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Who Misses The Challenge Round?

  • 7 min read

by Christian Duque

Before Jay Cutler toppled the GOAT 8x Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman in 2006, The Freakin Rican Gustavo Badell beat Coleman at the 2005 Mr. Olympia Challenge Round. The Challenge Road was an experiment that allowed Olympia competitors to challenge each other in two poses of their choice on the biggest bodybuilding stage in the world.

The fans absolutely loved this feature even if it was a bit difficult to calculate who was actually winning but at the end of the day it was entertainment! It gave the competitors the ability to pick poses they dominated in and allowed for guys to challenge fellow competitors and create a series of mini-shows out of the bigger contest.

Whether it was Gustavo vs Victor, Ronnie vs Gunther, or Dexter vs Victor, the athletes had the chance to be compared side by side before the judges and the fans alike. I think the fact that Ronnie lost in 2005 sealed the deal because that wasn’t supposed to happen. It created serious doubt in The Big Nasty and who’s to say that that undermined whoever won the actual show.

Perhaps this experiment confused the bodybuilding world, but I thought it was very cool and I think the fans would like to see it come back. Who wouldn’t want to see Ramy vs Brandon or Hadi vs Derek? The only time the bodybuilders ever pose freely against each other is the pose down and that’s not even scored. If we’re lucky the guys will have a little bit of fun with each other and maybe take it seriously. For the most part, however, the guys usually just fumble around for about 30 seconds while the judges scribble on their scoresheets. When the guys aren’t really into it, it might as well be a good time for a pit stop before the judges hand their scores to the MC to read out loud.

One of the biggest things missing from bodybuilding today is entertainment. I appreciate the efforts of Jake Wood and his team when it comes to finding better venues for the Olympia, investing more into huge multi-dimensional screens, and light shows galore, but these are all aspects on the production side.

What about the actual athletes? When’s the last time we saw a pose down at the press conference? Who can forget the days when Ronnie and Jay and Gustavo would battle it out. Whether they were hitting leg shots, most muscular poses, or just talking trash – it was fun!! More recently King George Brown nearly hijacked one of those press conferences – only thing was it was a set-up. Even that was more entertaining than the snooze fests of the last few years.

Nowadays the guys just talk about fluff, good sportsmanship, and how they hope to inspire others. That’s uplifting and I certainly applaud them for being such great role models, but that’s also boring. Sadly, being a positive force is boring. There’s something to be said about negativity, pressing people’s buttons, and getting everyone in the audience and online up in an uproar. Let’s not forget how popular televised wrestling has been for decades – and that’s a sport based on scripts and theatrics. It’s not even real! But people can’t get enough. There’s good guys and villains and everything in between.

Let’s also not forget the huge success of the docu-drama Pumping Iron. Even though the rivalries in that film were also scripted, people identified with bodybuilders in the movie. Whether it was Arnold, Lou, Mike Katz or Ken Waller. Some people wanted to see Franco beat Arnold and others identified with the bond between Lou and his dad. There was a lot going on in that film and the engagement that was achieved helped people then get turned onto bodybuilding. If the film had only been about actual pumping iron, I doubt we’d be talking about it in 2023.

Guys nowadays are more interested in looking and sounding GQ at the press conference. They don’t want to break a sweat, let alone peel down, and battle it out for an audience of screaming fans. They’re too busy looking fresh to be athletes. This is where the sport is today. They also don’t want to talk trash in person or get heated. That’s what social media is for.

It’s really a pretty lame time where the sport is at so all the more reason why it would be great to bring back something that was truly special like the Challenge Round was. I mean look what a huge hit the people’s champion award has been. This gives the fans – both in the venue and watching through PPV – the ability to vote for their favorite bodybuilder. The guy who gets the most votes is crowned the People’s Champion, gets $10,000, and is given the award in front of the entire bodybuilding world.

Sometimes, the winner of the People’s Champion award wins the Olympia and sometimes they have to settle for runner-up, Top 3, or maybe Top 6. Wherever they place, it’s heartwarming to know that even though the judges may not have scored them the winner, the fans did.

There’s something to be said for when a top guy is announced 2nd or 3rd and the whole hall erupts in boos. That’s the people telling the competitor that they feel like he was robbed. We’ve seen that happen when Victor took 2nd in 2007, when Hadi took 3rd in 2020, and when Derek took 2nd last year. The fans’ voice is one that cannot be silenced. And if the People’s Champion award has been such a hit, why not consider bringing back the Challenge Round?

At the end of the day it should be all about entertainment. Right now the Olympia is pretty boring, despite all the lights and special effects. I think if the Challenge Round came back, the athletes would really get into it. It would be one more way for the fans to go nuts as well.

I mean just stop to think about how many comparisons are made on the message boards. Now imagine if the comparisons took place on stage and you had guys hitting poses side by side as the fans went absolutely nuts!! That would sell like hotcakes. And imagine if the winner of the Challenge Round, like the winner of the People’s Champion award, wasn’t the same guy crowned as Mr. Olympia. Imagine the contention that would be in the air. Imagine how stirred up the fans would get. The whole point would be to create more interest.

Boring shows don’t grow into bigger venues. People don’t race to buy pay per view packages to watch snooze fests. Just like nobody would have watched Pumping Iron if it had just been about bodybuilding.

Give the fans what they want. Let’s make bodybuilding fun again! I say bring back the Challenge Round, keep the People’s Champion award going, and have more awards like the Most Muscular, the Best Poser, and the Most Improved. Think outside the box for ways to create more ways to reward more athletes and create shows within shows.

After all, that’s exactly what the Challenge Round was and what the People’s Champion is all about. So what if it creates doubt in who’s the best bodybuilder in the world. Let there be doubt! Doubt sells. Fear sells. Negativity sells. Drama sells! I mean how can it be more obvious?!?!

Let’s make bodybuilding great again!