From the dawn of the ’60s to the early years of the 21st century, Southern California was the bodybuilding capital of the world. Gold’s Gym opened in Venice (a West Los Angeles neighborhood) in 1965. After a decade of heavily promoting its beaches and gyms, Joe Weider moved his magazine empire to L.A. in 1972. And from 1970 to 1985, every Mr. Olympia, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Lee Haney lived there, regularly photographed and promoted in Weider’s mags. It remained the mecca of muscle for at least another two decades, home to more champs, permanently or temporarily, than anywhere else, even as the Mr. Olympia winner resided elsewhere. The success of Haney (who relocated to Atlanta) Dorian Yates (in England) and Ronnie Coleman (in Texas) proved you could be Mr. O from anywhere. And then came the rise of the internet and the decline of the muscle mags.
The Olympia contests moved to Las Vegas in 1999, and, in the aftermath, so did bodybuilders, most notably Jay Cutler, who won four Mr. Olympias living there. When I was working for FLEX, we regularly did shoots with Cutler and others in Vegas, promoting Sin City the same way we had long promoted Venice. Dennis Wolf moved there. So did 10-time Ms. Olympia Iris Kyle and Hide Yamagishi. Maybe the greatest signs of the changing times was when, recently, Flex Wheeler, the ultimate ’90s Southern California bodybuilder, Milos Sarcev, who previously owned the SoCal gym where FLEX did many of its photoshoots, and Shawn Rhoden, the only person in over 30 years to win the Mr. Olympia (2018) while training in SoCal, all relocated to Vegas. Last year’s retirement of Floridian Dexter Jackson, who trained for contests out of Gold’s Gym, Venice, in recent years, was another blow to the mecca’s reputation.
This year, 7-time 212 Mr. O Flex Lewis moved to Vegas and opened a gym, The Dragon’s Lair (7850 Dean Martin Dr. # 506). Soon thereafter, Kyle and Yamagishi, who previously had a Vegas supplement shop, opened Powerhouse Gym (1950 S. Rainbow Blvd. #104). The Dragon’s Lair has already become a celebrity training spot, just as Gold’s Venice has long been.
So, is Vegas the new muscle mecca? Not really. So far, it’s more like bodybuilding’s retirement village.
Look again at all the highlighted names above. Although not all of them are officially retired, none of them are competing in this year’s Olympia. Egypt’s Big Ramy is prepping in Phoenix; Tennessee’s Brandon Curry is in Kuwait; Iran’s Hadi Choopan is in San Jose, California; William Bonac is in the Netherlands; Hunter Labrada is in Houston; and on and on. No Vegas residents are in this year’s Mr. Olympia. By contrast, 11 of the 21 competitors in the 2001 Mr. Olympia prepped in Southern California (seven were training in Gold’s Gym, Venice). But then none of this year’s Mr. O competitors are training in greater Los Angeles, either.
How things have changed. Bodybuilding is no longer about magazine photoshoots. It’s now about a competitor’s own Instagram and YouTube feeds. Champs can self-promote anywhere. Even the Olympia itself moved on, relocating to Orlando during the pandemic last year, and it’s there again this year. For now, for muscle, it seems there no longer is a go-to-place. If you’re in Venice, check out Muscle Beach, train at Gold’s, eat at the Firehouse. If you’re in Vegas, train at The Dragon’s Lair, train at Powerhouse Gym, eat at Protein House. But the bodybuilding community no longer has a capital. It’s nowhere, and it’s everywhere.
Opening Photo: Wikimedia