Dexter Jackson muscles into center stage against Jay Cutler and Phil Heath. / Muscletime: Raymond Cassar
“Mr. Olympia. Come on, that’s crazy.” — Dexter Jackson after winning the Mr. Olympia
It’s just a shell, or so they say. No matter how much flesh Mr. Olympia carries about each day—and it is one hell of a shell—he and the other 18 competitors on bodybuilding’s biggest stage think and sense and dream from inside their bodies. Mind over muscle, indeed. That’s the essence of the Mr. Olympia experience. Of course, physiques and not feelings are evaluated by judges in the arena and by fans around the globe via photos, and so you may believe the contest consists only of surfaces, but the closer you get the more you can see—nay, feel—that it’s a boiling cauldron of variant emotions bubbling to the surface, among them: hope, mirth, sorrow, disbelief, surprise, chagrin, reverence, and bliss. We journey backstage and center stage, to the days just before and the minutes just after to reveal a Mr. Olympia contest like never before—the inside view and the feelings inside.
It’s not just an election slogan. From the man gunning for his third Sandow to those who would be satisfied cracking the top 15, hope is palpable at the athletes meeting. We’re in the Gold Room of the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas two days before the big dance. Jay Cutler, the reigning Mr. Olympia, jokes with me and Peter McGough and trades messages on his BlackBerry. His hope is that this will be the victory that silences his critics, all the internet snipers who’ve fired at him relentlessly since he won at less than his best last year. He shows me a BlackBerry photo of himself hitting a rear double biceps hours early, and he’s a relief map of hills, valleys and canyons. “I got a lot of surprises for Friday night,” he asserts with a grin.
I know not to trust my own eyes when viewing a bodybuilder by himself in dim lighting seen on a pocket-sized screen, for you could hardly find three factors further removed from contest comparisons, and yet on the basis of that shot alone it does indeed appear his confidence is warranted. Throughout the year, he only admitted it in private, but it can now be reported that there’s only one man in the Gold Room Cutler is worried about, and he is seated directly in front of him: Dennis Wolf. Despite what the placings said, many felt the German matched the champ in magnitude and bested him in configuration the year before, and with additional pounds in the right places ’08 could be the year of the Wolf. The 29-year-old Wolf didn’t skip the Arnold Classic to merely move up a spot or two at the Olympia. He hopes to travel back to Dortmund with a Sandow.
Seated next to Cutler is the man who, on paper at least, is his main contender. Beginning with the 2002 Olympia, Dexter Jackson was either third (twice) or fourth (thrice) whenever he stood on bodybuilding’s biggest stage. We got so used to seeing him in the same (peeled) condition and yet always a subplot as Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman battled for the crown that it grew difficult to picture him as even the runner-up, let alone the victor. Never having been second, Jackson himself wasn’t visualizing a leap to the top. After the contest, he admitted, “I definitely was thinking second. I’m not gonna kid myself. I knew I could win, I knew I should win, but I was thinking he’s Mr. Olympia, and Mr. Olympia don’t just lose.”
The man in the back, directly behind Cutler, Jackson and Wolf, is also not focused on a win. Unlike the champ and the Blade, both entering their ninth O’s, or even Wolf, here for the third time, it’s the Olympia maiden voyage for Phil Heath. “I’m more anxious than nervous,” the Gift claims. “It’s been kind of a trip, sitting back here and thinking these guys have been doing this forever, and I’m just kind of learning as much as I can along the way.” When I bring up the legends who placed second or third in their rookie Olympia’s, Heath is already aware of the history. Many pre-contest prognosticators have him slated for fourth, but his goal is to match the likes of Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, Kevin Levrone, and Flex Wheeler and make the top three, bodybuilding’s highest sanctum, on his initial attempt.
Before competitors pick up their numbers, hand over their posing music CDs, and receive their warmup suits, and before Jackson jokingly calls Heath “Denver nugget” and a grinning Heath returns volley with “That’s the rusty old Blade” and before the champ and the contenders amble out the door and down the hall, chief expediter Steve Stone speaks to the competitors, explaining details of the contest’s staging and schedule and reiterating that he and his staff are there for them. The last thing he tells them is, “I hope everybody has a great show.”
There are serious moments at the press conference, mostly in the form of such platitudes as “I can’t wait for tomorrow” and “I’m in my best shape ever,” but camaraderie and comedy are preeminent. Emcees Bob Cicherillo and Dan Solomon do their best to stir up turmoil, but jousting remains good-natured. Wolf infers that Culter was running away from him in the ’07 posedown, and Mr. O quips of his fellow blond, “Was he in the show last year?” Wolf later jokes, “One thing better with Jay is his English. That’s it.”
