Everyone loves a good comeback story, and bodybuilding fans have witnessed plenty of them over the decades. The sport has seen multi-time champions return to reclaim their crowns, perennial runner-ups take one more shot at Olympia glory, and entire competitions come back after years on the shelf.
10 of the Most Memorable Bodybuilding Comebacks
- Arnold Schwarzenegger (1980)
- Franco Columbu (1981)
- Lou Ferrigno (1992)
- Lenda Murray (2002)
- Jay Cutler (2009)
- Kai Greene (2016)
- Kevin Levrone (2016)
- Flex Wheeler (2017)
- The Ms. Olympia (2020)
- Phil Heath (2020)
When Arnold Schwarzenegger won the 1975 Mr. Olympia, he seemingly walked away from the sport for good as a six-time champ. But after a five-year hiatus to focus on his Hollywood career, he decided to make one last run at the Mr. Olympia crown.
Schwarzenegger returned to Mr. O stage in 1980 after initially telling people he was only going to be an analyst for the TV broadcast. In a surprise twist, he donned his posing trunks that night in Sydney, Australia, and came away with his seventh title, edging out runner-up Chris Dickerson and third-place finisher Frank Zane.
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To this day, Schwarzenegger’s last-minute return is a touchy subject in bodybuilding. Many claim he won simply because of his name value and his close relationship with the promoters; others stand firm that he actually brought a better physique than everyone else that night. No matter your stance, it was a night to remember.
The 1976 Mr. Olympia, Franco Columbu, wasn’t going to let Schwarzenegger be the only comeback kid in bodybuilding. The “Sardinian Samson” made his big return in 1981, resulting in a show that was even more controversial than the year before.
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Though clearly downsized, the judges ruled that Columbu’s physique was good enough for first place, earning him his second Mr. O title. Dickerson would take second again, and Tom Platz rounded out the top three.
The fans in attendance were furious with the decision. And in an interview years later, the head judge that night, Roger Schwab, called the 1981 Mr. Olympia, “The greatest booing contest in the history of the sport.”
Columbu retired for the second time following the contest. To this day, his comeback ranks as one of the sport’s most memorable — though likely not for the reasons he wanted.
Before Lou Ferrigno became the Incredible Hulk, he was a two-time Mr. Universe winner and one of bodybuilding’s hottest up-and-comers in the early 1970s. He had hoped to be the successor to Schwarzenegger at the 1975 Mr. Olympia, but he finished in a disappointing third place. Instead of trying again, Ferrigno opted to move on to Hollywood for (quite literally) greener pastures.
However, the itch to compete and win the elusive Olympia crown was too much for him to ignore, and Ferrigno eventually returned to enter the 1992 Olympia contest at the age of 41, following the retirement of eight-time champion Lee Haney.
Ferrigno was bigger than ever when he graced the stage in Helsinki, Finland, in ’92, but he didn’t have the conditioning or the symmetry that rising star Dorian Yates brought to the show. Yates claimed the first of what would be six Sandow trophies that night, while Ferrigno ended up in 12th place.
After winning six Ms. Olympia titles, Lenda Murray thought her bodybuilding career was over after she placed second to Kim Chizevsky at the 1997 show. But fast forward to 2002, and Murray saw new signs of life when she hired Chizevsky’s husband, Chad Nicholls, as her coach for her highly anticipated return to the stage.
Murray claimed her seventh Ms. Olympia title that year and followed that up with number eight in 2003. She walked away from the sport for good after the 2004 Olympia when she placed second to Iris Kyle in the heavyweight division. To this day, many fans feel Murray is the greatest women’s bodybuilder of all time, and her two-year return to dominance is a big reason why.
Though Jay Cutler’s “comeback” in 2009 didn’t involve any time spent away from the sport, it did see him return to glory after losing his title the year prior to Dexter Jackson. Following that devastating loss, Cutler returned better than ever for the 2009 Mr. Olympia in Las Vegas, touting unreal size and superb conditioning. He even provided fans with one of the sport’s most iconic images: The famed “quad stomp” photo.
Cutler dominated the stage that night, becoming the only Mr. Olympia to ever regain his title after a loss and laying claim to his third win overall. Cutler eventually won four Olympia titles in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010.
