COLUMBUS, Ohio'The hype matched the muscle in this one. Billed as a three-way battle between two-time defending champion Jay Cutler; the hottest bodybuilder on the scene of late, Dexter Jackson; and the gifted Chris Cormier, the '04 version of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic went true to form.
All three were in the initial call-out at the prejudging at noon on Saturday, March 6 (along with Gunter Schlierkamp), and that set the stage for the rest of the day, including the finals, which took place a few hours later onstage at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
At first glance Cutler looked leaner than usual, but tight, especially in the lower body. Jackson looked as good as he did when he won the IRONMAN Pro two weeks earlier, and Cormier looked as if he could, indeed, finally be the Real Deal.
Cutler was going for a three-peat after victories in 2002 and 2003. Jackson was looking to make it three wins in a row after besting Cutler at last season's GNC Show of Strength in November. Cormier was out to make sure he didn't get another second-place trophy for his mantel after finishing in the runner-up slot four years in a row.
Jay was very dry and noticeably lighter than in past shows; he told me he was around 265, but I'd say the scale showed more like 250-252. His legs were shredded, but his upper body looked a bit flat, particularly through the chest. No one's more focused than Cutler, and he hit the gym three times a day in preparation for the show'including a 2 a.m. session on the treadmill.
Did he take it down too far, which I felt he did at the '03 Olympia? Personally, I like the bigger, fuller version of Cutler, ' la the '03 IRONMAN. His thigh sweep is more pronounced, and I think his overall taper looks better at a heavier weight. Then again, if he'd come in 15 pounds heavier and lost the show because he wasn't considered conditioned enough, he'd be criticized for not being sharp. I heard that after the '03 IRONMAN too. Either way, in looking at Jay's track record, not to mention his bank account, my opinion shouldn't mean much, eh, gang?
Jackson, at 5'6 1/2' and 212-215 (Dex swears he's surpassed the 220 mark'bring out the scale), is always in terrific condition, to my eye. He again showed why we call him 'the Blade'razor sharp from all angles. Okay, he could use bigger calves, lower front lats and a thicker back, but, hey, nobody's perfect in this game.
Moreover, the problem Jackson will always face against a Cutler or a Cormier (not to mention Ronnie Coleman) is a lack of size. Think of Shawn Ray or Lee Labrada in years past. Still, that didn't hurt him when he beat Cutler four months earlier. Whether it's 205, 210 or 225, this cat's proven he's a real heavyweight in the sport.
Cormier has the best-balanced physique in bodybuilding, but can anybody figure out this 36-year-old Los Angeleno? Unlike Cutler and Jackson'where you know, for the most part, what you're gonna get show in and show out'Cormier is a real anomaly.
At his best the 5'11' 255-pounder can match up with anybody in the game'with perhaps the exception of Coleman. Beset as he's been with personal problems for the past year or so, Chris keeps bodybuilding fans guessing as to when the in-shape Cormier will surface.
That version showed up in Columbus. I would have given him the symmetry round (Cutler won by a point) and thought he could have also taken round 2, muscularity, also won by Jay, in this case unanimously. Cormier didn't help himself in the latter round, either, when he appeared late onstage'and with hardly any oil on.
I also feel he could have been tighter, especially in the glutes and hams; to be a champion, you have to be prime in all areas. I'd say another five to seven pounds of water loss, and the title would have been his. But Cormier's definitely back and has to be rated, once more, as a top Olympia contender.
It was also apparent that Gunter Schlierkamp, in much better shape than he was during the '03 season (when he went through a divorce and had a leg injury that hampered his Olympia training), would probably be good enough to finish in the fourth spot. As for fifth'the last qualifying slot for an Olympia berth'it was between Markus Ruhl, Craig Titus, Gustavo Badell and Mustafa Mohammad, at least based on the bodies I saw onstage.
When I interviewed him backstage for the pay-per-view telecast, Schlierkamp, 34, said he was carrying about 300 pounds on his 6'2' frame. Although some were saying he still didn't match his conditioning of 2002, I'm not sure I agree. Even if that evaluation is fair, he didn't miss his mark by much. The owner of the best smile in bodybuilding, Schlierkamp showed he's still a force to be reckoned with.
Ruhl seemed to have no ill effects from the triceps surgery that forced him out of last season's Olympia'big, bad Markus was probably around the 275 mark (at 5'11' or so). They make 'em big in Germany, for sure: Schlierkamp and Ruhl, nobody's fool.
