by Christian Duque
I’ll be the first to say that I don’t care for poor sportsmanship. I think Hadi Choopan walking off stage before the most muscular shot at the 2023 Mr. Olympia most definitely gave the sport of bodybuilding a black eye. It was very similar to the elbowing that went on during the 2014 Mr. Olympia that never aired on NBC. During that trainwreck it was Phil Heath and Kai Greene acting like a couple of fools on the most prestigious stage in the sport. That, too, was a black eye for the muscle game.
We need positive press in order for this niche sport to have any real chance of growing beyond cult-status. We need champions like Ronnie, Jay, and Brandon. We need champions that get it. You have to promote the sport in the best possible light – all the time. And it needs to be said that great champions must know how to win and they must know how to lose. You can’t be an asshole in victory and you can’t be an asshole in defeat.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a course on how to be a professional athlete, much less on how to be a role model for the world. That said, just because you win a title it doesn’t make you above making a mistake. Should we ban someone just for being human? That’s up for debate, but let’s try to look at both sides of the conversation. Hopefully by the end of the article you’ll feel comfortable taking a side.
Hadi Choopan was robbed at countless shows coming up. He got started at the 212 where he was never able to topple the GOAT James “Flex” Lewis. He was always in his shadow and when he retired he had to make a very important decision. Was he going to continue giving his all in the lighter division or could he grow into the open? The Persian Wolf wasn’t going to win any height contests but he had enough of a frame to pack on more muscle on it. And unlike other guys from the lighter division who lost freakiness or shape when they put far more muscle on their physiques, Hadi got better the more muscle he gained. Not only was he able to keep his signature look going, but he was able to successfully reinvent himself. How many guys on that level can say the same?
When Hadi jumped into the open, he rose all the way to the top. He was an instant draw and was the People’s Champion in 2020. Even though Big Ramy won the contest, the people were going nuts for the Iranian sensation. Even though Phil Heath had successfully returned to the stage, bested whatever was going on with his midsection, and was a way nicer guy, that still wasn’t front page news. Choopan was on everyone’s mind and no one could look away from him. In a very real way, 2020 could have been his year but word on the street was the powers that be would’ve had a fit if it was a war between Ramy and Hadi. Instead Ramy got the nod, Brandon took second, Phil took 3rd and they put Hadi 4th. The next year Hadi actually won the People’s Champion award and moved up to 3rd, but he was still in the shadow of Ramy and Brandon. When Hadi finally won the Sandow in 2022 you would have thought he would have been the center of attention, but he wasn’t.
In fact, when Choopan won the title in 2022, he was almost immediately cast into the shadow of his runner-up. When has that ever happened in bodybuilding? It’s rare, but not totally unheard of. When Dexter won the title in 2008 he was put in the shadow of Jay Cutler. No one thought Jackson beat Jay, rather, they wanted to know what was wrong with Cutler and how soon it would be until he fixed it. For the rest of 2008 and for all of 2009, bodybuilding fans didn’t celebrate The Blade. No one hypothesized about how many Sandows the Jacksonville native would amass. All most people could talk about was when Jay would be back to reclaim his title. It was beyond disrespectful to Dex and it’s something that I think Hadi experienced.
Hadi never got to be the man. From the moment he won, he had to deal with being compared nonstop to Derek Lunsford.
Derek is younger, he’s American, and everyone raved about how much he could do for the sport. The fact of the matter is that for much of his reign Hadi had to constantly remind people that he was the champion. The fact that he did not tour the world, and that he was largely a recluse like his predecessor, didn’t help the situation either. Hadi was the kind of champion that was a throwback to the Dorian era. People want a Mr. Olympia that’s out and about waving the flag and earning new fans for the sport. No matter how freaky Choopan was and no matter how much he fought against the odds, Hadi was easy to forget because of the fact he was such a recluse. So when the time came for the big contest in Orlando, Florida, and the underdog won, you can only imagine how his frustrations reached the boiling point.
What a lot of people don’t like to do is give Hadi credit for the fact that he congratulated the underdog champion, that he wished him well, and that he stood for photos for quite some time. This whole fiasco was the product of him walking away from one final shot, the most muscular. The fact that Brandon had to try to keep him in line also did not look good. And what I mean by keep him in line is simply keeping the man in the lineup with the other competitors. The fact Hadi had to tell him with the microphone that he had to go back, that didn’t help the situation either. The fall out that ensued was all but expected. People want Hadi’s head. They want to see him get suspended and they want swift action from Federation.
But here is the problem with drastic measures for this otherwise, isolated instance. Bodybuilding is not a major league sport. It cannot afford to sideline one of the most popular champions in its roster. Whereas a top basketball player can be benched and the game goes on that’s basketball. You can bench a wide receiver, but there still a whole team of other guys on the field. You cannot suspend a past year’s Mr. Olympia and expect the show to go on.
If the Federation took the bold move of suspending Hadi for the 2024 Olympia, they would face an international boycott, the likes of which they had never seen. Every Arab and Muslim fan would boycott the show. They’d lose fans from North Africa to the farthest extent to Pakistan. It would be the biggest slap in the face to the Olympia as a competition and Jake Wood as a promoter. Even if they wanted to ban Hadi, they couldn’t do it.
At the end of the day bodybuilding is a business. Money talks and bullshit walks. This is something that diehard fans need to wrap their heads around. There are millions of dollars at stake. And even though many of the fans would like to see Hadi pay dearly for walking off stage one pose short of the show being over, that simply cannot, and will not, happen.
Was it bad sportsmanship? Absolutely it was! Will it cost him a year of competition? You would be absolutely insane to think it will. You would’ve also had to of ignored everything I said in this article. Hadi is not going to get suspended, and he is also more than likely not going to give any kind of a real apology. Not only will his ego not allow him to do it, but there are no consequences for him not to do it. There is also no incentive for him to do it. Because in his mind he probably thinks he got robbed and an apology is not going to fix it. Then again, who knows? If there’s one thing bodybuilding has taught me is to expect the unexpected.
What do you think should happen to Hadi? And what do you think, if anything, will come out of this?