“Tonight, I’m here to chop their damn heads off.” — Phil Heath

They used to call it “chasing Arnold.” Back in the ’70s in Venice, California, bodybuilders destined to never win the Olympia did what Arnold Schwarzenegger did. They trained the way he trained where he trained, they ate what he ate when he ate, they basked in the glow of his presence, and all with the desperate dream that they could be like Arnold—look like Arnold, feel like Arnold, win like Arnold. They chased and they chased, but they never caught up to him. Like a horizon, he was too far beyond, always. For a year, since he won his sixth Sandow, Phil Heath chased Arnold, the seven-time Mr. Olympia. On September 16, 2017, he caught him.


The 53rd annual Mr. Olympia officially began at 12:23 PM on Thursday, September 14, 2017, in the Orleans Arena at the press conference when this question was asked: “Where will Ramy be this year?” And Mamdouh Elssbiay, who moved from eighth to seventh to fifth to fourth over his first four Olympias, predicted his biggest leap yet by holding up one finger. “I promise I’ll bring something new, never been seen before,” Ramy elaborated. Phil Heath first feigned that he welcomed the challenge of a ripped 300-pound “Fourth Pyramid,” but then U-turned: “Aw hell, he ain’t gonna do that s**t. I’m gonna win. I’m the dream killer. I get it. There’s no disrespect. I expect everyone to feel they can beat my ass. But you think it’s the first time I heard someone say they’re gonna beat me? Hell, Kai Greene used to say that, and he’s a lot better than people up here, and I beat his ass.” It took a while for the audience’s collective “whoa” to subside.

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Dexter Jackson (left) and Phil Heath at the 2017 Olympia press conference. / YouTube

William Bonac stated, “I’m expecting me and Phil to be the last men standing on Saturday.” The late Cedric McMillan orchestrated a minute of silence in memory of his fellow “Big Mac,” the late Dallas McCarver. Dexter Jackson, the only other Mr. Olympia winner onstage, exchanged good-natured barbs with Heath about who’d faced the toughest lineups. And it was Jackson, then two-months shy of 48, who got off the most memorable line of the event in answer to the question: When are you going to retire? “I give myself two-to-three years every year, and then I keep winning, so I keep adding two to three years.” He laughed along with everyone. “So, two to three years.” Jackson competed for the final time three years later.


For the first time, Roelly Winklaar took a whole year to grow, looking to better 2016’s Mr. Olympia sixth-place finish. It was evident from his first pose that he had indeed, somehow, managed to pack still more meat on his 5’8” frame—those arms! those delts!—but, at a glassy 264, Winklaar lacked the requisite detailing to move up.

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Roelly Winklaar crunches a most muscular. / YouTube


The top three is where Shawn Rhoden resided in four of the previous five Mr. Olympias, highlighted by his runner-up finish in 2016. But he was a bit blurry this time, forced to do battle without his most effective weapon—abdominal clarity. He also appeared a little smaller than previous years. As the 42-year-old Flexatron ran through his mandatory poses, it was clear that he would drop from the top trio. But how far would he fall?

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Shawn Rhoden hits his front lat spread. / YouTube


The opposite question accompanied Mamdouh Elssbiay: How high could he climb? Big Ramy, all three bills of him, made a meh first impression. Standing semi-relaxed and then striking a front double biceps, he was a mostly blank canvas, lacking ab or quad lines, and his waist seemed wide. But as he rolled through subsequent poses, he transformed. His hips vanished, lines materialized. In his phenomenal side and rear shots, he looked like the 14th Mr. Olympia. Aw hell, give him the Sandow now; Heath can’t hang with that. But then, just as swiftly, he lost his hold on the crowd and judges with a most muscular that failed to splinter his pecs and an abs and thigh that appeared downright blocky. It’s as if we watched him over a sequence of poses go from fourth to first to third.

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Big Ramy unfurls the widest rear lat spread of the contest. / YouTube


After beating every O contender at the Prague Pro two weeks after 2016’s Olympia, much was expected of William Bonac. And once again the 5’7”, 230-pound Dutchman delivered. With a full year of training, his pecs and hamstrings—my only two quibbles in 2016—were up to snuff. Nobody raised more fine detailing in their most muscular or rear double biceps than he did, and his side shots were especially strong, leaving observers to ponder where he could cram even one more lean pound onto his compact frame.

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William Bonac with a phenomenal side chest. / YouTube


In his 18th Mr. Olympia, Dexter Jackson was like UPS: He just kept delivering. He was far from his best this time but still great enough to vanquish almost all the younger challengers. Before retiring three years later, The Blade extended his record of Mr. Olympia appearances to a perhaps unreachable 21.

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Dexter Jackson fires off a front double biceps. / YouTube


First, the bad. Phil Heath’s abs were a bit faded, his waist looked bloated when untensed, his belly button was herniated. His midsection would ultimately be the worst in the top five. This didn’t endear him to internet trolls, who tired of his reign several Sandows before. That said, the Mr. Olympia isn’t a sexiest waist contest. There are two divisions—men’s physique and classic physique—that put a premium on midsection svelteness and detailing.

