If the Bee Gees could sing “How Deep is Your Love” as John Travolta grooved across the dance floor three decades back, Iron Man Pro Promoter John Balik certainly should be allowed to belt out the sequel, “How Deep is Our Lineup,” as many of the IFBB’s greatest physique artists will flex their way around the LA Convention Center stage for the latest version of his contest, set for February 16 (for more details about the pro show, the NPC Figure event and The FitExpo, log on to www.ironmanmagazine.com).
Even the normally placid Balik can’t hide his enthusiasm for the 2008 season opener, commenting, “Looking at the overall lineup, I believe this is the most outstanding group of contestants to ever enter.” And, considering how sublime the contest has been since its 1990 debut, that’s saying a mouthful.
For the first time in recent memory, the Iron Man Pro has no clear favorite going in. On the contrary; actually, I say there are five legitimate contenders for the $15,000 first place prize money. And, a few others who could shake up the pre-contest predictions when all the points are tallied at the end of the night.
For starters, Toney Freeman will be back to defend his title. And, with something to prove. Despite wins at the Iron Man and Sac Pro last year, as well as a strong third place finish at the Arnold Classic, the 41-year-old Freeman crashed at his last event—the 2007 Mr. Olympia—with a stunning 14th place landing.
Now, I heard the “X-Man” was ill going into the latter, which makes sense, since the 6’2”, 275-pounder out of Atlanta, Georgia, was terrific in the earlier season shows and had some prognosticators picking him to finish as high as third in the Olympia. So, Toney now finds himself in the strange predicament of showing that his performances in the first three contests, not the “off-night” in Las Vegas, are what people should remember. Co-favorite number one.
But, even if he comes in at his best, it ain’t gonna be easy. Gustavo Badell won the IM in 2005 and has recorded two third place finishes in the Olympia. And, like Freeman, the Frican’ Rican also has something to prove after his disappointing eighth place finish at the Olympia last year. Gustavo was hard enough, but smaller and flat at the ‘Olympia, and I don’t think the 5’7”, 240-pounder will be making that mistake twice in a row. Co-favorite number two.
Then there’s Phil Heath. Known as “The Gift”, Heath followed his Overall win at the 2005 USA with back to back wins on the pro circuit before finishing fifth at the 2007 Arnold Classic, a show where some felt the 28-year-old out of Denver, Colorado, should have been as high as third.
At 5’9” and 215 pounds, Heath sat out the previous two Olympia’s, feeling he needed to put on size. Now that that’s been taken care of, he’s ready to go. The former Denver University basketball player got up to 270 pounds in the off-season, is about 250 right now (less than a month out) and could land onstage in the 230-235 range. I’ll tell you more when I put Phil on the scale (and all the other competitors as well) at the annual weigh-in Friday at 4 pm. This could be as much fun as the show! Co-favorite number three.
Now, we have Silvio Samuel, the winner of the most prestigious honor in all of bodybuilding in 2007—my “Pro Bodybuilder of the Year” accolades in the February News & Views column in IRON MAN Magazine. No, he didn’t get any cash for this. Not even a trophy. Well, he did get a nice photo and will get a special handshake from yours truly when I see him at the weigh-in. Oh yeah, he also gets to be named, Co-favorite number four.
Silvio normally goes in at 5’6”, 220 or so, but he whittled down to 206 last August when he won both the 210 and under and the main event as well at the Europa Super Show in Dallas. The guy not only competed in eight contests in 2007, he was in great shape in every one of them! Matter of fact, the Sliced Spaniard placed one slot ahead of the Frican’ Rican at the ‘Olympia.
Another fella coming off a great ’07 campaign…..here’s Johnnie! As in Jackson. With his victory in Atlantic City last September, followed by a ninth place finish at the Olympia that could have been, in some folk’s eyes, a slot or two higher, Jackson now has to be considered a legit challenger to the crown. This 5’7”, 235-pounder has always been known as perhaps the strongest bodybuilder in the world; now he’s earned his stripes as one of the best physiques, strength feats aside. Co-favorite number five.
Eddie Abbew, the world’s best built nurse, is coming back after a strong third place finish last year, which qualified him for the Olympia right out of the shoot (the contest was given top five Olympia qualifying status a year ago,) and feels he will be in the hunt for a qualifying berth again this season, albeit traveling along a much tougher road.
Another recent title winner has thrown his name into the IM lineup—2006 NPC Nationals Overall champ Desmond Miller. Miller, and his “Wheels of Steel”, is a 5’11”, 260-pounder who had a very productive rookie season in 2007 with fourth and second place finishes at the New York Pro and Keystone Classic, respectively. A definite top 5 contender.
So is David Henry, who joins Samuel as perhaps the most consistently in shape dude in the pro ranks. At 5’5” and 190-195 pounds—David continually reminds me how wrong I am when I discuss his weight, which he says is over 200—Henry always shows up ripped and ready and, despite being “smaller” than his top peers, can never be counted out among the leaders of the pack.
Let’s not forget dark horse Will Harris when talking top five challengers. Harris pushed Samuel to the Europa crown and made his Olympia debut last September. For a guy who somehow only placed 15th at The Big Dance, Harris sure got a lot of positive comments from the folks in the seats.
Veteran Troy Alves, who has finished third on two different occasions at the IM, is coming back for another shot; the 5’8”, 225-pounder out of Phoenix, Arizona, has one of the classier physiques in the industry and is always a crowd favorite. Count Troymendous is in as a top five threat as well.
Former USA winner Omar Deckard, who lives a hop, skip and a jump from the Convention Center, will jump back onstage at the event where he made his pro debut a year ago. Omar, at 6’1” and 255 pounds, finished fifth at the Europa in ’07 and, if he can bring up his wheels, could be a surprise in the star-studded field.
Two outstanding rookies, “Sting” Ray Arde and DeShaun Grimez, will be flexing for pay for the first time in their careers. Arde, a 5’6”, 210-pounder from San Jose, CA, won his pro card by taking the Light-heavyweight class at the 2006 Nationals, and combines both thickness and size. If Ray is “on”, some of the favorites ahead of him might be gone.
Grimez won the Heavyweight crown at last season’s USA Championships and moved on to the pro ranks when he finished second in the Overall balloting to Ben White. Shaun improved quite a bit from 2006 to 2007; if that rate of development continues, he could make more noise in downtown Los Angeles in mid-February.
Other notables on the competitors list as of January 14: Armin Scholz and his 22” gun salute, Moe Elmoussawi and his 21” gun salute, Rusty Jeffers and his classic posing routine and King Kamali and his fight to return to the higher echelon of pro bodybuilding.
It was at the IM in 2001 when Kamali made his pro debut with a strong third place finish behind only Chris Cormier and Melvin Anthony; at that time he felt he was well on his way in proving he would soon be one of the IFBB’s leading men. That hasn’t happened to date; will this finally be the year Shari can be worthy of his moniker again?
Paco Bautista, who packs on as much muscle as anybody in the game, won last season’s Santa Susana Pro in Spain, qualifying him for a spot in the ‘Olympia, and wants to earn a spot back on the Orleans Arena stage this year with a top five finish.
Another former NPC Nationals winner, John Sherman, who took the 1992 Nationals Overall title, has signed up for the contest, as has Rodney Davis, Troy Brown, Jimmy Canyon and Kenny (Do you love me, now that I can dance) Jones, among others.
Looks like a dandy. Come on out to give your favorite competitor a shout, or watch all the action on Bodybuilding.com’s annual webcast (with Dan Solomon and Bob Cicherillo again calling the action), to see if the finished product matches the hype. I say it will. And, how often is The Swami wrong?