Time had begun to move at a pace that would have made even a snail throw up his slimy hands in frustration and shout, “Come on, already, while we’re young!” Randy had weighed in and registered as a novice heavyweight, and now he had to wait to go up one more time to register for the open men’s light-heavyweight class. He had nothing to do except torture me with his anxiety and try my patience as I did my best to keep him calm.
“How many guys ya think are in the light heavies, huh?” He looked around, wild-eyed.
“How the hell am I supposed to know? Damn!” I fished his iPod out of his gym bag and thrust it at him. “Why don’t you shut up and listen to some music before you drive me insane.”
He shrugged his shoulders, popped in his ear buds and began to zone out to one of his mellower playlists. I kept thinking (hoping) that he was dozing off, but then his eyes would snap open and he would fidget, do a quick scan of the auditorium and settle back into his seat with his feet up on the chair in front of him. The only song playing in my head was the love theme from “Ghost,” “Unchained Melody”: “Time goes by so slowly.…”
At last the call came for the open light heavyweights. Randy shuffled to his feet, as did several others. My first guess was that there were about 10 of them. Randy scowled at me and made his way up onstage, where he didn’t have to weigh in again, just let the officials know he was in the class. I followed and took a seat in the front row to get a better look.
As I’ve said before, the light heavies are usually the most competitive class in any bodybuilding contest. Since most American men are between 5’8” and 5’10”, you get an awful lot of guys who diet down to somewhere in the range of 185 to 198 pounds. Light heavies tend to have smaller joints than heavyweights and superheavyweights, so their mass usually has a more aesthetically pleasing look. Of all the amateur shows I have attended over the years, I would estimate that the overall champion has been the light-heavyweight winner more often than not.
As the 10 men undressed to their trunks to weigh in—Randy was the 11th—one guy stood out. I have always wanted to be that guy, the one who causes everyone else to instantly know deep in their guts that he is the hands-down winner—the guy who makes all the other guys think to themselves, “Oh, well, maybe next year.” This particular specimen was probably between 5’6” and 5’7” and weighed in at 194 pounds. His name was Sophann, and he appeared to be Southeast Asian, perhaps Vietnamese, Cambodian or Laotian. I say that because he had a darker complexion than any Chinese or Japanese man I’d ever seen, and the name suggested that he was not a Filipino.
In any case the guy looked incredible. His muscles all had that round, full look to them, and his joints were quite small, making the muscles attached to them seem even bigger. His hips and midsection were tiny, with a waist measurement that couldn’t have been more than 27 or 28 inches. Best of all—or for the other men who had hoped to win this contest, worst of all—Sophann was shredded. Even as he was just standing there relaxed on the scale, his cuts and separations were clear and deep. Veins stood out in bold relief on his chest, shoulders, arms, legs and even his back—and that was with no pump and no oil! I had seen the lightweights and middleweights, and I didn’t even need to see the two heavier classes. Lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place, meaning that you don’t get more than one phenomenal physique that’s destined for future greatness at a regional show.
Randy sat down next to me, in shock. “Where the hell did that guy come from? He looks like a pro. He should be competing in the Nationals or the USA, not here.”
“Everybody has to start somewhere and qualify for those contests,” I explained. “But aside from him, I only saw a couple other guys who I think are going to give you trouble. Your condition is going to carry you a long way today, watch.” Randy nodded. I could tell he was a bit disappointed. Secretly he had harbored hopes of winning the entire contest, and now that clearly wasn’t going to happen.
I nudged him. “Chances look very good for you in the novice,” I reminded him. “In fact, if I were a gambling man, I would bet the farm on you. If I had a farm, that is.” Randy blew out a big breath.
“I’ll do my best.”
“You did your best,” I corrected him. “All the hard work is done. You just have to present it to the judges in a little while and see what they think.”
We both watched the heavies weigh in. There were a few big guys, none of whom had particularly pretty bodies. One had a gut so big, I could picture him in a rocking chair on the cover of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. As for the superheavies, there were just two. One guy was at least 6’3” and barely over the heavyweight limit of 225 pounds. He was in decent shape but did not yet have the mass that he would need to do well at this level. Today he would win his class because, while he needed to gain at least 20 pounds of muscle, the other guy needed to drop a good 20 pounds of fat. When I saw the second guy weigh in at 235, I shook my head at the smooth condition he was in.
