by Geoff Roberts
Bodybuilding is one of the oldest sports in the world. When I say old, I am using that term strictly in regards to the ages of its top competitors. In 2016, bodybuilding’s second largest contest was won by a forty-five year old man, and later that same year, that forty-five year old man became the second best bodybuilder on the planet by placing second at the Mr. Olympia. The forty-five year old man I speak of is none other than Dexter Jackson, of course. In fact, of the top four finishers at bodybuilding’s largest and most prestigious contest last year, two of them were over thirty-five years old, one was forty-one years old, and then you had Dexter at forty-five. The prime age for a professional bodybuilder is his late thirties. In most professional sports, when an athlete hits his or her late thirties, that’s pretty much all she wrote.
This old age phenomenon allows our sport to see far more late bloomers than others. There are professional bodybuilders who did not start bodybuilding until they were in their late twenties. Good luck finding an NFL or NBA player who started the sport at twenty-six or twenty-seven. While the nature of bodybuilding does allow for competitors to be late bloomers, it does make you wonder what would have been if these successful late bloomers started the sport at a young age. In today’s professional bodybuilding landscape, there are three names that come to mind in any discussion of guys who got a very late start, but were exceptionally successful nonetheless: Toney Freeman, Ed Nunn and Shawn Rhoden.
To say that Toney Freeman got a late start into bodybuilding is really not true. The truth is, a pec tear took him out of the game when he was young, which forced him to make a late comeback after not even touching a weight for five years. Toney tore his pec in 1996 after placing in the top four at the NPC Nationals in both 1994 and 1995. It was not until 2001 that he was able to stumble upon a doctor who convinced him that the tear could be fixed, and the rest is history. Unfortunately for Toney, he was already thirty-five years old at that point, and it wasn’t until he was thirty-six years old in 2002 that he won his pro card. Despite winning his pro card in 2002, the buildup of rust from taking five years completely off from the bodybuilding lifestyle was not fully chipped away until 2006, at which time Toney started terrorizing the professional ranks. Since Toney’s breakout year in 2006, he has won several pro shows, placed top three at the Arnold Classic and even more impressively, top five at the Mr. Olympia in 2008, at forty-two years old.
Based on the fact that Toney was top four at the nationals two times in a row, along with his excessively obvious gifts for bodybuilding, it’s safe to say that he would probably have turned professional in 1997 or 1998 had he never been injured. In which case, without having to deal with the aftermath of his injury and resulting layoff, Toney could have been winning pro shows by 2000 at thirty-four, as opposed to 2006 at forty. In other words, this five year layoff essentially forced Toney to hit his prime five years later than most pros do. If Toney was able to become the fifth best bodybuilder on earth at his forced “prime” age of forty-two years old in a controversial fashion (many people had him third or better that year) what would he have done if his prime was five years earlier like the majority of other bodybuilders?
In my opinion, Ed Nunn is the greatest late bloomer “what if” of them all. While Ed may have started training at a fairly young age, he did not start taking bodybuilding seriously until he was thirty-six years old. Ed was just living the life of a normal working man, grinding away at a factory day in and day out in order to provide for his family. As any bodybuilder knows, there is a major difference between taking bodybuilding seriously and just messing around in the weight room. Ed “got serious” at thirty-six years old, then promptly won a pro show less than three years later at thirty-nine years old. Anyone who has seen Ed go toe to toe with the best bodybuilders in the world will tell you that he really only needs to improve on one aspect in order to be a force at the Arnold and Olympia. That aspect is front to back thickness on his upper body, something that usually comes with time, not surprisingly. Ed has a better X-Frame than even the X-Man himself, Toney Freeman, with massive sweeping quads, an impossibly small waist, and super wide shoulders. Ed also displays impeccable conditioning onstage.
I have said it before and I will say it again, had Ed Nunn started taking this sport seriously as a young man, no bodybuilder would be capable of beating him, and that includes Mr. Olympia Phil Heath. At 6’2” and 265 pounds, Ed Nunn looks “too small” onstage, and it is very obvious that he could easily be 285 with the same minuscule waist and shredded glutes. A scary thought for his competitors indeed. Many industry insiders have described Ed’s look as a young Ronnie Coleman, only taller. We all know what a destructive force the great Ronnie Coleman became when he managed to put on enough size to overtake guys like Kevin Levrone and Flex Wheeler. I see no reason as to why Ed Nunn couldn’t have been equally or even more successful than The Big Nasty himself, seeing as how Ed is a couple inches taller and certainly has a significantly better natural x-frame than Ronnie Coleman.
Shawn Rhoden has a similar story to Toney Freeman, as he was also a good amateur bodybuilder before quitting the sport completely for an extended period of time. The difference is that while Toneys layoff was due to an injury, Shawn’s was caused by sorrow and depression over his father’s death. Shawn placed second at the Team Universe back in 2001 when he was in his mid-twenties, displaying a very impressive physique that oozed with potential. The bodybuilding world would not see Shawn on a competitive stage for another eight long years. In 2009, after an eight year layoff from all weights and any kind of dieting, Shawn almost immediately won the overall at the North American Championships, which is a true testament to just how gifted this guy truly is. By 2011 Shawn was placing top three at pro shows, and one year later in 2012, he won several pro shows and became the third best bodybuilder on the planet. One can only imagine what would have been if Shawn had never taken that time off, but instead turned professional in his late twenties, as opposed to his mid-thirties.
So what do you think? How far would these guys have gone if they entered the game at a much younger age? Hypotheticals are fun, but you really never know. It is possible that getting a late start, or in the cases of Shawn and Toney, being forced to take an extended period of time off, helped these guys in some way. This idea seems backwards, however, it is hard to argue with the excessively successful careers of Toney “The X-Man” Freeman, Ed “Second To” Nunn and Shawn “Flexatron” Rhoden, no matter how their careers came to be.