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Rear double biceps: the pose that won Phil Heath seven Mr. Olympias. / YouTube

Now, the good. Based on size, shape, and striations and seen from every angle, no one had better wheels than the reigning champ. “I wanted to neutralize the strengths of others, and a lot of other guys have great legs,” Heath said of a plan that paid off. “And as you can see over the past couple years, I took my leg game to a whole ‘nother level. And I just wanted to be grainy. I wanted to show I was maturing.” That, too, he accomplished. As he ran through his poses, it was clear the 245-pound Gift had been better before, but it was also pretty clear that none of the 17 men who preceded him on the Orleans Arena stage were markedly better than him.


Left to right: Rhoden, Bonac, Heath, Ellsbiay, Jackson, Brandon Curry. In his eighth pro year, the latter man was in the shape of his life, and, with Bonac, one of the two best conditioned bodybuilders in the lineup. What’s more, at 252 pounds, he’d added fullness. Curry benefited from striking shots elbow-to-elbow with Jackson, whose legs also lagged. Sharper and wider, Curry beat Jackson in pose after pose. I had Curry fourth, but he eventually slipped to eighth. Two years later, he won the whole thing. Head judge Steve Weinberger told me, “He was phenomenally conditioned, but he’s missing size. His legs need to grow.”

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First callout (left to right): Rhoden, Bonac, Heath, Ramy, Jackson, Curry / YouTube


Left to right: Josh Lenartowicz, Winklaar, Rhoden, Curry, Nathan De Asha, Cedric McMillan. Both Lenartowicz and De Asha looked better from the front than the rear—the former because of an absence of rear striations and the latter because of his lagging lats. In fact, De Asha’s front double biceps and front lat spread were two of the most amazing poses of the weekend and surely helped him climb through the ranks to seventh. Coming off his victory at the 2017 Arnold Classic, much was expected of Cedric McMillan. But the 40-year-old was smooth and ultimately dropped to 10th.

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Second callout: Lenartowicz, Winklaar, Rhoden, Curry, De Asha, McMillan / YouTube


Everyone else: Johnnie Jackson, Lukas Osladil, Lionel Beyeke, Victor Martinez, Maxx Charles, Michael Lockett, Gerald Williams, Jeff Beckham. These were the eight men destined to finish out of the top 10. As had been said many times over the previous six years, Lionel Beyeke had enough shapely size to contend for a top spot, but, once again, he was buttery and failed to even land in single digits. The positively peeled Lucas Osladil deserved Beyeke’s 11th (or McMillan’s 10th), but he can take consolation in the fact that he was only one point behind Beyeke in the final tally, and he earned one of the loudest roars of prejudging with his freakish glute rolling. What’s glute rolling? It’s a Lucas thing.

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Third callout (left to right): Jeff Beckham, Johnnie Jackson, Maxx Charles, Lionel Beyeke, Victor Martinez, Lukas Osladil, Gerald Williams, Michael Lockett / YouTube

Jeff Beckham and Victor Martinez were disqualified when they failed to show up for Saturday’s finals.


Bonac, Heath, Elssbiay. Here it was—the top three. The champ started in the coveted center space, but when Weinberger moved Elssbiay there, much of the crowd bellowed approval, and Ramy applauded as if clashing cymbals. Heath laughed. Ramy exerted his width advantage over the other two, seemingly taking up twice as much space with his hang glider rear lat spread. Bonac was moved to the middle, and the crowd cheered again. When Heath ended in the center spot again, some in the audience booed. Seven years is a long time.

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Bonac, Heath, Ramy / YouTube


Twenty hours later, backstage before Saturday’s finals, Heath wore a The Terminator T-shirt as a nod to the legend he would soon catch. (Later, he posed to music from the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack—another nod.) I asked him about the shuffling of positions in the last callout the night before. “I think the fans need to see that,” Heath answered. “I can see how the fans get riled up when their favorite guy gets moved to the middle, and I like seeing that. I think the showmanship and fun was there last night. They were creeping the line [moving in front of the stage’s taped line] and all that. They were doing every trick that I taught them. Tonight, I’m here to chop their damn heads off. I’m trying not to sound too cocky, but they don’t have what I have. They just don’t. And their fans or whatever need to realize that their favorite person didn’t come in off. They looked really good. They’re just not me. They just weren’t as good. That’s how it is. If everyone runs a 100-meter dash at their fastest, Usain Bolt is still going to break the world record, no matter what they do.”

Only the top 10 Mr. Olympia competitors performed their posing routines in what was a refreshingly fast-paced show.

