Phil Heath vs. Kai Greene / Per Bernal
This one is different. In previous Olympia’s, there were respectful rivalries and mild controversies and occasional blowouts, but rarely did the tension rise above a simmer. The 2010 Mr. Olympia was a joyful coronation—one friend peacefully passing the throne to another. On paper, the 48th Mr. Olympia looked as mellow as a Bikini Olympia. Without Jay Cutler in the way, Phil Heath would surely romp to a barely-contested victory, right? And let the love rain down as he builds his dynasty. Not so much. This one is different. From the smack-talking press conference to a pulled punch at prejudging to a turbulent mano-a-mano duel at the finals that ranks as one of bodybuilding’s all-time greatest clashes, it is a brawl. Picture the top dog protecting the choicest bone and growing nastier as other canines—and one big stray in particular—try to rip it away. This Mr. Olympia will be neither pleasant nor easy. In four one-on-one confrontations, it won’t just simmer. It boils.
MR. OLYMPIA 2012: WEDNESDAY
Things start quietly two days before prejudging as the 19 competitors congregate in the Gold Room at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. The meeting is distinguished by who’s absent. You have to go back 10 years to find a Mr. Olympia lineup without Jay Cutler’s name and a whopping 19 years to find one without Cutler and/or Ronnie Coleman. This year truly feels like a passing of the guard. Only the presence of 2008 Mr. Olympia Dexter Jackson, competing in his 13th Olympia, bridges the eras. Phil Heath, who became the 13th Mr. O twelve months prior, expresses his respect for Jackson, but he misses four-time Mr. O Jay Cutler. “This whole prep has been quite awkward because of Jay not being there. We’re still great friends. We’re still brothers. But I’m alone. And it does feel kind of crappy.”
Still, the elimination of last year’s runner-up infuses Heath with more confidence. “I got straight firsts last year, so my thinking all along was all I have to do is be better than last year and it should be an easy win. The whole goal with this prep was to create distance. I think what Ronnie [Coleman] did between 1998 and 1999 let everyone know he meant business, and no matter what anyone said, it did scare some guys. They knew he could run off a bunch of those in a row, which he did. My goal is to do the same thing, because once you beat certain guys, I don’t think they can handle that mentally. From a fan’s perspective, I don’t know how they’ll take it. But that’s why I’m working my ass off every year to improve, because if I just look the same every year and still win it’s going to be boring.”
MR. OLYMPIA 2012: THURSDAY
The press conference the day before the Olympia always has the potential of growing somnolent, but this one perks up early with a give-and-take between Branch Warren and Dennis Wolf. The latter is still smarting from his second consecutive runner-up finish to the former at March’s Arnold Classic. A defiant Wolf claims he’ll beat Warren this time. “I’ve never complained about second place in my life,” Warren shoots back. “You had the chance to get me, and you blew it.”
“You shouldn’t have been in the top three at the Arnold, and everybody knows it.” That response to Warren came not from Wolf but from another blond: Ben Pakulski (fourth at the Arnold). “After seeing the pictures I know I can beat every single one of ’em,” Pak-Man declares. The boast is met with smirks and the quizzical narrowing of eyebrows, but no one takes the bait then.
In his first Mr. Olympia, Evan Centopani refuses to get into “tabloid talk.” After some coaxing, Johnnie Jackson lets his body do the yapping, stripping to his waist and striking shots that reveal he’s on-point. Kai Greene keeps his clothes on, but says, “My A game is enough to do a lot of damage. I expect to be the last man standing this year.”
Finally, after Pakulski asserts he clearly has better legs than Warren, the latter fires back: “Imagine if this guy actually wins a show how much trash he’s gonna talk. I mean he hasn’t even won a show, and he’s talkin’ more trash than the rest of us combined.” Even Pakulski has to smile.
MR. OLYMPIA 2012: FRIDAY
BACKSTAGE BEFORE PREJUDGING
A calm and confident Phil Heath avers in the final hour before Friday’s prejudging, “Lee Haney told me: ‘They have to chase you. As long as you’re the champion, they have to chase you, and you don’t have to chase nobody ever again.’”