Jackson exchanges jibes with both Heath and Cutler before stating, “I didn’t make changes to fend off Phil. I’m trying to catch Jay.”
Melvin Anthony supplies many of the biggest laughs, sometimes via mere pantomime, as when he plays an invisible violin while Moe Elmoussawi recounts losing to the Marvelous One by a single point at the Australian Grand Prix. The only genuine contention is between Silvio Samuel and Gustavo Badell, but Anthony deflates their accented squabble with a Spanglish-to-English translation: “I know you are but what am I? I know you are but what am I? I’ll beat you. No, I’ll beat you. No, I’ll beat you.” Samuel and Badell clasp hands and hug it out. In the end, when Cutler is asked if he’s in his best shape ever, he deadpans, “I look okay.”
Before Friday evening’s prejudging, heads lower and slowly shake, tears slide down cheeks, chests heave with a seemingly unbearable weight as officials, competitors and reporters hear the news. That afternoon, Steve Stone, 52, collapsed and died backstage at the women’s prejudging. As a competitor, television host, promoter, official, and expediter, Stone was a fixture in bodybuilding for two decades. There are testimonials to him at both the Friday and Saturday evening shows, but the greatest tribute is how many people—from close friends to athletes who knew him mostly for his friendliness—are profoundly pained by his passing.
At 6:40, Jackson is the first competitor to arrive at the Orleans Arena, looking, as always, cool and confident. When I tell him the men probably won’t take the stage till 9:00, he saunters back down the hall as fast as a glacier, returning to his hotel room. Cutler arrives at 7:30 and Heath shortly thereafter. The Gift tells me he didn’t know where to go when he got to the venue but it started to feel familiar the moment he stepped backstage because he had seen it in the training and contest DVDs he watched over and over again. We laugh when I remind him that I snuck him into his first Olympia (don’t tell anyone) three years prior, and here he is preparing to flex on stage.
“This is my time,” he contends. “A lot of people have seen me be relaxed this whole prep, but in the back of my mind I know I’ve been training my whole bodybuilding life for this moment, and by not doing the show those two years [skipping the 2006 and 2007 Mr. Olympias after qualifying] it definitely allowed me to take little steps. But now I’m just really pumped. I’m happy to be here, but I want one of those top three medals.” As in the Olympics, the top three Olympia finishers receive a gold, silver or bronze medal—a reward the Gift has made his focus during countless stepmill sessions, T-bar row sets, and chicken breast meals.
A half-hour later, eyes closed, Heath prays with Michael Wenger, better known as Pastor Mike, in one dressing room. Cutler poses for his DVD crew in another. In a third, Anthony (eating honey on rice cakes), Dexter Jackson, and Dennis James lie on the carpeted floor recounting hilarious tales of European pro shows (few of which could be repeated here) as O neophytes Fouad Abiad and Leo Ingram listen. Neither of the latter two will place in the contest, but both are determined to savor every moment. Ingram, whose highest pro finish was eighth before he qualified for the O with a third in Houston, wears a perpetual grin all weekend. Standing against the wall near Jackson is last year’s Olympia runner-up, out of commission this time after knee surgery in January, and there is an air of wistfulness about Victor Martinez as he listens to his peers reminisce before they oil up and pump up and stride on stage to battle yet again.
Seated next to me at the prejudging is the legend who competed in more Olympias than anyone (15) and won it a record-tying eight times [1998-2005]. This is the first time in 15 years Ronnie Coleman has faced the stage instead of stood on it, and I ask him how that feels. “It ain’t hit me that I’m at the Olympia yet and not up there. I’m still having so much fun working out and eating that I still feel like I’m doing the show even though I’m out here and not up there, so it’s gonna be weird to just watch.” He adds with a laugh, “I’ll probably want to hit a pose or something.”
After the competitors strike their compulsory poses individually and are poised in two lines on opposite sides of the stage, his is the first name head judge Jim Rockell calls, and at the sound of it electricity surges through him. Toney Freeman punches the air and steps to the center, awaiting the others in Mr. Olympia’s first callout, and nullifying his usually blasé demeanor, the 42-year-old Georgian rocks on his feet, unable to contain his excitement. In his best-ever condition at 280, the 6’2″ X-Man is an aesthetically pleasing big man, which, to many, is the ideal description of Mr. Olympia. It’s only in the side shots where he could benefit from more flesh (to compensate, he hits his side tri pose nearly facing the crowd), but you’ll endeavor in vain to find flaws in his front lat spread or abs and thigh compulsories.
