. “In second place…” Demilia said…then cruelly paused a full 10 second before barking “…Flex Wheeler!”

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The new champ hits a most muscular with the Sandow trophy. / Raymond Cassar

KING OF THE WORLD

The crowd erupted into celebration as the man who was supposed to be the last one standing went the other way, crashing face down to the ground in shock. Could it be that a guy who finished “dead last” in his first Olympia back in 1992, who placed ninth at the 1997 rendition, who had to constantly remind people he was not the bodybuilder called Ron Coleman [there was another pro bodybuilder with that name then], had just entered the ranks of bodybuilding immortality? It could, and the biggest baddest cop in Texas began to sob uncontrollably, as at 10:41 PM on Saturday, October 10, 1998, 34-year-old Ronnie Coleman became only the 10th Mr. Olympia in the contest’s 33-year existence.

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Dressed for success: Ronnie Coleman, Flex Wheeler, Chris Cormier before the 1998 Mr. Olympia press conference / Raymond Cassar

In this age of specialization and 24/7 bodybuilding, the new Mr. Olympia—in addition to being judged to have the best physique on the planet—also happens to be a full-time police officer in Arlington, Texas. You wouldn’t dare make this stuff up. Who would have believed it? Not Ronnie Coleman—at least not the Ronnie Coleman of a few years ago.

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The First Round (left to right): Lee Priest, Kevin Levrone, Flex Wheeler / Raymond Cassar

Indeed, commitment and Ronnie Coleman go together like hard and work, like Dorian and Yates. In the manner of the six-time Mr. O [Yates], Ronnie personifies effort, application, and a never-say-die philosophy. Since the beginning of his pro career in 1992, he has slowly clawed his way step-by-step from no-hoper to journeyman, to potential pro-contest winner, to contender for the 1998 Mr. Olympia title. As the Olympia battle loomed, his blue-collar credentials, personable nature, and the freakiest 250 pounds ever shoehorned into a police uniform had combined to establish him as a fan favorite.

1998 Mr. Olympia
The Second Round (clockwise from upper left): Chris Cormier, Shawn Ray, Nasser El Sonbaty, Kevin Levrone / Raymond Cassar

TRADING BLOWS

The 1998 Mr. Olympia constituted a come-from-behind victory for Ronnie Coleman because after the first (standing relaxed) round, he was lying in third. In bodybuilding, the athlete with the lowest number of points wins, and, at this juncture, Flex had five points to Ronnie’s 17—a gap of 12. To win, Ronnie had to take the next three rounds (mandatory posing, free posing, and posedown).

It was tall order, and although Ronnie Coleman wasn’t announced the winner of the 1998 Mr. Olympia until 10:41 PM, he really captured the victory hours earlier, when the first callout of the mandatory round took place. The comparison comprised Nasser El Sonbaty, Coleman, and Wheeler.

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First callout: Wheeler, El Sonbaty, Coleman / Raymond Cassar

As the trio lined up, it appeared that with all the pre-contest hype favoring Flex Wheeler, the focus was on how he would fare next to super-competitive Ronnie. In truth, Coleman simply overpowered the less-than-100% Wheeler, who did not seem to know he was a few degrees down from his March form [when he won the Arnold Classic]; nor did he seem to realize how dangerous a commodity the 1998 version of Coleman was.

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The crucial rear double biceps: Wheeler, El Sonbaty, Coleman / Raymond Cassar

The underestimation was manifested by the following episode: as the Texan wound himself up to hit a double-biceps pose, Flex took a step back to view Ronnie’s efforts, his playful manner intimating that he saw no problem. A ripped-to-the-bone Flex may have gotten away with such antics, but not on this occasion. It was like a heavyweight fighter dropping his gloves and inviting his opponent to take a free shot, only to have his opponent oblige with a knockout punch.

1998 Mr. Olympia
Rear lat spreads: El Sonbaty, Coleman, Wheeler / YouTube

As Flex stood and watched his nemesis, his body language seemed to say, “OK, Ronnie, what ya got?” while Ronnie’s muscularity responded, “I got the Sandow, man.” From that point, the momentum was all Ronnie’s. The audience picked up on it and they got right behind the underdog from then on, their intermittent chant of “RON-NIE! RON-NIE!” amply demonstrating where their allegiance lay. After two rounds, Flex had 15 points to Ronnie’s 22: the gap had closed to seven points.

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Coleman and Wheeler in a side chest comparison at prejudging / Raymond Cassar

THE FINAL BELL

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1998 Mr. Olympia lineup: Joe Weider (center) presents medals to all 17 competitors before the top 6 are announced. / Raymond Cassar

As Janet Jackson—looking and sounding more like Michael than Michael—bopped to her Velvet Rope thing in another part of Madison Square Garden, Ronnie Coleman, who had no margin for error, won the posing round. With one round to go, his point tally was 27 to Flex’s 25, a gap of two points.

