The Arnold Classic bodybuilding contest is the brainchild of the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger and the late Jim Lorimer, who teamed up to create the competition in 1989. It has since evolved into Arnold Sports Festival (ASF), which is held every year in Columbus, OH, and now consists of a fan expo, 60-plus sporting events, and the equally prestigious Arnold Strongman Classic.
Today, the Arnold Classic is widely regarded as the most illustrious bodybuilding competition of the year behind only the Mr. Olympia. Over the course of 30-plus years, fans have been treated to no shortage of historic bodybuilding moments at the show, including the arrival of new stars and the redemption of veteran performers.
Below, we explore some of the most memorable performances at the Arnold Classic throughout the years. While divisions like Bikini, Pro Wheelchair, and Classic Physique all compete at the ASF today, this list focuses solely on the Men’s Open division, which is simply known as the Arnold Classic.
10 Memorable Arnold Classic Performances
- Rich Gaspari (1989)
- Flex Wheeler (1993)
- Ronnie Coleman (2001)
- Jay Cutler (2002)
- Dexter Jackson (2008)
- Kai Greene (2009)
- Branch Warren (2012)
- Dennis Wolf (2014)
- Brandon Curry (2019)
- Nick Walker (2021)
When the first Arnold Classic was held in ’89, athletes such as Robby Robinson, Samir Bannout, and Gary Strydom all jumped at the chance to be a part of bodybuilding history. But none of them would top Rich Gaspari that night.
Gaspari displayed his best conditioning ever, while still maintaining — and possibly exceeding — his size from previous shows, including the Mr. Olympia. His overall presentation was enough to top Robinson and Strydom, who took second and third, respectively.
Schwarzenegger presented him the first championship trophy in front of a sold-out Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Columbus, along with a national audience watching on NBC. This would actually be Gaspari’s final victory, but he transitioned into his next role well as the owner of Gaspari Nutrition.
By March 1993, six-time Mr. Olympia winner Dorian Yates was just a few months removed from his first Sandow trophy, and the Arnold Classic would give fans a glimpse at who could challenge him for the throne. Competitors like Lee Labrada and Vince Taylor were among the favorites at the 1993 Arnold Classic — then, Flex Wheeler showed up.
[Related: The 5 Best Inner Chest Exercises]
After winning his pro debut at the Iron Man Invitational just weeks earlier, Wheeler upset the field to win his first major title in the sport. A new star was born, and Wheeler would become known as an icon for his symmetry, posing, and overall stage presence. Though he never won the Olympia, Wheeler absolutely owned the Arnold Classic during his career, winning the show in 1993, 1994, 1997, and 1998.
From 1989 until 2001, no reigning Mr. Olympia had competed in the Arnold Classic — but Ronnie Coleman changed all of that when he competed at the show in March 2001. Less than six months after his third Olympia win, Coleman graced the stage in Columbus and was the leanest he had ever been, according to a report at the time from the late bodybuilding journalist Peter McGough.
[Related: The Best Pre-Workout Supplements]
McGough wrote that Coleman was 12 pounds lighter than he was at the 2000 Mr. Olympia, which many believe was one of “The King’s” weaker showings. His Arnold Classic conditioning made up for those deficiencies, and he easily took the title, beating out the likes of Chris Cormier and Dennis James.
In McGough’s recap of the show, he wrote:
“[When] Ronnie finished his seven mandatory poses (most muscular was not part of the set then) something happened that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before at a major contest. Namely, whole sections of the audience just got up and left as if they had just witnessed ‘Lights out’ and there was no need to hang around for the inevitable formalities of the prejudging.”
Though Coleman wowed audiences at the 2001 Arnold Classic, he almost lost his Mr. Olympia crown a few months later to a young Jay Cutler, who put on the performance of a lifetime at the Olympia.
With momentum on his side, Cutler jumped into the 2002 Arnold Classic and made it clear that his Olympia performance was no fluke. Cutler beat out Cormier and Dexter Jackson to take the title in 2002, bringing impeccable size and conditioning to the stage. While Cutler also won the Arnold the next two years, his performance in 2002 stands out as the moment he solidified himself as a force in the sport.
