As I write this, the elite Mr. Olympia “club” has only 16 members since it's inception in 1965. Fifty-seven years, 16 champions. Obviously, that means more than few have won multiple times. In fact, as of today (2022), just five Olympians have only one Sandow statue - Chris Dickerson (1982), Sammir Bannout (1983), Dexter Jackson (2008) Shawn Rhoden (2018), and Brandon Curry (2019). The rest: Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Frank Zane , Lee Haney, Dorain Yates, Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, Phil Heath and Big Ramy have won numerous times; Both Haney and Coleman hold the record with eight a piece. With so many guys owning multiple wins, it's tough to say who was the greatest.
The first Mr Olympia contest was held on September 18, 1965, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York City. In an effort to enable Mr. Universe winners to continue competing and also earn money, Joe Weider founded the Mr. Olympia, as bodybuilding’s first professional (paid) event. The first Mr. Olympia champion was Larry Scott, who would go on to repeat the following year. Larry was the first bodybuilding superstar. He brought size and condition that had not been seen before. But, more importantly, his unique aura, personality, and charisma helped launch a new professional sport.
For the next three years the title was owned by Sergio Oliva. Maybe the only bodybuilder who was more naturally adept at being Mr. Olympia than any other because, it is well documented, that he didn’t have to diet and work at the same level as mere mortals, like me. Sergio, and Lee Haney, were perhaps the two most genetically gifted bodybuilders of all time.
Then came Arnold Schwarzenegger. He changed the sport even more dramatically than Larry had. He had perfect symmetry and an incredible shape that flowed in both directions from his tiny waist. He was intense and charismatic in his own unique way, and he would go on to win seven titles between 1970 and 1980.
Franco Columbu would pick up two in 1976 and 1981, Frank Zane filled in 1977 – 1979, then we got to the 80's. Many people think the 80s were the most competitive era of professional bodybuilding. Lee Haney set new standards of size and shape, combined with spectacular condition, to the astonishing degree that no one could wrench the Sandow from his grip for eight straight years. I came up against him in 1985, 86, 87 and 88. I pushed him as hard as I could and was his bride's maid three years in a row. I thought maybe I had him in 1988. I had support on that from a number of experts, including Lee Himself. But, the bottom line was that the Sandow was staying at his house. His combination of ripped muscle and size were incredible. In order to beat the champion you have to knock him out. And that wasn't happening, he was just too good.
I didn’t think anyone could approach Haney's record. But, then came Dorian Yates, who won six straight before retiring, followed by the next great champion, Ronnie Coleman, who matched Lee’s eight straight victories. He was followed by Jay Cutler who picked up four. Phil Heath came next and nearly matched Lee and Ronnie with seven straight wins. Finally, Big Ramy (the current Mr. O) is preparing to defend his title for the third time. To put such greatness into perspective, out of the 57 years of the Olympia's existence, 38 of those years were monopolized by just six guys.
As technology, supplementation, and overall knowledge grew, so did the champions. Each decade saw dramatic jumps in both size and definition. Coleman was competing at 270 pounds with the definition you would never have seen on a bodybuilder with that much size twenty years earlier. So, it was no surprise when Jay Cutler competed and won four titles at 290 pounds. Now we have Big Ramy who lives up to his name by competing at over 300 pounds!
So many great competitors, so many undeniable champions. But who was best? In other words, who was the greatest bodybuilder of all time? As any sports fan knows it’s tough to compare players from different eras. Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds? Johnny Unitas or Peyton Manning? Jessie Owens or Carl Lewis? Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant? The debates could go on forever.
Boyer Coe said Sergio Oliva had the most impressive performance ever in 1971—and he didn’t even win. But I’d have to say the top three are Arnold, Lee, and Ronnie. I would then pick Lee as the greatest because I think his eight straight wins were accomplished against the most intense competition. Shawn Ray agrees with me. Lou Ferrigno, who might have won a couple titles if he hadn’t gone into acting, says you could flip a coin between Arnold and Ronnie. Then there's big Ramy who, some people say, could be Mr. Olympia for as long as he wants to be. So I know not everyone agrees with me, and there are so many variables and hypotheticals that any discussion of “who’s the greatest?” could go on forever.
Such debates, while clearly never definitive, can be extremely motivating, even for me. I think all the way back to 1988 when things could have gone my way, instead of Lee's, and I'd have at least one Sandow on my mantle. The thirst to be the best never ebbs. Even though the best of all bodybuilders is an incredibly tight group, they stand as testament to what the best actually looks like. They send a powerful message to every guy throwing down in the gym every day. Be the best. Be the best you can be. The top is way up there. And any ascent anywhere near the top is going to be quite a climb and, odds are, you probably wont make it. But, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Because the greats are so high up there, anyone along the way is going to be pretty damn impressive – including you!