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Once upon a time, in March 1989, in the blue-collar town of Columbus, Ohio, the first Arnold Classic Weekend was staged. Since then, much has been written about the yearly event. What you may know — that Rich Gaspari won that inaugural edition, that Dexter Jackson and Jay Cutler won three, and Flex Wheeler a record four — will not, for the most part, be repeated here. But, in celebration of its 25-year tenure, we review some of the more interesting story lines that have marked the prestigious event’s history as we take you behind-the-scenes to reveal facts and anecdotes you may not have heard.

Be warned: in these tales, not everyone lives happily ever after.

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It seems like such a long time ago. It was a time when, if someone mentioned a 20" Mac, you might have thought they were discussing a dwarf’s raincoat; a time when Barack Obama sounded like a place where soldiers lived; a time when no one had heard of MuscleTech; a time — so help us — when Shawn Ray, the heir apparent to the Olympia, had hair (a time when Shawn wasn’t shorn?). That’s how long ago 1990 is.

On Friday, March 9, 1990,

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Shawn Ray was in Montreal to fulfill a guest-posing spot. Now, let it be said that Montreal in March is cold, but it’s not the North Pole. Nevertheless, the 24-year-old Californian felt on top of the world. Six days prior, at the Arnold Classic, he had taken the top spot and an accompanying $60,000 check. His Columbus success had come a week after he had tasted victory at the Ironman Pro Invitational.

Yes sir, he was on a bigger roll than a 50-pound cheeseburger, and seasoned experts (and me, as well) predicted he was now ready to fulfill the prophecy foisted on him when he took the overall at the 1987 NPC Nationals — namely, that the owner of the most famous flattop to come out of the Hollywood area since Olive Oyl would succeed then-Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.

As he contemplated that he needed more room under his bed to store his fresh winnings (jeez, you knew he wouldn’t spend it), Ray was in “you’re in the money” mode. But before you could say “banned substance,” it was a case of “urine, the money,” because on that Canadian spring evening, a call from the IFBB informed the 1990 Arnold Classic winner of March 3 that as of today, March 9, he wasn’t. The contest was the first men’s pro show to be drug tested and his sample had proved to be more positive than an Anthony Robbins seminar. He wasn’t alone. Those who also tested positive from the 13-man Columbus shooting match (what am I saying?) were Samir Bannout (fifth), Nimrod King (eighth) and Ralf Moeller (12th).

The test results

sent shock waves through the sport and proved to be a major black eye, as NBC TV had filmed the event for later broadcast and had to hastily re-edit their footage. The post-contest winner’s interview of Ray by Arnold Schwarzenegger had to be scrapped and after a frantic search for original runner-up Mike Ashley, the victory interview was restaged.

Ray was devastated by these developments. Initially, it seemed he may even quit the sport, but Ray quickly regrouped to set his sights on the 1990 Mr. Olympia. His Ironman win had qualified him for the big show, and even though his Arnold winnings were taken back, he never faced suspension — and neither did any of the other offenders.

Nineteen-ninety was a watershed for bodybuilding, as it was the year in which a program of drug testing at men’s pro contests was launched. After the Arnold, though, the Mr. Olympia was the only other contest in which a wee trip to the boy’s room was mandatory.

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To forestall a repeat of the Arnold PR disaster (where drug-test results came after the contest), the Olympia competitors were tested on the Thursday before the event and the results were announced Friday, 24 hours prior to prejudging. At the 1990 Mr. O in Chicago there were four failures (Momo Benaziza, Vince Comerford, Berry DeMey and Van Walcott Smith), but due to the pre-emptive nature of the tests, none of them appeared in the lineup. Shawn Ray did and eked out third place.

When Ray returned to Columbus on March 2, 1991, in many ways we witnessed a rerun of 1990. He took straight firsts, and with the only doping issue being who granted my press pass, he left Columbus as 1991 Arnold Classic champion without the pause of waiting for any other shoe to drop. Ray eventually retired from the sport in 2001 after 12 consecutive Mr. Olympia top-five finishes. Married, with two children, he works for Muscular Development.

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Kevin Levrone has always been hit-or-miss with interviews. Either you get the whole giant-size enchilada or you get a mini grain of rice. As clock nudged midnight, at the conclusion of the 1994 Arnold Classic, I talked to winner Levrone in the Weider backstage studio. Here is a transcript of that conversation.

