We love our underdogs. Especially when they become heroes.
For as long as there have been champions, there have always been an underdogs. That one person nipping at the heels of an athlete who always finds a way to slightly one up his opponent. People latch onto underdogs like bodybuilders latch onto protein – and why the hell not? It’s provides such close and intense competition that it pulls us to the edge of our seats.
It often makes for a fantastic story, especially when the underdog finally pulls ahead and earns victory. It’s filled in books, movies, and sports. Bodybuilding is no different. Let’s take a look at the most engaging and exciting underdogs to come out of bodybuilding – and which ones eventually found redemption.
In an alternate reality, Rich Gaspari would have been an Olympia champion. Probably 3x winning champion actually. But he had the luck of being born and entering bodybuilding at a time when one man dominated all – Lee Haney.
The year that Haney won his first Mr. Olympia, many people considered him invincible. But the very next year Gaspari showed up – gigantic, ripped, and with better legs. Could he beat Lee Haney? In the end, no. But for four straight years he pushed Haney to the limit – placing third in 1985 and then second from 1986 to 1988. Always right behind Haney. Always just in reach of the Sandow trophy.
The nickname Dragon Slayer always fit Gaspari well. He was very small to the comparatively tall Lee Haney. Unfortunately, he was never able to defeat the dragon in the end.
Lou Ferrigno may not have had a long history of being an underdog – but he had it where it counts. He was the subject of the film Pumping Iron and put up against the great Arnold Schwarzenegger for that year’s Mr. Olympia.
While Ferrigno ended up not posing much of a threat to Arnold, he did have all the makings of a great underdog story. Though a talented bodybuilder in his own right, bodybuilding never gave him much money to survive. He had to work as a steel metal worker in Brooklyn; a very dangerous job with very little pay.
With Arnold filling the role of a cocky and powerful Mr. Olympia champion – the film just begs for Ferrigno to defeat the titan that is Schwarzenegger. Of course, this did not happen – but Ferrigno found redemption in a different way. The popularity of the film led to him having a wonderful future as a celebrity (The Hulk being a highlight).
Flex Wheeler had all of the makings of a champion. In fact, he was a champion for many years – winning many bodybuilding competitions on the road to Mr. Olympia. His closest competitor was Ronnie Coleman and before Mr. Olympia hit, Flex beat out Coleman 11 competitions out of 12. Everything was in place – Flex was ready to win the Sandow.
But then Mr. Olympia happened and an amazing turn-around appeared. Coleman beat out Flex for the Mr. Olympia title. And as we all know, Coleman didn’t step down as Mr. Olympia for another seven championships.
Flex Wheeler is one of the best bodybuilders of all time but was never able to surpass Coleman. He came second to Coleman two times and then fell down to third against Coleman once. Flex never won a Mr. Olympia competition and never beat Coleman again.
Let’s fast forward to the present. Kai Greene has been the consistent underdog to Phil Heath for the past three years. The release of Generation Iron cemented that fact. A man with a troubled past who rose up to become one of the best and most respected bodybuilders of today is no easy feat – but there is one last piece of the puzzle missing. That last step. He has to win Mr. Olympia.
This would be the solidification of his rise from the ashes. A kid from the ghetto rising up and becoming Mr. Olympia. A hero. There’s just one thing standing in his way. One major thing: Phil Heath. Between their heated rivalry and clash of personality – Kai and Phil have provided fans with one of the most exciting underdog rivalries of all time.
Thousands want Kai to win but even more secretly know that Phil Heath will always somehow pull ahead. But who knows, perhaps 2015 will be different.
It may seem strange to see Jay Cutler on this list, but don’t be quick to forget that Cutler started out as a long lasting underdog. When he emerged on the scene and rose in size and popularity, he found himself stuck behind one thing: Ronnie Coleman.
For four competitions Jay Cutler fell second to Coleman. That’s four years of falling short of his dream. Four years of just earning victory and having to settle for defeat. Coleman was truly a master for sure, but if anyone had the size and muscularity to dethrone Coleman – Jay Cutler would be it.
And then finally in 2006, the other shoe dropped. Jay Cutler beat out Ronnie Coleman. The torch truly passed – as Cutler continued to reign as Mr. Olympia for four championships. An underdog who finally became a champion. The ultimate story that everyone wanted to see.