1. Big Ramy is the 16th Mr. Olympia.
Let’s start with the most important thing: the O. 2020 was a WTF year. Because of the pandemic, the Olympia was delayed three months until December and moved from Las Vegas to Orlando. Nevertheless, its lineup was stronger than the year prior. Featured were three previous Mr. Olympias: 7-time winner Phil Heath, returning champ Brandon Curry, and the winningest pro Dexter Jackson (in his final show). Also, vying for the title were the men who placed second (William Bonac) and third (Hadi Choopan) in 2019. All of those names were mentioned before Big Ramy in most prognostications.
After Ramy placed a disappointing sixth in the 2018 Olympia, sat out 2019, and was third behind Bonac and Jackson at the 2020 Arnold Classic, he seemed to be regressing. The rap was Big Ramy would always be the widest guy and flex the biggest quads, but he just couldn’t bring out enough details for bodybuilding’s ultimate title. When he contracted Covid-19 and had to drop out of an October contest, he needed a special invite just to enter the 2020 Mr. Olympia. It had been three long years since he’d been in the O top five. But in Orlando, after working with trainer Dennis James and nutritionist Chad Nichols, he shocked the world by finally appearing hi-def. Big Ramy romped to victory, easily becoming the 16th Mr. Olympia in the contest’s 56-year history.
2. “Big Ramy” was his nickname before bodybuilding.
When Dennis James told me about Mamdouh Elssbiay in 2012, he said everyone calls him “Big Ramy.” I assumed this was because his given name could tongue-tie English-speakers. But, no, his nickname is his name. Everyone does indeed call him Big Ramy and only Big Ramy (or just Ramy), including the Arabic-speakers in his native Egypt and even Big Ramy’s wife. And everyone was doing so before he ever stepped on a bodybuilding stage. Ramy means “loving” in Arabic (it also means “archer”). He earned the nickname because of his friendly personality. Only “Big” came later, for obvious reasons.
3. Big Ramy was a fisherman in Egypt and then lived in a Kuwaiti gym.
Big Ramy was born into a large family on September 16, 1984, and raised in a small seaside town on the northern coast of Egypt. Before bodybuilding, like his father and his six brothers, he became a fisherman. It seemed that was his destiny. But he discovered he enjoyed lifting weights. And he saw a way of making that a job, if not a career; he trained other men in an Oxygen Gym in Kuwait.
When his muscle-growing potential impressed Oxygen’s owner, Big Ramy moved into a room in the flagship Oxygen. “A typical day for Ramy is that he wakes up, goes downstairs and does cardio, showers, then he works the pro shop for about 10 hours a day, trains that night, and then goes to sleep,” former pro bodybuilder Dennis James said of those early years when he began coaching Big Ramy via translated email messages.
4. Big Ramy was a phenom.
In 2009 at age 25, encouraged by others, Big Ramy began to seriously pursue bodybuilding. It was a late start. But, remarkably, only two and a half years later he’d already morphed into one of the world’s best bodybuilders! Big Ramy completed one of the fastest and most dramatic transformations in bodybuilding history when, in 2012, he won the first three bodybuilding contests he entered (two in Kuwait, one in Qatar). Competing at 286 lbs. in his debut amateur year, he’d already qualifying for the IFBB Pro League, and already he was the talk of bodybuilding. Who is that Egyptian giant? Look at his shoulder width! Look at his quads! Are those photos real? Believe the hype.
In May of 2013, Big Ramy won his pro debut—the New York Pro—only his fourth bodybuilding contest! He repeated as New York champ the following May, part of a five-year-string of winning one pro show annually. Meanwhile, he climbed through the Mr. Olympia ranks, from eighth in 2013 to second in 2017. But for the subsequent three years, it looked like that would be his career apex. Was this star who burned so brightly so fast fading out? Of course, the best was yet to come. Currently, Big Ramy is the fourth Mr. Olympia champ over the last four years. Can he break the string and repeat this October in Orlando?
5. Big Ramy is only the second Mr. Olympia to live outside America.
Three of the first four Mr. Olympias were immigrants to America, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that’s true of two more since. But only one other Mr. O, England’s Dorian Yates, a 6-time winner, lived outside the U.S.A. during his reign. Big Ramy lives in Egypt with his wife, Marwa, and their three daughters. When, for decades, American muscle magazines dished the publicity, it was almost mandatory for Olympia top contenders to live in the U.S.A.—ideally, Southern California. But with the demise of print and the rise of internet and social media, pro bodybuilders can now publicize themselves anywhere from their Instagram and YouTube accounts.
Fifty-five years after the first Olympia in 1965, Ramy’s victory last December represented the globalization of bodybuilding at its highest level. Bodybuilding is especially popular in the Middle East, and, as an Arabic-speaking Muslim in Egypt, Big Ramy is only expanding its acceptance there.