TOP-DOG THIGHS

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Amidst brambly weeds in the sweltering Texas heat is a kennel, and in the lead pen -- reinforced with steel bars so the occupant can’t tear through the chain-link door and kill one of its coworkers again -- is a pit bull named Max.

Max is the “muscle” that delivers the crippling bites when he and his expertly trained kennel mates hunt wild boars in the dark. On all but the hottest nights, the dogs wear Kevlar, and even then the tusks of a 400-pound razorback can end a dog’s days.

Max has bucked the odds and thrived as the leader of the pack for more than seven years. Despite all challengers, so has the man who toils just a few feet away, on the other side of a crumbling gym wall: bodybuilding’s undisputed top dog, Ronnie Coleman.

GETTING SMALL | It’s 98 degrees and exactly four weeks before the 2005 Mr. Olympia when photographer Kevin “Hardcore” Horton and I cruise down the craggy lane, past auto repair garages and junked autos, to MetroFlex Gym. “Home again,” Horton exhales. We love this place! We’re in Arlington, at the country’s most hardcore gym, where the world’s top bodybuilder trains alone. This is what I journeyed halfway across the country and Englishman Horton journeyed halfway across the world to capture. This is what bodybuilding is all about.

Max, his canine cohorts and MetroFlex belong to Brian Dobson, who carries only a spear and a knife on boar hunts and typically hikes 15 miles through rugged woods in the dark.

If you ask whether Mr. Olympia ever joins in, Coleman’s quick answer is “Hell no,” and the three best reasons are long hike, rugged woods and dark -- factors that led to Dobson blowing out a knee.

Despite using prodigious weights, a significant part of 41-year-old Coleman’s success is the fact that he has never suffered a serious injury.

Before he begins his leg workout, Mr. O spends no time stretching or repping out light leg extensions. Instead, he strides to the squat supports and searches for a barbell. After a warm-up set with 135 pounds, he pronounces, “That ain’t the right one,” and begins the search anew.

Having found a barbell without much bend, Robert Lee slides two plates on each side. Lee (who placed fourth in the bantamweight division at the 2004 Nationals) trains in the morning, but he returns in the afternoon to load weights for his good friend.

Catch the rest of this rousing Ronnie Coleman experience in the January 2006 issue of FLEX available on newsstands.

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