COMPETITOR NO. 1
The last two times we saw Branch Warren on the Olympia stage he was second (2009) and third (2010). He had to forgo 2011’s O when he tore his right quad one month out, but when he roared back to repeat as the Arnold Classic champ this March any loss of leg meat was barely noticeable. Oddly, over six months after that victory, his right leg appears noticeably diminished here. In fact, both wheels have been bigger. Pakulski clearly has better legs than Warren today. And Warren’s upper half looks murky, especially from the rear, lacking that graininess this 37-year-old Texan has at his best.
COMPETITOR NO. 9
Last year, Dexter Jackson slipped in the spring only to regain his form in the fall. This year, he followed the same script. Coming off a fifth at the Arnold Classic, where he was not sharp, he delivers the crispness once again. And all the usual Blade qualities are present: the softball biceps, the wispy waist, the planets-colliding most muscular. Time marches on, but it seems to have marched right past 42-year-old Jackson.
COMPETITOR NO. 12
Shawn Rhoden has a brand new physique. Last year, when he was 11th out of 24 in his Olympia debut, he weighed 227 with a serious case of “the narrows.” This year, he’s 243, and it’s as if last year’s Rhoden could have fit inside this year’s like a Russian nesting doll. His previously lagging lats and delts are no longer a liability, and he’s kept his minuscule middle while he’s expanded everything else. In a lineup full of monster truck wheels, his are two of the best, and his upper half is now nearly matching his lower.
Like Heath, Rhoden is that rare bodybuilder who combines pretty with freaky, and, also like Heath, he’s proven he can bring up weaknesses and wow the bodybuilding world with a whole new look in just one year. His mass additions earned him two pro victories and a lot of momentum in the summer. Now, in only his second Olympia and only his third year as a pro, can that new flesh propel him into the top six? When the 37-year-old Flexatron strikes his stellar front double biceps one starts to question just how high he can go.
COMPETITOR NO. 14
Whereas Rhoden is notably bigger, Dennis Wolf went the opposite way. He was a strong second at the Arnold Classic (I had him first), but this time he seems to be about 15 pounds lighter, and his usually draw-dropping rear double bi and most muscular have lost their punch. He was at his best at the 2007 Mr. Olympia when he was fifth but should’ve been fighting for first—and five years seems like an eternity ago. Still, the Wolfman is only 33 at this contest, and he has bounced back from disappointments in the past.
COMPETITOR NO. 17
In recent years, Kai Greene was notorious for ballooning to way over three bills in the offseason. This year, working with nutritionist George Farah, he kept his weight in the 280s. As a result, when he strikes poses at the Orleans Arena, he sports a slimmer waistline with none of the distension that perennially plagued him. His quads are zippered, his triceps are beaded.
His back isn’t as feathered as we’ve seen it, but at 267 the 37-year-old New Yorker brings things to the party—floor-sweeping lats, rafter-reaching bi’s, dorsal-fin-like hamstrings—others don’t possess. He has indeed brought his A game, and it will do a lot of damage. But whether or not he can be the last man standing depends on the last man to pose—last year’s last man standing.
COMPETITOR NO. 19
For the first time in his seven-year pro career, Phil Heath is defending a title and thus gets the honor of posing last. In 2011, the question of who would win the Sandow trophy ended the moment he struck a pose. This year, the 32-year-old does not generate the same spine-tingling effect. Partly, this is because of high expectations. The Gift is that rare bodybuilder who has shocked us from contest to contest with radical improvements. But, try as he might, it’s surely impossible to do it annually.
He was 248 last year, and he’s 251 this time, so his breadth is not significantly greater. Additionally, his conditioning is very close to last year’s, but just a bit off. The difference is minute. And what extra size he acquired is in his chest and delts—previous weaknesses that are now major strengths—so some might favor this year’s Gift over last year’s. Still, whether it’s because the expectations were too high or he hasn’t topped his peak while Greene has clearly gained ground, Heath is unable to slam the door shut by merely flexing by himself. He’ll have to battle through comparisons.
