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Alternate history asks the question: What would have happened if ______ had occurred? For example, in the movie Inglourious Basterds, the Nazis lose early, while in the novel and TV show The Man in the High Castle, those same villains win and rule America. Unlike those plots, we won’t ponder the fate of humanity. Instead, we’ll hack into the history of bodybuilding’s ultimate contest and make some edits. As we approach the 52nd Mr. Olympia, we present seven alternate scenarios that would dramatically change the Olympia record books.
WHAT IF SERGIO OLIVA HAD CONTINUED TO PURSUE THE OLYMPIA AFTER 1972?
After his controversial loss to Arnold in ’72, three-time Mr. O (1967–69) Sergio Oliva spent most of his best years off the Olympia stage only to return when he was past his prime. What if the Myth had entered the O from ’73 to ’81 when he was 32 to 40? Arnold beats him again in 1973 and 1974. (Sergio nearly fights Arnold onstage in ’74. Lou Ferrigno intervenes.) We still debate those results. The titans clash for the sixth time on an Olympia stage in 1975. Arnold wins again, but Pumping Iron captures the crowd bellowing its disapproval. The 1977 documentary makes the Myth a superstar as big as Arnold.
In 1976, it’s been seven years since the popular underdog won a contest. With Arnold retired, he beats Franco Columbu that year and Frank Zane the next year. Overconfident, he comes in smooth in ’78 and loses to Zane, but he takes his crown back in ’79. Arnold and Sergio are then tied with a record six O titles, and there are rumors Arnold will jump into the ’80 Olympia. He doesn’t. Sergio wins. And he three-peats in ’81. With nothing left to prove, the Myth retires. Today, Oliva, Haney, and Ronnie Coleman share the record for most O victories (eight). Oliva has two more Olympia titles than Arnold, but he lost to his rival the last six times they dueled. People still debate who was better.
WHAT IF Phil Heath HAD BEEN BORN 15 YEARS EARLIER?
One recurring criticism of Phil Heath’s Olympia reign is that he lucked out by not having to face the surplus of talent that clogged up pro posedowns in the ’90s. Some contend that if he had, he wouldn’t have a single Sandow, let alone five. If we move the Gift’s birthday back 15 years, how would he fare over his eight Olympias against lineups filled with fellow legends?
After forgoing the Olympia his first two pro years, 28-year-old Heath makes his O debut in 1993. Coming off seconds to Flex Wheeler at the Ironman and Arnold Classic earlier in the year, he’s third behind Dorian Yates and Wheeler in the ultimate show. He’s sick in 1994 and drops to seventh in a deep lineup. But in 1995, he’s back in third, this time behind Yates and Kevin Levrone. The Gift spends all of 1996 focused on the Olympia, achieves the shape of his life, and surpasses Yates in a shocker.
In 1997, Heath bests Yates again. Battered by injuries, Yates retires with four Sandows. The 1998 Olympia is billed as a duel between Heath and Wheeler, but it ends up a three-man battle. Ascendant Ronnie Coleman takes the crown, and Heath drops to third behind Wheeler. Those results repeat in 1999. In 2000, Heath is second to Coleman. Today, it’s 2001, and the upcoming Olympia is billed as a clash between three-timer Coleman and two-timer Heath. Waiting in the wings is pro bodybuilding’s next phenom, Jay Cutler.
WHAT IF LOU FERRIGNO HAD NEVER "HULKED" OUT?
“Louie, you’re a baby. These guys are all veterans. You’re just growing. This takes years and years.” That’s what Matty Ferrigno told his 23-year-old son just after the future Hulk lost the 1975 Mr. Olympia. The 275-pound Ferrigno was indeed “just growing,” still filling out his 6'5" frame. He’d be bigger as TV’s Hulk from 1978–82 (280–290) and bigger still during his belated bodybuilding comeback from 1992–94 (300–320). With Arnold retired, the ’76 Olympia was wide open for a new champ, but Ferrigno pursued pro football instead, and as he was prepping for the ’77 Olympia he won the role of TV’s Hulk. More acting jobs followed. How many Olympias would Lou have won had he competed from 1976–86 when he was 24? The years 1976–83 are the “lightweight era,” when every Mr. Olympia winner was under 200 except for a smaller-than-usual Arnold in ’80. Ferrigno, at 300, presents a sharp contrast to these men. Columbu beats Ferrigno in ’76, as does Zane in ’77, but by ’78 Lou has truly filled out. He defeats Zane in ’78 but comes in smooth and loses to him the next year. Arnold never considers jumping in the ’80 O and risking a loss to “Big Louie.” Ferrigno wins four in a row from 1980–83 during what we now call the Lou era.
Then comes the Haney era. Ferrigno outweighs Haney by more than 50 pounds, but mostly that’s because of his six-inch height advantage. Haney wins the rear shots. In his 11th straight Olympia in 1984, Ferrigno loses. He vows to regain his title, and 1985 is one of the most exciting O’s in history. In a controversial decision, Haney keeps his crown and then beats Lou in 1986 for the third straight time. After 14 Olympias, Ferrigno retires with five Sandows. Dennis Tinerino is remembered as TV’s Incredible Hulk.
