Six of the 11 former IM winners were in attendance: Ray, Flex Wheeler, Chris Cormier, Jay Cutler, Dexter Jackson and Phil Heath. Following a video that outlined the contest’s history, I brought them all onstage, one at a time, and Balik presented them with special IM PRO anniversary jackets (created by Tony Novak) and medals.
It was a special moment for all involved and reminded me of why I’ve been such a keen follower of the industry for more than 25 years. Earlier in the day, Jay and Dex “made” the weekend for 10-year-old Andrew and five year-old Joseph Melendez when their mother, Sonia, who doubles as IM’s subscriptions manager, snapped a shot of her sons with the living legends, both whom display Sandow trophies on their mantels back home. As a kind gesture, Sonia asked me to take part in the photo op as well.
Later in the evening Balik, IM’s unpretentious publisher, finally received some kudos of his own—despite his strong objections. As a special surprise, six-time Ms. Olympia Cory Everson shocked him (at least I think he was shocked) by joining me at the podium, where we presented him with a keepsake book filled with 75 tributes from his family, friends and colleagues. It may have taken me 25 years, but I finally got a kiss from Cory, who is still striking at 51 years of age.
Of course, the evening wouldn’t have been complete without a congratulatory video from John’s longtime friend and former workout partner, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.
In typical Balik fashion John passed on the credit to the rest of the team. Then it was his turn to play surprise; he ended his speech by giving me a beautiful plaque inscribed, “Master Emcee,” in recognition of my 20 years at the mic. I was honored but let J.B. know that he should Photoshop out the bags under my eyes next time.
Speaking of 20 years of service, here’s a special shout out to Kent Kuehn, who was manning his post behind the curtain as expediter along with Al Smith and Brad Craig. Good jobs to all.
Silvio Samuel promised me he would return to the IRON MAN until he won it. As you probably know by now, Silvio kept his word, besting a deep 28-man field that represented 14 countries en route to the crown. Our having the contest three weeks earlier than usual didn’t keep him from standing onstage in shape; Samuel was also keeping one eye on the Arnold Classic, scheduled for the first week of March, where he hoped to improve on his fifth-place finish of 2008.
How this dude stays in top shape, show in and show out, is beyond amazing, but, as he points out, “I am a professional
bodybuilder. This is my job; it shouldn’t be a big deal.” Well, sir, it is. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to be told—really!—that the person I was shaking hands with was the same guy—or woman—I had introduced onstage just a few days earlier. Let’s call this show “Swole Train.”
Samuel says he was four pounds heavier than he was when he finished seventh at last season’s Olympia (he swears he was carrying 226 on his 5’7” frame at the convention center); Dexter ain’t the only guy I’m calling out on his weight statements— I’ll give Silvio a solid 218, after the cheeseburger. Either way, the cat looked divine, tight as a drum, with a serratus that extended up to his ears. He renewed his battle with Moe El Moussawi, who edged him out for third at the ’08 contest. Their war of words on various Web sites prior to the show was entertaining, although they may not have thought so. Hey, it’s show business, guys; some humorous bantering helps spice up not only the contest but the industry as a whole.
El Moussawi, flying in from New Zealand the week of the show, didn’t appear quite as sharp at the prejudging as he’d been last year, when he stunned the crowd by moving up 11 slots from 14th in ’07 to third. The guy with the Guns of Navarone and a back that resembles a relief map of Brazil had definitely improved by the finals. Unfortunately, the 5’9”, 242-pounder was behind by 12 points after the judging, and it was just too much to overcome. Samuel ended the night with a 15-point margin of victory and the $15,000 first-place check. What’s more, the fans who watched the annual Webcast on Bodybuilding.com added another grand to the pot by voting Silvio the “People’s Choice” champion with 36 percent of the online tallies. (By the way, thumbs-way-up to the usual solid job by hosts Dan Solomon and Bob Cicherillo.)
I thought Ronny Rockel was at his all-time best and could have finished second without much argument. Then again, most people look their all-time best under Mike Neveux’s lighting, so maybe I should take this contest out of the mix whenever making that evaluation. ’Cause I think Heath looked his all-time best at this contest a year ago—yes, even better than at the Olympia.