PM: Your reaction to winning the contest?


How do you feel?


Was this the results you expected?


Did you come in the way you wanted?


Er, Kevin can you give us something a little more to work with?

OK! [Levrone grabs the tape player.]

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This is Kevin Levrone being interviewed after a sleepless night, after two hours of prejudging, after a show being delayed for 40 minutes, after a two-hour evening contest, after a 35-minute backstage photography session and other stuff that has been dragging on all day long. And all this has been done at maybe a little less than 3% bodyfat without any carbs in me, so what you’re gonna get from me right now are short, direct answers.

You tell me my car’s been stolen, I’m gonna say, “How ‘bout that?” You tell me I ain’t got a hotel room for the night, I’m gonna say, “Shucks!” You tell me Joe [Weider] ain’t gonna renew my contract, I’m gonna say, “That’s cool!” I can’t remember how much money I won. I can’t think how I’m gonna spend it – I can’t think about anything right now. So whatever you ask me… I’m happy!

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Chapter Three: PAUL’S FALL


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In the hours preceding the 1994 Arnold Classic, massive Paul Dillett — in pursuit of being drier than a Jon Stewart monologue — was experiencing severe bouts of cramping.

The 270-pounder’s outward confidence as he walked onstage for the prejudging at 11:55 AM belied the acute discomfort he was undergoing. At 12:29 PM, during the last callout of the symmetry round (the other two protagonists being Vince Taylor and Kevin Levrone), Dillett, with his back to the judging panel,

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tried to hit an impromptu double-biceps pose. He raised his left arm and then locked it above his head as the oblique muscles on his left side went into a horrendous spasm. Unable to flex or lower his arm, Dillett lurched from the stage and slumped onto his back on a table in the recesses of the theater. Very soon, the stricken athlete was surrounded by a well-meaning group, among them a noncompeting Flex Wheeler who advised instant fluid intake. Dillett assured everyone that he was all right. “I’m not delirious or anything, you know,” he said. “It’s just a muscle spasm.”

A full 25 minutes elapsed before Dillett walked onstage again to execute his individual compulsories. His reappearance was greeted by tremendous applause and all hoped the crisis point had passed. With some difficulty, he completed his front double biceps, front-lat and side-chest poses. Then, as he went into a back double-biceps pose, the 4,000 attendees gasped in horror as the distressing scene they had witnesses 25 minutes earlier was repeated. Dillett grimaced and half screamed, “Oh, God!” — more in despair than pain — as a backstage marshal rushed to his aid. He still had his back to the audience as the marshal positioned himself to face Canada’s biggest export since John Candy went Hollywood.

Paul took

this as his cue to slump forward into the arms of the marshal, who was about six or seven inches shorter than the man he now fought to support. Three more marshals poured onstage and each grabbed a mighty Dillett limb and lifted him up. Unfortunately, he was facing downward, marooned in an ugly tableau of head-to-toe cramps that rendered him rigidly immobile. In this ungainly mode, Dillett’s 270-pound physique was awkwardly lugged offstage. As an exit, the scene lacked the grace and poise of the Pope being carried around St. Peter’s Square in a sedan chair.

Stretched out

behind the stage curtain, Paul was attended to by paramedics, who, with great difficulty, found a vein (Dillett was so dehydrated, all his surface veins had collapsed) in which to insert an IV drip. Throughout the trauma, Paul was completely coherent, and at no time did he display false heroics by talking of going on with the contest. It was his decision to be taken to the local hospital, to which he was ferried to at 1:25 PM (with the prejudging in progress). He was released after three hours, and later appeared at the night show to tell the audience how disappointed he was that he couldn’t finish the contest.

In my original report of the incident, I wrote: “It can be argued that whatever torment Paul Dillett had endured, he inflicted it upon himself. (As well as his physical discomfort, there is the fiscal pain of the potential $90,000 winner’s check that could well have been his.) But during the last two years, there has been a succession of bodybuilding casualties of varying degrees due to the demon of excessive water depletion. In the hunger for glory, competitors are willing to up the ante to any level in pursuit of first place.

