Olympia Gym, Elizabeth, Australia / mural & photo: Danny Mulyono
RONNIE COLEMAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN AN ENIGMA. With his plainspoken Southernisms and blunt answers, he provided amiable, but never penetrating, interviews. The impression given was that he merely wanted to lift ludicrously heavy things, eat the same food at the same places at the same times every day forever, and transport yet another Sandow from Las Vegas to Arlington, Texas, each September. Yeah buddy.
But what truly motivated him? What were his first 25 years—before his first bodybuilding contest—like, and how did they mold him? What did he hate? Who did he love? Twelve years after he retired from the stage with a record-tying eight Olympia titles (and 26 pro titles), the living legend who is arguably bodybuilding’s GOAT opens up in his new autobiography, YEAH BUDDY! My Incredible Story.
After reading his book, here are six of the things we know better about Ronnie Coleman.
1. EVEN AS A KID, HE WORKED AND WORKED AND WORKED.
You may have known about Ronnie’s work ethic during his Olympia reign, how he remained a police officer until 2004, when he had a mantle loaded with Sandows, how he toiled in the Texas swelter in Metroflex Gym in the cruelest hours of August. But you probably didn’t know how early this began. “Because I grew up watching my mom work all the time, I saw hard work not only as something normal but necessary,” he writes. “When I was nine years old, I decided that I wanted to get some type of employment and make my own money.”
Child labor laws be damned, at nine he convinced the owner of the general store in his small Louisiana town to hire him to help with chores. At 12, he began chopping cotton each summer—brutally hard labor. He was a busboy in a restaurant. He removed toxic asbestos from a paper mill with a jackhammer! And all before college. “To me, working was more than a way of life. It was a blessing. It was the greatest thing that could ever happen to me….[I]f I hadn’t had a job, who knows what may have happened to me.”
2. HIS SPINAL INJURIES BEGAN IN HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE.
He experienced his first back injury when attempting to squat 500 in a powerlifting meet at 17. “Suddenly, something happened. CRACK. I instantly felt like a giant flash of lightening penetrated my lower back, burning my entire backside,” he vividly writes. In his sophomore year at Grambling State, Ronnie made the football team as a walk-on. Playing linebacker when a senior, he suffered injuries to his neck and back that crushed his NFL dreams.
“Eventually, despite my utmost caution and being at the chiropractor at least once a week, it was only going to be a matter of time before the injuries I had suffered in [sic] the football field and in [sic] the powerlifting team were going to be exacerbated and come back to bite me,” Ronnie writes. It happened while squatting 600 for reps in 1997 when he severely herniated a disc.
Though told he needed surgery, he avoided the knife for another 11 years. And then it seemed like he was always cut open. He’s had 12 surgeries (8 back, 2 neck, 2 hip). Currently, he can’t walk far without crutches, but he’s pain-free for the first time in years. “I don’t know when that will be or how long that’s going to take, but I can promise you that I will walk and workout hard one day,” he affirms.
3. DOMINO’S PIZZA FUELED HIM.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the book is his detailing the two and a half years after graduating from college that he worked at Domino’s Pizza, living on the junkiest of junk food. Unable to land an accounting job in his new home of Dallas, Texas, despite an accounting degree (with honors), he toiled at Domino’s for what must have seemed like the rest of his life. Later, when he was a cop and training at Metroflex to become a pro bodybuilder, the Domino’s days became his workout motivation.
“Every morning, while going to the gym, I would take a stroll down memory lane. I’d remember the lean years while working at Domino’s Pizza, vividly recalling the details of what it meant to be poor, to eat pizza every day because I had nothing else to eat, of being humiliated by customers at the register, or having no money to spend, and of feeling that my life was going nowhere. These were feelings I never wanted to have again in my life and remembering them instilled a drive in me that pushed me to become better and improve my skills as a bodybuilder.”
4. HIS FIRST OLYMPIA WAS IN 1991 (AS A SECURITY GUARD).
We knew this one—a photo captures Coleman in the background backstage when he was a nobody—but it had to make our list. There were four Mr. Olympia winners (past, present, and future) at the 1991 Mr. Olympia—men who, combined, now possess nearly half of the 55 O titles. Samir Bannout, Lee Haney, and Dorian Yates were competing. Policeman Ronnie Coleman worked security backstage, just to watch his idols closeup. “A couple of bodybuilders saw me in my security uniform and told me I was big enough to compete. I laughed it off, of course, as I was nowhere near the shape I needed to be. But it was still very cool to hear that from my heroes.” He met his ultimate idol, Lee Haney, who won his record-setting eighth Olympia on that day—a mark Coleman matched 14 years later.
What Ronnie couldn’t know then was that he would soon thereafter win his class in the World Amateur Championships, earning pro status and a qualification to the next Mr. Olympia. In the 1992 Mr. O, he wasn’t volunteering backstage. He was onstage. But the result was pretty much the same, as he tied for last place. Nowhere to go but up.
5. HE HAS A THEORY ABOUT HIS BIGGEST LOSS.
Having won eight straight Olympias, Ronnie rolled into the 2006 contest expecting to collect his record-setting ninth. But Jay Cutler had been gaining on him, year after year, second after frustrating second. And in ’06, at 42, Ronnie was off. In the crucial rear double biceps, his back was watery, smoothing over what were once hi-def details (and the left side was downsizing due to his spinal injuries, which became very apparent in ’07). When Cutler was announced the victor, the Orleans Arena erupted. Coleman never won again.
Despite repeatedly calling him Jake (the book needed proofreading), Coleman is gracious towards his rival: “Jay Cutler is one of the finest men I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and one of the best bodybuilders in the history of the sport.” And yet Ronnie is convinced he should’ve won in 2006 and that the decision was predetermined because the powers that be wanted a new champion to promote. “They decided that they were not going to give me my well-deserved ninth title and were going to prevent me from winning so that the sport would once again be competitive and garner a lot more audience. I know this sounds pretentious, conceited and aggressive, but I sincerely believe it to be the truth.”
6. “YEAH BUDDY” WAS A BOREDOM CURE.
His famous workout catchphrases “Ain’t nothin’ but a peanut!” and “Light weight!” were clearly reverse-psychology mantras to tell himself a heavy weight wasn’t, but the other one, “Yeah buddy!”—what’s up with the book’s title? Turns out it was just something that randomly came to him when he was bored one workout. “I was working out hard but there was something missing, and I felt as though I needed extra motivation. So, I started to shout the first thing that came to my mind. What was that? Yeah buddy. And it worked.” Did it ever. Yeah buddy!