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In 1983 a young Lee Haney entered bodybuilding’s biggest show, Joe Weider’s Mr. Olympia, with the wind at his (ample) back. He had placed first at the previous year’s NPC Junior Nationals, NPC Nationals, and the World Amateur Championships. Then he added pro wins at the IFBB Night of Champions and Las Vegas Grand Prix, leaving people eager to find out how the surging rookie would perform at the O. But instead of being relegated to the ranks of first-time failures, Haney’s muscularity and stage presence helped him outperform some of the sport’s most revered competitors, giving him a surprising third-place finish in his Olympia debut.
But Haney wasn’t as impressed as everyone else. He set out to remedy the mistakes of his first Olympia prep season and roared to the first of his record eight straight titles the following year. He managed to log improvements each year during that run, redefining the judging criteria and putting the Sandow further out of reach for the rest of the field.
It probably goes without saying that he knows a bit about what it takes to flex your way to the top spot. Here’s a hint: It’s not just about full pecs and hanging lats.
“You have to have confidence,” Haney says. “You’ve got to be willing to work hard and to make sure that no one is doing more than you in the gym or being more disciplined than you out of the gym. You have to determine in your heart that you’re going to be a good ambassador with the success that you achieve. Then you’ve got to be smart and use the science that’s available. Some of these up-and-coming guys call on some guru who’s never won anything and listen to that guy.”
We tasked the most decorated Mr. O with evaluating this year’s qualified field and levying his predictions on how the top six will shake out.
“The stage is set for an awesome Olympia this year,” he says. “Plenty of tapering waists, no big bellies on stage. It’s gonna be great.”
2015 Mr. Olympia: 1st (fifth straight title; 2011–2015)
Lee says: “I’ll start by saying he’s not unbeatable. Nobody is unless you’re just a freak of nature and you bring something different. I was different. There’s only one Lee Haney, one Arnold. Every once in a while Mother Nature just whips up something different. Can’t nobody look like Dorian! Phil, however, is not that. He’s excellent, incredible even, and has learned how to dial in his physique. But he’s not a freak of nature—that’s just something different. As an athlete, he’s figured out how to best prepare for the era that he’s in. He’s the very best of the era that he’s in. Does he have the greatest physique? No. He’s dialed it in to have the best physique on the stage that day. He has definitely developed the balance that a champion needs. I’m a lat man—I like to see long, sweeping lats and he’s brought his down. His legs have gotten a whole lot better. Everything about Phil has gotten better. He’s worked his tail off. That’s why he’s remained Mr. Olympia. Some people don’t get better. That’s something that’s eluded a lot of great physiques in this era–nobody’s been able to consistently take their physique to the next level like Phil. Judges look for the quality of changes in their physiques. That’s why his hand has been held up in victory every year. Unless someone has gotten 20% better, they won’t beat him. I’ll say that his midsection was a little softer last year…just a dab off.”
2015 Mr. Olympia: 8th
Lee says: “I like his balance and symmetry. He has great thighs. Nice muscle bellies. He has a good look about him. He has a nice, complete physique. He’s short (5'7"), but this guy holds his own. He has great proportion. I don’t see anything lacking. For him, it’s just a matter of what the judges are looking for. I think it’s gonna be a little rough this year, but I’ve seen the metamorphosis of what the judges are starting to look at now. They’re looking again at symmetry, balance, and presentation, and this guy has that. The world is crying out for this—a reemergence or rebirth of the beauty of the physique.”
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Mamdouh Elssbiay (“Big Ramy”)
2015 Mr. Olympia: 5th
Lee says: “Ramy is in a category all by himself. Good gracious, man! He has an amazing physique…incredible body parts. I really think there are two different worlds of physiques that exist now, and it’s hard to throw them all into the same basket because they’re different. He’s a mass monster. He has a huge package of, well, everything. I’m impressed with everything with Ramy. He’s the king of mass monsters. But he has to be on point. I’ve seen his physique mature over the years. That’s what he needed when he first came on. He’s done a great job of bringing on that muscle maturity. He’s far better than just a few years ago. He has a very good package and can do well.”
2015 Mr. Olympia: 2nd (won in 2008)
Lee says: “Time can do something to a physique that’s hard to explain. Time and consistency develop muscle maturity, and that’s what Dexter brings to the stage. I felt [last year] was Dexter’s best condition since winning in 2008. He stays consistent and is on top of his game. The look of the physiques has shifted. It’s being rerouted back to that more classic look, and Dexter is that look. His presentation is fantastic—the way he’s able to display his physique in a classic and professional way. I’m extremely proud of Dexter, and when I saw the comparison between him and Phil, I was really happy. Dexter is always on top of quality, not quantity. Dexter doesn’t ever sacrifice quality for quantity. He doesn’t play somebody else’s game.”
2015 Mr. Olympia: 16th
Lee says: “He is making good progress and has a lot of potential. I really like him. I could see him in the top six. Watching his physique continue to mature, he really is one to be reckoned with. He’s part of the new up-and-coming crop of professionals, period. With him coming in rock-hard—one of his struggles in the past—he’s really learned how to dial it in. He’s right there. I feel his legs have gotten better, and that was one of those things that was sort of holding him back when he was getting started, but that’s no longer the case. Your legs can always continue to progress. Phil Heath didn’t have great legs. They weren’t the best, but they’ve gotten better and better. Unless you have legs like Tom Platz, your legs can always get better.”