“Is the fault

solely that of the athlete? A personal view is that, directly or indirectly, we all must share some responsibility for what happened to Paul Dillett at the 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic. Magazine personnel, judges, fans and competitors have all contributed to encouraging the ripped look that now so dominates success or failure. In the past Mike Matarazzo and Edgar Fletcher nearly killed themselves for that look; Mohamed Benaziza did!

“Would we rather see Paul Dillett compete at 280 full pounds or 270 ripped pounds? Would we rather see Dorian Yates compete at the 269 pounds he carried seven weeks prior to last year’s Olympia (the photos of which caused a sensation in the December ’93 FLEX) or the shredded 257 pounds with which he earned his second Sandow? The thought arises that the term ‘ripped’ doesn’t equate in a literal sense to the phrase bodybuilding, and perhaps it’s time that paradoxical situation was re-evaluated.”

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The most controversial result in the history of the Arnold Classic was the 1996 rendition, when a seemingly off Kevin Levrone bested a decidedly on Flex Wheeler. As he was announced second, Wheeler’s eyes bulged as if he’d been the recipient of a surprise prostate examination and large sections of the audience broke into a chorus of boos.

Twenty minutes

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after the result, as I made my way out of Veterans Memorial Hall, I espied Wheeler sitting in the empty theater with his support group. Flex doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve; he wears it pumping away like a neon sign on his forehead. He was almost in tears as he reflected on what had transpired. I told him I thought he was the clear winner. He told me: “I’m very disappointed. Kevin wasn’t in shape; I was in shape. They looked for certain improvements in me from last week’s Ironman and I delivered. [Although Flex won the Ironman, he was not at his best.] I was 230, ripped; day and night from last year’s Olympia [where he was eighth]. Kevin’s a great competitor — nothing personal toward him — he just didn’t hit his peak. No separation in his legs or back. He’s massive, but judging is supposed to be more critical than that.

“Coming into

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the show, Paul [Dillett] and I figured Kevin would be the biggest threat because he had the name and we knew he could come in shape. Backstage, Paul and I looked at Kevin and thought, OK, Kevin is off, the door is open. But as the prejudging went on, it was clear Kevin wasn’t being looked at as if he was off. When there was just me and Kevin left, I feared the worst. He had just won the most-muscular trophy, and I thought, How do you get the most muscular when you have  no definition and are not in condition? Vince [Taylor] laughed and told me, ‘It’s a consolation prize to Kevin ’cause he ain’t gonna win the show.’ ”

Wheeler’s next contest was to be the May 18 Night Of Champions. Asked whether he would  make further improvements by then, he replied,  “Based on tonight, what difference does it make?”

Levrone, of course, had an entirely different take on the outcome. I duly spoke to the contest winner and the following discourse took place.

PETER MCGOUGH: The consensus is that Flex Wheeler should have won the show. Your response?

KEVIN LEVRONE: The judges judge the contest. The reason for the dissent was the lighting. The contest was lit like an MTV special. I think the bad lighting during the prejudging worked to Flex’s advantage. It favored the darker-skinned guys. The lighting was much better in the evening, and then it was clear that I was much bigger than Flex. I overpowered him. Yeah, he might have had pretty lines, but the bottom line is that he didn’t have enough muscle to beat me. I don’t see where he beat me. I don’t see that he was harder than me. I don’t think he posed better. What did you think?

As soon as you walked out, it seemed clear you were holding water. You were big, but there was no separation in your legs and back like there was in Flex’s.

Maybe ’cause

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my skin tone was lighter [the lighting] kinda washed me out. The game is about competing, and as the show went on, I got better while Flex’s condition faded a little. It could have gone either way, but I got the nod ’cause the judges were up close and could see certain things others couldn’t. I don’t think I would have won the most-muscular award if I wasn’t the most muscular. Who did you have first?


Really? I was shredded and hard, but that damn lighting made everything look bad. I wanted to come into the Arnold and just blow everybody away, but now I hear all this negative stuff. To have a hundred grand and the trophy and then to hear people think you don’t deserve it makes the win not worth having. For me to win the show and then pick up a magazine a month later and read stuff like “Levrone was off, his condition hadn’t improved since the Olympia.” That’s more depressing than actually losing the damn competition. You still think Flex won?


