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He’s never been the biggest guy, though he’s pretty damn big. He’s never been the leanest guy, but he’s usually lean enough. And he’s never flexed one body part that wows you, but together they all do. Since his pro debut in 2001, Victor Martinez has utilized his classical combination of shape and size to etch out a remarkable career much greater than his tally of seven pro titles. And yet the past decade was also marred with a pang of melancholy for what could’ve been.
Born in the Dominican Republic on July 29, 1973, Martinez won a New York City bodybuilding contest when he was a teenager. He rose through the East Coast muscle ranks but didn’t enter his first pro qualifier until he was 27 in 2000, when, seven months after taking his class but not the overall at the lowly Junior USA, he won the NPC Nationals. Seemingly rushing out of the shadows to beat pre-contest favorite Troy Alves, Martinez was suddenly bodybuilding’s next big thing. At 5’9″ and 225, he had it all—quads, lats, pecs, arms, abs—but what was best was the way everything flowed together for a pleasingly symmetrical physique. His shape could make bigger Goliaths look like bags of parts.
Still, he struggled with his conditioning his first two years in the IFBB Pro League and suffered embarrassingly low placings as a result. (Wait, wasn’t Victor in that show?) He won his first pro title in 2003 over a weak lineup and another in 2004 against a stronger cast. The Olympia is where rankings truly get sorted out, and his fifth in 2005 was an eye-opener. The following year, when he was third behind only Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman, this New Yorker had quickly climbed to a bronze place in bodybuilding’s ruling trinity. Could Martinez seize the crown?
First things first. He bested two future Mr. O’s, Dexter Jackson and Phil Heath, on his way to a decisive victory at the 2007 Arnold Classic. It was and still is his greatest victory. But in the aftermath, the chatter was not about him possibly toppling the new king Cutler. After Cutler had struggled so long to defeat Coleman, the bodybuilding world assumed his only possible competition next time was the vengeful, eight-time Mr. O. But Ronnie was no longer Ronnie. Frankly, the consensus was to expect no drama in the Orleans Arena in 2007. Just give Cutler his second Sandow, and let the other top placings sort out for future years. But then Cutler was off. And Martinez was on. And from the bottom depths the year before, Dennis Wolf was so stupendous fans howled for him.
After three of the four judging rounds, Jay Cutler held merely a one-point advantage over Victor Martinez, and the challenger had just won Round 3. Talk about drama! In the end, the reigning champ repeated by only four points, making this Olympia the closest of the modern era and arguably ever. It wasn’t just a toss-up on scorecards. At 250 pounds, the Dominican Dominator beat the 267-pound champ in three poses (front double biceps, side chest, abs and thigh), lost in three (front lat spread, rear lat spread, rear double biceps), and at least tied in the other two (side triceps, most-muscular). (But, wait, Dennis Wolf had the best rear double biceps, front lat spread, and most-muscular in the show.) You can make a strong case that Martinez was the superior bodybuilder on Sept. 28-29. Many people did, and many still do. But when it had been about Coleman and Cutler for so long, it was hard to wrap your head around Martinez having as many Sandows as Cutler. Only later, with time to focus on comparisons, did it come into focus. Well, wait till next year!
“This was only his first second at the Olympia. Try getting second four times. That’s when you really feel the pain,” Cutler said backstage with his second Sandow in hand. “He’ll be back. And I’ll be waiting. He’ll have another chance next year.”
A few minutes before when Cutler was giving his acceptance speech, Martinez was backstage, still a bit stunned by how close he had just come to immortality. “I got work to do next year. Things will go my way, too, one day.” A moment later, he added with a weary smile, “Next year.”
THE DOWNS AND THE UPS
Next year. There’s always next year. Until there’s not. For Victor Martinez there was no next year. Next year, Dexter Jackson shocked the world and became the 12th Mr. Olympia while Martinez watched from the audience. January of that next year, while warming up, Martinez ruptured a tendon in his left knee. It was more than a year before he competed again, and when he did he placed second in the 2009 Arnold Classic. He wasn’t all the way back, but he was getting there, and he had another six months of leg workouts before the O. But that summer, he suffered a greater tragedy when his older sister was murdered. He landed in sixth in his comeback Olympia and a distant eighth the next year. Martinez rebounded in 2011, the year he turned 38, with a fourth at the Olympia and, just afterward, a victory over Dexter Jackson in the Arnold Classic Europe.
But, upon returning to New York from Madrid, he was detained at the airport. His American permanent residency had expired. He spent nearly six months incarcerated while facing the threat of deportation. As a consequence, just when he had seemingly turned the page, he lost another year (and a lot of muscle). In his 20 pro contests since returning to stages in 2013, the Dominican has not been much of a dominator. He’s won only three minor pro shows, and, though he qualified for the Olympia, he no longer impacted the top six. Lacking the roundness and 3-D effect he possessed at his peak. Finally, Father Time, the ultimate dominator, is starting to exert his advantages.
The 2007 Arnold Classic champ turns 45 in July, and we’re left to wonder what could’ve been. What if he’d never snapped that tendon? The 2008 Olympia was the one Cutler lost and Jackson, who was great but not at his all-time best, won. If Martinez had merely repeated his 2007 form, he and not the Blade probably would’ve been the 12th Mr. O, and he would’ve lived forever as an immortal member of the Sandow Society. And his win would’ve set up an epic size-versus-shape, Cutler-versus-Martinez rematch in 2009. If he had never been detained in 2011, he would’ve been in the Olympia mix again in 2012, the last year he could’ve competed in his 30s. Perhaps he would’ve been fourth again, and perhaps he would’ve been even higher. We would’ve been treated to another year or two of peak Martinez. What could’ve been? It’s the question that haunts so many bodybuilders but especially the few who came so close to the top without summiting. None came closer than Victor Martinez in 2007, and none suffered a more devastating setback than he did just three months later. What could’ve been? We’ll never know. We know only what was and what is. Let’s celebrate what was and what still is, because Victor Martinez, with his rare combination of shape and size, of mass with class, was and still is phenomenal.
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