by Christian Duque
The stakes are so high for the Mr. Olympia, that I suspect a lot of top bodybuilders will sit out most of the 2023 contest season. There’s the guys who did really well at last year’s Olympia and there’s the guys who just did the Arnold and capitalized on their appearance in Columbus. When you look at guys like Derek, Nick, Ramy, Samson, and Brandon there’s just no reason for them to compete. If Brandon didn’t do the Arnold, it’s unlikely he’d do the New York Pro or even less likely that he’d do a smaller contest. Once you’ve done the Olympia and the Arnold, there isn’t much else. The NY Pro is the solid 3rd biggest show and that’s always a possibility.
Big Ramy has never looked better than he did a decade ago on the NY Pro stage. After that show there really isn’t anything that really draws top guys’ interest.. Why would they prep for 12-16 weeks to win a $10,000 show? What would be the point of that? If they want to see the fans, they can appear at a number of expos around the world representing their sponsors. They can hold court at their booth, sign autographs, take photos and even do a seminar. Why not? There’s fans that will stand by a booth all day.
Athletes used to have to compete to get their names out, but today they can work a booth, maybe guest pose, and/or just spend some time on their phones. The prospect of doing a number of crappy shows for crappy money just isn’t very appealing to guys battling on stage for a $425,000 check and the bragging rights and the respect of being the #1 guy in the world. Whether it’s for bodybuilding, classic physique, or men’s physique, when you’re dealing with an athlete at this elite level, competing has to make sense. No one competes just because.
Once a competitor is qualified for the Olympia their priority becomes doing their absolute best at the most prestigious show in the world. While competing is no longer what it used to be, the two biggest contests in the world still have remarkable significance – even for guys who routinely end up placing outside the money. Just being on that stage translates to an undeniable level of credibility in the fitness industry.
Take Patrick Moore for example. When he announced he was doing the 2023 Arnold Classic after they raised the price to $300k, the first thing I thought was “there’s last place.” I know that sounds incredibly cold, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it. I knew he wouldn’t be competitive in this lineup no matter how much the prize was. He had undergone medical treatment and it’s been years since he looked his best. So why’d he jump in? Well for starters, there were only ten guys and 10th place got some money. The worst he could possibly do would still put $2,000 in his pocket and get him some fanfare. More importantly he was seen by the judges, the media, and the ticket-buying public. Even the commentators were kind to him, saying all he needed was minor tweaks. No one’s going to beat up on a guy who just took last place. If anything they’ll try to soften the blow and in so doing, they actually give the worst looking guy some good PR. It’s win-win even though you’re placing last. The same can’t be said about jumping into some random show.
Most of the small contests don’t have very robust promotional teams. They may have a presence on social media, but they don’t have any kind of a formidable Pay Per View. They probably have a local emcee, no media, and maybe a 2nd string photographer to take stage shots. The big time photographers are after the contests that pay big money and have huge expos running alongside them. These guys are the very best and they require a substantial amount of money to work a show. Many of the smaller contests not only offer far less money and far less exposure, but they are tremendously lacking when it comes to production value. They may not have the best stage, they may have lousy lighting or bad sound and/or junky photos.
Even if a competitor looks great, if they’re posing under bad lights for a mediocre photographer then they might actually look considerably less impressive once photos and videos are posted. A lot of top athletes just don’t have the patience for that. They absolutely refuse to compete on lesser stages. If they’ve made it to the Olympia, Arnold Classic, and the NY Pro, they’re very unlikely to backtrack.
We were in for a real treat with the 2023 Arnold Classic because the promoters there wanted to avert failure. The regular show really didn’t have any kind of big names by today’s standards. William Bonac should have been the favorite but he’s been getting the cold shoulder by the judges for the last couple of years. The 212 guys were both Mr. O’s in Kamal and Shaun. They brought a certain level of wow factor to the lineup, but neither guy would have been allowed to win the Arnold. I say allowed because politics are involved, but to what level I don’t know. I do think it would look pretty insane if either guy had won the open title given that Arnold scrapped the 212 Division from his competition. The only Top 6 guy from last year’s Olympia (before they upped the prize money) just so happened to be the least popular one of the pack. Ironically, Samson Dauda would go on to win the title. The only reason we got to see the likes of Nick Walker and Big Ramy is because of the extra $100k. That’s what got them to come out of the woodwork. How many other shows are offering $300,000 as their top prize?
