A year ago at this time all bets were off'no one was counting on Ronnie Coleman to garner his sixth consecutive Mr. Olympia crown. The naysayers did have some pretty good reasons to feel there could well be a changing of the guard in 2003: Coleman had turned 39 in May and was coming off two controversial wins in 2001 (over Jay Cutler) and 2002 (over Kevin Levrone), and he'd suffered an upset by Gunter Schlierkamp at the '02 GNC Show of Strength.
Hard-hitting commentary about Coleman's 'generous' scores and numerous remarks (by magazine and Internet reporters, fellow athletes and fans) about his distended midsection and a lack of the sharpness and detail that caused me to dub him the 'Big Nasty' in 1998, when he replaced the retired Dorian Yates as the best-built man in the world, continued throughout the year. And don't think Coleman didn't take in every word. With each denigration, Ronnie became more pissed'and more focused. When he was asked to handicap the '03 battle, I could see the steam coming through the phone lines. His now-famous 'unless some of the other competitors died and were reborn with my genetics, no one has a chance to beat me' line surfaced.
Well, nobody died. And he was right. Nobody did have a chance to beat him. Especially when he showed up on game day at an unheard-of 286 pounds'with a reduced belly at that. Talk about large and in charge. He told me in the pump-up area that he was still angered by the remarks regarding his alleged demise.
Even though he crushed the field last year, the bitterness at what he considers a tremendous lack of respect still stirs. So, when asked about this year's predictions, Ronnie simply replied, 'Has anyone died and been reborn with my genetics this year?'
As frightening as it sounds, Coleman says he might come in around 290 or so. It's always my goal to come in a little bigger than the year before. I've trained just as hard as always and know I can be just as good at 40 as I was last year'yeah, just like Randy Johnson [the Arizona Diamond ace who threw a perfect game in May].'
Here's a closer look at the champ and his supporting cast as they prepare to duel it out at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on October 30. THE CHAMP
Ronnie Coleman, going for his seventh consecutive victory. Now 40, the 5'11' Coleman says he might be even bigger than last year, when he carried a mind-boggling 286 pounds onstage and destroyed the field. Coleman's trademark quote on how he sees the results in 2004: 'Unless somebody dies and is reborn with my genetics, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this one out.'
If Coleman does have any challengers for the crown, they'll come from this group: Jay Cutler, Chris Cormier, Dexter Jackson, Alexander Federov. X-factor: Dennis James.
Cutler, the three-time Arnold Classic champ, is somewhat in the same category as Coleman was a year ago. After finishing a distant second to Coleman in last season's Olympia, Cutler was bested by Jackson at the Show of Strength. Although he came back to cop his third straight ASC victory in March, Cutler was an extremely dieted-down 250. Even though his conditioning was superior, many pundits in the industry, as well as his fellow athletes, consider the win a gift.
Cutler was weighing'and looking very good at 'more than 300 pounds in mid-July and says his days of going too far down in weight are over: 'I expect to be around 265 to 270, at the least.' Don't think Coleman's dominating victory in '03 has dampened his spirits. 'I beat him in '01 [Cutler was ahead by six after the judging only to lose by two when the final two rounds were completed], and I can do it again,' says Cutler. 'I'm going back to the look that got me here in the first place.'
Cormier is always a question mark; at his best he may have the most complete package in the game. At his best isn't always the way he shows up, however. Last year he didn't show up at all, having dropped out after suffering a virus in the weeks leading up to the contest. Chris did bounce back at the ASC, and many had Cormier'or Jackson'besting Cutler. In the end, though, a one-point setback resulted in Chris' earning his fifth consecutive runner-up finish at the Arnold.
Jackson has been on a roll and, even at 5'7' and 212 or so pounds, has proved he can hang with the big boys. After defeating Cutler at the SOS to end the '03 season, the Blade cut down the field at the IRONMAN Pro to open the new season on a winning note. A very controversial third-place finish at the ASC came next, and then Jackson got back to his winning ways with victories at the San Francisco and Australian grand prix events to make sure people wouldn't forget his name when talking about the best in the game.
If he ends up in the lineup (at press time that was up in the air), Russia's Federov could be the biggest surprise of the year. This is a 5'11', 280-pounder with shape. No less an authority than Cutler, who edged Federov for second (behind Coleman) at the '03 Russian Grand Prix, says the man is truly a contender, not a pretender. Word was that he was going to receive a special invite to the festivities; after hearing Jay's description, let's hope that becomes a reality.
