STRANGER THAN FICTION

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As Ronnie Coleman stockpiled Sandow after Sandow between 1998 and 2005, even the most casual fans became experts, boldly predicting the outcome of the Mr. Olympia contest year after year. Coleman’s unbeatable. Coleman’s untouchable. Coleman’s the greatest ever, and he can collect as many titles as he wants until he grows bored and decides to saunter off into retirement.

In this, the Super Bowl of bodybuilding, long reigns of incredible athletes have become the norm, rather than the rare exception they are in other professional sports. From Lee Haney’s 1984-91 run, to Dorian Yates’ six years of glory, to Coleman’s dominating streak, it seemed as if reigning champions could not be dethroned, both by virtue of their physiques and the air of confidence that seized the judges and the audience the moment any of these contenders took the hallowed O stage to defend their crowns. Step one: march out from behind the curtain and into the center spotlight. Step two: tighten every fiber into a raging maelstrom of muscle. Step three: game over.

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the 2006 Olympia and Coleman’s date with destiny — and his preordained potential record-breaking ninth O victory. In what could very well stand as the most shocking moment in bodybuilding contest history, Jay Cutler — his collection of four runner-up Olympia medals safely tucked away back at his Las Vegas residence, grim reminders of how close he had come previously — threw the metaphorical punch heard ’round the world. While Coleman ran his finger across his throat to his contingent of friends and family in the audience, Cutler was announced as the winner, and bedlam ensued.

Now, as we hurtle toward the 2007 Olympia on September 28-29, one thing becomes clear. By earning the title, Cutler didn’t necessarily assert his own right to a dynasty. Instead, he just rattled the cages of some driven and hungry challengers. There’s blood in the water, and the sharks are circling, sensing an opportunity not seen since 1998, 1992, or even the rough-and-tumble years of 1980 through 1984 when five different men ascended to the pinnacle of bodybuilding in a five-year span.

You think you can foresee the 2007 Olympia outcome? Here, we offer four of many possible scenarios, each a reporter’s-eye vision of what may pass in that conclusive moment when the contenders are whittled down to the last man standing. Whether this fiction will turn to fact is anyone’s guess, as the only fact we’re truly sure of is one thing: this year’s Olympia is perhaps the most unpredictable ever.

SCENARIO #1: A DYNASTY IS BORN
For those who thought Jay Cutler had his second title in the bag before he even stepped out on the Orleans Arena stage, it wasn’t supposed to end like this. It wasn’t supposed to be this close, with multiple callouts throwing the prejudging into a morass, as fans and competitors alike retreated and ruminated on the possible outcomes of the show.

Sure, everyone knew Jay Cutler would be this good. It’s not like many of them didn’t see Cutler about a million times before yesterday’s prejudging, mingling with him as he passed through the Orleans Hotel lobby, or spotting him as he made a surprising impromptu appearance at the expo, or checking out the photos of him stripped down to his posing trunks and dialed in, snapshots that had been surreptitiously posted online and disseminated voraciously across the spectrum of bodybuilding Web sites hours before the contest began.

Even before he won last year’s Mr. Olympia, Cutler was the hardest-working man in bodybuilding. For the past three or four years, he has scheduled appearance on top of appearance, putting in enough frequentflyer miles to earn a load of free trips to Bali or Antigua or Belize or some other exotic place that ends in a vowel. And, of course, at every appearance someone, or more accurately everyone, takes a digital photo or 20. And, of course, there’s the Internet. At every appearance this past year, be it a guest posing or an autograph signing, the guy looked good. Real good. So good that you thought to yourself, Now that’s what a Mr. Olympia should look like.

So as the shimmering heat of September 29 softens into a cool Las Vegas evening, Iron Jay is standing on the Orleans Arena stage, hands on hips, eyes glancing up at who-knows-what in the rafters, and he looks like Mr. O. Amazing, really. Better than 2006 in the legs, arms and even his already astonishing back. But that’s no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is how good the guy to his left looks — the guy who stood side-by-side with him in callout after callout, who pulled off one of the most amazing posing routines in Olympia history for good measure about an hour ago, and who is defying every single one of his critics who came out of the woodwork in the past year like ash from a forest fire.

It’s not that he was expected to place out of the money, mind you. After all, he’s still, even at 43 years old, eight-time Mr. O Ronnie freakin’ Coleman. Which is to say, arguably the best bodybuilder who has ever lived. But over the course of the year since Cutler dethroned him, Coleman’s stock dropped a lot. He appeared more beatable than ever, thanks to the visual aids provided by all those guys with the digital cameras and the Net.

But really, even before last year’s O, it appeared he did something bad to his left triceps and left lat. They were smaller than their right counterparts and everyone saw it, even as the man himself countered all those nagging injury questions with a dismissive “Nah” over and again until he was blue in the face.