After losing his Olympia crown to Phil Heath in 2011, Cutler then took a year off to recover from a biceps injury and embarked upon an actual comeback at the 2013 Mr. Olympia. However, he couldn’t replicate his 2009 form and wound up in sixth place.
The 2015 Mr. Olympia contest isn’t remembered for what happened on stage, but rather for what didn’t happen. Kai Greene was supposed to compete in that show in his fourth attempt to finally dethrone Heath. Unfortunately, he found himself on the outside looking in: He claimed in a video that he wasn’t allowed to compete in the show, while the promoters at the time said Greene simply didn’t sign the contract to compete.
Regardless of what actually happened, Greene was not in the lineup, and Heath won title number five over runner-up Dexter Jackson.
Greene then made his highly anticipated return in 2016 by winning the Arnold Classic in Columbus, Ohio, as well as the Arnold Classic Australia and Arnold Classic South America titles. It was a statement-making comeback that had everyone in the sport buzzing about what would happen at the Olympia that year.
Unfortunately, Greene again didn’t compete at the show that year and hasn’t appeared on the Olympia stage since. Though it didn’t culminate in an Olympia win, Greene’s short-lived comeback in 2016 remains memorable for being one of bodybuilding’s ultimate what-if stories.
Kevin Levrone was one of the biggest bodybuilding stars of the 1990s, known for his battles with the likes of Dorian Yates, Flex Wheeler, Ronnie Coleman, and Shawn Ray on the Olympia stage. But despite a few close calls and upset losses, Levrone never won bodybuilding’s ultimate prize.
Then, in a final attempt to reach the mountaintop, Levrone announced that he would return to the Mr. Olympia stage in 2016 in one of the most surprising comebacks in history.
In the lead-up to the 2016 Olympia, Levrone took to social media to promote himself training and preparing for the contest. But despite looking unreal for a competitor in his 50s, he finished out of the top 15 at the 2016 Mr. Olympia. It was later revealed that he suffered a pec tear before the show that hampered his prep, but seeing him on stage one last time gave the fans a final moment to pay tribute to one of the best to have never won the Olympia.
Not to be outdone, four-time Arnold Classic champion — and fellow ‘90s star — Flex Wheeler also decided to take one last run at bodybuilding glory with a comeback in 2017. However, the “Sultan of Symmetry” didn’t feel he had the size to compete with the men in the Open, so he opted to enter the new Classic Physique division.
After putting on one of his most memorable routines at the show, Wheeler received a standing ovation from the fans. But, it wasn’t enough — he ended up with a 15th-place finish. Though the Hollywood ending didn’t pan out, a bodybuilding star coming out of retirement in his 50s for a final shot at glory is something any fan can appreciate.
Following his 2017 comeback show, Wheeler dealt with several health problems, including the amputation of one of his legs due to nerve damage. He still works in the bodybuilding industry as a posing coach and occasional analyst, and he received the Arnold Classic Lifetime Achievement Award in 2023.
After Iris Kyle won her 10th Ms. Olympia championship in 2014, the IFBB Pro League opted to discontinue the contest. The show itself was replaced by promoter Jake Wood with the birth of the Rising Phoenix World Championships. However, once Wood bought the Olympia promotion in early 2020, he resurrected the Ms. Olympia for the 2020 show, once again placing women’s bodybuilding on the sport’s biggest stage.
Andrea Shaw won the newly rebooted contest, launching an all-new dynasty that has resulted in three consecutive titles. The return of the Ms. Olympia helped rejuvenate the entire division and offered a much-needed platform for the athletes to showcase their talents.
Seven-time Mr. Olympia Phil Heath was poised to tie Ronnie Coleman and Lee Haney by winning his eighth consecutive title in 2018. However, Shawn Rhoden put the brakes on history that night by looking better than ever and pulling off the upset win in Las Vegas.
Afterward, Heath took off in 2019 to rehab from an abdominal injury, before making his highly anticipated comeback in 2020. Though Rhoden wasn’t in the lineup for the rematch, the 2019 champ, Brandon Curry, was.
The stage was set in Orlando, FL, as “The Gift” looked to reclaim his crown — but this was another comeback that didn’t quite pan out. A dominant Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay came away with his first Olympia title that night, leaving Curry in second and Heath in third.
That was the last time Heath competed on stage, but he has left the door open for a possible return in the future. So while this comeback may be Heath’s latest, it may not be the final one.