In 1970, Arnold Schwarzenegger shocked the bodybuilding world when he defeated then-Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva in that year’s Mr. World contest in Columbus, OH. Promoter Jim Lorimer congratulated the new champion who would go on to win that year’s Mr. Olympia title. Shortly after his first of seven O wins, Schwarzenegger offered to partner with Lorimer after his onstage career was over.
In 1989, that then-handshake agreement evolved into the now-famous Arnold Sports Festival — which now hosts the Arnold Classic bodybuilding contest, a strongman show (the Arnold Strongman Classic), and many other sporting events along with a fan expo. There are also international versions of the ASF, held in countries such as Australia, Brazil, Spain, South Africa, and soon the UK.
The Arnold Classic USA has been held in Columbus, OH every year since its inception. The AC is lauded as one of the most prestigious contests on the bodybuilding schedule, only behind the Olympia. Winning the Arnold Classic title catapults bodybuilders to the elite level of the sport. Many of the greatest bodybuilders in history have their names on the list of champions of this event.
Below, BarBend has compiled a list of the podium finishers from each year the Arnold Classic was held.
The inaugural Arnold Classic received a lot of attention, even without the participation of then Mr. Olympia Lee Haney. The contest was broadcast on NBC with Schwarzenegger himself serving on commentary. The inaugural champion was Rich Gaspari, who is considered by many to be one of the most competitive bodybuilders of his era, behind Haney and alongside Lee Labrada.
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The 1990 Arnold Classic was controversial. Shawn Ray — a perennial contender during his time — won, but he was stripped of the title after failing a drug test. Runner-up Mike Ashley was named the champion as a result of Ray’s disqualification. Every other competitor moved up one place as well.
With extra motivation going into 1991, Ray returned to Columbus to dominate the lineup and capture the title. This one stays in the record books. Renel Janvier took second with rising star Vince Taylor rounding out the top three.
Vince Taylor had won the Iron Man Pro the week before the Arnold Classic, and he looked even more impressive in Columbus. He was victorious over runner-up Mohammad Benaziza, who was in his final season as a competitor. The late Sonny Schmidt took third in this contest. Taylor went on to win the Pittsburgh Pro not long after. He finished the season with a sixth-place finish at that year’s Mr. Olympia.
Up to this point, Flex Wheeler may have had the greatest rookie season in bodybuilding history. He made his pro debut at the 1993 Iron Man Pro and won. He then rolled into Ohio and shocked the world by beating the defending champion as well as the other favorite, Lee Labrada. Wheeler would go on to win a total of four shows throughout the 1993 season and place second to Dorian Yates in the Olympia.
Kevin Levrone was another superstar from the 1990s, and 1994 may be his best season. He won four shows including the Arnold Classic that year. Taylor finished in second place, his fourth straight year in the top three. Longtime competitor Porter Cottrell took the bronze position.
In spite of the Arnold Classic being held in Columbus, OH, it took six years for a hometown athlete to win it. 1995 was the year for Columbus native Mike Francois. Not only did he win the title, but he upset Wheeler, who was considered the overwhelming favorite. Francois went on to win the San Jose Pro Invitational as well before placing seventh at the Olympia that same year.
This contest featured four past champions — Levrone, Wheeler, Taylor, and Ray. Up to this point, no one had won the Arnold Classic twice, but the Maryland Muscle Machine made history in 1996. Wheeler took the silver position for the second straight season with Canada’s Paul Dillett rounding out the top three.
Wheeler went three for three in 1997, taking the victory in every contest he entered that season. The most notable was his second career Arnold Classic title. It wasn’t easy for him to clinch the victory because Nasser El Sonbaty was large and conditioned. Wheeler’s symmetry and posing are what swayed the judges to his side. 1995 champion Francois would finish in third place.
Wheeler wasn’t the first two-time winner, but he did become the first three-time champion in 1998. He was also the first competitor to successfully defend the title. El Sonbaty once again finished as the runner-up with former champion Vince Taylor taking the third position.
After two years as the runner-up, El Sonbaty finally secured the Arnold Classic title and returned to Egypt as the champion. This was his only win that season and the final victory of his career. Levrone and rising star Chris Cormier completed the top three.
When Flex Wheeler was presented the Arnold Classic trophy, Schwarzenegger referred to him as one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. This was his fourth and final time in the victory position in Columbus. Chris Cormier finished as the runner-up, a position that he’d soon become quite familiar with. Levrone takes third here but went on to take second at the Olympia to champion Ronnie Coleman.
2001 is the only year so far that the reigning Mr. Olympia entered the Arnold Classic. Ronnie Coleman showed up to add bodybuilding’s other major title to his long list of accolades. He would leave with the first-place trophy as well as the Hummer that was given away that year. Cormier took second and Dennis “The Menace” James finished in third place. Coleman competing at the AC was considered a mistake later on as he barely hung on to his Olympia title that year in a controversial decision over Jay Cutler.