Yet here he was, standing beside Jay Cutler for the sixth time, statue-still, waiting for emcee Bob Cicherillo to end the suspense and say the damn name (for the love of Christ) of the 2007 Mr. Olympia winner already.

And he’s here because somehow, some way — maybe with the help of Jesus Christ himself, in whom he believes steadfastly and devoutly — Ronnie Coleman looks the best he’s looked since 2003, which is to say, better than every other bodybuilder on the planet, by a long shot. Except for Jay Cutler. Maybe he’s a little better than Cutler . . . but maybe not, because Cutler looks extremely good.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I will now present to you your 2007 Mr.Olympia . . . ” Cicherillo is milking it big time. Last year, it was his baritone that informed the bodybuilding world that Cutler was the first new Mr. O since 1998 — when Coleman took home Sandow number one to start his collection. Even today, he’s still jazzed about being the guy who made “the call.”

Talk about suspense. You know those times when it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop? Well, those times are deafening compared to now. Cicherillo cranes his neck to catch a glimpse of the faces of the two guys center stage, the better to capture the effect of what he’s about to say. He leans into the mic and draws a breath.

“JAY CUTLER!”

With Cutler, you pretty much never know what’s up: whether he’s happy, contemplative or depressed, it all looks the same. But right now Cutler is smiling a big smile, and Coleman is not. Because right now, Cutler is the reigning two-time Mr. Olympia, and Coleman is a 43-year-old former eight-time Mr. O who did himself proud by looking the best he could, despite the rumored injuries, despite his age, and despite the fact that no one has ever reclaimed an Olympia title after being defeated. Ever.

Well, perhaps “ever” for now . . . but if Coleman looks this good at this age, there’s no telling how good he could still look at 44. Uneasy will be the head that wears the crown, as tellingly, a rare emotion spreads across Cutler’s face: utter relief.
— Shawn Perine

SCENARIO #2: TO THE VICTOR GO THE SPOILS
For the past five years, the Olympia has been, for all intents and purposes, a twohorse race. It was widely believed that this year would be more of the same.

Apparently Victor Martinez had other plans.

With a stunning combination of size, shape and conditioning, Martinez left not one, but two former champions in his wake on his way to winning the 2007 Mr. Olympia in front of a recordbreaking crowd at Orleans Arena on Saturday night.

“I can’t believe it,” said an elated Martinez, who stepped onstage in his best condition ever at a crisp 262 pounds. “I can’t believe I finally did it. I’m shocked. I’ve been dreaming about this for 17 years. How do you like me now, Las Vegas?”

As ridiculous as it now sounds — after winning the two biggest contests on the planet, the Olympia and the Arnold Classic, in the same year — Martinez was once considered an underachiever, a competitor with monumental talent but one who was incapable of fulfilling his enormous potential. Now, Martinez has forever shaken free of that label, as winning the Sandow caps his impressive climb up the bodybuilding ranks.

“This was a great year,” said the 34-year-old Martinez. “Winning the Arnold, and now, the Olympia — I have to try to top it in 2008.”

Martinez’s win did not come without controversy. As usual, Jay Cutler was at the center of the storm. Cutler, the defending champion, who took the stage at his all-time heaviest weight of 280 pounds, was the most massive competitor in the show, historically a recipe for success in the eyes of the Olympia judges. He had improved in almost every area since his win last year, and clearly possessed the most impressive legs and back in the show. It wasn’t enough, however; a combination of symmetry and conditioning ruled this day.

At the end of the night, three points separated Martinez and Cutler, marking the second time Cutler has come up short at the O by that small a margin. In 2004, the third of his four runner-up finishes, Cutler lost to Ronnie Coleman by the same margin. Moments before the announcement was made, the two athletes were a study in contrast — Cutler with his hands on his hips, chin lifted high, staring out confidently at everyone and no one in the crowd; Martinez, hands hanging at his sides, head tilted down, eyes closed. And when it came, before the reality of what they had just witnessed had yet to set in, every single person in the crowd reacted the same as the two men standing side-by-side in front of them: with utter disbelief.

“Same song, different day,” a disappointed Cutler said. “I brought [the judges] what they wanted, or at least what I thought they wanted. I know I was better than last year. But this is Victor’s night, so I don’t want to take anything away from him. But I’ll be back, and I’ll be better. I’m used to being the underdog.”