The stars seemed to align for the 2007 Arnold Classic champ, Victor Martinez, to repeat in 2008. He was coming off a close — and controversial — runner-up spot to Jay Cutler at the 2007 Mr. Olympia, and was looking to make a statement. While that sounds like the perfect redemption tale on paper, reality set in when Martinez suffered a knee injury while training and had to bow out of the contest.
This left the door open for another competitor to step up, and Dexter Jackson seized the moment.
Though Jackson had already won the Arnold in 2005 and 2006 by this point, his victory in ‘08 was far sweeter. Not only was it the first of five competition victories for Jackson that season, but he beat out both Phil Heath and Kai Greene to come out on top. This victory also set the stage for Jackson to ultimately shock the world and win the 2008 Mr. Olympia months later.
Jackson and Cutler both opted not to compete at the 2009 Arnold Classic, but Branch Warren, Toney Freeman, and a returning Martinez took the stage to headline an impressive lineup. However, none of them were ready for a young Kai Greene that night.
“The Predator” was one of the biggest and most well-conditioned athletes on the stage, and he performed a posing routine that no one could match. This win kicked off a memorable run for Greene that included victories at the Arnold in 2010 and 2016, along with three straight runner-up spots at the Olympia from 2012 to 2014.
Greene is now considered one of the best to have never won the Olympia, and he’s still revered for his presentations over a decade later.
The most inspiring victory in Arnold history might belong to Branch Warren. He won the 2011 contest and was poised to compete for the Mr. Olympia before suffering a quad tear just weeks before the show. Though the recovery process was long, Warren managed to heal up in time to defend his Arnold title in 2012. And he wasn’t just in good enough shape to compete — he was good enough to win.
[Related: 9 Behind-the-Scenes Facts About the Making of Pumping Iron]
Though Warren’s legs weren’t quite as big as they had been in the past, he more than held his own, walking on stage with his trademark grainy look that couldn’t be denied. It was enough to put Warren over the top and repeat as champion, beating out Dennis Wolf and Evan Centopani in the process.
By 2014, Dennis Wolf was gaining a reputation as one of the best competitors to never win a major contest. He placed second at the Arnold in both 2011 and 2012 and placed third at the 2013 Mr. Olympia. He needed a big-time win to change the narrative.
Wolf set his sights on the 2014 Arnold Classic and brought a physique to the stage that stood out, even among some of the sport’s best. That night, he bested future Mr. Olympia Shawn Rhoden and the late Cedric McMillan to secure the victory. For Wolf, this win heralded a string of honors to come, as he scored wins at the Arnold Classic Europe and Prague Pro that year.
Brandon Curry was having a hard time finding that signature win in the latter half of the 2010s. He tied for 16th at the 2016 Mr. Olympia and improved marginally to finish eighth in 2017. A fifth-place finish at the O a year later provided a glimmer of hope — but it was clear he needed a boost to get him over the hump.
That led him to the 2019 Arnold Classic, where he faced off against pre-contest favorites McMillan, William Bonac, and Steve Kuclo. Curry, however, had been working diligently over the years to add much-needed mass to his frame, and it proved to be enough to score the win over the competition.
What makes this win so memorable is the fact that Curry kept the momentum rolling into that year’s Mr. Olympia, where he took home his first Sandow trophy. Curry packed a career’s worth of accomplishments into six months, and it all started in Columbus in March 2019.
Walker won the New York Pro in dominating fashion in May 2021, and he then made a bold claim that he would win the Arnold just months later. He would have to knock off some big contenders to do that, including Iain Valliere, Kuclo, Akim Williams, Justin Rodriguez, and Sergio Oliva Jr. All of those men had more experience, but Walker displayed the most confidence, and it turned out to be for good reason.
Walker not only held his own, but he outclassed every competitor he stood next to. He would take the title with straight first-place votes, signaling to the bodybuilding world that he was here to stay.
More Bodybuilding Content
Dive further into the history of bodybuilding with these stories from BarBend:
- Paper-Thin Skin: The Legacy of Bodybuilder Andreas Münzer
- The Man Who Gained 63 Pounds of Muscle in a Month: Looking Back on Arthur Jones’ Controversial “Colorado Experiment”
- 12 of the Most Underrated Bodybuilders of All Time
Featured Image: T.J. Darr