ROUND 1. There are only two competitors in the initial callout, confirming that the 2012 Mr. Olympia is a two-man bout between Heath and Greene.
Front standing relaxed: tie Greene’s advantage is his width and more pronounced V-taper. Heath’s edge is his thickness, especially in the pecs.
Left and right standing relaxed: Heath Denser pecs and delts and finer oblique etchings make the difference.
Rear standing relaxed: Greene Back and hamstring detailing wins out.
Front double biceps: tie Heath’s arms and legs are more separated, but Greene’s wider V and fuller quads make this too-close-to-call. From anywhere beyond the first few rows, it looks like a win for the broader Greene, and thus excitement starts to build.
Front lat spread: Heath The Gift’s greatest advantage is his far superior chest density, and this pose best exploits it.
Side chest: Heath The challenger’s heftier hamstrings almost earn him a tie here, but the champ’s superior pecs take it again.
Rear double biceps: Heath This is close with both featuring striated glutes and Greene excavating deeper ham lines, but Heath’s fuller delts and knottier traps win out.
Rear lat spread: tie The challenger’s lats form a much wider canvas, but it’s also virtually blank whereas the champ sports detail and density in the mid-back (lower traps). This is another shot that looks better for Greene the further away one is, so it generates shouts for him.
Side triceps: Heath Greene’s legs are slightly better from the side than Heath’s, but Heath’s superior delts, pecs, and tri’s take it.
Abs and thigh: Greene This is Heath’s weakest pose. Greene’s piano key quad cuts take it.
Most muscular: Heath And this is Greene’s weakest pose. Whether he does it hands-on-hips or crab-style, the reigning Mr. O wins convincingly as the crowd roars.
Greene and Heath stay for this callout, and, when Shawn Rhoden is the first man told to join them, spontaneous “Whoa’s!” fill the arena as fans realize a new bodybuilder has just been elevated to the sport’s upper ranks. Perennial posedown participants Branch Warren and Dexter Jackson fill out the presumptive top five. It’s clear Rhoden can hang with Greene and Heath, and if he keeps filling out his X-frame and he brings more high-def lines to the Olympia stage he has the shape and may soon have the size and striations to win a Sandow. After Saturday’s finals, judge Steve Weinberger tells me Rhoden is a future Olympia winner. [Shawn Rhoden won the 2018 Mr. Olympia. Tragically, it was his final contest.]
Heath and Greene step out, and Dennis Wolf, Toney Freeman, and Evan Centopani join Warren, Rhoden, and Jackson. Five years after he won the 2007 NPC Nationals, this is only Centopani’s fifth pro contest and his first Mr. Olympia. He is less defined than he was when he earned the three-spot at the Arnold six months prior. At 46, Freeman is below his peak of four years ago, but not by far. He will ultimately repeat last year’s Olympia seventh place finish.
From left to right: Johnnie Jackson, Centopani, Freeman, Wolf, Lionel Beyeke, Ben Pakulski. Johnnie Jackson brought it. He sports the largest pecs and traps in the contest, his always-lagging legs are fuller than usual, and he’s high-def. The judges take notice and ultimately award the 41-year-old ninth—matching his highest O placing in this his ninth Olympia. Beyeke has all the tools, but needs to get drier to move up. Making his O debut, Pakulski brought the cuts (and the wheels, of course), but he still needs more lat, pec, and arm density to impact bodybuilding’s ultimate contest. He can take solace in knowing the 11th place he ultimately earns is the same spot Rhoden occupied last year.
ROUND 2. Only Heath and Greene are again at center stage.
They’re moved twice to give the judges the best look at each. The Gift is glowering and snarling. At times Greene seems overwhelmed by his rival’s game face, but as the comparisons progress his wry smile also melts away. “So, it’s like that, huh?” he seems to be saying. When there’s a mix-up about which pose to hit, Greene watches his foe strike a rear double biceps and then launches a joke haymaker punch to the reigning Mr. O’s head, pulling up short of connecting. No one laughs. The act is ominous. With $250,000 and the ranking of world’s best bodybuilder at stake, this is war.
