The largest, most impressive bodybuilding extravaganza next to the original pro muscle showcase, the Mr. Olympia, the Arnold Classic continues to wow fans with its annual inclusion of today’s greatest bodybuilders in their best possible shape. Though some would say it’s the biggest bodybuilding event period, the Arnold – the first big contest of each IFBB pro calendar year – is the benchmark against which all remaining pro appearances of the year are often measured. If you can challenge well at the Arnold, chances are you will find yourself in the top spot at other pre-Olympia events throughout the year.
The Arnold Sports Festival
An unparalleled multi-sport event, the annual Arnold Sports Festival features a diversity of athletes and disciplines including a full array of Olympic, strength, and combat sports, not to mention dance, fitness and running events. A large percentage of spectators, however, will be at the Columbus Convention Center from February 27 through to March 2 for the muscle. Indeed, the Arnold Classic has, since its inaugural event in 1989, attracted many millions of devoted bodybuilding fans worldwide. Beginning with a relatively modest two contests, the Men’s open and the Ms International Women’s competitions, the Arnold has grown to where it now hosts Fitness, Bikini, and Figure International divisions and, new this year, the Men’s 212 category.
The Arnold Classic
This year’s Arnold Classic (the men’s bodybuilding class) promises to be among the biggest ever; although current Arnold champion Dexter Jackson, Mr. Olympia Phil Heath and runner up at the Olympia Kai Greene will not be throwing down, a broad selection of perennial pro front-runners will be. Most notably, the 2013 Mr. Olympia standout Dennis Wolf, the man with the biggest quads in the game, Ben Pakulski, breakout athlete for the past two years Shawn Rhoden, genetic marvel Cedric McMillan, and monolithic two-time Arnold champ (2011-12) Branch Warren are current top seeded entrants, although big Evan Centopani and the ageless Toney Freeman will certainly be attempting to claim further pro gold. Unfortunately, top slated champ Roelly Winklaar had to withdraw with injury.
With a formidable lineup of several men who could, on their best day, take the title, and much at stake (exclusive bragging rights, momentum as this year’s pro season commences, and Olympia respectability on the back of a strong Arnold showing), this year’s Arnold is up for grabs. Who will win? Who will comprise the remaining top six? And who will surprise everyone with a physical breakthrough to solidify their name among today’s top pro contenders? Here are my predictions.
6th: Toney Freeman
In a sport of many uncertainties, one thing we do know about the strikingly symmetrical X-Man Toney Freeman is that we should never count him out. Though 47, and in the twilight of his long and distinguished pro career, Freeman continues to defy father time; placing 3rd at last year’s Arnold and 2nd at the Masters Olympia and Pro World Championships in 2012, the man with the perfect presentation has shown that he is far from finished. A top six placement at this year’s Arnold will put him back in the Olympia frame after a disappointing 16th place finish at last year’s O.
5th: Branch Warren
Another athlete who has had a mixed recent pro run is Branch Warren, a former Arnold champion who has packed more mass onto his frame than probably any top pro in the history of the sport. A firm fan favorite known for his gigantic legs and super freaky conditioning, Branch is also one of the most successful IFBB pros of all time. With his sporting legacy on the line, the big Texan, who failed to break the top six at last year’s Olympia, will be seeking redemption at the 2014 Arnold. Can he again bring the shape that has secured for him two Arnold titles and a second place finish at the 2009 Olympia? With his great fighting spirit and tremendous work ethic, the intelligent Branch will be gunning for nothing but gold at this year’s Arnold Classic.
4th: Cedric McMillan
Blessed with the genetic potential to win a succession of Arnold titles, Cedric McMillan, like contemporaries Freeman and Warren, will be looking to restore his reputation after a mediocre 2013. Placing 12th at last year’s Olympia, the 6’1” near-flawless McMillan, with his full, round muscle bellies and ultra-wide shoulders and lats, is likely to be in his best ever shape at this year’s Arnold. Can he win? Yes, but with several established contenders who have the all-important polish and presentation to accompany their pure muscle size, the 2013 FIBO Power Germany champion will find such an achievement difficult; especially at an event the size of the Arnold where the pressure is on from the first callout to the last.
3rd: Ben Pakulski
More than just a massive set of legs, big Ben Pakulski has become a complete bodybuilder who appears to be improving with each successive outing. Though structurally no Phil Heath or Kai Greene (though who is?), the Canadian Colossus Ben, who placed an impressive 2nd at last year’s Arnold, has the potential to win the Arnold Classic. Can he pull it off in 2014? With the crisp, dry conditioning, densely muscled physique and great proportions, there is nothing to stop him. However, there are two men with great momentum and confidence, having both come off career-boosting Olympia performances, who will beg to differ.
2nd: Shawn Rhoden
Having achieved four pro wins and many a top three finish in 14 pro outings, the 5’10”, 240 pound-plus Shawn Rhoden is about as good as it gets in today’s pro ranks. Already drawing comparisons to pro great Flex Wheeler, Rhoden still has time to improve the physique that earned him 3rd and 4th place finishes at the 2012 and 2013 Olympias respectively. Rhoden began his pro career with an average 16th place finish at the 2010 Europa Super Show, though he did not let this placement deter him from seeking pro glory: rather, he hit the gym, improved his weaknesses (conditioning, back detail and shoulder width) and returned better than ever to overwhelm the competition en route to becoming one of 2012 and 2013’s top pro competitors. Should the Arnold winner, as predicted in this review, come as little as 1% off his game, a 100% Rhoden will win his first major pro title.
Winner: Dennis Wolf
Dennis Wolf is one of those competitors whose impact is so great because of his structural gifts that he dwarfs men who may hold more mass than he, of which there are few indeed. Shredded and aesthetically pleasing for such a large man, the monolithic German, who placed third at last year’s Olympia, is currently running hot in the IFBB. Having claimed second at both the 2011 and 2012 Arnold’s and 3rd place at the Arnold Classic Europe in 2013 (numbers one and two were Phil Heath and Kai Greene respectively), Wolf is always in the mix for top honors. With gigantic quads, an unrivaled most muscular, and an aggressive stage presence, Wolf is a true fan favorite and hardcore competitor through and through. Should he bring all of his strengths with a little more refinement to this year’s Arnold, he may be the big story of the show.
Dark horse: Brandon Curry
With all the goods needed to win big on many a pro stage, 2013 Arnold Classic Brazil champion Brandon Curry could shock the 2014 Arnold audience with an upset placement. Though unlikely to challenge established frontrunners such as Wolf and Rhoden, Curry could, if truly on his game, and if he is able to bring his lagging legs to the fore, sneak into the top three. With near perfect proportions and symmetry, the 5’ 8” 250lb-plus Curry, who claimed Heavyweight gold at the 2008 NPC USA Bodybuilding Championships, is one IFBB pro athlete who is waiting to happen. Will this be his year to break through on the big stages?