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Side chests: Jackson, Heath, Ramy, Bonac / YouTube

In the past, the second of the Mr. Olympia’s inner circles, after the top 10 and before the top three, was the top six—the posedown spots. Now that second circle is the top five. Only its members earn qualifications for the next Olympia, and in 2017 only they flexed in the posedown. Sixth on Friday, Rhoden overtook Winklaar on Saturday for that valuable fifth spot. Dexter Jackson scored straight fourths for his 12th Olympia top-four finish, which two years later he pushed to 13—yet another record for The Blade.


The contest’s crucial runner-up battle, between Ellsbiay and Bonac, was a contrast in physique types, as the ultra-wide Egyptian outweighed the ultra-ripped Dutchman by roughly 70 pounds. Bonac held a one-point lead after Friday’s prejudging, but gave it up at Saturday’s finals, ultimately sliding into third only two points behind Ramy. “Phil and Ramy both improved from last night. William looked better yesterday,” head judge Weinberger told me after the contest, not long after Bonac told me he’d filled out a few pounds for Saturday. Still, Bonac’s gold teeth glimmered as he effused about his finish, “Great feeling, of course, from fifth place [at last year’s Olympia] to third place. I think I could’ve done better. I’m happy with my placement, though. I keep moving up.”

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Bonac, Heath, Ramy / YouTube

And then there were two. And when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson announced, “…the seven-time Mr. Olympia, Phil ‘The Gift’ Heath,” the man who would remain atop the bodybuilding world for another year collapsed to the stage in tears. Backstage, an emotionally exhausted Big Ramy expressed happiness with his placing, gratitude to his worldwide fans, and the conviction that he would be the 14th Mr. Olympia. Three years later, he became the 16th after Shawn Rhoden and Brandon Curry. Weinberger said of Ramy: “He looked great, the best he’s ever looked, but he still could be about five percent harder.” The head judge went on to tell me what separated the top three men: “It always comes down to size and conditioning. If you’re in really good conditioning and you have enough muscle, you’ll bump up. You can’t just have great size and not have conditioning. And you can’t just have conditioning without good size and shape.” That’s bodybuilding.

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Who you got? Heath vs. Ramy / YouTube


So, for the seventh time in seven years, Phil Heath was deemed by the judges to have the winning formula of size, shape, and conditioning. He went where only three other men in the history of the Mr. Olympia have gone, as he tied Arnold Schwarzenegger with seven titles and landed just behind Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman, who both have eight. I asked him, backstage just after he won #7, what’s different about his reign from the reigns of those legends. “I think what I’ve changed is being able to take the criticism from the beginning and prove that, no matter what someone said, I could improve that body part,” Heath answered.

He has certainly done that, just as he’s faced much harsher criticism than previous Mr. O’s. “I’m the first Mr. Olympia to be in the social media age. That’s a whole other line of pressure that people don’t understand, and that no other Mr. Olympia other than maybe Jay [Cutler] got a taste of, but this is at its peak. So anyone coming after my dynasty they’re going to have to withstand enormous amounts of pressure when it comes to social media.”

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The emotions of Olympia victory #7 / YouTube

Over the next year, Phil Heath had to withstand more criticism than ever before as he attempted to reach bodybuilding’s ultimate mark of excellence—eight. There were legions of haters who didn’t want a man whom they saw as an undersized, pregnant-bellied, narrow, arrogant usurper of the throne to reach the exalted height of eight. They said Arnold or Haney or Coleman or a half-dozen other legends at their peak would’ve put him in his (non-first) place. But contests aren’t virtual. They’re real and against flawed human beings in the here and now. Ultimately, he didn’t get eight. But he’ll always have those seven, like Arnold.

Phil Heath won his seventh Sandow trophy, fair and square. You can yearn for different outcomes. That’s your privilege as a fan of this subjective pursuit. You can tweet your criticisms, you can post photos of him at his worst next to [insert name of your favorite] at his best, and you can wish it was still and forever 1998. But someone standing beside Phil Heath on the Orleans Arena stage at Mr. Olympia needed to best him with a superior combination of size, shape, and conditioning. If not, he was always ready and able to kill their dreams once again, and yours, too.

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The Rock talks to the 7-time champ. / YouTube


September 15-16, 2017 / Orleans Arena, Las Vegas

1. Phil Heath  ($400,000)

2. Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay  ($150,000)

3. William Bonac  ($100,000)

4. Dexter Jackson  ($55,000)

5. Shawn Rhoden  ($45,000)

6. Roelly Winklaar  ($35,000)

7. Nathan De Asha  ($25,000)

8. Brandon Curry  ($20,000)

9. Josh Lenartowicz  ($19,000)

10. Cedric McMillan  ($16,000)

11. Lionel Beyeke  ($4000)

12. Lukas Osladil  ($4000)

13. Maxx Charles  ($4000)

14. Johnnie Jackson  ($4000)

15. Gerald Williams  ($4000)

16. Michael Lockett  ($2000)

Jeff Beckman — disqualified

Victor Martinez — disqualified

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A different version of this article originally appeared in the December 2017 FLEX magazine under the title “The Dream Killer.”