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Some things, like death, taxes, and Ryan “I’m so bubbly I could crush a grape” Seacrest hosting just about every TV show out there, seem inevitable. That same air of nailed-down inevitability permeated the first five years of Ronnie Coleman’s Olympia reign. Having annexed the title in 1998, he was unbeatable, racking up 12 successive victories going into the 2002 Olympia, staged on October 19 of that year. A successful defense secured a fifth Sandow, followed by victory at the Dutch Grand Prix on November 3, which took his record to 14-straight wins. All that remained now was to close out 2002 at the GNC Show of Strength, being held in New Orleans on November 9, to take the run to 15 in “ain’t nuthin’ but a peanut” style.
Germany’s Günter Schlierkamp competed at 300 pounds with a megawatt smile and contagious personality that made him one of the most popular bodybuilders on the planet—unfortunately, his poor contest record prior to 2002 didn’t reflect that popularity. Joe Weider took a shine to Schlierkamp, though, and gave him special invites to the Olympia in 1998, 2000, and 2001 without having to qualify. His best showing of the bunch was a 12th-place finish at the 2000 event. Yet he got another invite in 2002. Weider must have had a hunch about something, because things came together for the 32-year-old like a perfect storm that year.
Coleman may have won his fifth title that night, but Schlierkamp was the star of the show. He showcased more upper-body thickness and deeper cuts and became the audience’s darling. During the posing round, he received that rarest of Olympia salutes, a standing ovation, as he steamrolled into the fifth spot.
Following the Olympia, on November 3, Coleman traveled to compete and win the Dutch Grand Prix, while Schlierkamp stayed stateside waiting for the Show of Strength soiree. Still, no one really anticipated what was to happen to the Big Nasty in the Big Easy on Saturday, November 9, 2002.
At the climax of that evening, Coleman and Schlierkamp stood alone onstage waiting to hear the second-place announcement. In a reversal of fortune and posture, it was Schlierkamp who dropped to the stage—à la Coleman’s signature victory move—on hearing the five-time Mr. Olympia’s name announced.
As Schlierkamp recalls, “When the emcee said, ‘History is made tonight,’ that’s when I knew it was mine. I almost fainted. I fell to my knees, crying, and thumped the stage. Then Kevin Levrone [who was not competing] rushed the stage and tried to pick me up. I don’t remember much more after that. It was much later when I realized I had won 100 grand.”
For his part, Coleman quietly congratulated Schlierkamp but was adamant he had not lost and thought Levrone’s gate-crashing exploits “unsportsmanlike.”
This was the first time a reigning Mr. Olympia had not been top dog in a contest since Samir Bannout lost his title to Lee Haney in 1984. Prior to that reigning, Mr. O Frank Zane failed to capture a fourth title in 1980, when Arnold Schwarzenegger emerged victorious. And the only previous time a reigning Mr. O had lost outside of the Olympia was when Sergio Oliva gave way to Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1970 Pro World, then a few weeks later lost again to Arnold at that year’s Mr. Olympia showdown.*
At the 2002 Show of Strength, Coleman was not at his best, while Schlierkamp was at his all-time best. By way of rebuttal, Coleman entered the 2003 Olympia at 287 WTF pounds and rewrote the bodybuilding criteria book with a physique that many state is the best of all time. The 2002 Show of Strength was the peak of Günter Schlierkamp’s career—he would never be as good again, and he retired after a 10th-place finish at the 2006 Olympia. But, oh, what a moment he had that sweltering and sensational night in New Orleans.
* Since 2002, reigning Mr. Olympias losing contests has been more common. In 2006, Coleman was dethroned by Jay Cutler, who in turn lost to Dexter Jackson in 2008, before Cutler regained the title in 2009. Phil Heath beat Cutler in 2011, then last year the seven-time champ saw his crown usurped by Shawn Rhoden.