Markus sure did have some funny-shaped lats, though, which may explain why he wasn't being compared with the top three. Although it was pretty clear that last year's third-placer wouldn't finish that high in '04, I thought he could walk off with the Most Muscular award. Didn't get that, either. (Cutler got it, along with so much else. Keep reading.)
Titus was in much better condition than he'd been at the IRONMAN two weeks before, when he placed fifth. His thighs were deeply separated, and his midsection was tight. Nor did he do his patented 'fade' between the judging and the finals.
Don't forget: Craig had surgery on his chest in November and didn't start contest prep until December 7. This may have been his best look since he turned pro back in 1996. Badell, who opened more than a few eyes with a strong third-place finish at the IRONMAN, looked just as good to me in Columbus. Underrated is the name of his game. The 5'8', 234-pounder was thick and in great condition, not a bad combo. Some fans had him in their top five; ain't no jive. Ditto for Mustafa, a 5'8', 250-pound freak from Vienna, Austria, who had gobs of hardcore beef all over his body. His lack of callouts at the judging still has me scratching my head.
After the judging I figured Ahmad Haidar and Ernie Taylor would battle for the slot behind either Ruhl or Titus; I knew the deserving Mohammad wouldn't be there, based on the lack of interest from the magistrates. Based on what I saw, I'd have had Shari 'King' Kamali and Bob Cicherillo fighting for placements behind them. Based on what the judges saw, I knew Kamali would probably finish higher than I had him pegged.
Kamali looked very flat and was the smallest I've seen him since he won his pro card after taking the heavyweight class at the '99 NPC Nationals (later, I heard he'd been struck by a virus heading into the show and had lost nearly 20 pounds). Was I right? Keep reading.
The one thing I knew for sure'Greg Kovacs would wind up in 13th. On the positive side, at least he showed up for the finals, something he didn't do when he last competed, at the '01 Night of Champions, or at the '98 IRONMAN.
As it turned out, Cutler held a six-point edge over Cormier after the judging. Jackson was a solid third but way behind his two counterparts and out of gold medal contention. Schlierkamp was set in fourth, and Ruhl held a five-point lead over Titus for sixth, while Badell was in seventh. When the routines were finished and the posedown completed at night, Cutler held off a surge by Cormier in rounds 3 and 4 for a one-point victory, which brought him another $100,000, another new Hummer, a 'T3' watch valued at $20,000 and a huge crystal vase for winning the Most Muscular award.
How did Cormier take the loss? Don't ask, although the $55K he got for second soothed the pain a bit. Jackson nabbed third ($35,000), with Schlierkamp finishing a solid fourth ($25,000), Ruhl fifth ($11,000) and Titus sixth ($6,000).
Badell placed seventh, Kamali eighth (what did I tell you?), Haidar ninth and Taylor 10th. Cicherillo took 11th and Mohammad, in what I felt was the most confusing finish of the entire weekend, landed in 12th. Kovacs rounded out the field.
Kamali may have lost to his nemesis, Titus, one more time, but he got some consolation'a lot of consolation, actually'when he danced off with $10,000 for winning the first Best Presentation award given by the ASC. There were plenty of grumblings about Kamali's being voted tops in that category, as always. 'All he does is dance around, doesn't hit any poses,' most fellow pros complained. Well, the hoofing must have been pretty impressive to the celebrity panel that called the shots, 'cause Kamali ended up as king.
Classy Bill Pearl received the Lifetime Achievement Award from California governor and ASC co-promoter (along with Jim Lorimer) Arnold Schwarzenegger (does that have a ring to it, or what?). The Big Fella told the sold-out crowd that Pearl had been one of his idols on his way up the bodybuilding ladder of success.
The only people nearly as amazing as Arnold'the Alexis Brothers'were also brought back by Lorimer to perform a mind-boggling act normally reserved for the Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and around the world. Incredible, and that's being mild. In the end another megasuccess for Schwarzenegger and Lorimer. Oh, yeah, for Cutler, too.
Editor's note: Visit www.ironmanmagazine.com for more contest photos. IM
'04 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic
1) Jay Cutler*
2) Chris Cormier*
3) Dexter Jackson*
4) Gunter Schlierkamp*
5) Markus Ruhl*
6) Craig Titus
7) Gustavo Badell
8) Shari 'King' Kamali
9) Ahmad Haidar
10) Ernie Taylor
11) Bob Cicherillo
12) Mustafa Mohammad
13) Greg Kovacs
*Qualifies for the Mr. Olympia.