BACKSTAGE AFTER PREJUDGING
Jamaican-born Rhoden is so laid-back he makes Victor Martinez seem hyper. The most visible sign of his excitement in the minutes after being compared side-by-side with the reigning Mr. Olympia is his wide grin. “It felt great,” he states. “All the hard work I’ve been putting in this year is finally paying off. I’m so happy with the callouts. I had to tell myself that as long as I keep improving each show the placings will come.”
In contrast, Heath seems shellshocked. He’s displeased to be in a one-on-one fight, but already focused on the next day’s finals when half the points will be earned. “It ain’t over,” he says, gazing in the general direction of Kai Greene.
Greene lies on his back on the black carpeting of the pump-up pen, texting his nutritionist, George Farah. He tells me, “We still have work to do. We recognize that. But it’s very exciting to be in this place. Things look good. I have a lot of reasons to be optimistic.”
I ask: “What do you want to do for tomorrow—pull in a little tighter?”
Green answers without hesitation: “I want to win.”
MR. OLYMPIA 2012: SATURDAY
At Saturday’s finals, the best posing routine is served up by someone destined for DNP (Did Not Place): Fred Smalls, who busts out every dance move in his repertoire, including a moon walk. As the buzz for Flexatron has been building all day, Rhoden garners one of the night’s biggest cheers by merely locking in his first pose. That crowd reaction is topped when Kai Greene struts out, but the subsequent routine is sedate for the usually avant-garde Greene.
The audience cheers just as loud for Heath, and when Alicia Keyes declares “It’s a New Day” (in the chorus of 50 Cent’s “New Day”) he thumps his chest, telling the bodybuilding world this is his era.
ROUND 3. Soon afterwards, the 19 competitors are back on stage and once again Greene and Heath are called out alone. Here comes the boiling point. Heath is glaring, green eyes aglow, and moving forward over the stage’s tape line even before the first shot is called. He backs up, but when he’s instructed to give Greene more space, he balks. I’m not moving is his message, more figurative than literal (he does eventually move), as if to say: “I’m not giving an inch. You want it—you got to take it from me.” They duel, trading shots like pugilists. Fans shout “Greene!” “Heath!” chants break out. “Greene!” “Heath!” “Greene!” “Heath!”
ROUND 4. There are three other callouts featuring the other 17 bodybuilders—but who cares now? In the fifth and final callout, it is, for the fourth time over two days, Heath versus Greene. Have two bodybuilders ever been put through so many poses in a one-on-one duel? I score this the same as prejudging’s first callout, but every pose except abs and thigh (Greene) and most muscular (Heath) is close, and almost every shot can look like a win for the bigger Greene the further back one sits. Throughout the process, the usually smiling Heath is scowling, showing everyone—but his rival in particular—that he is not some pampered prince above the fray. Next year’s documentary Generation Iron filmed this Olympia, and a trailer for the movie plays at the Saturday show, presenting Heath as wealthy and supremely confident (think Apollo Creed) and Greene as the ghetto-dwelling everyman (think Rocky Balboa). Now, Heath is showing he can be Rocky, too. If it’s going to be a street brawl, bring it on.
In the end, when the last shots are traded with a scary intensity, Heath stalks off stage, eyeing Greene like a hungry dog summing up its prey and always staying just far enough away so there is no chance of them shaking hands—or connecting real punches. They are not friends. They’ve never been friends. They probably never will be. In their last six meetings going into this contest, they finished one spot apart three times (twice Greene landed in the higher place, including his victory at the 2010 Arnold Classic) and two spots apart twice (both won by Heath last year, including the Olympia). Familiarity has bred contempt, and it’s at a fever pitch now that the ultimate title is at stake.
MR. OLYMPIA 2012 AWARDS
In the closest decision of a contest devoid of close decisions, three points separate Wolf (sixth) and Warren (fifth) with the latter once again getting the better of the former. Dexter Jackson should be comfortable with fourth at the Olympia—he lands there for the fifth time. It was also his ninth top-four finish. (The top four qualify for next year’s Olympia.) However, bodybuilding’s highest echelon is the Olympia top trinity: the medalists. And no one had ever gone from out of the top 10 one year to in the top three the next. That is until Shawn Rhoden pulls it off. “That was an amazing journey in one year,” a beaming Rhoden says backstage afterwards. “I couldn’t be happier. This was all that I dreamed of—for now.”
