In a previous article, we celebrated the 10 best bodybuilding rookies of all time, a list led by Flex Wheeler, who won the Arnold Classic and was Mr. Olympia runner-up in his first IFBB Pro League year. (Click here to see the top 10 rookies.) Wheeler and company were fast out of the gate and galloped on to legendary careers. But as in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, sometimes the slowest starters win the race.
Here we salute the turtles. Some on our list stumbled badly in their debuts but quickly recovered. Others languished in mediocrity for years. Those ranked highest both stumbled and languished but eventually contended for Sandows. Let these 10 turnaround tales stand as proof that it’s not about how you start, it’s about where you finish.
10. CHARLES CLAIRMONTE
PRO DEBUT: 1992 English Grand Prix, 17th
OLYMPIA BEST: 1993, 7th
Charles Clairmonte made a horrible first impression. In 1992, he was 17th out of 17 in the English Grand Prix. But no one in bodybuilding history has had a greater second year turnaround. In 1993, he qualified for the Olympia, where he finished an eye-opening seventh. Then, on the post-Olympia Euro Tour, he bested almost everyone who had beat him at the Olympia, including Flex Wheeler and Kevin Levrone. He won four out of the five contests he entered, including the English Grand Prix, where he had finished dead last 12 months prior. The 6′, 245-pound Englishman sported one of the most proportionate physiques of the era. He never won another pro show, but he stayed in contention for the next two years. Having recovered quickly from his embarrassing freshman year, Clairmonte remains pro bodybuilding’s most-improved sophomore.
9. ALBERT BECKLES
PRO DEBUT: 1975 Olympia, 3rd lightweight
OLYMPIA BEST: 1985, 2nd
Al Beckles had a mediocre pro debut. He was third (out of five) in the lightweight division of the 1975 Mr. Olympia. Then things went from not-so-good to just plain bad. He was at or near the bottom of that same lightweight O class in his next three attempts. The Barbados-born Brit was just another undersized pro trying to grow into better placings. It wasn’t working. But as the pro circuit expanded, Beckles began competing more and more (11 times in 1981), and he developed a new strategy. If he couldn’t win with mass, he would with cuts. Going high-def, he won his first pro contest in 1981, the year he turned 43. And he climbed the Olympia rankings, culminating in a runner-up finish in 1985. Beckles won his eighth and final pro title in 1991 at 53, making him the oldest victor of an open pro show. He holds a second record that may never be broken—85 pro contests. Those marks are worthy of celebration, as is the perseverance that allowed him to peak 10 years after his debut.
8. JAY CUTLER
PRO DEBUT: 1998 Night Of Champions, 12th
OLYMPIA BEST: 2006–7, 2009–10, 4-time winner
He’s now a four-time Mr. O, six-time Mr. O runner-up, and three-time Arnold Classic champ. He went 11 years and 25 contests (from 2000 to 2011) without finishing lower than second. Still, Jay Cutler stumbled out of the gate. After he turned pro on his first try at the 1996 NPC Nationals, he stayed of stages the next year, building anticipation for his pro debut in May 1998. But when the 24-year-old rookie was smooth at the Night Of Champions, he landed in 12th place. He racked up a third and a forth in the spring of 1999. But that autumn he was blurry again at his Olympia debut, and he nearly bottomed out—15th out of 16. It was the last “off contest” of Cutler’s legendary career. The next year he was eighth in the O and soon thereafter he began his 11-year streak of excellence.
7. DARREM CHARLES
PRO DEBUT: 1992 Night Of Champions, 11th
OLYMPIA BEST: 2003, 7th
Darrem Charles quietly collected a lot of pro titles, eight of them from 2002 to 2007. But there are two unique things about his long career. First, he wasn’t a contender in the most prestigious contests. In a combined 21 Olympia and Arnold Classic appearances, the Trinidadian never placed higher than seventh in the former and sixth in the latter. Second, it took him a long time to get noticed at all. When he made his pro debut in 1992, he finished 11th, three spots ahead of another debuting rookie, some guy named Ronnie Coleman. Because Charles was relatively slender, he was always prone to being overshadowed in lineups. He had superb arms and abs, but it was crisp conditioning and dramatic posing that eventually distinguished him. When Charles finally won his first title in 2002, it was his 10th year in the IFBB Pro League and his 30th professional contest. Persistence paid of.
6. MOHAMED MAKKAWY
PRO DEBUT: 1978 Professional World Cup, 7th (last)
OLYMPIA BEST: 1983–84, 2nd (twice)
Egypt’s Mohamed Makkawy is one of the best small bodybuilders of all time. He managed to be both densely developed and classically proportioned, a combination that helped him appear taller and heavier than 5’2″ and 160. Against all odds, he won six pro titles in 1982–83, and he finished second in the Mr. Olympia in 1983 and 1984. It wasn’t just his small stature Makkawy had to overcome. He also had a forgettable start. During his first four years in the pros, he was usually awful. In his initial 13 pro contests from 1978–81, his highest placing was fifth. Most of the time, he was last or near-last. But after he nailed his conditioning and finished seventh (out of 16) in the 1982 Mr. Olympia and won two Grand Prix contests just afterward, people noticed. Then he put it all together—proportionate mass, striking details, and masterful posing. The man dubbed “the Magic Egyptian” cast his spell over bodybuilding for the next two years.