I was bigger and thicker than Flex. If he feels he’s the better bodybuilder, then I’m doing the San Jose show [seven days afterward] and we can go do it again. I’m ready to go again, but he ain’t doing a show that’s just a short hop from his front door. So seriously, who do you think won the show?



For three months afterward, Levrone would call me once every couple of weeks and ask me that same “Who do you think won?” question. I would always answer, “Flex.”

Finally, I said, “OK, Kevin, you convinced me — I’ve changed my mind about the result.”

A buoyed Levrone enthused: “So, finally you agree I won.”

“No,” I answered, “I think you should have been third, with Paul Dillett second and Flex still first.”

With that, the Maryland Muscle Machine (a name I gave him) told me to do something with my computer that is not only anatomically impossible, but also surely illegal in most states.

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Imagine going to the altar, and at the point at which the bride is expected to answer, “I do,”

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she instead retorts, “You must be bloody joking.” Oh, the agony of such rejection. Now imagine it happening six times in a row, and you begin to get an insight into the trauma experienced by Chris Cormier as he finished runner-up in six consecutive Arnold Classics from 2000 through 2005.

Here’s a year-by-year account of Cormier’s unparalleled six-year run.

2000: A week earlier, Cormier had beaten a not-at-his-best Flex Wheeler at the Ironman Pro. The latter had been too heavy and carried more water than the Hoover Dam. For the next seven days, Wheeler was on a treadmill for about three hours a day — rubber suit and all — and went through hell to whip his body into shape. The outcome was that he beat precontest favorite Cormier in Columbus, and The Real Deal’s unwanted second-best run had begun.

2001: Is Chris Cormier unlucky? Are Bob Cicherillo’s threads so loud that he’s being sponsored by a megaphone company? At the 2001 Arnold Classic, for the only time in its history, the reigning Mr. Olympia entered the contest. Not only that, but said Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman, was in the best shape of his career, before or since. Now that is bad luck.

2002: Fresh off of his controversial

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second place to Coleman at the 2001 Olympia, Jay Cutler entered his first Arnold Classic and, at 260-plus pounds, he was just too big for Cormier, who came in at 253 pounds. Cormier commented, “I’ve got more detail than Jay, a more classic physique. My muscle insertions go all the way down. All in all, I think I presented a superior physique at the Arnold.”

2003: For their rematch, both men reduced bodyweight: Cutler to 257 and Cormier to 241. At that weight, The Real Deal was more of a flat deal and Cutler took his second Arnold title while Cormier banked his fourth runner-up check.

2004: This was the one that Cormier so nearly won — and maybe should have won. Although Cutler claimed to be 266 pounds, he appeared flat and smaller than the previous year. By comparison, Cormier was 260 full pounds, which, distributed over his classic frame, offered the promise that his second-best streak would end. In fact, Cutler won the first two rounds; in the evening, Cormier won the last two. It wasn’t enough, as The Real Deal would finish just one point behind his blond foe. Backstage, Cormier asserted, “Five times, man, five times in a row I’ve been second. I beat him, everyone knows I beat him.” Then he cried.

2005: Cormier returned a little lighter, but just a tad less impressive, to face a new adversary for top spot: Dexter Jackson. Eventually, the latter took it and Cormier, for the sixth consecutive time, stood onstage as a spectator as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger interviewed the winner. It is, thus far, his last Arnold Classic appearance and how good it must feel now that he has stopped banging his head against a wall. A measure of Cormier’s unprecedented Arnold record is that five of his defeats were against men who have won the Olympia. The sixth was to Wheeler, who many feel is the best to never win the Olympia.

Postscript: A few weeks after the 2005 event, Cormier in a philosophical mood opined: “In a way, finishing second so many times is also a backhanded compliment. One of the marks I plan to leave on this sport is the fact that I was a top competitor for so long. Many bodybuilders today have short, meteoric careers. They do well during one season, and then they never regain their former conditioning. So I take pride in that.”

“So,” I asked, “you’ve come to terms with finishing second six times in a row?”

He paused, before exploding with laughter, “Fuck, no! Six fuckin’ times man! Can you believe that, Silver Fox [his pet name for me]? Can you fuckin’ believe it?”

Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to the one — or six — and only Chris Cormier.

The End.

2014 Arnold Classic

2014 Arnold Classic