by Christian Duque
Derek Lunsford has become the 18th man to hold the Olympia title and his road to the top spot in the sport of bodybuilding has certainly been a noteworthy one. From winning the NPC USA Championships to making Top 5 at his first pro show. This up-and-coming bodybuilder then went on to place 5th in his 212 Olympia debut. Soon he was battling for the spot in that division, ultimately winning the title.
But instead of defending his 212 title and staying in that division, Lunsford took a huge gamble. He put on a tremendous amount of size, so much that there was no way he could compete in the following year’s 212 Olympia. He then took another huge chance by taking this new look to Jim Manion’s 2023 Pittsburgh Pro. This is the president’s show and it’s where all the greatest bodybuilders in the world go. It’s an honor to guest pose at the president’s show, but one notable guy who was missing in action was reigning Mr. Olympia Hadi Choopan.
It seems The Persian Wolf didn’t learn from the downfall of his predecessor, who also skipped the President’s show the year he lost the Sandow, but I digress. Hadi wasn’t there but Derek was. And it was clear to all that Derek wouldn’t try to qualify for the open Olympia, but was all about competing with the big boys. Many people believe Derek received the green light for the Special Invite at that contest. There’s a reason why he never bothered to announce an Olympia qualifier. He just kept the size, kept eating, and kept training. When Derek got the special invite he’d end up finishing second to Hadi.
Even after winning the Sandow, Hadi changed nothing. He had to deal with the world constantly bringing up Derek’s name. He also had to share his coach with the young American challenger. While Derek toured the world, Hadi stayed back in Iran. Choopan did basically the same thing Big Ramy did. The Egyptian Phenom did zilch to grow the sport during his two year run. And Hadi didn’t do much more in his one year reign.
The fact that Mr. Olympia is supposed to be the ambassador of the sport of the world but that often gets swept under the rug. Very few champions take this requirement seriously because they tend to work the industry regardless of what a title dictates.
If you want to eat in this business, you need to have a strong following, constantly make contacts, and be at the places where things are happening. Guys like Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler understood this better than anyone else. They would wait until the last fan got their autograph, got their selfie, and/or got to chit chat with the champion. They weren’t clockwatchers and they didn’t have somewhere more important to be. This is why these champions continue to draw huge crowds today. They helped grow the sport to new audiences and they raised the bar every chance they got.
Bodybuilding needs another Coleman or Cutler. After three years of hermit Mr. Olympias in Ramy and Hadi, it’s time for an outgoing, hardworking champion. Derek Lunsford fits that mold to a t. He’s American, speaks English fluently, and is way younger than his predecessors. His U.S. passport lets him visit any country in the world, many of which won’t require him to even get a visa. He’s based out of Tampa, FL, which has become a flashpoint for the sport and is less than two hours away from where the Olympia is held in Orlando, FL.
Lunsford has the golden opportunity to take the football and run it to the end zone. There’s no limit to what he can do given his youth, language of choice, and his ability to travel freely. There’s also social media. Even though that was all Hadi had, Lunsford also posts regularly with professional content. He also posts with his wife, he posts about his journey with God, and he also just posts funny stuff. This is a Mr. Olympia that’s not going to be afraid to smile or have a laugh. While he takes the title very seriously, he’s a down-to-Earth guy that’s going to be perceived as very approachable.
Being good to the fans is a key part about being a successful Mr. Olympia. Derek knows this and he also knows that being good to his fellow competitors is also a big part of the title. Lunsford lives for bodybuilding and his humility shines through. He didn’t come out of the gate winning everything, either. While his ascent was quick, it still involved him paying his dues and eating some tough placings. That’s important because it gets him the respect of the rank and file. It’s also important that Derek will make himself available to the amateurs. You can expect Lunsford to make appearances even in what’s left of 2023. If there’s contests running, he’ll be there. When’s the last time you saw Choopan or Ramy at a local NPC contest? Try, never.
Derek is also a great example to follow. He’s a fantastic role model for bodybuilders of all ages. And people of all ages can follow in his footsteps. The sport needs a great guy at the top spot. I’m not saying Hadi isn’t a good dude, but take his running off the stage because he took runner-up. How does that look? Imagine if you’re a new fan to the sport and you saw that. What would you think?
In addition to all of the great attributes I’ve outlined, I think Derek realizes that he will have to work hard if he plans on keeping the title. It’s not that he’s not a great bodybuilder, but he needs to keep improving and raising the bar. Maybe next year Nick Walker will be back. Maybe next year Samson will improve on the same level he did this year. Perhaps Hadi will come back better than ever. It’s great to win, but it’s even greater to retain that title. Who’s to say if Brandon hadn’t had the hospital scare if he’d be 2023 Mr. O?
I think Derek is well aware how high stakes this title is. I suspect he will stay as hungry as ever. He’s going to grow the sport and he’s probably going to hold the title for a few years. I don’t think the sport has seen a champion like Lunsford in quite some time. He’s got age in his corner, hunger, and a coach that’s becoming increasingly familiar with his physique and how it responds to training, diet, and supplementation. The sky’s the limit for Derek Lunsford.
Do you think he should have won? Do you think he’ll grow the sport? What say you?