Last year James finally achieved the potential so many people predicted for him when he finished fourth at the O; the 5'8', 245-pounder encountered some legal problems earlier this year in his native Thailand, but nothing more has been heard about that situation, so it looks as if he'll be in the contest. Because we've heard so little about Dennis this year, he's the X-factor. If he continues to improve, he can hold his own against the best. ALL CANDIDATES FOR TOP SIX
Gunter Schlierkamp, Markus Ruhl, Lee Priest, Kevin Levrone, Darrem Charles, Troy Alves. The X-factor here: Gustavo Badell. That's seven more guys with top-six potential? You bet. They're all first-caliber physique aces and, if they come in at their best, will cause plenty of headaches for fellow competitors.
Schlierkamp, coming off a sub-par 2003, looked good in getting fourth at this year's ASC, and Ruhl, who underwent surgery for the torn triceps that kept him out of the Olympia last season, was right behind him in fifth. The two German giants will bring nearly 600 pounds of beef to the stage between them.
Priest bombed at last year's season finale, finishing 15th out of 16; he was the bomb in the early part of 2004, coming back in fantastic condition as he lost only to Jackson at the IRONMAN and San Francisco shows. He's but 5'4 1/2' and around 200 pounds, but Priest continues to give new meaning to the word freak. And, as I've said before, he's got the best all-around arm development in the history of the game and remains a fan fave.
Levrone, as always, is an enigma. Now 40, he hasn't taken training nearly as seriously in recent years as he did during his prime, and at this point it's a question mark whether he'll even compete. One day he talks about winning the Olympia, the next about moving to California and becoming a movie star. Still, he's my second choice (behind Flex Wheeler) for the greatest bodybuilder never to win the Olympia, so you can't totally count him out. Or can you?
Charles, seventh last year, has been brilliant in '04, adding wins at the Florida Extreme and Toronto Pro to his r'sum' along with second-place finishes at the Night of Champions and the Hungarian Grand Prix. The 36-year-old is always in shape and can't be counted out.
Alves lost the seventh-place slot to Charles in a tie-breaker at the '03 Mr. O; at 5'9' and 220 pounds the Phoenix resident isn't one of the biggest competitors in the land, but his lines and symmetry make him one of the best. Troy feels he can be in the top six in this rugged lineup, and he's out to make believers of those who've scoffed at his suggestion.
Badell has been the surprise of the current campaign, which he began with a powerful third-place finish to Jackson and Priest at the IM Pro. The 5'7', 235-pound Puerto Rico resident is no longer an underdog, and if he shows in top shape, can definitely battle the above-mentioned gents for a top-six position.
Anthony, who would have been included in this group, has decided to sit out the Olympia to concentrate on the '05 IRONMAN Pro and Arnold Classic.
CANDIDATES FOR TOP TEN
This group includes Ahmad Haidar, Richard Jones, Jaroslav Horvath and Kris Dim.
Haidar, with his abs of steel, has been terrific this year and can more than hold his own in any lineup. Jones, the '03 USA champ, qualified for the big dance by finishing third behind Anthony and Charles at the NOC. Jones needs to fill out his lower body, but he has one of the classier physiques in the game and could sneak into a top-10 spot. Horvath's third-place finish in Hungary earned him an Olympia berth. Despite the whining of some pros about his taking fourth ahead of Craig Titus and Shari 'King' Kamali at the Australian show, this Slovakian has been underappreciated for some time and brings one of the most balanced physiques around to the stage. The X-factor here is Victor Martinez, a gifted 5'9' New Yorker who's hoping to qualify at the Show of Strength in early October. Martinez, who hasn't competed since he won the '03 NOC, is highly respected among judges and competitors, and it wouldn't surprise a soul if he made it to the Olympia stage'and finished in the top 10.
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2004 Mr. O Competitors
(as of mid-July)
Ronnie Coleman, USA
Jay Cutler, USA
Dexter Jackson, USA
Dennis James, USA
Gunter Schlierkamp, Germany
Kevin Levrone, USA
Troy Alves, USA
Ernie Taylor, U.K.
Mustafa Mohammad, Jordan
Lee Priest, Australia
Gustavo Badell, Puerto Rico
Chris Cormier, USA
Markus Ruhl, Germany
Kris Dim, USA
Darrem Charles, Trinidad
Ahmad Haidar, Lebanon
Craig Richardson, USA
Richard Jones, USA
Pavel Jablonicky, Czech Republic
Jaroslav Horvath, Slovakia