Whether the man who predicted this day would come for Martinez can say the same concerning his plans for next year is up for debate. Coleman, the eight-time champion, was once again denied in his quest for a record-breaking ninth Sandow. This time, however, it was four men, not one, who stood in his way. Last year’s runner-up, Coleman dropped to fifth at the contest, behind Martinez, Cutler, Toney Freeman (third) and Gustavo Badell (fourth). Despite entering the show at 265 pounds and in much better condition than last year, Coleman’s much-scrutinized injuries — specifically his left lat and his left triceps — were too much for the 43-year-old to overcome, proving that time does, indeed, catch up to us all. Even eight-time Olympia champions.
— Allan Donnelly

SCENARIO #3 TURNABOUT
Sentiment but little else — certainly not support — greeted the introduction of Ronnie Coleman for what the world assumed would be his merciful final curtain on the Mr. Olympia stage, on September 28-29, 2007. The lion of winter, they thought, would make his token appearance and go gently into a history that doesn’t exist for most of his competitors. It ceased the moment they were born and was superseded by a virtual reality that rejects Coleman’s anachronisms. Gone are the days when a bodybuilder had to buy his success with blood. Technology has asserted its potential to destroy bodybuilding by reducing the bodybuilder to another witless cog in a machine that does all of his work for him. Coleman and his big-as-Texas lifting don’t belong in the new century.

But neither do pretty little aesthetes with their candy-ass cuts, nor cadaverous valetudinarians who prepare their meals with blenders and gram-scales instead of an outdoor grill, belong on the top of Mount Olympus. Drop Ronnie Coleman into their midst, as happened here at the 2007 Mr. Olympia, and they dissolve in the shadow of his presence. This is the quintessential muscle show, and, as someone once observed, “You don’t go to a Luciano Pavarotti concert to hear him hum.”

For the past two years, Jay Cutler has been a worthy successor to Coleman by grabbing the baton of Coleman’s free-weight work ethic. In 2006, Cutler deserved this title, but only because of Coleman’s complacency.

“This year,” says Coleman, “I did not take my usual three-month break, and I cut way down on my travel.” That gave him more consistency and focus to revindicate himself. Cutler, consigned to second this time, is well on his way and closing the gap, but Coleman’s superstructure exhibits a longer pedigree of toil, and no amount of Generation Next alchemy can make up for that.

Rising bigger than life from his traditional victory collapse, Coleman, the 2007 Mr. Olympia, made his way to the front of the stage. Then, as the cheers for the winner died, words would not come; only memories from 30 years of training beyond the capacity of any man in history, and nine Mr. Olympia titles. Tears filled his eyes, but they were tears that only an old man can cry. A young man’s tears are from dreams unattained, but Coleman’s were from wistfulness of the heart. He stood in the silence — the deafening silence of an audience in awe — then bowed his head, raised his hand in victory to thank the crowd, and walked offstage into the end of history.
— Julian Schmidt

SCENARIO #4 X-TREME SHOCKER
It’s like he was shot. It’s like we all were — the jarring impact, the unsettling yet exhilarating sense that anything is possible because this happened. But we’re still standing, some of us cheering, some of us booing, most of us just transfixed, waiting for him to rise. He fell to the center of the stage and hasn’t moved.

Standing near him, hands on hips, glowering at no one, is Jay Cutler, the man whose reign was cut short after one year. At 284, 10 pounds heavier than 2006, but no better for the addition, his muscles looked hazy, separated but not striated. In the end, he was runner-up as he faded next to the gracile waistlines of the men deemed first and third.

“I guess I should be used to this,” Cutler surmised, wearing the Olympia silver medal for a record fifth time. “I never get used to it, though. Second sucks.”

Second sucks for Cutler, but Melvin Anthony was ecstatic to be third, even though he missed the silver medal by a single point. The Marvelous One was in the shape of his life at 246 — a lowercase x next to the victorious capital X, and manifesting more details than an insurance policy. The same couldn’t be said of Ronnie Coleman, who, at 282, was 15 pounds lighter than last year but still failed to uncover the crispness he displayed in abundance when at his best. Coleman is only two years older than the new Mr. O, but time stops for no man, including the greatest bodybuilder who ever lived.

Perhaps time paused for Toney Freeman. It seemed like it as we waited for the 12th Mr. Olympia to rise from his “stage dive” — the knee-crippling emotion overload which was once an annual rite for Coleman. When the 41-year-old finally stood, cheers drowned out the jeers. The X-man’s thickening over the past two years has been like trading in an old Mazda for a new Maserati, and this weekend his chest, back and delts resembled mounds of soda straws. His dramatic leapfrogging from seventh in last year’s O to king of the bodybuilding world mirrors Coleman’s vault from ninth in ’97 to first in ’98. Last year was the first time Freeman even qualified for the Olympia, although he first posed on a stage 18 years ago.

“I never stopped believing,” the new Mr. O proclaimed. “I thought it might take another year, but I knew when I came in at 300, shredded with a 31-inch waist, no one could hang with me. I got there, and thank God the judges saw it my way. I’ve been at this game a long time, but I never lost hope. I always kept dreaming.” He paused to gaze at the Sandow he clutched, as if to be certain it wouldn’t vanish with the shriek of a snooze alarm. “I’m living the dream now.”
— Greg Merritt

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