by Christian Duque
In what amounted to one of the hardest battles of any 212 Olympia in history, Keone Pearson faced off against 2x 212 Mr. Olympia Shaun “The Giant Killer” Clarida and emerged the victor. This was a contest where both guys were ultra-ripped, huge (proportionally), and battling it out for every pose. The judges posed them continuously and I do believe they had a look from every possible angle.
The Olympia lights weren’t particularly good this year, but the judges made sure they made up for it by more comparisons than I’ve ever seen. They wanted to be sure they got it right.
While I was favoring Shaun, I thought Keone looked his best ever, and I’m happy that he was crowned 212 Mr. Olympia. It’s a good change of the guard and it’s about time Pearson got some recognition for all his hard work. I’ve known Keone for a few years and I happen to know, firsthand, how hard this young man has worked. I also know that it’s not been a super easy road for him. He’s competed in open bodybuilding, 212, and classic physique. He’s tried very hard to find his niche, the place where his physique is the best suited. He didn’t have the luxury of other guys who just jumped in a division and called it home. His was a journey that had quite a few bumps in the road. One of the biggest was the fluctuating levels of buzz he enjoyed.
When my buddy PJ Braun took interest in Pearson, he was being trained by the Sultan of Symmetry Flex Wheeler. He was 100% natty, even though most didn’t believe it. He was dead set on making doubters into believers. He truly believed he could be competitive while staying natural. And he was to a certain extent. He won his pro card as a natural and even placed very well in big pro shows without taking the plunge.
Eventually, however, I believe he reached his natural potential. He was at a decisive crossroads in his career. None of his coaches or sponsors were pushing the gear. He just had to decide if he was content taking good placings – or – if he was determined to win pro shows and compete on the biggest stages in the sport. He made his choice and we saw Pearson take the stage at huge shows like the Arnold Classic and the Mr. Olympia. Although he competed in different divisions and always took the stage in fantastic shape, he wasn’t winning. He also wasn’t taking 2nd’s or 3rd’s. This kept on going for quite some time.
The longer it took for Pearson to live up to his rep, the more buzz he lost. It got to a point where Keone had become old news. His name no longer commanded big talk. Pundits stopped automatically putting him in the Top 6. Writers, occasionally, would forget to give him plugs and sometimes they would totally ignore him.
While athletes don’t get paid for media love it’s certainly appreciated. The more an athlete is talked about the bigger their audience will be. The more followers they have and the more they’re talked about, the more they can command from sponsorships, guest posing appearances, and coaching services.
When Pearson stopped being Mr. Popularity, I think that did a couple of things. For starters, there was far less pressure on his shoulders. And secondarily, I think it allowed him to fly under the radar. When all eyes are on you, you can’t exactly make improvements or sneak into a contest without anyone else knowing you’re there. Once Pearson stopped being on everyone’s mind he became somewhat of a dark horse. The star everyone knew had become an underdog of sorts.
Being overlooked makes you hungry. It makes it as to where you have something to prove. I always knew Keone could do it. It was never a question of if, but when.
I still remember the Braun Army meetup at Flex Appeal Gym in Miami, FL. Even when the cameras weren’t on Keone, he trained like a monster. He was all about the intensity and the form. He wasn’t looking to impress anyone, but he had his way of doing things and he was all about pressing forward. Even then he already had the crazy size and he posed like a champion without the title. What’s crazy is that once he found his place in the 212 he was committed to getting the division’s top title. Once he was locked in he was done looking at the open and looking at Classic. It was just a matter of time.
To see Keone emerge victorious from the 212 Olympia is so right that I can’t even begin to elaborate. It’s been a long but rewarding road for The Prodigy. From just 2017 to 2023 he’s managed to go all the way to the top of the sport. He’s very young, works very hard, and has limitless potential. It’s also interesting to see what he does next. Keone is a guy who could potentially follow in other 212 champion’s footsteps whether that be William Bonac, Hadi Choopan, or Derek Lunsford. There’s a pretty good chance that we see Keone competing in the open in 2024. That would probably require a special invite, but it could very well happen. That being said, because he beat Clarida so narrowly, I suspect he may try to defend his 212 title, if anything, to let the critics know that he’s the best of the best in that weight division.
Then again, who cares what people think, especially critics. If you can learn one lesson from bodybuilding and physique-based sports it’s that you can rarely make a hater into a fan. So what if people think Clarida should have won. Who got the W? Keone Pearson did. Keone is your 2023 212 Mr. Olympia and that’s that.
I also want to commend 2x 212 Mr. Olympia Shaun “The Giant Killer” Clarida who showed tremendous good sportsmanship. I don’t want to throw shade at 2022 Mr. Olympia Hadi Choopan, but seeing The Persian Wolf storm off stage because he didn’t win, left a bitter taste in my mouth. It’s good to see a champion lose gracefully. And you can even call taking 2nd – losing? Both men put on a fantastic show and battled down to the wire. It could have gone either way and both men can – and should – hold their head up high.
I’m extremely proud of The Prodigy Keone Pearson. Let’s all take a moment and send him a tremendous congratulatory message from everyone, here, at Iron Magazine!! It’s going to be a big year for Keone and 212 Bodybuilding!! Who knows, maybe we’ll see the division back at the Arnold Classic. Who knows? What say you?