When I ask him to verbalize the feeling of getting the first callout, especially after he barely placed last year (he was 14th), Freeman answers: “I did the impossible, basically. It felt like vindication of sorts. Last year was really hard on me, but I think I tried too hard and ended up making myself sick and ruining the whole thing. This year I wanted to do every show. I did most of them, and I got better every time, if you take out one [Atlantic City]. You know, bodybuilding is like anything else. You got to keep doing it to get better at it. And I feel like I know my body a lot better now, and it showed on stage.”
Joining Freeman in the first callout are Cutler, Jackson, and Heath, and the reigning champ is harmed by the company he keeps. When standing next to Coleman since 2003 and even Martinez last year, Cutler’s primary flaws—his broad hips and the accompanying wide waist—were not so readily apparent, but here with these three waistless wonders renown for their pleasing lines, the champ’s middle seems to stretch outward and his lines appear to erase.
Even though the left one is clearly more inflated than the right, Cutler’s wheels are the best in the contest (his calves could’ve won gold, silver, and bronze) and his abs are like distinct ravioli squares, but his upper half is blurry, and there is simply no escaping his blockiness. When he turns around, lumbar skin folds are more pronounced than ever in his rear double bi, and his lat spread no longer eclipses those who stand too close. Freeman’s lats appear as broad, and Jackson and Heath reveal deeper back ravines.
Carrying over from the Arnold Classic where they were one-two with Jackson on top, the Blade versus the Gift is now the most compelling comparison in bodybuilding for precisely the reason Heath verbalized before prejudging: “He’s where I want to be. I look at him as the epitome of aesthetics and conditioning and consistency, and that’s what I want to be, so I want to get to where he is and surpass it.” Arguably, he has, for no one reveals more clefts in the rear double biceps pose than the Gift, and his side tri and most muscular (his hands-clasped version) are the best in the contest.
Of his own shape, Jackson will later explain why the Blade was a bit duller than usual: “The Olympia is more of a bigger guy show, so I wanted to bring in more of an Olympia-type physique. I wasn’t as tight as I was at the Arnold. I was a tad bit softer, but really thicker, really fuller, which was what we thought would win this type of show.”
For all their similarities, there are key differences between Jackson and Heath. The former has narrower hips, wider clavicles, higher lats and fuller bis, a combination which provides his advantage in the front double biceps, despite the Gift’s superior legs. The Blade also has more quad detail from the sides, and his midsection is the contest’s best when viewed in the abs and thigh compulsory—largely on the strength of his piano key obliques. I have Jackson taking front double bi, side chest, and rear lat spread and Heath taking front lat spread, rear double bi, side tri, and most muscular, with a tie on abs and thigh (the Blade with better abs, the Gift with better quads). Heath is both a little fuller and a little crisper, but it may be Jackson’s superior width in the front and rear standing relaxed shots which give the edge to the 38-year-old veteran over the 28-year-old rookie.
When head judge Rockell says Freeman’s name first in a four-man initial callout, it is instantly apparent Dennis Wolf will be the odd man out. Watching from the sideline is as great a shock to him as being watched is to Freeman. “After the first callout I said, ‘No, not again,’” Wolf admitted later.
Wolf is partly the victim of high expectations, but he also looks slightly worst than last year. Though he is a tad crisper from behind, as evidenced by new excavations in his hamstrings and lower back, Wolf’s lats, pecs, and thighs were fuller in ’07. He could still be drier, and none of his greatest faults—calves, hams, or lower lats—benefitted from his extended off-season. That said, he has, in my opinion, the best front lat spread ever, and he brings attention-grabbing broadness to two poses—rear double biceps and most muscular—not generally thought of as breadth barometers. Joining Heath, Freeman, Anthony, and Samuel in the second callout, his strengths as well as his weaknesses are readily apparent. “I made some mistakes, because I traveled too much,” Wolf admits later of his busy year of guest appearances. “I’m not 100%, but getting better and better is my goal.”
In the second, third and fourth callouts, we see the five men who will round out the top 10, all eyeing a final slot in the posedown. Though he could still be drier, Melvin Anthony is near his all-time best. His rear double biceps is phenomenal, and this time it’s even served with ham slices. Compared to Silvio Samuel, though, he and everyone else looks positively porcine. Thoroughly splintered from trapezius to tibialis, Samuel also possesses newly expanded quad curves, and only needs to further fill out his back and hams to muscle his way into the top six (he eventually finishes seventh, as he did last year).
The most improved pro of ’08, Moe Elmousawi is sharp from the rear but lacks quad separation and pec striations, and I had Darrem Charles in the top 10 instead of the well-armed New Zealander. Gustavo Badell (who twice was third in the O) and Dennis James (who once was fourth) are both over 10 pounds below their contest weights of recent years, wisely endeavoring to exhume lost lines. James is most successful, showcasing a more pleasing profile and streamlined middle; he led Samuel for the seventh spot after prejudging.
