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WHERE TO BEGIN?
There’s a lot of praise to heap on Johnnie Jackson’s career, which finally concluded last September. He is the most accomplished powerlifting bodybuilder ever. Last year, at age 46, he joined that other Jackson, Dexter, as the oldest men to win two pro shows in one year. His 13 Mr. Olympia entries ties him for the third most of all time. But perhaps most incredible are his 82 pro shows over 16 years, a mark topped— barely—by only that other Jackson, who had a three-year head start. From his stupendous strength to his middle-aged excellence and his workmanlike consistency, Johnnie Jackson is bodybuilding’s ultimate iron man. ARRIVAL Years before Twitter or YouTube, 30-year-old light-heavyweight Johnnie Jackson romped to an overall victory at the 2001 NPC Nationals, defeating heavyweight victor (and training partner) Branch Warren in the process. His rise seemed rapid, but it started half a lifetime before, in his native New Jersey, when Jackson’s older brother (who died in 1998) inspired him to take up bodybuilding. From the beginning, the younger sibling was even stronger than he looked. After a 10-year stint in the Army, he relocated to suburban Dallas and began climbing through the bodybuilding and powerlifting ranks. He deadlifted, in competition, a world-record 814 at 216 three weeks before that Nationals win. And in the minutes just after the win, the 5’7″ Texan averred, “I’m going to prove that a competitive powerlifter can also compete successfully as a pro bodybuilder, and I’ll pack on enough muscle in 2002 to leave no doubt that powerlifting and bodybuilding are perfectly compatible.”
This was long before the 212 division. Jackson, who had gone pro at sub-200, had some filling out to do. As he hoisted increasingly heavier iron, the pounds came easy. Off by only one year, J.J., at around 230, proved himself in 2003, making posedowns and nearly cracking the top 10 in his Mr. O debut. He collected his first pro title in 2006 and another in 2007, and annually he hovered near the 10 spot at the Olympia.
This brings us to the essence of Jackson’s career. He was always good, making the Olympia in 13 of his 16 pro years and missing the top 15 only once. But he was never great, by Olympia standards. His 13 Olympia appearances trail only Dexter Jackson (18) and Ronnie Coleman (15), equalling Jay Cutler, Shawn Ray, and Albert Beckles. Three of those legends are Olympia winners; the other two were runners-up. In contrast, Jackson’s highest O finish was ninth (twice). Always good, never great. He earned his legendary status via longevity and consistency.
And sheer brute power. On video, J.J. cranked out 10 reps of side laterals with 100-pound dumbbells. He claims to have upright rowed 405 eight times, which is more than most mortals would attempt to non-upright row once. And in competition, he topped that aforementioned 814 deadlift 11 years later, at 41, with an official raw pull of 832. His best powerlifting total is 2,127, including a 540 bench press and an 826 squat. As if there was any doubt, in 2009, he won the World’s Strongest Bodybuilder title at the Olympia. (His two-lift total was topped the next year by Stan Efferding, a better powerlifter but worse bodybuilder, who outweighed Jackson by more than 50 pounds.) “I’ve always been a bodybuilder first, but I think I’ve proved that powerlifting complements bodybuilding,” he says. “Get stronger and get bigger.” It’s a mantra that fueled countless workouts during sweltering Texas summers.
“I don’t think you can maximize your potential without the three powerlifts,” he says. “They just give you a different, thicker, more powerful look, especially to your lower back and traps. Yeah, everybody loves bench presses, but most people don’t love spending a lot of time in the squat rack or on a deadlift platform. You can tell the guys who’ve put in the work there. They’ve got that look. The other thing you get from powerlifting is an objective goal. Show me the numbers. My personal record, in reps and pounds, for a given lift—even if it’s curls or laterals—is the one I have to break. There is nothing more motivational than that.
“Power bodybuilding is not for everyone. You have to be somewhat of a masochist, in the sense that you have to appreciate the value of positive pain. You have to enjoy the pull on the body of all that weight, but what’s important about that struggle is that it generates even more motivation to work harder the next time. If you’re not testing your limits, it’s hard to be aggressive and have a good workout. But if you’re trying to top your own record, you have no choice but to be aggressive. Every workout is a competition with your old self, and that’s how you build strength and muscle. That’s how you build your new self, so to speak.”
Johnnie Jackson and Branch Warren are the most celebrated training partners since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu. They brought their balls-to-the-wall iron battles to Dallas-area gyms, most frequently the Arlington Metroflex, driving each other to move ever more metal. But their greatest motivation wasn’t the will to equal or top each other; it was internal. “I enjoy training with Branch. It’s great to have another pro bodybuilder trading sets with me who trains as hard as I do. But, the truth is, I train just as hard when I’m by myself,” Jackson explained a decade ago. “I’m self-motivated, and I have goals I want to reach. That’s what’s important to me. You can accomplish anything in life as long as you have patience and heart and you’re willing to put in the work. I know it’s all about myself, anyway. Either get the work done or stand by the wayside and watch everyone pass you by.”
Jackson eventually passed almost everyone—in terms of longevity, even Warren. Year after year, as new pros came and went—some with great hopes and greater hype, most now forgotten— Jackson just kept going. Though he had only two pro titles before his 40th birthday, he won twice that many after then and competed 38 times. In 2017, at 46, he flexed in six contests, more than any of the 13 men who finished above him in the Mr. Olympia. He won twice, including the Arnold Classic South Africa, and according to Olympia judges, he was still the 14th best over-212 bodybuilder on the planet. With two titles, his last bodybuilding year was his best, and a fitting epilogue to a remarkable story.
“Since this was my last year, it’s definitely great that I won a couple of shows,” Jackson said at the 2017 Olympia, “because who would’ve thought that at this time in my life at this age that I’d be able to win a show. I feel good. It’s not like I can’t continue to compete. But I want to continue to feel good and be healthy and not wear myself out. And the struggle is getting harder and harder, and it’s taking a toll on my body. So it’s time for me to back out and enjoy life.”
That other Jackson, Dexter, plans to keep compeeting in 2018, and he is rightly celebrated for his ageless excellence. He owns a Sandow and a case full of Arnold trophies and records that only he breaks. But let’s consider one of those records: most IFBB Pro League contests. As of February 2018, Dexter has flexed in 83 open shows (and two master’s); Johnnie has flexed in 82. Though the latter Jackson made his pro debut three years after the former, he averaged more contests annually, and just as the tortoise outworked the hare, he nearly caught the 2008 Mr. Olympia at the finish line—Johnnie’s finish line; Dexter races on. (Both men just edged past the original ageless wonder, Albert Beckles, whose 81 open shows were a long-standing record.) As a frame of reference, Ronnie Coleman, often called the ultimate iron man, competed in 66 pro shows also over 16 years. Phil Heath has entered 19 in 12 years.
Two Jacksons who turned pro by winning overall titles as light-heavyweights a generation ago have competed in more professional bodybuilding contests than anyone in history, racking up almost the same tally, and both won Arnold Classic titles at 46. The less celebrated of the two deserves his due. Johnnie not only flexed more frequently but also competed, concurrently and successfully, as a powerlifter, thus proving, again and again, what he set out to show so long ago: Pound for pound, Johnnie Jackson is the strongest Mr. Olympia contestant of all time and bodybuilding’s ultimate iron man.
THE JACKSON FIVE