No in depth review of the annual Mr. Olympia bodybuilding showcase would be complete without a look at some of the event’s more compelling rivalries. As with any contest of magnitude, the Olympia routinely brings out the very best in its competitors. With bragging rights, prestige, money, fame and legacy up for grabs, each Olympia outing brings to bear a great deal of pressure for its contestants; thus, each athlete must rise to the occasion and prepare to reign victorious. However, in doing so they will inevitably encounter others of like mind; men of iron who are themselves ready to secure bodybuilding’s ultimate prize. And there can be only one winner. And with so many great athletes competing in one event, many rivalries are born.
Rivalry #5: Lee Haney vs. Rich Gaspari
From 1986-1988, two men, both pro bodybuilding pioneers, fought it out for Mr. O supremacy. When eventual eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney won his first title in 1984, many thought him invincible, such was his remarkable size and structure (replete with stupendous lat width and wasp waist). However, in 1985 a young lion named Rich Gaspari, unprecedentedly ripped and layered with muscle (and possessing better legs than the champ), signaled that he would soon be fighting for bodybuilding’s top prize. Though he would not win the Olympia, Gaspari did indeed challenge Haney hard (placing second to the big man in ’86, ’87, and ’88), forcing the much taller champ to bring his best each year, which subsequently lifted the physical standard for all pro bodybuilding competitors.
Rivalry #4: Cutler vs. Heath
Of the current crop of Olympia hopefuls, four-time winner Jay Cutler and reigning, two-time champion Phil Heath, have cemented their place in bodybuilding history. As they prepare to meet again in 2013, it is these two who will, according to many insiders, fight for the top spot.
Former training partners and currently on friendly terms, Heath (who also won the 2012 Olympia, pushing then four-time champ Cutler into second place) and Cutler (who did not compete last year due to injury) are nevertheless fierce competitive rivals. Though it was Cutler, 39, who initially schooled Heath, 33, on how to win bodybuilding’s biggest event, many would argue that the younger champ’s firm grip on the title will not easily be relinquished. When on form, both have the size, shape and conditioning to win the Olympia. Both also have considerable fighting spirit, which makes their rivalry one for the ages.
Rivalry #3: Arnold vs. Franco
When the great Arnold Schwarzenegger won his third Olympia title in 1972, placing fifth at this event was the 5′ 5″, comparatively compact, Franco Columbu. Columbu, of whom a least likely candidate for Olympia stardom could not be found in the pro ranks, was at the time considered nothing more than Arnold’s training partner, a man who would simply make up the numbers come O time. But few banked on Columbu’s tremendous resolve and from 1974-1976 the Italian immigrant known for his phenomenal physical strength was elevated to the top of the under 200-pound standings (back when the Olympia featured under and over 200lb weight classes). He would go on to win the title twice (in ’76 and ’81).
However, it is for his titanic battles with his Austrian nemesis and offstage friend Arnold that Columbu will best be remembered, in particular their 1975 battle (captured in the remarkable docudrama Pumping Iron) where the shorter, blockier Columbu almost toppled the massive oak for the world to see.
Rivalry #2: Cutler vs. Coleman
When Ronnie Coleman, arguably the greatest pro bodybuilder of all time, won his first of eight Olympia titles in 1998, pro bodybuilding’s elite were served notice: such was Coleman’s otherworldly shape, size and conditioning that no one would come close to beating him, at least while he was at the top of his game. Someone forgot to tell emerging champion Jay Cutler.
Though his career did not begin auspiciously (he placed 14th and 8th at the 1999 and 2000 Olympias respectively), Cutler, once he nailed his conditioning, was near-unstoppable. So much so that in 2001 he placed second at the Olympia to Coleman in an event many thought he should have won. Cutler would place second to Coleman four times before overcoming the champ to claim the title in 2006. The only competitor to come close to matching Coleman on quality size, Cutler proved to be Ronnie’s toughest challenger.
Rivalry #1: Arnold vs. Sergio
Before Jay could overcome the monolithic challenge of Ronnie, Arnold would have to match, muscle for muscle, bodybuilding’s Cuban Myth Sergio Oliva (the Coleman of his day). At the commencement of pro bodybuilding’s first real rivalry, the then two-time Olympia champion Oliva (perfectly muscled and genetically blessed with sublime symmetry and proportion) beat an under-prepared first-time Olympia challenger Arnold to make it three for three in what was strictly a two-man race. But what Arnold, then aged 22, lacked in polish and experience, he more than made up for in determination as he prepared to dethrone the Myth in 1970.
By beating Sergio at both the 1970 Mr. World and, two weeks later, the Mr. Olympia, Arnold (better conditioned, more muscular and exuding the confidence that would secure for him a total of seven Olympia titles), showed he could indeed beat bodybuilding’s best. Forced to miss the 1971 Olympia, Oliva could only watch on as Arnold claimed his second title. Though he returned in ‘72 to regain his number one standing, Sergio was, in one of pro bodybuilding’s more controversial showdowns, bested by an ever improving Arnold.
While Arnold would go on to become “the greatest”, Oliva, structurally a better bodybuilder than the Oak, flitted from one organization to another, never truly capitalizing on his physical gifts. Though both competitors’ legacies are secure, Arnold, who considered Sergio to be his toughest competition and the only man who could intimidate him come game day, came out on top competitively (with three wins to Sergio’s one victory). Still, both men are among the best bodybuilders ever to have competed and their rivalry remains the biggest of all time.
Bringing Out The Best
It has been said that quality competition brings out the best in us all. No more apparent is this than on the biggest pro bodybuilding stage of them all, where top competitors are only as good as their last performance and emerging threats are only too willing and able to topple perennial contenders. With a solid legacy of top tier rivalries, the Mr. Olympia contest has been built upon the consistent inclusion of quality muscle and fierce competition. From Arnold and Sergio to Cutler and Heath, the best of the best have been forged through the pressure of close competition. And through such tough competition, pro bodybuilding’s standards will continue to be raised for the next generation of competitor.