After Jay Cutler came so close to winning the Olympia in 2001, he was on a mission to establish himself as the next great champion. That began in 2002 by winning the Arnold Classic. He would go on to win it two more years in a row — making him the only man to win it three straight times.
After his final victory in 2004, he shifted his focus to competing in the Olympia only, which he finally won in 2006. Cormier finished as the runner-up all three years to Cutler.
It took Dexter Jackson seven years to win the Arnold Classic. 2005 was finally the year for the Jacksonville, FL native. He took the 2006 title as well after skipping the 2005 Olympia. Unfortunately for Chris Cormier, it would be the sixth straight year of placing as the runner-up, and his final year competing at the Arnold Classic. While he never won the title, his six second-place finishes are worthy of respect.
Jackson had hoped to match Cutler’s run of three straight Arnold titles, but Victor Martinez derailed those plans by pulling off the upset in 2007. Toney Freeman would take third place in this contest. Martinez then followed that up by placing second in the Mr. Olympia to Cutler. Many fans thought Martinez deserved the Sandow that year.
2008 was a great year for “The Blade”. He won five contests that year including the Arnold Classic over a two new young up-and-comers — Phil Heath and Kai Greene. He then showed up in the shape of his life to upset Cutler in winning the Mr. Olympia.
In 2009, Martinez was considered the favorite to claim the Arnold Classic after he returned from a leg injury. However, Greene made incredible improvements over the course of one year and left Columbus with the title instead. Greene then defeated Heath in his final Arnold Classic appearance to date to win the title again. Branch Warren placed third in both contests.
After two straight years of placing third, Warren would take the title for himself the following two years. His 2012 victory was one to remember because he had returned from a quadriceps injury that kept him out of the 2011 Olympia. The six-month journey that Warren put himself through to win that second straight Arnold Classic is one that fans are inspired by to this day.
Many insiders wrote off Jackson at this stage of his career, but the 44-year-old was in the midst of a second wave. His 2013 Arnold Classic victory was his fourth Arnold title, which tied him with Flex Wheeler for the most ever. Ben Pakulski and Toney Freeman rounded out the top three finishers in this contest.
Dennis Wolf had been competing as a pro for eight years at this point in his career. Many considered him as the best to never win a big show. He put that stigma to bed by defeating Shawn Rhoden and Cedric McMillan to win the 2014 edition of the AC.
This was by far the best Wolf has ever looked in his career, which ended in 2018. Wolf went on to place fourth in that year’s Olympia, behind Heath, Greene, and Rhoden, who made up the top three in that same order.
Jackson won 29 pro shows from 1999 to 2020. The 2015 Arnold Classic victory put him solely in first place for most Arnold Classic wins ever with five. Many fans and athletes call him the greatest Arnold Classic champ in history. He went on to finish in second place at the Olympia that year to champion Phil Heath — in his late 40s.
After a controversial absence from the 2015 Olympia, Greene returned to the Arnold and was able to take his third career title. He would also win the Arnold shows in South America and Africa that year. He once again missed that year’s Olympia, and he hasn’t competed since.
Fans rallied behind McMillan with hopes of seeing him finally take the title in Columbus. 2017 was the year it happened, and he capped it off with a memorable celebration. He got Schwarzenegger himself to perform a couple of poses. Then he took part in a live Snapchat post onstage afterward. The late Dallas McCarver took second place in this contest, and Maxx Charles came in third.
William Bonac had competed on Arnold stages internationally, but 2018 was his first appearance in the Arnold Classic USA. He made the most of it as well by winning in his debut on that stage. The last man to accomplish that feat was Francois in 1995. Bonac beat two former champions (Jackson and McMillan) as well in that year’s contest.
After placing fifth at the 2018 Olympia, many felt that Brandon Curry would be the next star to rise in the ranks. He wasn’t very patient and dominated bodybuilding in 2019. He beat Bonac to become the 18th Arnold Classic winner, he did it again six months later to become the 15th winner of the Mr. Olympia.
With the sour taste of second place in his mouth, Bonac returned to Columbus to reclaim the Arnold Classic title he lost one year prior. Just like in 2018, he had to defeat Jackson to make it happen. This would be Jackson’s final Arnold appearance, and it made him the first competitor to compete in this contest in four different decades. Many fans remember this contest, but it wasn’t because of the winner or the runner-up. Last year’s Arnold Classic was one of the first major events to be altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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The Arnold Classic usually takes place in March, but it will be held on Sept. 25, 2021 The delay is to ensure that fans and athletes can take part in the contest safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The prestige of the title remains the same, and the contenders that will be onstage hope to derail Bonac’s effort to become the fifth man to earn at least three Arnold Classic titles. Time will tell if Bonac can win again, or if a new champion will be crowned.
Featured Images (from left to right): @arnoldsports on Instagram (Gaspari and Jackson); Photo by Will Wittmann
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