Finally, there are only two men left—the same pair who have spent so much impassioned time alone at center stage this Olympia weekend. They do not acknowledge each other’s presence. They just stand shuffling slightly with eyes closed as emcee Bob Cicherillo milks the tension as long as humanly possible. At last, he reveals the name. “Phil Heath!” Despite the nerve-racking two-man callouts, on score sheets it wasn’t close: Heath got straight firsts, Greene got straight seconds. Later, Weinberger tells me Heath had the clear edge in physique and stage presence. Ultimately, Greene is right about one thing. He is literally the last man standing at the Olympia, because, overcome with emotions, the Gift dives to the stage, lying face down and crying, the way Ronnie Coleman did for eight years straight. The number one contender pats the champ on the back, and, when the ninth man in history to repeat as Mr. Olympia rises, the two combatants finally embrace, briefly. Greene, in a gracious act of sportsmanship, raises the repeating champ’s arm in victory, and Heath salutes Greene’s hard-fought second.
Initially, Greene provides me only curt answers, though he does confirm my belief that the bro-hug of his rival signified nothing beyond the end to a battle. The war continues. Twenty minutes later, when he is able to better absorb what occurred, he is more loquacious. He quietly thanks his support team, especially his coach George Farah, his fiancée, and his fiancée’s mom. “I think back to five years ago when it would’ve been a dream come true just to be at the Olympia,” he says. “Now I’m second in the world. So I have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to look forward to.” He manages a faint smile when he says, “This journey continues.”
Heath’s eyes are red from the sting of tears but also because he and nutritionist/trainer Hany Rambod got virtually no sleep the night before as they strategized and toiled to maximize cuts and curves and retain the title. He is exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally, when—after the final congratulation is received and the last photo is snapped but before he and his family trek down the long hall past the locker rooms and out into the warm Las Vegas night where a gaggle of fans await—he speaks to me with his rage still blazing. You might think he’d be grinning with relief after the emotional torment of the previous 27 hours, but an hour after he received his second Sandow and a check for a quarter-million dollars he still wears his game face. This one feels different than any other post-Olympia interview just as this contest felt different than any other Mr. Olympia. It has a dark and angry edge, which sure beats boring.
“I had to turn it up,” Heath says with a bit of a snarl. “I had to bring the heat. No more Mr. Nice Guy. After yesterday, a lot of people were talking a lot of shit. And I saw who had my back and who didn’t. And I just knew I had to bring it tonight. You know, this can be a war. If you bring the war to me, I’m going to bring it back with a vengeance. I had to do what I had to do to protect what’s mine. It’s not always gonna be pleasant. But in the end, I’m the two-time champ now, and they’re still chasing me.” Bodybuilding’s top dog kept his title for another year—but only after one hell of a fight.
2012 MR. OLYMPIA RESULTS
September 28-29, 2012 / Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
1. Phil Heath ($250,000)
2. Kai Greene ($100,000)
3. Shawn Rhoden ($75,000)
4. Dexter Jackson ($50,000)
5. Branch Warren ($40,000)
6. Dennis Wolf ($30,000)
7. Toney Freeman ($18,000)
8. Evan Centopani ($17,000)
9. Johnnie Jackson ($16,000)
10. Lionel Beyeke ($14,000)
11. Ben Pakulski ($4000)
12. Roelly Winklaar ($4000)
13. Ronny Rockel ($4000)
14. Essa Obiad ($4000)
15. Hidetada Yamagisha ($4000)
The last four finishers were not placed. They are listed alphabetically.
Baitollah Abbaspour ($2000)
Michalis Kefalianos ($2000)
Fred Smalls ($2000)
Bill Wilmore ($2000)
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the December 2012 FLEX magazine under the title “Regifted.”
To read about Phil Heath’s seventh and final Mr. Olympia win, check out: The 2017 Mr. Olympia