by Christian Duque
When Arnold Schwarzenegger awards 8x Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman the Lifetime Achievement award at the contest bearing his name, it’s enough to give any bodybuilding fan goosebumps. We often talk about growing the sport of bodybuilding, what it takes to make the sport a household name, and what being a good ambassador is all about. To a certain extent, a lot of that is, simply, lip service. There’s really no litmus test to verify what grows the sport and what doesn’t, but ultimately whenever the fans are happy, that’s usually a great sign. Happy fans tend to share the sport on their platforms and that’s where I’d say the sport really reaches more people.
It’s one thing to talk muscle on bodybuilding platforms, but when the fans are engaged, they tend to post about it on their day to day platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitch, Pinterest, and even LinkedIn). While everyone loves to follow the new stars in the sport, there’s a certain something about the legends of yesteryear that exceed all expectations. Whether you’re talking Arnold, Lee Haney, Dorian or Ronnie, these larger-than-life champions have a nostalgia effect that’s hard to beat.
For many, the past takes on elements that are far greater than just the physiques. Seeing Ronnie back in the spotlight is like hearing a song or watching a movie from back in the day. Where were you in 1998, 2002 or 2005? Maybe that was a time when you knew little about the sport, maybe you were in college, or maybe that’s when you got your first autograph. I don’t know about you, but whenever I think back to the days when Ronnie dominated the sport, it brings back great memories. I remember racing to the newsstands to buy FLEX, Muscular Development, and Muscle Mag. I remember buying DVD’s, wondering if I’d ever go a to Mr. Olympia, and in a very bizarre way, believing that some of the biggest guys in the sport, could actually be natural. That naivety, today, is priceless. I know so much more, but at the same time, I miss those days because they were what sparked my interest in bodybuilding – both on a personal level, but as a fan of the sport, itself.
When folks call Ronnie Coleman the G.O.A.T. (the Greatest Of All Time), they’re putting a lot of respect on his name. Those who refer to him as such run the gamut. You have the general masses, perhaps the most ironclad fans in the world. They come in various ages, from countries all over the world, some understand the sport but most just love the muscle. You have media, companies, and even those who claim to dislike the look, but who are obsessed with following the sport.
Back when Ronnie reigned supreme, YouTube wasn’t even a thing. Facebook wasn’t around, either. There were message boards, there was Myspace, but really there wasn’t much. The first few glimpses I got of The Big Nasty, aside from the magazines, were the DVD’s that John Baab would play at Gainesville Gym in Gainesville, FL. This was one of the last hardcore gyms in Florida, where only real bodybuilders would train in.
I still remember when people would ask where I trained and I’d tell them. Most thought I meant Gainesville Health and Fitness, the fancy health club where all the posers barely broke a sweat. Every time I had to clarify that I, actually, trained at Gainesville Gym, they’d look at me like the mere mention of this hole in the wall gym would give them a staph infection. But that was the gym to be in, if you wanted to get jacked, and that’s the gym where John would put in bodybuilding DVDs all throughout. Whether you it was Dorian, Ronnie, or Nasser – in that gym – it was all about the legends. I remember looking up, nearly dumbfounded when I saw Coleman take to the stage. He was huge, ripped, and did real battle. Whether it was the press conference, the prejudging, or the night show, King Ronnie didn’t give a f*ck. If you called him out, he was going to fight. That’s something missing from the sport, today. Nowadays, guys flex on social media, but they’d never have the stones to drop their pants and take off their shirts and pose down, front and center, in a press conference setting.
And who can forget the training? No one – I mean NO ONE – trained like Ronnie. From crazy squats, to crazy pulls, to some pretty wicked bench presses, The Big Nasty would bury everyone. There was also no distinction between prep and the off-season, for him.
For a lot of guys, going heavy or going home was reserved only for when they were bloated and fat. Very few guys would push it to the limit on limited calories and nearing the stage. Coleman wasn’t about all that. He’d squat 800lbs at any part of the prep and anyone who called him out, had to put up or shut up. Ronnie wasn’t going to let anything fly. If Johnny Jackson wanted to market himself as the World’s Strongest Bodybuilder, then he’d have to back that talk up. The same was the case with Ben White. Ronnie had nothing to prove and he certainly didn’t have to train the way he did to ensure victory, but the guy was very much a powerlifter at heart.
While guys like Mike O’Hearn may have championed the concept of power-building, Ronnie was the guy who put it on the map before anyone even knew what it was. Seeing The Big Nasty train hard, eat big, and win every title on Earth, was fantastic, but to see him drop to his knees when the MC announced him the winner, spoke to a level of humility that’s also lost upon many of us, today.
Whether you believe in God or not, isn’t really the point. Of course, Ronnie lived for God and that was self-evident, from giving thanks before every meal to the way he lived his life. He was a diehard fan of Lee Haney, who in many ways, I believe, laid the foundations for what Coleman would go on to do. And while everyone always includes the Lord in their thank you’s, none that I ever recalled, literally dropped to their knees in fellowship. I’ll be honest, though, at the time I didn’t quite get it. Was he being rude to his runner-ups, was he doing wrong by not shaking hands with the others in the Top 5 or giving the fans their accolades? No, he was thanking the most important force in his life.
And he didn’t drop to his knees for a second or two, when he dropped to his knees, he was down there for a while. Everyone had to wait, whether you were the promoter of the event, the head of the federation, the press – it did not matter. God came first and God was shown the best appreciation. Despite all the many wins, all the material wealth, and all the accolades, Ronnie never shortchanged his Savior. The fact is, it’s about faith, and you don’t have to be a believer so appreciate that.
Most people only pray when they need something; it’s rare to see someone pray and give thanks when they have everything they could ever want in life. That faith was unshakeable. It was there when he was winning, it was there when he took 2nd, and it was there long after his retirement. Coleman’s faith is pure and that, too, makes him part of a class all his own.
In addition to the fans, he’s given the respect by his contemporaries. The guys he beat don’t have sour grapes, today, rather, they celebrate the fact they could stand toe to toe with him. Whether it’s Shawn Ray, Kevin Levrone, or even the Sultan of Symmetry, Flex Wheeler, they’re all gracious in defeat and they all say Ronnie was simply unbeatable. He was that good. And when you look at the one guy who would eventually beat him, the one and only Jay Cutler, you see a guy who’s one of the biggest Coleman fans ever. Although, by the time Jay finally edged out The Big Nasty, age had already worn him down, Cutler still had to fight tooth and nail to win. And once he wrestled the title away, a lot of the fun was gone. Once Ronnie retired, the sport stopped being as much fun for Jay. The truth is, Ronnie represents so much more than just a great champion.
This is why, seeing one legend (in Arnold) recognizing another legend (in Ronnie), makes this Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2021 Arnold Classic so very special. I hope everyone gets an opportunity to watch Ronnie’s acceptance speech and really takes it in.
Again, I can’t tell you with utmost certainty what grows and what doesn’t grow bodybuilding, but this award certainly struck a chord with me, and I suspect with every bodybuilding fan that’s become aware of it. Job well done, Arnold! Congratulations, Ronnie!