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2023 In Muscle: Lessons Learned, Or Not?

  • 8 min read

by Christian Duque

2023 was a very interesting year for the sport of bodybuilding. We saw a new Olympia crowned but we also saw some difficulties with the second biggest bodybuilding show, the Arnold Classic. Never in the history of the sport has this world-class event come so close to being canceled. If the pandemic didn’t do it no one would have believed that it would have happened because of a lack of able-bodied competitors taking the stage. But the reality of the matter is that Arnold Schwarzenegger really dropped the ball with regards to who was overseeing his competition. They didn’t make a mistake in terms of the day-to-day operations but they certainly didn’t see the writing on the wall in terms of inviting competitors that would do the show and stay the course till the end.

When a show that pays $200,000 sees dwindling competitor numbers that is a real problem. It’s almost like amateur hour at the highest levels. The fact that they had to raise the prize money by $100,000 just to save face and ensure that competitors would in fact compete is really a sad state of affairs.

There was a point in time when men who gave their word would appear no matter what. Maybe that’s because times have changed and a man’s word no longer matters as much. That, too, is a consideration to take into account moving forward. It’s one thing for life to happen and legitimate excuses to prevent someone from living up to their word, but it’s quite another thing for someone to renege on a deal or forget that they ever confirmed their appearance. That’s not on the promoter’s shoulders as much as it is on society as a whole. Nonetheless it’s important to articulate it in this article.

Usually when we talk about old school, we’re talking about eating habits or training methods, but in reality we’re also talking about a time when a man’s word was his bond. Nowadays people not only break their word but they breach contracts left and right. We are at an age when money talks and bullshit walks. And it’s not just bullshit that’s walking it’s also integrity as well.

When you’re a pro, that shouldn’t just mean you can win prize money, it should mean that you hold yourself to a higher standard. I, personally, would not have raised the prize money and kept the show to six guys. Increasing the purse did a disservice to the guys who hung in there and rewarded those who threw their hat in the ring because the money was right. For the guys who competed and weren’t initially invited, then that’s just good business. But to the guys who bailed on their word and then decided to come back because the money went up, that’s shameful.

I really believe that by increasing the prize money we are promoting this kind of behavior in the future. However, let’s stop talking about The Arnold and let’s start talking about the Mr Olympia. After all, the The Olympia is the Super Bowl of Bodybuilding. The 2023 contest was supposed to be one of epic proportions and it lived up to every bit of it.

There was a tremendous amount of anticipation for a rematch between Hadi and Derek. The 2022 contest left a bad taste in many Lunsford fan’s mouths. They believed that the contest could have gone either way and they were very upset that Derek, who had so much more to offer in terms of growing the sport runner-up. After two years of Big Ramy – who did literally did nothing for bodybuilding – they saw Hadi’s crowning as a slap in the face.

This is why for all of 2023, Hadi didn’t really get to enjoy his reign. He was constantly being compared to Lunsford and this created a level of animosity that we haven’t seen in years. The fact Choopan and Lunsford were sponsored by the same company and prepped by the same coach furthered the rift. That said, the animosity wasn’t between the athletes. In fact, what we witnessed was the champ lashing out at the media and the public. He sent what were dubbed warning shots on more than one occasion. The purpose was to remind the world that he was the #1 bodybuilder in the world.

Just writing this sounds weak so you can only imagine how it looked to everyday fans. When you’re Mr. O you’re supposed to radiate self-confidence. It’s you – and then everyone else. In Hadi’s case, I felt that he constantly felt the need to tell everyone he was the top guy and that he was owed respect. In the meantime, he wasn’t guest posing, he wasn’t giving out trophies at shows, and he wasn’t doing the expo circuit. It was Big Ramy all over again and the fans were up in arms. As the big contest neared, most non-Iranian bodybuilding fans were hoping for a showdown of epic proportions.

When Derek emerged victorious, it was as if the fans won as well. And in the last fifty days the new champ has been all over the place. I mean talk about hitting the ground running. It’s like Derek took a page from Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman’s playbook. He’s doing press, signing autographs, and bridging the gap between himself and the fans. So far he’s already done a handful of guest posing appearances and promoters are blowing up his phone with requests to see if he can be at their shows and work with them for productions throughout the 2024 pro/am season. What fan isn’t going to want to buy a ticket to a show where the #1 bodybuilder in the world is present. And if Derek is in the house, chances are he’ll be walking around the venue, talking to guys backstage, and maybe handing out hardware.

Imagine being backstage oiling up and/or pumping up. You’ve got your airpods in and you’re trying to kill time before you hit the stage. Maybe you take a few bites off a bland rice cake or you work some bands to get a pump. And then all of a sudden reigning Mr. Olympia Derek Lunsford comes by and gives you a few pointers or simply chit chats with you. Imagine if you had a Jay Cutler / Phil Heath moment where the champ COMPLIMENTS you!! How cool would that be?!?! Even if you don’t go onto winning an Olympia one day, imagine how cool it would make you feel as a competitor to get noticed like this and/or to get a shot with the champ. Not only could this scenario happen, but it probably already has. Just in the three or four shows Derek’s visited since winning the Sandow he’s already done more for the sport than Big Ramy or Hadi Choopan did in the years they were on top. That’s sad, but it’s also a breath of fresh air for the sport.

Another huge bit of news from 2023 is the emergence of Samson Dauda. Not only did he take a commanding spot in the Olympia Top 3, but he won the Arnold Classic in commanding form. That win and his impressive Olympia placing has solidified his position as a top contender for the Olympia. In many real ways, Dauda’s popularity has far surpassed that of Nick Walker and other top names in the mix to be #1.

What we’re seeing in 2023 and going into 2024 is something very similar to what we saw in 2004-2006. During that window in time the top guys were Ronnie, Jay, and Gustavo. That became the pecking order that was accepted by all. Now it seems it’s Derek, Hadi, and Samson. Not only do up-and-coming competitors need to worry about beating Derek, but they literally have to break into this ironclad Top 3. The competitiveness between these three guys is absolutely fierce. It’s next to impossible for a 4th guy to emerge out of nowhere and just smash in. It’s that suspense that’s creating tremendous interest for 2024.

2023 was a huge year for the sport and 2024 is looking to be another powerhouse of a year. Hopefully the lessons of 2023 will make for a better 2024, but only time will tell.