by Christian Duque
History was made in Romania just under 24 hours ago when the Lion of Libya, 212 Mr. Olympia Kamal El-Gargni was crowned the 2023 Master Mr. Olympia. It was a battle that went down to the wire between the greatest open masters bodybuilders in the world.
You had guys like The Cleveland Creation Mike Ely in the house, as well as Vinny Galanti, and many other top guys who are accustomed to terrorizing the pro circuit from coast to coast in the United States and all around the world. Although this event was by invitation-only, Jake Wood did his homework inviting the best of the best. This was the first time the event was resurrected in nearly a decade and it took a promoter of this caliber to give the world the kind of production that did these guys justice. They had a fantastic stage, a great light show, and fantastic media coverage.
Romania was also the perfect place. It’s a country where the sport is revered and it’s also home to some of the most passionate fans in the world. Eastern Europe has become a hotbed for physique-based sports and all the athletes that trekked there saw it for themselves. They were greeted as heroes at the airport, the host hotel, and at the gyms. After all, these guys earned the accolades by training and competing for decades. Every single guy on that stage brought their best. That’s a true testament to the contest and to how seriously these guys took this show. You had guys like Vinny Galanti who looked the best they ever had, but perhaps lacked the size to hang with the giants. That’s no knock on him. It’s just proof positive of the ages’ old wisdom that this is a sport of apples and oranges.
Every guy on that stage posed hard. They gave it their all and while there was a 212 division, one guy in particular set his sights on the open title. That special someone was your 212 Mr. Olympia Kamal El-Gargni. The Lion of Lebanon, who repped the USA in this contest, has long been the face of age-defying muscle. What he gives up in height to open guys, he more than makes up for with a chiseled, aesthetically-pleasing look that he brings in with tiptop condition. He’s a guy who’s not afraid to suffer, but who smiles with it.
This is not to say El Gargni enjoys the agony, but he’s having fun on that stage. He wants to entertain the fans as much as he wants to dazzle the judges. He knows how to present his strengths and hides what few weaknesses he has. Very much like his colleague and reigning 212 Mr. Olympia Shaun Clarida, Kamal knows all about slaying giants. Whereas a lot of shorter, lighter guys might distance themselves from the giants, Kamal takes them head-on. When it’s game time, the Lion doesn’t secret himself on stage. What would the point of that be?
Kamal has done very well on open stages and he cleaned house in Romania. Although the whole contest saw some pretty stacked comparisons, the Top 3 went to war.
Phil Clahar, who won the open 2023 Orlando Pro, was a leading favorite to win. In fact, when he won that contest I wrote an article about it for Iron Magazine. The fact that a Masters Olympia competitor had just won an open pro show sent shockwaves throughout the fitness industry. Did it freak some guys out? Of course it did. To suggest otherwise would be comical, but when it came to guys like Kamal, I think it fueled their fire even more.
Guys on Kamal’s level are constantly assessing their competition. It’s as much part of their prep as is eating, training, and taking their supplements. While most champs will say it’s all about themselves and that they don’t care who they’re competing against, the real truth is that you need to know who you’re up against and just how good they are. I have no doubt that Kamal was one of the guys who looked especially closely at Clahar’s open win. And vice versa. You gotta figure that these open guys were none too happy to be sharing a stage with a 212 Mr. Olympia. Even if they’re shorter and lighter, 212 Mr. O’s like Kamal and Shaun have taught guys – sometimes as much as 100 lbs heavier – that they can kick open ass just fine.
While Clahar could have won the contest and brought a very impressive look, I’d say Kamal’s chief competition came by way of Maxx Charles. These guys are as big as a house and can pose like the best of them.
When I think of Maxx, I think of a guy who has truly paid his dues. He’s not a complainer, much less a quitter. When you stop to think how many 2nd and 3rd’s he’s taken, it’s pretty wild. Here’s a guy who, arguably, could have won a string of shows but for whatever reason always took Top 3 placings. He has never been one to go cry to the media or promote conspiracy theories. He’s as blue collar and hard working as they come and he was totally on point for the Masters Olympia.
A great many fans had Charles winning a number of poses against El Gargni and I’d have to agree. The guy was huge, ripped, and seemingly got harder the more he posed. That’s a milestone with older guys as well. The fact this giant held onto his peak and at no point looked winded or tired is another huge accolade to the countless hours he must have spent in the mirror preparing for this prestigious event.
I’ve looked at the photos over and over and I honestly don’t see any major flaws in Maxx’s look. I don’t see any Kamal’s or Phil’s either. This was a very solid Top 3 and they gave the audience, the media, and most importantly the fans a great contest to watch. In fact, many of the sport’s hardest core supporters took to the message boards, Facebook groups, and subReddits talking about who they had to win, and why. And during the show!!
When bodybuilders take so much pride in a prep and then capitalize on it by collectively working the stage, that’s when you know you have a homerun. Jake Wood and his team did such a great job giving these guys a world class stage, which included the much-anticipated presentation by Jay Cutler, that the athletes took the ball and ran with it. Romania was left totally starstruck and wanting for more!! Hell, this the whole world wanted more!!
I have always said that Masters Bodybuilding is very similar to Women’s Bodybuilding. It can be very popular and very competitive, but the secret is knowing how to market it. Once you know who your target audience is, then it becomes a question of production value and working with the right people. While I’m not a huge supporter of invitationals, it’s a tried and true model that’s worked for the Arnold Classic since 1989. If the sport’s second biggest contest has grown exponentially year after year with this approach, then it stands to reason that so will the Masters Olympia. 2023 was a huge hit and under the leadership of Jake Wood and his team, I predict this franchise will turn into liquid gold.
I’d like to congratulate all the competitors and send an extra-warm congratulatory message to your 2023 Masters Mr. Olympia THE LION OF LIBYA, KAMAL EL GARGNI!! Congratulations, champ!