The final prejudging callout is (from left to right): Freeman, Wolf, Cutler, Heath, Jackson. As with the first callout, those bookending him magnify Cutler’s blockiness, but his superior leg girth carries him in the rear lat spread and abs and thigh. When Cutler’s, Heath’s, and Jackson’s arms reach for the rafters and come down in precise unison, locking into three rear double biceps, it’s as if we are seeing bodybuilding’s past, future, and present—though we aren’t yet sure of the order. What is most evident from prejudging is the champ is in trouble, the era of goliaths, 25 years and counting, may be over, and the next epoch could belong to an Olympia rookie.
Backstage afterwards when Heath first starts to tell me what he felt in the bright lights on the other side of the wall, he breaks down. Only tears and not words can fully convey the feeling of his dream coming true. Later, when he’s regained his composure, he explains, “People don’t understand how much it meant to me. The reason I got emotional is because I care so much. Every year I wasn’t up there, because I knew I belonged up there, it was building and building, and then it was like finally. I was in a zone out there. It was like everything just opened up, and then you start seeing worry and dejection in other guys’ eyes, and the photographers start taking more photos of you than the next guy, and it plays mind games with guys.”
“It was really cool at the end when they called me next to Jay, because I thought back to when I first met him. He was guest posing and I was nobody, and every one of those nobody competitors when they first see him they say, ‘I’ll see you up in the pros one day.’ And I actually did it. And not being cocky about it, I had to say to myself, ‘Just enjoy it. Enjoy this moment. Because I’m living every kid’s dream.’ I’m living those dreams right now. I have the same ups and downs other people have, and there were some rough spots along the way, but I just kept my faith and hoped for a better day.” Then he grins that Gift grin, “Today was freakin’ awesome, man! It was so cool!”
The most surprising thing about the posing routines is the lack of surprising things. Anthony and Charles deliver their always excellent flowing moves and hip-hop gyrations. Crunching poses to ballads, Cutler rallies his home town crowd, while the response to Wolf is vociferous at the start but fading by the end, even as he eggs the audience on. Wolf, last year’s people’s champ, relinquishes his populist title to Heath this time, as the Gift is nine pounds tighter than at the prejudging and the longer the audience gazes at him, spotting ever more fine lines, the louder the cheers grow. Freeman, six pounds heftier than the day before but just as arid, is another crowd-pleaser.
For everyone not in Friday’s final callout, the hours before Saturday’s show are relatively relaxed. They can estimate where they’ll place, even if it’s human nature to overestimate. Heath arrives at the arena two hours early and sits silently in an audience seat, surrounded by rows of empty chairs, watching stagehands check mics and run video on the giant screens. The Gift is wringing every last drop from the O experience. Thirty minutes before the contest, many of the same veterans and rookies as the day before are again lying on the floor in the dressing room; Melvin Anthony and Dennis James are again reminiscing and trading jocular insults. Dexter Jackson and Jay Cutler both arrive at 7:30, treading down the long hall towards their destinies.
With ten fewer pounds than prejudging, a dramatically improved Cutler compares much better to his waspy-waisted peers in the posedown round and takes on all challengers—especially a hungry Wolf—when the music kicks in. He wins round four by two points, while Heath gains on Jackson, edged out in the round 10 to nine. Judge Steve Weinberger tells me afterwards, “If the show was tonight, there would be no question about it: Jay would still be champion. Jay was a little softer yesterday. He came back and dialed it in, but the point spread was just too great.”
It’s too great for Freeman, as well, as he bests Wolf by a single digit in Saturday’s two rounds but can’t make up Friday’s deficit. His fifth place is greeted with the contest’s loudest boos, and one could make a case that his combination of size, shape, and striations was worthy of the Sandow. In fourth, Wolf also elicits lupine howls by the many who felt he deserved better. With the sort of ideal frame Joe Weider would draw up, he still owns the most potential in all of bodybuilding, though he failed to build the necessary additions upon that frame this year.
In the posedown free-for-all before the placings, Heath stands his ground when Jackson tries to elbow him out of the way, and he duels shot-for-shot with a vengeance seldom witnessed, green eyes aglow, mouth agape in a scream of exhilaration.
When there are only four men left onstage and in the final seconds before emcee Bob Cicherillo announces fourth place, Heath says to himself over and over: “Please don’t call my name,” and when Wolf is announced instead, the Gift exhales and stretches a nervous smile into a grin.
