2019 Olympia / webcast

1. Bodybuilding came really, really easy to him.

Even as a kid Curry was, in his own words, “kind of more muscular than everyone else around.” By his junior year of high school, he was the strongest member of the football team, though he was only 170. At 19, he finally succumbed to all the calls to enter a bodybuilding contest and won not just the novice but the open overall, as well.

First contest at 19 / Instagram

Muscle just kept clinging to him. In his early 20s, he rocketed through the NPC ranks: 2005 Collegiate Nationals overall, 2006 Jr. Nationals light-heavy second, heavy seconds in the 2007 USA and Nationals, 2008 USA heavy and overall champ. Boom, he was 25 and a pro, and he’d barely broken a sweat. In fact, he was still ambivalent about the whole bodybuilding thing that came so easy to him, even (or maybe because) his arms, shoulders, and back proved he was phenomenally gifted. Oh, as for those arms, he rarely even trained them (or shoulders). “I just throw a few sets in sometimes,” he said in 2007. “My arms grow whatever I do.”

2. A fairy tale came true.

In August 2000, Brandy Leaver enrolled in a high school in Nashville, Tennessee, 4000 miles from her childhood home in Hawaii. Talk about culture shock. On her very first day, the very first person she met was Brandon Curry, a football player and wrestler. They became best friends, but just friends. She encouraged him to try bodybuilding, but he said he’d never stand on a stage in a Speedo. Before the school year was over, she returned to Hawaii. The end.

But it was just the beginning. They kept in touch. And as the years went by, she rose in prominence as a fitness model as he ascended the NPC ranks. They reconnected at the 2006 Mr. Olympia, where both were handing out samples at expo booths, and when she was probably more famous (2005 Miss Hawaiian Tropic USA) than he was. They were in the same industry, but still they lived worlds apart.

Then, in May 2008, still never having dated, they eloped in Las Vegas. “We didn’t even have rings,” Leaver says, “because it wasn’t planned, and we didn’t have the money to get rings anyhow.” They had their first real date after the ceremony. “I have to admit, it was strange to go from him being my best friend to becoming married and lovers literally overnight,” she says. Over 19 years after they first met, 13 years after they reconnected, and 11 years after they married, they’re raising four children together (with a fifth on the way) in Tennessee, living happily ever after.

His family joins him onstage after his Olympia win. / Instagram

3. He freestyled.

Back in the day, his training was so improvisational that I coined the workout term “freestyle” to explain it after watching him hit back in the summer of 2008. He frequently just picked one exercise per body part and cranked out 15-20 sets, pyramiding up to five reps and then punishing himself with drop sets. The next workout for that body part, he’d do a different exercise the same way. Maybe he’d do nothing but squats one workout and lunges the next and hack squats the workout after that. Unorthodox as this was, it had the benefit of simplicity. By only focusing on one movement, he could really focus on that movement and the targeted muscles.  

February 2018 / Instagram

Other times, he did multiple exercises, but some of them were his own creations. I watched him do a one-arm, standing cable “row,” during which his arm barely moved as he focused only on the final few inches and maximum contractions. And he changed his plans frequently (or never made plans), calling audibles.

“I just train according to how I feel,” he said. “Plus, I don’t ever want my body to get used to my workouts. If I’m constantly changing things up, it can’t adapt.” He has a more structured routine today, when working out for months each year with a trainer in Oxygen Gym in Kuwait, but he still maintains that willingness to alter course at any time to maximize muscle stimulation.

4. His pro bodybuilding career before 2017 was meh.

There were a couple highs—an eighth in his Olympia debut in 2011 (future Mr. O Shawn Rhoden was 11th that year in his O debut), a victory at the 2013 Arnold Classic Brazil. There were more lows—the DNPs (did not place; i.e. out of the top 15) in his only other Olympias: 2013, 2015, and 2016. But mostly there were just a lot of forgettable placings, somewhere in the demoralizing middle, beyond the first callout, far away from the trophy and the big money and the Olympia buzz. Time after time, the 5’8” and 230ish Curry was just another guy filling out lineups.

His physique wasn’t changing. He brought the same strong upper half and weaker lower half and frequently murky conditioning to contest after contest around the globe. In 2015 and 2016, he entered 17 shows on every continent but Antarctica, and, though he won one and was second in another, he was next-to-last in the final one, in Kuwait, and, in the one before that, in Prague, he was dead last, behind a quartet of dudes you’ve never heard of and never will. Ouch. And that, seemingly, was that, another bodybuilder with lots of potential who never realized it. Or maybe he did. Maybe he’d given it all he had, and maybe, even with his phenomenal gifts, his best just wasn’t good enough. Bodybuilding is cruel like that.

5. No one has taken a longer journey to the top.

With Al Otaibi in Oxygen Gym, Oct. 2017 / Instagram

The freestyling guy had grown too comfortable in a lazy city in central Tennessee, far away from everything. If he was going to rescue his career, he had to shake it up. So, he stayed for months on the other side of the world, in Kuwait, to train at the famous Oxygen Gym, coached by Abdullah Al Otaibi. Shaking it up, indeed. And it worked. He won three of the four pro shows he entered in 2017, and though he was eighth in the fourth, the Mr. Olympia, many, including this press pit observer, felt he deserved better. At long last, he had buzz.

After an Olympia fifth in ’18, he beat two of the four guys who’d placed ahead of him then at last year’s Arnold Classic on his way to an A.C. victory at a supersized 250ish. And the other two guys who beat him in ’18, Shawn Rhoden and Phil Heath, were out of last year’s Olympia, making 36-year-old journeyman Brandon Curry the pre-contest favorite. When he won the Mr. Olympia (the contest he’d DNPed just three years prior), it was the all-time longest journey from earning pro status to winning bodybuilding’s ultimate title—11 years—a testament to perseverance and the rare willingness of a graying dawg to learn new tricks. Complacency be damned. Change is the essence of bodybuilding.

  Opening image: 2019 Olympia webcast