2015 Mr. Olympia: Did Not Compete
Lee says: “He’s got a very good physique. I’m impressed with him. Nice quality. He’s learning how to dial it in very well. He has a good, long taper with his lats and very good wheels. He’s making his way up the ladder now. There’s still room for improvement, but he’s definitely on the way. Since Lee Priest, he’s one of the greatest to come out of Australia. He’s got great abs, too. And he has a lot of potential with his shoulders, arms, and legs. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with. But you really can’t compare him until he stands with Phil, Dexter, Wolf, and McMillan. He’s got all the goods, so let’s see.”
2015 Mr. Olympia: Did Not Compete (Last competed in 2003: 6th)
Lee says: “In my era, Albert Beckles was the ‘Ageless One,’ but now that might be Kevin. Each time I’ve seen him over the years, he’s never carried a big waist or been out of shape. He is maybe not as large but has looked athletic with good muscle intact. The cool thing about that is that he knows the way back. If he can maintain his health, particularly his hips, knees, and back, it’s all good. He’ll make an incredible showing. One thing that has to happen to give him a good fair look is that his legs have to be there. That’s one of the hardest things to do—sustaining leg mass. If you haven’t stayed on it over the years, that’s one of the areas that can go lacking. So it remains to be seen. Upper-body-wise, he was the best of the best. He has a beautiful, classic physique, and since the judges are looking there now, he could do very well. Could he make top six? I don’t know. I’m sure he’s going in with the goal to be the best that he can be. I’m glad to see it. I don’t have the nerve for it! [laughs] He’s one of those determined people, and I think he’ll do great. I don’t know where he will place, but I won’t count him out.”
2015 Mr. Olympia: Did Not Compete
Lee says: “A beautiful, beautiful physique. If he can duplicate his condition from the 2015 Arnold Classic Brazil, I wouldn’t count him out. He’s what the world and industry are calling for now. As a competitor, only you know what’s stopping you. I don’t know what he has to deal with on a daily basis. I had to deal with being a father, a husband, and a competitor. If you can balance things right, then you become a force to be reckoned with. He’s still in the military and that could pull on his time and attention. From what I saw at the Arnold Brazil, there’s nothing lacking. He had reemerged and said, ‘I’m the one you guys need to be looking at.’ He’s a good poser and a good presenter, but next to guys like Dennis Wolf—those guys will eat you alive. They’re huge and flaunt it in the greatest of ways. They tear the house down! I remember when I was coming up in 1983, Arnold told me, ‘Lee, you don’t pose big.’ Arnold got me with his coach and the next year, guess what? I was Mr. Olympia. There you go. He needs to pose like a conqueror—like you’re coming to destroy. Branch Warren—when he hits the stage, he’ll take your life away! You’ve gotta make the audience and judges feel that. It’s a mindset. If you don’t believe it, the judges won’t believe it. That’s what he needs to do.”
2015 Mr. Olympia: Did Not Compete
Lee says: “He’s a big guy, that’s for sure. Wow. He has a very good physique. He could stand to be a little thicker. His lats are a little bit high. I think he’s going to have to mature a bit to do well on the Mr. Olympia stage. When Steve [Kuclo] started, his physique had this young look about it, so it took him a minute to get better. Such is the case with Lukas. But he has all the goods, including really great legs. There’s room to continue to progress. Nice tapering waist and not a big gut! That’s a biggie for me. Good arms and shoulders, nice pecs.”
2015 Mr. Olympia: 3rd
Lee says: “Shawn has a beautiful package—he tapers very well, has great legs, great arms. One thing that I think he has been working on is adding thickness to his back. He’s needed a little more depth there. Other than that, he has a beautiful physique. Very nice lines. It’s really up to the judges. Shawn’s not one of those squash-and-kill-you kind of guys. His is a classic physique—not overpowering. He’s not a muscle monster like Kai or Dennis. But he’s smart to play to the strength of who he is and the characteristics that his physique possesses.”
2015 Mr. Olympia: 7th
Lee says: “He’s a monster. Good gracious! He’s got some big body parts. He is huge! Incredible. But is that what they want to see? I have always felt he needs to be focused less on gaining more mass—he’s got enough of that. Instead he should focus on being more defined and working on the balance and the symmetry of his physique, not just being a mass monster. He uses his mass as his way of promoting and showcasing that he’s different from everybody else. Tom Platz wasn’t Mr. Olympia, but when you put up his balance sheet to see how much that he made with those freaky legs, it was probably more than any Mr. Olympia. With Roelly, that could be his mindset—selling the best that he is, saying ‘This is me as an athlete.’ There’s nobody like him.”
STATE OF THE SPORT
The eight-timer reflects on the evolution of the sport that made him a household name.
On opportunity: “I like that there are a lot of supplement and clothing companies that weren’t around when I was doing it. Prize money is what? $400,000? I didn’t get but $55,000! [laughs] We’re in several countries now with more opportunities for guest appearances. So I look at those aspects and I’m cheering.”
On the physiques: “We need to hold the reins in terms of where we want the physiques to go. You see that the physique division is going through the roof, but the bodybuilding division has gotten smaller and smaller. And that’s because we didn’t make sure that physiques stayed within certain parameters of physical beauty. Athletes conform to what’s being asked of them.”
On the future: “I’d like to see a classic bodybuilding division. I was classic. It’s not about a certain weight—we were a certain look. I’m talking about guys like me and Frank Zane. Cedric McMillan is a classic bodybuilder, but you can’t compare guys like him and Phil and Dexter and Shawn Rhoden with a physique like Big Ramy. Let’s create a category for those physiques so we can protect the integrity of our sport and give these athletes with different looks a place to go. Roelly Winklaar, Branch Warren, Ramy—these are power bodybuilders.” [They will see it happen at the 2016 Classic Physique Olympia.]