“I thought, wow, this is unbelievable. Here I am standing next to my so-called arch-nemesis Dexter and my big brother Jay. Getting third place was just unbelievable. This show proves miracles can happen and dreams do come true.” His proudest moment is when the bronze medal is draped around his neck, and just afterwards he pumps his fist at the cheering crowd. His is the highest placing in an Olympia debut since Flex Wheeler was second in 1993. Though in my eyes it was close between he and Jackson, I thought Heath should’ve received the gold medal and the Sandow trophy. He will. [Heath subsequently won the Mr. Olympia seven times: 2011-17.]
It’s a record Jay Cutler never wanted to set, but one he should take pride in, for he has now been judged the world’s second best pro bodybuilder five times, breaking the mark he shared with Kevin Levrone. [Cutler returned to win the Mr. Olympia for his third and forth times in 2009 and 2010 and finish second a record sixth time in 2011.] Afterwards, he sits in a plastic chair backstage, Pro Tan streaming off with sweat, still dressed only in his black posing trunks. “I knew I wasn’t at my best last night,” he tells me. “I’ve been second before, and second isn’t so bad, but it’s not the way I want to finish off, so I’ll be back. It just makes it a little more interesting. But Dexter looked great. You can’t take that away from him.”
I ask what it meant to be Mr. Olympia for two years. “It’s a leadership role. It kind of puts you above and beyond the other bodybuilders, having that air about you. When you win that title, you defeat a lot of great champions. I was lucky enough to be a two-win champ, and who’s to say I won’t win another, but my goal was to win three in a row like I did the Arnold Classic [2002-04], and I didn’t attain that. But I’ll regroup and come back. I’m still second best in the world, and I beat a lot of great guys here, and it’s a learning experience. Everything is a learning experience, win or lose.”
When there are two left, Jackson and Cutler stand side by side, looking at anything but each other, and when the reigning champ is announced second, the new champ falls to one knee and doubles over, overcome by emotion, tears hitting the carpeted stage. At 235 pounds, Jackson is the lightest bodybuilder to win the Sandow since Samir Bannout 25 years prior, perhaps ushering in the era of aesthetics over bulk packaging which many have been clamoring for.
“I knew I deserved to win, but I didn’t think I would,” the 12th Mr. Olympia avers backstage. “But this sport is full of surprises. I’m just in shock now. This is a dream come true. I’ve been dreaming about this since I started bodybuilding, and it’s been 18 years now, and I never thought it would happen, but here we are.”
As for the future, “You got these young guys coming up. Phil and these guys look incredible. I can’t hold these guys off forever. I think I can possibly put together a physique that would win this next year because I’m gonna have a full year to train. I’m skipping the Arnold. But I can’t keep going year after year after year, winning, winning, winning. No, that’s not gonna happen. I’ve always said, ‘Give me one. You can have it next year.’ This one win right here separates me from some of the greatest bodybuilders of all-time, Flex [Wheeler], Shawn [Ray], Kevin Levrone. It’s an honor, a dream come true. So now I can flash my trophy and they can’t say nothing.”
Peter McGough asks him to contrast his current high with the low of 1995 when Jackson failed to make the top 15 at the Nationals after winning the light-heavy class at the USA. “It was pretty much the end for me. I was working a lot, my family was sleeping on the floor, and I was spending all my money on bodybuilding, so I was pretty much done when I didn’t even make the cut, and now we’re here and I’ve won Mr. Olympia, and no words describe it.”
I ask the Blade if he has thought about what it means 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 fail him. Emotions—so resonant all weekend—swirl. Dexter Jackson exhales, grins and shakes his head. “Mr. Olympia. Come on, that’s crazy.”
2008 MR. OLYMPIA RESULTS
September 26-27, 2008; Orleans Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada
1. Dexter Jackson ($155,000)
2. Jay Cutler ($90,000)
2. Phil Heath ($60,000)
4. Dennis Wolf ($48,000)
5. Toney Freeman ($38,000)
6. Melvin Anthony ($30,000)
7. Silvio Samuel Saviour ($18,000)
8. Dennis James ($17,000)
9. Moe El Moussawi ($16,000)
10. Gustavo Badell ($14,000)
11. Darrem Charles ($4000)
12. Johnnie Jackson ($4000)
13. Craig Richardson ($4000)
14. Ronny Rockel ($4000)
15. David Henry ($4000)
16. Kevin English ($4000)
— Fouad Abiad ($4000)
— Leo Ingram ($4000)
— Sergey Shelestov ($4000)
Official scores by round are here.
This article originally appeared in the December 2008 FLEX magazine under the title “Dreams Do Come True.”