Dexter Jackson holds a lot of records: most pro victories (28)*, most pro contests (89)*, most pro years (22), most American Arnold Classic wins (5), most Mr. Olympia entries (21), most Mr. Olympia top-6 finishes (16), and on and on. It’s difficult to see any of those just listed being broken. Jackson, who turned 51 on November 26, competed for the final time in the Olympia a month later, a span that touches on four decades.

It began with his rookie campaign in 1999 at the dawn of the Ronnie Coleman era and ascended to his own Olympia victory in 2008 (when he was already a 38-year-old grizzled vet), bracketed by Jay Cutler’s foursome. He was fading by early 2012, but he reinvented himself in his 40s, training in Venice, California, with Charles Glass, re-inflating his flattening wheels, and he just kept going and going, Arnold victories, seconds and thirds in the Olympia, through the Phil Heath dynasty on and on and into the ’20s—his fourth decade as a pro.

Dexter Jackson bodybuilder
1999 Mr. Olympia (29 years old, 9th place); 2019 Mr. Olympia (49 years old, 5th place)

He wasn’t alone as a middle-aged pro. Phil Heath is 41. Roelly Winklaar is 43. If Kai Greene or Shawn Rhoden compete again, they’ll be be closer to 50 than 40. But the big 5-0, that’s lonely terrain. There you’re only chasing ghosts, names many have forgotten. At 50, Vince Taylor finished 11th in the 2006 Olympia, and, at 51, he competed in the Mr. O the following year (but didn’t place). And Albert Beckles won a minor pro show in 1991 at the record age of 52, but, though he competed frequently in the couple years after his 50th b-day, that win was the only time he finished higher than fifth during that span.

Dexter had grander goals. As a grandfather, The Blade planned to compete in the 2020 Olympia, his 21st (record), and land in the top six once again. What’s more, he vowed to better the shape he showed in 2019, when, at 49, he won a pro show and was fourth in the Olympia. He posted on Instagram a gray-bearded photo from just before the 2019 O with a promise:

Dexter Jackson bodybuilder Olympia

I’m so motivated to beat this physique from this past Olympia. My lifetime goal has always been to be better than my previous competition. I worked my ass off this year to achieve this physique… so I can only imagine the hard work I gotta put in next year to be better. I’ll be the big 5O next week so my age ain’t helping. 😳 I damn near killed myself this year. Lol! I will be better next year or I’ll die trying. So if y’all see or hear that the blade passed.. you’ll know why. 😂😂😂 All you guys out there think back or pull out a photo of yourself when you looked your best and make it a goal to be better than that and don’t let nothing stop you from achieving that goal!! Ima be better next year.. are you?? 😉

Dexter at 51, finished ninth in the 2020 Mr. Olympia, his final contest. That’s yet another record: oldest bodybuilder to make the Mr. Olympia top 10. Fittingly, he was ninth in his first Olympia too, 22 years before, back in the ’90s. He left the way he entered, and in those two decades in between he had one of the greatest careers of any bodybuilder who ever flexed. And he did it, at 5’6″ when he was frequently outmuscled, with shape, conditioning, and enough size to win poses you thought he’d lose. Your eyes were drawn to him, away from some behemoth on his left and another on his right. He just had it.

“I’m done competing,” Dexter said after his final Olympia. “But I’m not going anywhere. I love bodybuilding. I love what it’s given me. I love training. I love the whole lifestyle. I’ll be around for a long time. And when I look back, I’ll know I gave it my all. I’ll know this sport took me to places I never thought I’d reach. It’s been amazing.”

He was the perennial. Guys came and went, their hype rose and faded, and Dexter kept right on flexing. Every September, there he was, sauntering to the center of the Orleans Arena stage in Las Vegas with his trademark glacial entry, and when the final six were announced, there he was again. But now that era has, finally, ended.

Backstage at the Orleans, after he won the 2008 Olympia, I asked him if he thought about what it meant to be the number one bodybuilder in the world. “No, no. It’s gonna sink in. I don’t know when, but…” Overcome by the magnitude of what he accomplished, words failed him. Emotions swirled. Dexter Jackson exhaled, grinned, and shook his head. “Mr. Olympia. Come on, that’s crazy.” Maybe it did seem crazy just then, when he was considering how far he’d come. But now it seems like it was inevitable, the greatest of his many, many accomplishments.

* Doesn’t include his two Masters Olympia wins.

Opening photo: Instagram