5. GUNTER SCHLIERKAMP
PRO DEBUT: 1994 Olympia, DNP
OLYMPIA BEST: 2004, 4th
The contest career of German goliath Günter Schlierkamp is a testament to tenacity. For his first eight years in the Pro League, he was just another also-ran filling out lineups. He may have been 6’1″ with a cover model smile, but he lacked the density, shape, and cuts to impact rankings in the ’90s. He made only four posedowns in his first 29 contests. Five times he received special invites to compete in the Mr. Olympia. His first two, 1994 (his rookie year) and 1998, he didn’t even place. The next two, 2000 and 2001, he was 12th and 15th, respectively. Why bother, right? Which brings us to his fifth Mr. O, in 2002, his ninth pro year. Bigger and crisper, the Teuton finally fulfilled his immense potential. At first, the judges couldn’t believe their eyes. Although he was 10th in Round 1, he was third in the final two rounds. He finished fifth, although many in the riotously booing crowd thought he deserved first. Two weeks later, Schlierkamp defeated reigning Mr. O Ronnie Coleman in the Show of Strength. Günter-mania took hold. Schlierkamp never won again, but he also never slipped of the radar again. He made the Olympia top 10 the following four years.
4. KAI GREENE
PRO DEBUT: 2005 New York Pro, 14th
OLYMPIA BEST: 2012–13 2nd (twice)
Onder Adsay, Edson Prado, Miguel Filho, and Oliver Adzievski. What do those four little known bodybuilders have in common? They can all say they beat Kai Greene on a pro stage. Over the past two years only one person, Phil Heath, has topped the No. 2 bodybuilder in the world. But during Greene’s initial two pro years, 2005–06, 40 different bodybuilders defeated him in four contests. He was 14th in two of those contests, and he didn’t even place in the other two. That’s how it started. But Greene started to rewrite his story in 2007 when his curves and cuts caught up to his posing expertise. He won a contest he had been 14th in the year prior. And in 2008, he was first in another contest he had failed to even place in two years before. Over the six years since then, he’s established himself as one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. Just as Greene rose from hardship and poverty to fame and fortune, his pro career traveled a similar distance. As Drake raps, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.”
3. SAMIR BANNOUT
PRO DEBUT: 1979 Canada Pro, did not place
OLYMPIA BEST: 1983, winner
Samir Bannout had a curious career. In 49 pro contests over 16 years, he won only two. However, one of them was the 1983 Mr. Olympia. He had three good years, 1982–84, when his conditioning matched his aesthetic 5’7″ musculature, but otherwise he was almost always too bloated to make an impact. Aside from his good years, Bannout’s career had both an inauspicious first three years and a forgettable final seven years. He failed to place in his 1979 pro debut, and he was 15th out of 16 in his 1980 Olympia debut. No one then would’ve thought the mustachioed Lebanese could impact bodybuilding’s top rankings. But he did with his fourth at the 1982 Olympia. Then he nailed his conditioning at the 1983 O. Crisp and full, he was the clear winner (just ahead of fellow slow-starter Makkawy). Bannout’s career proves it’s sometimes not about where you start or even where you finish. It’s about the heights you reach along the way.
2. GUSTAVO BADELL
PRO DEBUT: 1998 German Grand Prix, 9th
OLYMPIA BEST: 2004–05, 3rd (twice)
No one in our countdown lingered near the bottom of score sheets longer than the Venezuelan. In his first six years in the IFBB Pro League, spanning 1998–2003, Badell competed in 17 contests. Nine times he either got punked with a DNP (did not place) or he placed lower than 15th (effectively a DNP). Only three times did he make a top 10. He had a thick and proportionate musculature, but he was almost always out of condition. The one time he was in shape, in 2002, he nabbed a third. That earned him a spot in the 2002 Olympia, where he placed 24th out of 25. Ouch!
The next year, he competed just once and was slapped with another DNP. At this point, almost everyone would’ve thrown in the towel. But Badell finally peaked consistently in the spring of 2004, making his way into two posedowns and finishing seventh in the Arnold Classic. Then, he delivered one of the all-time great shocks at the 2004 Olympia, when he made it into the top trinity. Badell repeated his Olympia third the next year. He cracked the Olympia top 10 three more times and racked up three pro titles in subsequent years. His basement-to-penthouse leap of 21 places from one Olympia appearance to the next is a most-improved record that will probably never be broken.
1. RONNIE COLEMAN
PRO DEBUT: 1992 Night Of Champions, 14th
OLYMPIA BEST: 1998–05, 8-time winner
Few even noticed Coleman in his rookie year of 1992. In his initial pair of pro contests, he finished 11th and 14th. Then, having qualified by his class win at the previous year’s World Amateur Championships, he entered the Olympia. While Dorian Yates earned his first of six Sandows, future eight-time-winner Coleman failed to even place. In those three 1992 contests, 28 different bodybuilders defeated him, including former bantamweights Allan Ichinose, Flavio Baccianini, and Steve Brisbois, all then competing at around 150 pounds. A dozen years later, Coleman would dominate at twice their body weights. In 1992, however, the Arlington, TX, cop had a pleasing shape and good arms, but his physique was smooth and shallow. His quads lacked sweep. He looked like an amateur.
As he filled out his 5’11” frame, Coleman’s placings in smaller contests improved over the following five years. He won three titles and was a posedown perennial. Still, the Olympia—that ultimate barometer of bodybuilding’s rankings—was an annual disappointment.
In his four O’s after his rookie year, he finished 15th, 11th, 6th, and 9th. That nine spot came in 1997, the year before he ascended to the throne. During his abysmal rookie year and his five subsequent journeyman years of modest success, no one suspected that he would eventually win more pro titles (26) than any bodybuilder who ever lived and overload his mantle with a record-tying eight Sandows. In our parable of tortoises beating hares, Ronnie Coleman is the ultimate tortoise.
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