“Looks like he just woke up this morning and decided, hey, I think I’ll go compete in that bodybuilding contest they’re having today,” I whispered to Randy. A couple behind me, a woman in the figure category and her husband or boyfriend, overheard me and snickered. Then I felt badly because I could tell by the way he was speaking with the officials that he was a bit slow. He probably didn’t know a contest diet from a food court.
“The Asian guy has it all wrapped up,” I said to Randy. “They should just give him his trophy now.”
“Thanks, Ron,” Randy replied. “You really know how to boost a guy’s confidence.”
“I said I think you have the novice—your division and probably the overall too,” I reminded him. “If I tried to make you think you could beat that freak, I’d be blowing so much smoke up your ass, the fire department would shut the show down.”
“Novice men should start pumping up now!” an official barked. That was our cue. It was time to head down to the pump-up room and put the finishing touches on Randy. We got up and followed the herd of competitors and coaches to the stage and to a staircase off stage left that led down to one of the smallest pump-up rooms I had ever seen. Immediately, the smells were overpowering: Pro Tan, tanning oil, a vasodilator called Hot Stuff that helps bring out the veins as well as open up the nasal passages and bring tears to the eyes of anyone in a 10-foot radius and good old-fashioned body odor. Some of these guys had obviously not showered since they’d started applying coats of tanning dye perhaps as long as two days before, and they were pretty ripe by now.
There were a few pairs of dumbbells and three fixed barbells on the floor, along with one flat bench for everyone to share. Randy set his bag down and wandered over to the dumbbells, which were being claimed rather fast by his fellow meatheads.
“Not yet,” I told him. “If you start pumping up now, you’re going to be flat and exhausted by the time you get onstage. Remember that crazy guy I told you about?”
He nodded. Back in L.A. in the mid-’90s I had competed in a natural show where one guy in my class thought it was a good idea to start pumping up well over an hour before we were to go on. Seeing as he was dehydrated, he eventually fell to the ground in a whole-body cramp. I had also made the mistake of starting to pump up too soon—more than once—and wound up feeling weak and unable to flex properly onstage. Many bodybuilders are under the false impression that an extreme pump will somehow make them appear to be twice as large. The reality is that by the time you get to the show, your physique is what it is. You won’t be pulling any rabbits out of any hats.
Randy sat next to me on a ratty couch that was probably used by the theater staff to pass out on. It had stains that I couldn’t identify, which was probably for the best. I bet the “CSI” crew would have a field day with that black light that shows bodily fluids.
“This is it, Randy. You’re almost there now.” He smiled, knowing it was true. We looked around at the room full of frantic bodybuilders and just took it all in for a while. They were chattering about how they were holding water—which in most cases was fat, not water—rubbing on tanning lotions and oils, flexing in front of the few small and dingy mirrors that were set around the room. I waited until the expediter came down to call the novice lightweights to line up and follow him to the stage.
“It’s time,” I said. Leaving his sweats on, I had him do a couple of sets of lateral raises, overhead presses and pushups. There was no need to do much more than that. No amount of pump is going to make a difference if you aren’t ready, and it certainly isn’t going to change the way your physique looks. Randy applied a thin coat of oil, and I helped him with his back.
“Just run through the poses and hold them each for a while,” I told him. It was advice I had overheard Arnold himself giving Kevin Levrone in the pump-up area at the ’96 Arnold Classic, the year Kevin won his second title there.
“Novice heavyweights!” The man was at the door with his clipboard. I dabbed away some places where the oil had streaked and faced Randy.
“I’ll be out there. Just listen for my voice and focus on it,” I told him. “Ignore everything else. You got this.”
He nodded. “Okay. Thanks.”
With that he followed the rest of his class upstairs. In less than 10 minutes an entire year of hard training and dieting were going to come to their ultimate conclusion. A chill went through me as I realized how many times I’d been in this same exact situation. But today was not about me. It was about Randy, and in my heart I knew today was going to be the start of a new chapter in his career as a bodybuilder.
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding: Muscle Truth From 25 Years in the Trenches, available at www.RonHarrisMuscle.com. IM