1998 Mr. Olympia
1998 Mr. Olympia top six (left to right): Coleman, Levrone, Cormier, Ray, El Sonbaty, Wheeler / Raymond Cassar
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Rear double biceps (left to right) Levrone, El Sonbaty, Wheeler, Ray, Cormier, Coleman / Raymond Cassar
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Christmas trees in October: (left to right) Ray, Cormier, Coleman show back definition before unfurling their lat spreads. / Raymond Cassar
1998 Olympia
Side chests: Ray, Cormier, Coleman / Raymond Cassar

When the free-for-all segment of the posedown sparked into life, Ronnie, knowing he had to win this round, went straight after Flex and deposited 249 pounds next to his quarry’s 230. In response, Flex made his second strategic error of the day. Instead of taking on Ronnie, he walked away, only to be followed again by his stalker. Three times Ronnie jumped next to Flex and three times Flex walked away. Later, Flex would explain his strategy: “By forcing Ronnie to follow me, I figured I was showing my authority; I was the leader who the others had to follow.” Again, the ploy would have worked if Flex had held his form of early ’98.

Flex Wheeler 1998
Flex Wheeler’s most muscular / Raymond Cassar

The posedown concluded with Flex and El Sonbaty doing most musculars into each other’s faces, and Ronnie winning the round. He had passed Flex in the home stretch, finishing with 32 points to Flex’s 35.

Ronnie Coleman 1998
Ronnie Coleman’s most muscular / Raymond Cassar

OFFICER DOWN

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Coleman hits the deck when he hears Wheeler is in second place. / YouTube

And so it came to pass that Ronnie Coleman found himself face down on the Olympia stage, tears streaming onto the floor, his legs not obeying his commands. He was aware of Flex Wheeler bending over him, trying to help him up to no avail. Finally, Flex sportingly patted his vanquisher on the back and without rancor made his way down the ramp to collect his second-place check. From the wings, Chris Cormier was screaming “Ronnie, get up! Get up, man!” But the new Mr. Olympia stayed marooned, a prisoner of his legs’ immobility. Cormier came onstage, but even he, one of the strongest pros, couldn’t raise his sobbing comrade.

Ronnie Coleman 1998
The new Mr. Olympia overcome by emotions / YouTube

Ronnie’s circumstances didn’t alter the crowd’s mood. They were witnessing the true emotion of a good man, and they persisted with “RON-NIE! RON-NIE!” chants. The incantation only served to make Ronnie more emotional. He couldn’t believe what he had just achieved. OK, he had come into the contest with the belief that he’d win, but now at the moment of truth, he simply couldn’t believe it. Oh, he could believe beating Flex Wheeler into second place—he had done it before (1996 Canada Pro Cup)—but winning the Mr. Olympia title, being Mr. Olympia, man, that was impossible.

ROCKY COLEMAN

He’d been down for some three minutes when a weeping Vickie Gates came onstage and tottered up the ramp to finally get her man to his feet. The audience just went nuts as the couple, both in tears, hugged before slowly making their way down the ramp. There surely has never been a fusion of onstage and offstage emotion at a bodybuilding contest to compare with the dramatic tableau that was played out during that unforgettable three minutes. For next year’s main sponsors, DeMilia should go straight to Kleenex.

Ronnie Coleman 1998 Olympia
Joe Weider (left) and Ben Weider hold up the arms of the new champ. / Raymond Cassar

Just when you thought every last drop of emotion had been wrung out of the moment, onstage came Ronnie’s mom, Jessie Benton. When asked by [the emcee] Sinbad what kind of a son Ronnie was, she answered in ringing tones and without hesitation, “He was always a good child and a hard worker.” Why was nobody surprised?

And if you looked along the VIP section, you would have seen a beaming Dorian and Debbie Yates standing and applauding. The King is dead, long live the King! Once again, Joe Weider’s Mr. Olympia proves nice guys do finish first.

1998 MR. OLYMPIA RESULTS

October 10, 1998 / Madison Square Gardens, New York City

The top six were judged for a fourth round (posedown). The addition of round four’s points explains why Cormier’s score is higher than Priest’s. Cormier and Priest were tied at 100 after three rounds, but the judges awarded Cormier the tie-breaker.

1. Ronnie Coleman ($110,000) — 32

2. Flex Wheeler ($50,000) — 35

3.  Nasser El Sonbaty ($35,000) — 60

4. Kevin Levrone ($25,000) — 84

5. Shawn Ray ($20,000) — 89

6. Chris Cormier ($14,000) — 130

7.  Lee Priest ($13,000) — 100

8.  Ernie Taylor ($12,000) — 135

9.  Mike Matarazzo ($11,000) — 154

10.  Jean Pierre Fux ($10,000) — 157

11.  Milos Sarcev — 178

12.  Johnny Moya — 184

13.  Darrem Charles — 193

14.  Aaron Baker — 196

15. Gunter Schlierkamp — 219

16.  Ahmad Haidar — 247

17. Claude Groulx — 252

— Paul Dillett (withdrew because of dehydration)

A longer version of this article was originally published in the January 1999 FLEX magazine under the title “Rocky Coleman Scores Madison Square Knockout.” This version was published in the July 2006 FLEX under the title “The First Time.” All Raymond Cassar photos here originally appeared on Muscletime (follow them on Instagram).