WHAT IF ARNOLD HAD BEEN BORN 15 YEARS LATER?
Arnold Schwarzenegger competed in eight Olympias (1969–75, ’80) and won the last seven. How would he have fared in the modern era? At 6'2" and 235, he had a colossal yet classic physique. By 2016 standards, his legs lagged. We could assume he would’ve kept up with the times, but instead let’s see how his early ’70s physique would’ve fared in the late ’80s. If he were born 15 years later, he would’ve collided with another huge but aesthetic phenom, 5'11" and 245-pound Lee Haney, who ultimately eclipsed him with eight O victories from 1984–91.
The 1984 Olympia is promoted as a clash between 24-year-old Haney (third the year before) and, in his O debut, 22-year-old Arnold. The more polished Haney wins, and sculpted Mohamed Makkawy is runner-up, relegating Arnold to third. The next year, Haney repeats and Arnold is second. Arnold has superior arms, while Haney has the wider back. Though the champ flexes fuller quads, the challenger sports superior calves. In 1986, when Haney is a little off, Arnold is crowned bodybuilding’s new king.
The next four years, Arnold repeats the formula for defeating his great rival. He brings out details in his back that Haney lacks, so while Haney eclipses him with lat spreads, Arnold takes the crucial rear double biceps. And in every comparison, Arnold emphasizes his biceps, just as he regularly mocks Haney’s “little guy” arms. In 1989, Haney comes in 257 but too smooth. Schwarzenegger wins that year and one final time in 1990. Then, at 28, he retires to pursue acting. Inadvisably, an undersized Arnold returns for the 1995 Olympia. Against the deepest lineup ever seen, he’s fifth, but many consider this a gift. Today, he has seven Mr. Olympia titles, and fans still debate his epic duels with Haney.
WHAT IF FLEX LEWIS COMPETED IN THE MR. OLYMPIA?
Our hypothetical 1965–2015 212 Olympia tally puts him at a disadvantage, but in the real world Flex Lewis is the winningest “lightweight Olympia” champ of all time and going for his fifth 212 O title this year. But what if he entered the Mr. Olympia? In 2011, he finished fifth in an open contest held three weeks after the Olympia. Everyone in the top nine but him had just competed in the O, and because of who he did and didn’t beat we can project he would’ve been 10th in the Olympia. Last year, he would’ve placed about the same, probably ninth, just behind William Bonac. He beat Bonac easily in 2012, but that’s when Bonac was also a 212er. Size matters.
But if Lewis moves to the open class for good, he’ll also make mass improvements. Picture the 5'5" Welsh Dragon at a crisp 230. At 5'6" and 235, 2008 Mr. Olympia Dexter Jackson was second last year. A substantially fuller Flex Lewis would move into Olympia title contention. Last year, he would’ve been no lower than sixth, and, because some of the favorites faltered, he may have challenged Jackson for the runner-up spot. The reigning Mr. Olympia is 36, and the reigning Mr. 212 Olympia is 32, so we may one year see a 250-pound Phil Heath battle a 230-pound Flex Lewis on bodybuilding’s ultimate stage.
WHAT IF CUTLER WON IN 2001?
On Oct. 27, 2001, 28-year-old Jay Cutler took a commanding six-point lead into the finals against reigning and three-time champ Ronnie Coleman. (Four of the five judges had Cutler first.) But that assessment reversed at the finals, and Coleman snuck by with a four-point victory. Coleman went on to win a record-tying eight Sandows. Meanwhile, it took Cutler five frustrating years to succeed his rival, and he ultimately collected four Sandows. But let’s say the prejudging assessment held up 15 years ago. Cutler was the new king. He repeats the next year when Coleman is blurry. Coming into the 2003 O, Cutler is only 30 and ready for a long reign. Coleman is 39 and seemingly deteriorating. But Coleman reinvents himself as a 300-pound behemoth and steamrolls to a victory. Then, two more wins (over Cutler) for Coleman, two more wins (over Coleman) for Cutler, and, after a loss, two final wins for Cutler. Both legends end up with six Sandows, their head-to-head O record from 2001–07 is 4-3 for Cutler, and that seven-year stretch is regarded not as the ho-hum dynasty of dominating Coleman but as the most exciting stretch of shootouts in bodybuilding history. It just goes to show how a few points in a controversial decision completely changed how we regard the Coleman-Cutler rivalry and both men’s Olympia rankings.
WHAT IF THERE HAD BEEN A 212 OLYMPIA FROM THE BEGINNING?
From 1974–79, the Mr. Olympia had two divisions: heavyweight and lightweight, with 200 pounds as the dividing line. In 2008, the 202 Olympia launched, and in 2012 it was bumped up to the current 212 limit. But what about all those other years? For the Olympias without a lightweight, 202, or 212 champ, we’ve awarded the prize to whichever bodybuilder weighing under 213 placed the highest in the Mr. Olympia. (From 1967–71, all of the few Olympia competitors were too heavy.) This rewrites the record book. Now, Shawn Ray has a commanding lead, Lee Labrada is second, David Henry has quadrupled his victories, and reigning 212 champ Flex Lewis tied Franco Columbu this past September. – FLEX