Every Winner of the Arnold Classic Bodybuilding Contest

Here’s a look back at the history of the prestigious contest and its 18 winners.

In 1970, Arnold Schwarzenegger shocked the bodybuilding world by defeating then-Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva in the Mr. World contest in Columbus, OH. Promoter Jim Lorimer congratulated Schwarzenegger, who went on to win that year’s Mr. Olympia title. Shortly after his first of seven Mr. Olympia wins, Schwarzenegger offered to partner with Lorimer after his onstage career was over.

In 1989, that handshake agreement evolved into the now-famous Arnold Sports Festival (ASF). The ASF 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, and South Africa.

The Arnold Classic USA has been held in Columbus, OH, every year since its inception and is lauded as the most prestigious contest on the bodybuilding schedule behind the Olympia. Winning the Arnold Classic title catapults bodybuilders to the elite level of the sport, and many of the greatest competitors in history have their names on its list of champions.

[Related: 10 Memorable Performances From the Arnold Classic Bodybuilding Contest]

Below, BarBend compiled a list of the podium finishers from each year the Arnold Classic was held:

Every Arnold Classic Winner

Rich Gaspari (1989)

The inaugural Arnold Classic received much attention, even without the participation of then Mr. Olympia Lee Haney. The contest was broadcast on NBC, with Schwarzenegger serving on commentary. The inaugural champion was Rich Gaspari, considered the most competitive bodybuilder of his era by many, behind Haney and alongside Lee Labrada.

[Related: Franco Columbu’s Controversial 1981 Mr. Olympia Comeback]

The 1989 Arnold Classic

  1. Rich Gaspari
  2. Robby Robinson
  3. Gary Strydom

Mike Ashley (1990)

The 1990 Arnold Classic was controversial. Shawn Ray — a perennial contender — won but 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.

The 1990 Arnold Classic 

  1. Mike Ashley
  2. Mike Christian
  3. Andreas Munzer

Shawn Ray (1991)

With extra motivation going into 1991, Ray returned to Columbus to dominate the lineup and capture the title. This one stayed in the record books. Renel Janvier took second, with rising star Vince Taylor rounding out the top three.

[Related: The 10 Best Bodybuilding Nicknames of All Time]

The 1991 Arnold Classic

  1. Shawn Ray
  2. Renel Janvier
  3. Vince Taylor

Vince Taylor (1992)

Vince Taylor had won the Iron Man Pro the week before the Arnold Classic and looked even more impressive in Columbus. He was victorious over runner-up Mohammed Benaziza, who was in his final season. The late Sonny Schmidt took third. 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.

The 1992 Arnold Classic

  1. Vince Taylor
  2. Mohammad Benaziza
  3. Sonny Schmidt

Flex Wheeler (1993, 1997, 1998, 2000)

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, Lee Labrada.

Wheeler then went three for three in 1997, winning every contest he entered. The most notable was his second career Arnold Classic title. It wasn’t easy for Wheeler to clinch victory because Nasser El Sonbaty was large and conditioned. Wheeler’s symmetry and posing swayed the judges to his side, and he won the Arnold again in 1998 and 2000. 

[Related: 12 of the Most Underrated Bodybuilders of All Time]

The 1993 Arnold Classic

  1. Flex Wheeler
  2. Lee Labrada
  3. Vince Taylor

The 1997 Arnold Classic

  1. Flex Wheeler
  2. Nasser El Sonbaty
  3. Mike Francois

The 1998 Arnold Classic

  1. Flex Wheeler
  2. Nasser El Sonbaty
  3. Vince Taylor

The 2000 Arnold Classic

  1. Flex Wheeler
  2. Chris Cormier
  3. Kevin Levrone

Kevin Levrone (1994, 1996)

Kevin Levrone was a bodybuilding superstar from the 1990s. 1994 may have been his best season — he won four shows, including the Arnold Classic. Taylor finished second at the 1994 Arnold Classic — his fourth straight year in the top three. Longtime competitor Porter Cottrell took the bronze position.

Levrone nabbed his second Arnold title in 1996. Wheeler took silver for the second straight season, with Canada’s Paul Dillett rounding out the top three.

[Related: 13 of the Best Backs in Competitive Bodybuilding]

The 1994 Arnold Classic

  1. Kevin Levrone
  2. Vince Taylor
  3. Porter Cottrell

The 1996 Arnold Classic

  1. Kevin Levrone
  2. Flex Wheeler
  3. Paul Dillett

Mike Francois (1995)

In spite of the Arnold Classic being held in Columbus, OH, it took six years for a hometown athlete to win it. Not only did Columbus native Mike Francois win the title in 1995, but he upset Wheeler, who was the overwhelming favorite. Francois went on to win the San Jose Pro Invitational before placing seventh at the Olympia.

The 1995 Arnold Classic

  1. Mike Francois
  2. Flex Wheeler
  3. Charles Clairmonte

Nasser El Sonbaty (1999)

After two years as the runner-up, Nasser 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. 

The 1999 Arnold Classic

  1. Nasser El Sonbaty
  2. Kevin Levrone
  3. Chris Cormier

Ronnie Coleman (2001)

The 2001 edition of the Arnold is the only time that the contest was won by the reigning Mr. Olympia. 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 and 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.

[Related: 9 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Making Of “Pumping Iron”]

The 2001 Arnold Classic

  1. Ronnie Coleman
  2. Chris Cormier
  3. Dennis James

Jay Cutler Dominates (2002, 2003, 2004)

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.