Not only aren’t there any other shows that offer this much money, there’s very few shows that even break the $100,000 mark. You still have contests in the Pro League circuit paying $10k. One such show is rumored to be the Masters Olympa. Even though the total prize money is over $200k, every division is going to pull from that fund. It’s not just Masters Bodybuilding, it’s Masters bodybuilding, physique, and more. Everyone takes from that pot so many believe it’s just going to be a series of $10k shows all on the same day. If you think that’s going to draw guys on the level of Dexter Jackson or Victor Martinez, you’re absolutely nuts! They’ll appear as emcees, they might work a booth, or they might do a little Q&A for five or ten grand, but there’s just no way they’re going to prep for sixteen weeks for chump’s change.
And that explains why, to date, guys like Dexter, Victor, and Jay have largely ignored the 2023 Masters Olympia as any kind of a springboard for a comeback. In one interview with Jay Cutler and Phil Heath, the 4x Mr. Olympia halfheartedly said he’d return to the stage, but only if a million dollars was on the table. He said he’d do it for a million. And while that seems like a lot of money, it would be one hell of an investment for a film company or sponsor to raise and own all the rights to dvds, promo, and licensing for the mountain’s worth of content of 3-6 months of Jay returning to the gym, slamming sugar-free Tang, eating egg whites and training like it was 2006. You offer a guy like Jay $10k to compete for and he’ll laugh at you. And that’s the same reason so many top Olympia and Arnold pro’s automatically brush aside 95% of the other contests on the pro circuit. They’re simply not worth their time.
Most guys who are qualified for the Olympia are not going to win a contest just for the hell of it. One key reason is because they’re unlikely to face any stiff competition. What’s the glory in an easy win? And why take a chance from someone who needs to qualify? It’s just $10k in your pocket. That’s small picture thinking. It’s not a free $10k. A top bodybuilder has to put in anywhere between $10-$25k worth of prep to hit the stage. If 1st place pays $10k, they’re $15k in the hole, for a show that had no promo, where they faced no real competition, and where all the photos and videos making the rounds online look like trash. Plus there’s going to be backlash on the message boards, reddits, and the facebook groups from fans who will mock the top bodybuilder for basically bullying lesser quality guys. It’s a bad look for a top guy to slum it with those who are either in the second or third tier. A win there won’t be celebrated and it’ll be looked at with varying degrees of skepticism.
This is just how the cookie crumbles, but it does do a great disservice to the fans. Most fans can’t afford going to the Mr. Olympia or the Arnold Classic. Imagine if you lived in Montana, Alabama, or Wyoming. Las Vegas or Columbus are both worlds away. They won’t be able to scrape together a few thousand dollars to go watch a bodybuilding show. That said, they watch everything on social media, they read Iron Magazine religiously, and they may even watch some of the dvd’s on streaming services. Sadly for them, they’re never going to see Hadi or Brandon or Ramy or Nick competing at 100% at their local pro shows. And that’s because their local shows are the very ones that may just pay $10k, that probably don’t have good photographers or promo, and which usually draw guys who went pro later in life or maybe just have never had any kind of winning streak. These contests are a big part of what keeps the sport going but they don’t really give the fans what they want. You might see Nick Walker or Hadi Choopan guest pose, if you’re lucky. They might stop by to give an award or maybe they might work their sponsor’s booth, but that’s not the same as seeing a Top Olympian who’s dialed in and battling like they really want a title. They really don’t want that title and they’re never going to do local shows. The best that fans can hope for, is one day getting to the Arnold or the Olympia or watching social media feeds or fitness websites.
That said, I don’t think times are much different today than in yesteryear. While in yesteryear there were usually a string of post-Olympia grand prix contests throughout the world, it was still highly unlikely to see a top athlete – let alone a reigning Mr. Olympia – competing at smaller shows. In addition to what we’ve already discussed with regards to pay, exposure, and credibility, another reason top guys might not do smaller shows is risk.
Very few top guys will ever forget Gunter Schlierkamp’s upset of Ronnie Coleman at the 2004 GNC Show Of Strength. There the German giant shocked the world when he defeated reigning Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman. He beat The Big Nasty when he was at his prime, but he didn’t beat him at the Arnold or much less the Olympia. He beat him at a smaller show where you normally wouldn’t see a reigning Mr. Olympia competing. And guess what? We never saw a reigning Mr. Olympia compete at a smaller show ever since. I think the risk of a surprise defeat and the shockwaves that would send has kept any other Mr. Olympia from trying his luck again.
This year’s Arnold wasn’t supposed to draw the names it did. The extra $100k did the trick, but that’s the last we’re going to see of these top guys in top shape until the 2023 Mr. Olympia. I suspect we won’t see any big names competing for much of the 2023 season. I’d say there’s five guys out of last year’s Olympia Top 6 who truly believe they can topple Hadi. And that’s not going to happen by them doing what they consider to be bullshit shows. These guys will all hunker down, eat big, train heavy and pose, pose, pose. They will eat, sleep, and dream the 2023 Mr. Olympia.