Congrats to Hidetada Yamagishi, who showed up lean and mean, and Ahmad “My Credit Card Is Stuck in Your Abdominal Wall” Haidar, who rounded out the top five, and joined Samuel, Moe and Rockel in qualifying for the Olympia right out of the chute. Most of the publicity after a show centers around those who finished highest, of course, but I want to single out some of the other contenders who deserve special mention:
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Mo Bannout. Not sure if he’s Samir Bannout’s cousin, nephew or neighbor, but I do know that what Samir told me the day before the contest—that this latest Lebanese Lion would make him very proud—was on the money. Check out those wheels and glutes. Rich Gaspari must have been grinning from ear to ear.
MOST IMPROVED: DeShaun Grimez. No, that is not a misprint. I realize that Grimez didn’t make the top 15, but I thought the Southern Cal ace looked vastly improved over what he presented a year ago, when he flopped in his pro debut. As Ruthless Ruth Silverman exclaimed when she was checking out pics of Grimez at IronManMagazine.com, “Look at those cuts in his legs! Look at those guns! The fact that somebody can’t make the top 15 looking like this shows the tremendous depth of the lineup.” Amen.
MOST OVERLOOKED: Oliver Adzievski. The cat from Sweden impressed me from the minute he stepped onstage with his highly conditioned physique and lots of muscle. Not in the top 10 (he finished 12th)? See Ruthless’ statement above.
COMEBACK AWARD: Marcus Haley, who suffered a major injury at the end of 2007. Marcus was visiting his wife Tiffany’s family in Nebraska during the holidays and decided to partake of a leg workout on Christmas Eve. Midset on leg extensions he tore the tendon in his left knee, which made him MIA last season. Haley also snapped his right leg in two during a Jet Ski accident back in 2002 but was in the gym four months later, so the man obviously isn’t going to be taken out easily. He didn’t finish as high as he’d hoped at the IM, taking ninth, but his just being able to be part of the lineup after what he’s been through in recent times makes him a champion.
BIGGEST MAN ON STAGE: Another Swede, Martin Kjellstrom, who finished one slot behind Adzievski, in 13th. Martin, who swears he used to be a long-distance runner, tipped the scales at around 290 on his 6’1” frame and was, in my opinion, in his best condition since he turned pro.
BEST NAME: Costantino Demetriou. Why? Because the sixtime Australian champ can reverse the order of his names and nobody would know the difference.
LANCE ARMSTRONG AWARD: Don Long. The man admits he isn’t what he used to be—who would be after undergoing a kidney transplant a few years back?—but the 42-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida, has made his dream come true by staying in the sport as both a rep for ISS Research and, now and then, a competitor.
The IM booth was jammed packed all weekend, with recent cover models Dave Goodin, Jonathan Lawson and Lexy Raven among the celebs working the area. And who better than pro-figure star Christine Pomponio-Pate to hype my Junior Cal, which she did between mugging for the camera, greeting legions of fans, signing autographs, etc. My latest ploy to get competitors: The men’s overall champion gets to take Christine to dinner. By the way, guys, she lives in Denver, Colorado; don’t expect me to pick up the airfare. Okay, so I’m fibbing—but it sounds great, eh? Talk about an offer you can’t refuse!
At the finals we also devoted a portion of the program to the passings of Ben Weider, Steve Stone, Kenny Kassel and Pete Siegel. In addition, after the expo closed on Sunday, several members of the industry gathered at the famed Baked Potato jazz club in Studio City, one of Kassel’s favorite haunts whenever he came out to Southern California, in celebration of his life.
The get-together was arranged by Jeff Behar, a former competitor who now is the CEO of MyBestHealthportal.com. Ruthless was there, as was legendary photographer (and current crooner) Bill Dobbins, former IFBB fitness athletes Timea Majorova and Laura Mak, former IFBB pro bodybuilder Sharon Bruneau, physique personality Lauren Powers and actress-model Maddy Howard. You did Kenny proud, gang.
I was planning to attend but left for home early Sunday morning instead of roving the expo, as I usually do. My mother had passed away three days earlier and, after two sleepless nights at the Holiday Inn L.A. City Center, I was both physically and emotionally spent. Wish I could have been there.