[Related: Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. Chris Bumstead: Breaking Down a Fantasy Bodybuilding Matchup]

The 2002 Arnold Classic

  1. Jay Cutler
  2. Chris Cormier
  3. Dexter Jackson

The 2003 Arnold Classic

  1. Jay Cutler
  2. Chris Cormier
  3. Markus Ruhl

The 2004 Arnold Classic

  1. Jay Cutler
  2. Chris Cormier
  3. Dexter Jackson

Dexter Jackson (2005, 2006, 2008, 2013, 2015)

Dexter Jackson won his first Arnold Classic in 2005 and immediately backed it up with another win in 2006. Though he came in second in 2007, he returned to win in 2008 and followed that up with a Mr. Olympia title a few months afterward.

Jackson’s 2013 Arnold Classic victory was his fourth, tying him with Flex Wheeler for the most ever. Jackson’s win in 2015 let him hold the record alone.

[Related: Samir Bannout Says He “Wasn’t Really Impressed” With Samson Dauda at the 2023 Arnold Classic]

The 2005 Arnold Classic

  1. Dexter Jackson
  2. Chris Cormier
  3. Gustavo Badell

The 2006 Arnold Classic

  1. Dexter Jackson
  2. Branch Warren
  3. Victor Martinez

The 2008 Arnold Classic

  1. Dexter Jackson
  2. Phil Heath
  3. Kai Greene

The 2013 Arnold Classic 

  1. Dexter Jackson
  2. Ben Pakulski
  3. Toney Freeman

The 2015 Arnold Classic

  1. Dexter Jackson
  2. Branch Warren
  3. Justin Compton

Victor Martinez (2007)

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 took third place in this contest. Martinez then followed that up by placing second in the Mr. Olympia to Cutler.

The 2007 Arnold Classic

  1. Victor Martinez
  2. Dexter Jackson
  3. Toney Freeman

Kai Greene (2009, 2010, 2016)

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 longtime rival Phil Heath to win the title again in 2010. Branch Warren placed third in both contests.

Then, after a controversial absence from the 2015 Olympia, Greene returned to the Arnold in 2016 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.

[Related: What Is the Natural Olympia? Breaking Down Natural Bodybuilding’s Show of Shows]

The 2009 Arnold Classic

  1. Kai Greene
  2. Victor Martinez
  3. Branch Warren

The 2010 Arnold Classic

  1. Kai Greene
  2. Phil Heath
  3. Branch Warren

The 2016 Arnold Classic

  1. Kai Greene
  2. Cedric McMillan
  3. Josh Lenartowicz

Branch Warren (2011, 2012)

After two straight years of placing third, Warren would take the title for himself in 2011 and 2012. 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.

The 2011 Arnold Classic

  1. Branch Warren
  2. Dennis Wolf
  3. Victor Martinez

The 2012 Arnold Classic

  1. Branch Warren
  2. Dennis Wolf
  3. Evan Centopani

Dennis Wolf (2014)

Dennis Wolf had been competing as a pro for eight years at this point in his career. Many considered him 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. 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. 

[Related: The History & Winners of the Masters Olympia Bodybuilding Competition]

The 2014 Arnold Classic

  1. Dennis Wolf
  2. Shawn Rhoden
  3. Cedric McMillan

Cedric McMillan (2017)

Fans rallied behind the late Cedric McMillan in 2017 with hopes of seeing him finally take the title in Columbus. Their wishes came true, and McMillan capped it off with a memorable celebration. He even got Schwarzenegger himself to perform a couple of poses. The late Dallas McCarver took second place in this contest, and Maxx Charles came in third.

The 2017 Arnold Classic

  1. Cedric McMillan
  2. Dallas McCarver
  3. Maxx Charles

William Bonac (2018, 2020)

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 by winning in his debut. 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.

Bonac repeated in Columbus in 2020, defeating Jackson and Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay to get there. This would be Jackson’s final Arnold appearance, and it made him the first competitor to compete in this contest in four different decades. 

The 2018 Arnold Classic

  1. William Bonac
  2. Dexter Jackson
  3. Cedric McMillan

The 2020 Arnold Classic

  1. William Bonac
  2. Dexter Jackson
  3. Mamdouh Elssbiay

Brandon Curry (2019, 2022)

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, and he did it again six months later to become the 15th winner of the Mr. Olympia. Curry then returned at the 2022 Arnold Classic to win his second prize in Columbus, with Bonac again placing runner-up.

[Related: 9 Underrated Golden Era Bodybuilders You Should Know About]

The 2019 Arnold Classic

  1. Brandon Curry
  2. William Bonac
  3. Luke Sandoe

The 2022 Arnold Classic

  1. Brandon Curry
  2. William Bonac
  3. Steve Kuclo

Nick Walker (2021)

Nick Walker began his breakout 2021 season with a victory at the vaunted New York Pro. He followed that up with an even bigger victory at the Arnold Classic in September, cementing “The Mutant” as a major name to watch in the sport.

[Related: 12 of the Biggest Men’s Bodybuilders of All Time]

The 2021 Arnold Classic

  1. Nick Walker
  2. Iain Valliere
  3. Steve Kuclo 

Samson Dauda (2023)

Heading into the 2023 Arnold Classic, all eyes were again on Walker. Following a third-place finish at the 2022 Mr. Olympia, Walker was the clear favorite to win his second Arnold title in Columbus. That is until the judges got a look at Samson Dauda, who brought arguably his best look ever to the stage. By the end of night two, the upset victory came to fruition and Dauda left Ohio with a career-defining win.

The 2023 Arnold Classic

  1. Samson Dauda
  2. Nick Walker
  3. Andrew Jacked

Featured image courtesy of the Arnold Sports Festival