by Christian Duque
When news broke that 7x Mr. Olympia Phil “The Gift” Heath would be replacing “Sugar” Shawn Ray as Olympia commentator it sent shockwaves throughout the fitness industry. Phil is not a well-liked champion. His antics earned him this distinction. From attacking fans who doubted him, to bashing social media outlets who were hard on him, to bullying his peers on camera no less (e.g. Kai Greene, Shawn Rhoden), Heath has the support of few people and even fewer companies. Were it not for the fact he’s associated with Dani Garcia & The Rock, Phil wouldn’t have too many options.
Sure he has a college degree – a fact he’s made to the point everyone on planet Earth is aware – but so what? Having a college degree nowadays is just the norm. It’s not the head-turner Phil makes it out to be.
What we have with Heath is a very impressive bodybuilder on paper who’s been able to keep his muscle and who staged a very impressive comeback in 2020. Even people like myself who were overly critical of the former champion couldn’t help but be impressed. I thought he showed excellent sportsmanship both during the press conference as well as competing on stage. He took a commanding 3rd place and pushed both Brandon and Ramy. That said – that was one show. One show isn’t going to undo years of Phil’s antics. That said the comeback was necessary. Phil was able to do it all once more but many of us knew that that would be it. There’s no chance Heath can ever regain the Olympia title and I highly doubt he wants to keep trying. What’s in it for him? Lower placings? Less prize money? The time for change was before him. He needed something else.
In theory I think Phil commentating makes the most sense. I think he could have started out MC’ing contests. Maybe if he’s in shape he could MC and guest pose. Just imagine the value he’d bring to contests and the mountains of money he’d make. That would be a huge draw. Imagine how thrilled the competitors would be to get announced by a 7x Mr. Olympia! It would be a surreal experience.
This approach would also have given Heath invaluable experience as well. He would have been able to start at the local level and moved up to the regional and national level. That would be the logical progression. Start with the amateur shows and then graduate to the pro’s. It would also have made sense for Phil to have cut his teeth with smaller shows and maybe worked some expos.
Instead the first contest he’ll commentate on happens to be known as the Superbowl of Bodybuilding. Who does that? What kind of statement does that make to start someone in a completely new discipline by having them make their debut with the biggest, most prestigious event on Earth? If you ask me, this has all the makings of a recipe for disaster. But don’t make me out to be a hater – I’m not. I’m not even a skeptic. I think my position rests on reality.
Shawn Ray has been heavily involved in media since he retired from active competition in the early 2000’s. But he was active before then also. He was commentating on national television while he was still a regular in the Olympia Top 6. Not only did he have the insights of a competitor but he could break down the physiques – his own included – against what was expected to be competitive in the most sacred stage on Earth. He was also able to cover the contest while having enough talking points to hold his end of a full conversation with his fellow commentators down.
Remember that covering a contest isn’t just about talking about the poses and comparisons – you have got to make it more than that! After all, entertainment is the name of the game. Shawn is able to tap into the perspectives of being a Hall of Fame competitor, a promoter, and an integral part of the Olympia. He’s also run Dan Solomon’s former hub Digital Muscle into the future. One look at Ray’s resume and you can compare to any against any top journalist’s – in bodybuilding and beyond. Can the same be said about Phil? Does he even have any media experience?
Phil has never commentated a small show let alone nine pro divisions worth of the biggest bodybuilding contest on Earth. Will Phil be training for December or is he just going to wing it? Also there isn’t really a way to train to be good at media. For example, let’s say something really wrong happened on stage or in the hall. A rookie would have a monkey wrench thrown into their game plan. They would have a huge detour into everything they planned on saying and doing. It’s only then that the real media veterans know what to do. They know how to move the attention from the negative onto something different.
A strong commentator is essentially an effective communicator with the ability to entertain. Can Phil express himself effectively while sharing the platform with one or more co-commentators? Can he do so briefly as well as conversationally? All of this comes with experience and knowing when less is better or when more is necessary. A reporter on Shawn’s level is an expert at reading between the lines on the fly. You can’t teach that and you can’t learn it either. It comes with EXPERIENCE.
I think a big question with Phil taking over will be what’s the learning curve? How many years will bodybuilding fans have to wait before Phil is a world class commentator like Shawn Ray? Will he ever be able to parallel the Hall of Famer? That’s less about Phil succeeding and more about the very real drop in quality commentating will experience. You just can’t take out a legendary commentator and replace him with an inexperienced champion – no matter how many titles he won – because to even suggest that means you don’t recognize that covering a show is WAY MORE than reading names off a list or saying random things while competitors battle on stage and fans all over the world scramble for updates.
Phil was a great champion and is now, finally, transitioning to a new role in the industry. I applaud him for that because another comeback would have been shortsighted. He had an amazing run and will be a part of bodybuilding history forever. That should be enough. Competing year after year after one’s prime is a mistake. That’s a great way to undo a legendary legacy so that is why I applaud Phil for moving on. That said I believe he should have started out small. He should have gained experience and done things right. I don’t think he’s ready for the Olympia but I would love to be wrong. I’d love for Phil to hit the ground running and hit a home run on his first outing. The only reason I can’t get behind that way of thinking is because I know better.
If it were up to me I’d do whatever was necessary to ensure that Shawn Ray remained at his post when it comes to covering the Olympia; however, maybe you see things differently. Maybe you say it’s time for a change of the guard and I’ll say that if ain’t broke, why fix it? It makes no sense to me.