James “Flex” Lewis knew he wanted to be a bodybuilder when he was 12 years old and found a Tom Platz book on his aunt’s bookshelf. Studying the pictures of Platz and his mind-blowing leg development, Lewis knew exactly how he wanted to look and what he wanted to be. Twenty years later, he’s the two-time IFBB Olympia 212 Showdown champ with eight pro titles to his name.
When I spoke to Lewis, this native of Wales was in the midst of moving to a new home outside of Boca Raton, FL. I told Lewis I wouldn’t take up much of his time and he laughed, telling me to take as much time as we needed, that it would give the friends who were helping him move a chance to do most of the heavy lifting. Flex spoke of his competitive future, his favorite asshole, and who his preferred person is to hang with in hotel lounges come four in the morning.
What improvements did you look to make in the past year?
I’ve concentrated on my chest and back and I’ll continue to concentrate on them. Earlier in my career, my chest was a weak point. This year I was told — by people I trust to tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear—that it’s come up. My back is another area I can’t ignore. Every great Mr. Olympia from Lee Haney on has had a great back. When I’m shredded, I know how my back looks, the level of detail and separation I bring; but I still want to etch in more detail and add more size through it.
Were you ever worried that politics might play a part and keep you from winning?
I felt as long as the show was fairly judged, I’d bring what I had to bring and make it as hard as I could for the judges to decide it otherwise. Robin Chang runs a very smooth, very professional show. Two weeks after the Olympia, he picks up the whole apparatus and transfers it to Prague—so, again, there are few unknown factors. I just need to be the best I can be.
That said, I’ll admit that after the Olympia press conference I was a little frazzled. There were some guys getting up and making predictions, talking junk. Now, I get it: It’s pre-game hype. But I’m the reigning champ, so what they were talking about when they were saying how well they’d do is them saying they were going to take me out. That kind of talk gets me going on the inside. Let’s just say I have a different type of personality from some of those fellas—less swag, if you will—so I’m not going to get up at the press conference or go online and talk crap about any of the other guys.
What was it like to repeat at both the 212 Showdown and in Prague?
Honestly, it’s still sinking in. That said, I’m very happy. The best of the best in the 212 class were there this year—Kevin English, Sami Al Haddad, Jose Raymond, David Henry, and Eduardo Correas—so no one can say, “Yeah, he won, but it would’ve been different if so-and-so had been there.”
I think what you just illustrated with your answer is the fact that one of the many things your fans appreciate about you—aside from your physique and work ethic—is your humble attitude. You’ve gone from being underdog to top dog, and yet there’s been very little negativity about you on the online bulletin boards, which are notoriously negative.
Well, as far as top dog goes, I think that remains to be seen. I’ll keep trying. As for fans, I’ve got the best fans in the world. If I post a picture on Tumblr and someone starts mouthing off, my supporters are all over them.
As far as being humble goes, Lee Haney was a dominant champion but he was a modest man. Now, humble doesn’t mean he didn’t believe in himself, or that I don’t believe in myself. But one of the things I learned from a champ like Lee was, we’re best of letting our physiques do the talking for us on the contest stage. Everything of the stage is just that—talk. There’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness, and I feel one’s better of drawing satisfaction on the inside from a job well done.
Your coach, Neil Hill, lives overseas. How often do you speak to him?
[Laughs] I talk to that asshole every day. And I call him that lovingly. You know, they say be careful who you call your friends, that you’d rather have four quarters than 100 pennies, right? Well, Neil is one of my shiny quarters. We’re both opinionated, strong-minded Welshmen in love with the same sport.
The thing that happens is that, at about eight weeks out from a show, the banter back and forth stops and Neil puts on his coach’s hat. And that’s OK, because at that point I’m switching into a different mode and we’re all business, the both of us.
Neil’s been with me for 10 years now. He believed in me and saw something in me way back then, something he considered promising. He helped me deliver on that promise. And he still does.
In 2008, when a competitor was allowed to compete in both the 202-and-under class and the men’s open at the same show, you placed second in the 202 and seventh in the open at the Tampa Bay Pro, and first in the 202 and seventh in the open at the Europa Supershow. Have you ever considered returning to the men’s open?
Well, let’s hope I’m not jinxing myself…for the first time, the 2014 Arnold Classic is going to have a 212-and-under class. I’ll be there. Then I’ll be back in Vegas in September to defend my title again. But the following year , I’m hoping to enjoy some kind of real off–season and compete in the men’s open. I’m not saying I won’t drop down into the 212s ever again, but I want to test myself against the best bodybuilders the men’s open division has to offer.
Has it been tough for you to make the 212 limit?
I can drop pretty low in the 212s. The hardest part for me is in the last week, carbing up. And that’s the hardest part because I don’t like to eat. But at that point I’ve put in all the work and sweat and I’ve got Neil screaming in my ear and I’ve got no choice. After carbing up, I hit the Olympia stage this year at 210 pounds.
Six months separate the Olympia and the Arnold. That’s not much of an off-season.
I haven’t had much of an off-season in a while. Five months out of the year I travel. Tell the readers what I’m eating [Lewis is eating a grilled chicken McWrap from McDonalds]. This is my of –season for the next couple weeks now— it is kind of a little bit healthy though, no? [grinning] When Christmas rolls around I’ll be dieting again, even when I’m back in Wales visiting my family.
This past summer you promoted the third annual Flex Lewis Classic in Tennessee. That’s got to be another thing that eats into your off-season.
Well, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t, but I’m fortunate that I’ve assembled a team on the ground in Tennessee that I can trust and who do a lot of the hard work for me. And I make sure all those people are rewarded for that hard work.
How often do you get to see them?
[Quietly] Not as much as I’d like.
They must be very proud of you.
They’re my biggest fans. It’s funny, really. When I was a kid and first sprang bodybuilding on them they were puzzled and didn’t know what to make of it. Of course they knew who Arnold Schwarzenegger was, but bodybuilding wasn’t—and really still isn’t—a popular sport in Wales. But my family has always supported me in whatever it is I’ve done, so they started coming to my contests. I remember the 2004 Mr. Britain, when I was 21 years old. I placed first in the junior division. It was the show where I met Neil. He came up to me and we started talking and he told me he thought I should do the British Nationals, which was only a few weeks away. I didn’t have it in mind to do it, but my family was like. “You’ve got to do this, it’s a national level show.” [Lewis won the juniors division there as well].
Do you still have that Tom Platz book?
Oh, yes I do. The thing was falling apart, pages dropping out of it. Most people would’ve thrown it in the trash. I went and got it professionally bound again. But the story doesn’t end there. When I was in my early 20s and competing, Tom Platz was at the expo of one of the shows I did. I don’t usually wait in line to talk to people but I waited in line to talk to him. He was so down-to-earth, spent time talking to his fans. It wasn’t like he only wanted to collect his whatever [money] for a signed 8x10 and usher you along. That night me and my friend went down to the hotel lounge, and who’s sitting in the bar but Tom Platz. He sees us and beckons us over. We wind up sitting down with him for hours, Tom regaling us with tales of the Mecca [the original Gold’s Gym in Venice, CA] and the Golden Age of bodybuilding. After several rounds of alcoholic drinks, it’s 4 a.m. and Tom’s wife comes down to the bar to bring her husband to bed. What a guy! FLEX