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Episode No. 3 of “The Menace” Podcast was a special one for the fans as well as the host. Dennis James’ guest was none other than four-time Arnold Classic Champion Flex Wheeler. Recognized as one of the greatest bodybuilders of all-time, the former Mr. Olympia runner-up dove into several discussions with the host about his career and life.
After introductions and brief catching up, James asked him about his sudden rise to bodybuilding stardom, and if he bought into the hype that people were talking about him. His answer may come as a surprise to listeners.
“I would dismiss it and think they were wrong. My analogy was ‘people say bad things about me and if people say good things about me, they just don’t know’ … Even in times when I went onstage and people considered me very arrogant and full of myself, it was a façade because I didn’t believe in myself. ”
In spite of that belief, Wheeler would contend for Olympia titles throughout the 1990s. He was considered the favorite for the title in 1998 after the retirement of then-champion Dorian Yates. In Wheeler’s eyes, he may have lost the title more than Ronnie Coleman won it.
“You know, it’s sad and it’s embarrassing, but to be honest, I beat myself out of it,” he says. “I didn’t believe in myself, and I didn’t think I was worthy. So I didn’t train hard. If you competed against me at the Iron Man or if you competed against me at the Arnold Classic, I felt I could beat you. I honestly felt that was my house. Come get it, come try. But when it came to the Olympia, I just didn’t feel like I could be No. 1.”
In 1999, Wheeler’s final phase of his career would see him face being diagnosed with a kidney disease. Even though he would finish his career in 2003, that adversity would be the beginning of the end for the Hall of Fame bodybuilder.
“It’s FSGS — Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis. They still don’t know. They have no idea (how he got it)” Wheeler said. “At the time, it was so rare, that they didn’t believe there was another case.” Wheeler finally got the confirmation of the disease in 2000 as well as another prognosis. “You’re not getting out of your 30s without going into kidney failure. You won’t make it out of your 40s without a kidney transplant.”
In spite of that, Wheeler returned to the stage not long after that diagnosed. While his early career and life may have been overwhelmed by self-doubt and negativity, he told James that he wanted to make a positive difference when he saw an opportunity.
“If I could just inspire people who are going through life-threatening situations, whether it’s, you know, a rare disease or suicidal tendencies or low self-esteem, if I could help them, how couldn’t I? So I said, ‘Let me use the biggest platform that I have, the biggest stage in the world.’”
He would also return to the stage in 2017 in the Classic Physique Olympia. Unfortunately, he would face more adversity before and after that triumphant return to the stage. He would struggle with a blood clot that ultimately led to the amputation of his left lower leg. Wheeler and James revisit that entire process, and Wheeler talks about sharing updates for his followers regarding the good and the bad about his status while he’s recovering.
“At the end of the day, in the videos that I’ve done and that I’ve posted, I try to be honest. I try most of the time to be very positive. You know, a few times it’s so devastating that I speak publicly about it. I try to not be so public about it.”
Other topics that the duo spoke about include Wheeler’s interest in martial arts, the first time James met him, how he got into bodybuilding, why he did some of the things he did when competing onstage, and much, much more. Catch this revealing and inspiring episode as well as the first two episodes of “The Menace Podcast” every Sunday on the Muscle & Fitness YouTube channel as well as in audio form on Spotify.