Johnnie Jackson and Branch Warren are the most celebrated training partners since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu. They brought their balls-to-the-wall iron battles to Dallas-area gyms, most frequently the Arlington Metroflex, driving each other to move ever more metal. But their greatest motivation wasn’t the will to equal or top each other; it was internal. “I enjoy training with Branch. It’s great to have another pro bodybuilder trading sets with me who trains as hard as I do. But, the truth is, I train just as hard when I’m by myself,” Jackson explained a decade ago. “I’m self-motivated, and I have goals I want to reach. That’s what’s important to me. You can accomplish anything in life as long as you have patience and heart and you’re willing to put in the work. I know it’s all about myself, anyway. Either get the work done or stand by the wayside and watch everyone pass you by.”
Jackson eventually passed almost everyone—in terms of longevity, even Warren. Year after year, as new pros came and went—some with great hopes and greater hype, most now forgotten— Jackson just kept going. Though he had only two pro titles before his 40th birthday, he won twice that many after then and competed 38 times. In 2017, at 46, he flexed in six contests, more than any of the 13 men who finished above him in the Mr. Olympia. He won twice, including the Arnold Classic South Africa, and according to Olympia judges, he was still the 14th best over-212 bodybuilder on the planet. With two titles, his last bodybuilding year was his best, and a fitting epilogue to a remarkable story.
“Since this was my last year, it’s definitely great that I won a couple of shows,” Jackson said at the 2017 Olympia, “because who would’ve thought that at this time in my life at this age that I’d be able to win a show. I feel good. It’s not like I can’t continue to compete. But I want to continue to feel good and be healthy and not wear myself out. And the struggle is getting harder and harder, and it’s taking a toll on my body. So it’s time for me to back out and enjoy life.”
That other Jackson, Dexter, plans to keep compeeting in 2018, and he is rightly celebrated for his ageless excellence. He owns a Sandow and a case full of Arnold trophies and records that only he breaks. But let’s consider one of those records: most IFBB Pro League contests. As of February 2018, Dexter has flexed in 83 open shows (and two master’s); Johnnie has flexed in 82. Though the latter Jackson made his pro debut three years after the former, he averaged more contests annually, and just as the tortoise outworked the hare, he nearly caught the 2008 Mr. Olympia at the finish line—Johnnie’s finish line; Dexter races on. (Both men just edged past the original ageless wonder, Albert Beckles, whose 81 open shows were a long-standing record.) As a frame of reference, Ronnie Coleman, often called the ultimate iron man, competed in 66 pro shows also over 16 years. Phil Heath has entered 19 in 12 years.
Two Jacksons who turned pro by winning overall titles as light-heavyweights a generation ago have competed in more professional bodybuilding contests than anyone in history, racking up almost the same tally, and both won Arnold Classic titles at 46. The less celebrated of the two deserves his due. Johnnie not only flexed more frequently but also competed, concurrently and successfully, as a powerlifter, thus proving, again and again, what he set out to show so long ago: Pound for pound, Johnnie Jackson is the strongest Mr. Olympia contestant of all time and bodybuilding’s ultimate iron man.
THE JACKSON FIVE
- LIFT BIG TO GET BIG. “GO AS HEAVY AS YOU CAN FOR 8 TO 10 REPS AND CONTINUALLY TRY TO GET MORE REPS OR USE MORE WEIGHT THAN THE TIME BEFORE.”
- MASTER THE POWERLIFTS. "DO DEADLIFTS ON BACK DAY, SQUATS ON LEG DAY, AND BENCH PRESSES ON CHEST DAY."
- BE CAUTIOUS. “I AVOIDED INJURIES BECAUSE I ALWAYS WARMED UP, AND I USUALLY STOPPED JUST SHORT OF FAILURE.”
- SELF-MOTIVATE. “EVEN IF YOU TRAIN WITH A PARTNER, STAY FOCUSED ON YOUR PERSONAL GOALS AT ALL TIMES.”
- SWITCH IT UP. "I DON'T DO THE SAME THING EVERY TIME. IF I DID, I'D GET BORED, AND MY INTENSITY WOULD SLACK. IT'S NEVER REGIMENTED."