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The Last Great Bodybuilding Rivalry?

by Christian Duque

Who can forget bodybuilding in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006? Those were the years that gave us perhaps the best rivalry in the sport. It was an ongoing battle between, arguably, the greatest of all time Ronnie Coleman and one of the most persistent challengers ever, Jay Cutler. Both guys were working class heroes to the core. One was a police officer from the sweltering Texas heat and another came from a farm background across the country in New England.

Neither man grew up with a silver spoon in their mouth and both men knew the value of hard work. They came from backgrounds where people worked for a living and where no one got handouts. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat, simple as that. Neither guy turned pro and started winning everything in sight either. They both had to pay their dues and cut their teeth rising up the ranks. They were both overlooked for many years until they made their way from placing at smaller shows to winning them and ultimately to stepping foot on the Olympia stage.

When Ronnie won the Olympia in 1998 everyone thought it was going to be Flex Wheeler. That was the heir apparent to the throne left vacant by the retiring Dorian Yates. When Jay won the title it had been so many years of him taking second that people just assumed that that was going to be the best he’d ever do in a contest that also included Ronnie Coleman. People liked Jay and they respected him, but he was the perennial runner-up. Folks just got used to seeing him in that spot and they figured that no matter what he did, he was never going to beat Coleman. This is why Ronnie’s win ‘in ‘98 and Cutler’s win in ‘06 were both similar on many levels.

The rivalry is what kept the sport exciting for many years largely because of the very noble personalities which were involved. It was so much bigger than two guys after the same title.

Ronnie was backed by BSN and Jay was backed by MuscleTech. In those days, these two companies dominated the supplement market. Whereas MuscleTech had an army of top contenders such as Dexter Jackson, Branch Warren, and Gustavo Badell just to name a few, its prized athlete was Cutler. BSN on the other hand focused primarily on Coleman. They didn’t need a huge roster when they had the single best bodybuilder in the world. Ronnie would be featured on all their ads and was even the subject of a standalone press campaign. The company put out a really cool magazine showcasing each product of its line. Whether it was their protein, pre-workout, or N.O. booster, they all featured The Big Nasty. He was the face of the company and he was the first thing that came to mind when you thought of anything BSN made. The talk of the town was that Ronnie was very well looked after and could focus entirely on training, eating, & posing. In the first two years of his reign, Coleman worked as a police officer, so the fact he could quit his job and be a full-time bodybuilder meant that BSN had really come through for him.

While Ronnie was seemingly getting paid royally by his sponsor and collecting 1st place checks from the Olympia, word on the street was that Jay was actually the highest paid bodybuilder on the planet. He knew how to market himself and he was also a shrewd businessman. Cutler was one of the first to leave Venice Beach for Vegas. He was also one of the first to see the big payout in investing in real estate. While most guys in the sport used their money to buy fast cars, expensive watches, and treating their entourages to fancy dinners and club nights, Cutler was busy making moves to ensure he’d never want for anything. Jay was busy flipping properties and signing with a number of top companies. He was able to capitalize on these deals and win his first two Sandows before the market crash of 2008. And even though he was the second best in the world, rumor had it he was making a lot more than Ronnie per year. But even if that were the case, he wasn’t the best. That’s what drove him. What drove him was the quest to be number one.

The fact is both men loved bodybuilding. They achieved milestones in terms of growing the sport and expanding their reach all in the pre-social media age. They had Myspace and Facebook, but these early social media platforms were primarily desktop-based at the time. No one had the ability to stay on top of things to the extent that we do today on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter.

This was also quite possibly the last days of print media. When these guys were deep in their rivalry there were still 4 major bodybuilding magazines with national and international circulation. These were FLEX, MuscleMag, Muscular Development and Iron Man. There was also Muscle & Fitness, REPS!, and Planet Muscle.

This was also the last days of lucrative magazine contracts where guys got a check every month for signing exclusivity contracts If they were in off-season or if they didn’t compete, it didn’t matter. The check came like clockwork and guys like Jay and Ronnie always had magazine revenue coming in.

Between the supplement sponsors, the magazine money, and the prize money, Ronnie and Jay were able to lead lifestyles unlike anything experienced today. Usually people make more money as time sets in, especially given inflation and the reduced spending power of hard currency has. Well, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any athletes today making what Jay and Ronnie were making nearly twenty years ago. And that’s because now bodybuilders have to compete with fitness influencers who maybe have never competed and maybe never will. It’s a whole new world.

What made this rivalry so special is that the guys always kept things PG. They hardly ever cursed, they never resorted to physical violence or the threat of it, and they always carried themselves like men’s men. Nothing in this rivalry ever cast a dark cloud over the sport. If anything, onlookers could see what good sportsmanship was all about seeing how Ronnie and Jay conducted themselves.

Even after Jay won the Sandow, Ronnie was always nothing cordial and friendly towards him. Even that night when you could see Coleman visibly distraught, having been tipped off that he was in fact not going to win, he still was a total champion. That night in 2006 could have seen Coleman beat Haney’s record. Not only was that not going to happen for Ronnie that night, but he probably knew his reign on top was over. After all, never in the history of the sport had an ousted Mr. O ever regained his title. Jay Cutler would go onto doing it in 2009, but for Ronnie he probably knew it was all over for him in 2006. Still, The Big Nasty congratulated Cutler, recognized him as Mr. O, and didn’t go whining to the media or trash the sport.

That’s the kind of man and the kind of champion Ronnie Coleman is. It’s also the kind of man and champion Jay Cutler is. When Jay lost to Dexter – he lost like a man’s man. And when Jay lost to Phil – he lost like a man’s man. Champions are a cut above – both in victory and defeat.

Sadly, when Ronnie retired, bodybuilding stopped being as fun for Jay. And when Jay retired, joining Coleman, I believe the sport turned the page on an era we all love and miss, Future rivalries were never as intense and never as noteworthy as this one. I think we’ll always look back at 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006 as some of the best years in the sport of bodybuilding. And we owe it all to Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler.

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