Nothing comes easy in challenging times. After last year’s Arnold Classic was held on time but without an audience—an early worldwide signal of things to come—this year’s A.C. was delayed six months and staged before an audience limited to 2000 in Columbus, Ohio, on September 25. Like last year, there was no expo or fitness festival. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would “lose a million dollars” on the event, but he didn’t care because the show must go on and he’ll always support competitive bodybuilding. Even the webcast was free. (He also said March may be too early for next year’s show, which he hopes will be a true sports festival again.)

Not present was William Bonac, who, one day before the contest, announced that he was unable to enter the United States on time “due to administrative issues regarding my travels during [the] pandemic.” Bonac, who won the A.C. last year and in 2018 (and was second in 2019) was the heavy favorite. He was the fourth competitor who withdrew. First, 2017 winner Cedric McMillan, who had competed in the previous eight A.C.s (never finishing lower than sixth), pulled out because of an injury; he was instead a webcast commentator. Then in the final week, Roelly Winklaar, who is having a bad year, withdrew because of an undisclosed illness; and Lionel Beyeke also failed to secure his travel to the U.S. That narrowed the field to only 10 with no prior champs—a repeat of 2017. Truthfully, though Bonac is, at 39, a potential Mr. Olympia, the other three are all over 40 (McMillan and Winklaar are 44) with their best conditioning likely behind them. It’s time for the next generation to rise up.

First callout: Justin Rodriguez, Steve Kuclo, Nick Walker, Iain Valliere

Sergio Oliva, Jr. and Akim Williams both showcased enough muscle to push for this title, but both were too smooth. So, the first callout consisted of (left to right): Justin Rodriguez, Steve Kuclo, Nick Walker, Iain Valliere. All but Kuclo had previously won shows this year and therefore qualified for the Olympia. It was clear from the start that Walker had brought the crispest conditioning, most evident in his abs, quads, and hams. Kuclo always lacks the deep cuts and high-def detailing, but he was able to draw eyes away from the others with his superior breadth, especially in the lat spreads.

The final callout of prejudging was a Kuclo vs. Walker, mano-a-mano duel. Trivia: Both men failed to win the NPC Teen Nationals (Kuclo won the heavy class but not the overall in 2004 and 2005, Walker was second in the heavy class in 2014). But persistence pays off. Look at them now. The judges took the extremely rare step of putting both men through the paces of all eight compulsory poses twice without stopping. In retrospect, it likely was just to build suspense in a show that lacked drama. Walker won the show with straight firsts.

Kuclo vs. Walker, front lat spread
Front Lat Spread: Kuclo vs. Walker
Kuclo vs. Walker, rear double biceps
Rear Double Biceps: Kuclo vs. Walker

You could maybe give the 36-year-old Kuclo the front and rear lat spreads, but the 27-year-old Walker clearly won the other compulsories, most evident in the abs and thigh pose (Kuclo lacked ab density and quad cuts; Walker had plenty of both).

But at the Arnold, unlike other pro shows, posing routines are scored, making the finals worth more than prejudging. And on Saturday evening, the judges made it a three-man show, or, more to the point, a two-man battle for second between Villaire and Kuclo.

2021 Arnold Classic Walker, Villaire, Kuclo
Finals final three: Villaire, Kuclo, Walker
2021 Arnold Classic

Though Kuclo was ahead of Villaire by six points after prejudging, ultimately, the judges moved Villaire into that second spot (by two points) with its $75,000 payday. I would’ve kept the bigger Kuclo there. (Oliva won best poser, Walker won most muscular, both awards paid $10,000.) No surprise: It was Walker who collected $130,000 and became the 19th Arnold Classic men’s open champ in the contest’s 33-year history. Terrence Ruffin won Classic Physique. Missy Truscott won Fitness International. Jennifer Dorie won Bikini International. Scorecards are here.

We’re left with two questions.

1. Would the winner have been different if Bonac had entered? Probably, but we’ll get a better answer in two weeks when Bonac, travel-permitting, and Walker face off on the Olympia stage.

2. Nick Walker is the second youngest A.C. champ, and the youngest since Shawn Ray in 1991. Is Walker a future Mr. Olympia? Only three of the other 18 A.C. champs went on to win the Olympia—Jay Cutler, Dexter Jackson, Brandon Curry (plus Ronnie Coleman, who was already Mr. O)—but Walker could be competing well into the 2030s. The self-proclaimed “Mutant” has a lot of time to continue filling out and perfecting his physique. Still, most predicted Shawn Ray, Flex Wheeler, and Kevin Levrone would collect at least one Sandow after scoring Arnold victories in their 20s. They didn’t. You never know. Stay tuned…

  1. Nick Walker $130,000
  2. Iain Villaire $75,000
  3. Steve Kuclo $50,000
  4. Justin Rodriguez $30,000
  5. Akim Williams $15,000
  6. Sergio Oliva, Jr. $10,000
  7. Mokhamed El Emam $2000
  8. Maxx Charles $2000
  9. Hassan Mostafa $2000
  10. Seung Chul Lee $2000

All photos: Arnold Sports