In sports, few titles change hands as infrequently as Mr. Olympia. Since the O’s inception in 1965, only 16 men have held the title. That prestige, along with significant prize money, makes the Olympia the highest honor a competitive bodybuilder can receive. The athletes who earn the Sandow are cemented into the history of the sport. These legends didn’t win the big one, but they are still among the best in the sport.
Few sports are also as subjective as bodybuilding. Yes, there are rules, regulations, and judges — but when the best bodies in the world are standing deltoid to deltoid, there’s bound to be a debate about which is more aesthetically pleasing.
Some of the most famous bodybuilders in history have never hoisted a Sandow. Fans even laud specific non-O winners as keepers of the finest physique in the sport. What follows is a list of 10 competitors never to claim bodybuilding’s ultimate prize but who have undoubtedly left a permanent mark on the culture and fandom.
Nasser El Sonbaty
El Sonbaty was the 1997 runner-up to Dorian Yates, who claimed his sixth and final Sandow trophy that year. The mass monster was one of the few men that could match Yates’ size, and he was the leanest he had ever been up to that point in his career.
However, the judges gave the nod to Yates as he was slightly leaner and maintained his composure throughout prejudging and the finals. Even with an injured triceps muscle, Yates was first. El Sonbaty placed third at the 1998 Olympia, the same year Ronnie Coleman began his eight-year reign.
As for El Sonbaty, he would go on to win the 1999 Arnold Classic. He competed in nine Olympias and won six pro competitions, including the 1995 Night of Champions. El Sonbaty passed away in 2013 at the age of 47.
Martinez was one of the most popular competitors in the 2000s. He went five for five as an amateur, winning a light heavyweight title, two heavyweight titles, and three overall spots. He then had a moderately successful pro career, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Martinez solidified himself as a true contender.
Coming off a third-place finish at the 2006 Olympia, Martinez had won the Arnold Classic and was considered a threat to the then-defending champion Jay Cutler. He showed up to Las Vegas, NV, at his all-time best, and faced the champion pose for the pose.
Ultimately, Cutler took the title in what is considered one of the most controversial decisions in the history of the Olympia. Martinez placed in the top 10 of the Olympia nine times in his career, but his 2007 effort was his best.
Martinez’s other notable wins include the Night of Champions in 2003, the Show of Strength Championships in 2004, the Arnold Classic Europe in 2011, and the Toronto Pro Championships in 2014.
Warren is considered a mid-tier competitor throughout the early years of his career. Before his breakout year in 2009, Warren logged three pro wins out of 13 shows he entered (one of the more impressive wins was his victory at the 2007 New York Pro).
All of that changed two years later when the Texas native showed up at the 2009 O looking like a different competitor. Defending champion Dexter Jackson had counted on facing a determined Cutler, but Warren came out of nowhere that season. Warren even beat Jackson that night, placing second to Cutler, who took his third title that year.
While Warren never placed second again, he also wasn’t overlooked anymore. He would win two Arnold Classic titles (2011 and 2012) and remain a mainstay at the top of the Olympia lineup for the rest of his career, placing in the top 10 five more times before retiring in 2017.
Before he was a TV and film legend, and even before he took part in the inaugural World’s Strongest Man, Ferrigno was considered by many in bodybuilding to be the man to take the place of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The 6’5” New Yorker had been collecting amateur titles such as Mr. America (1973) and the Mr. Universe (1973-74) two times over before moving up to challenge Schwarzenegger in the 1974 Mr. Olympia. Schwarzenegger had never faced someone larger than him.
While Ferrigno was certainly massive, he didn’t have the complete package and charisma that the champion did in 1974 and 1975. Ferrigno placed second and third in those contests, respectively. The 1975 Olympia was highlighted in the film Pumping Iron. He would make a comeback in 1992 and 1993, but he placed in 10th and 12th. In 1994, Ferrigno earned second at the Olympia in the Masters division.
Still, between his star role in Pumping Iron, his stint as The Incredible Hulk on TV, and his sheer size — Ferrigno remains a cultural icon in the bodybuilding world.
Regarded as one of the prolific posers, Lee Labrada is one of the lightest men to compete on the Mr. Olympia stage. He never weighed more than 185 pounds on stage, but he beat competitors nearly 50 pounds heavier than him.
The only person standing in Labrada’s way was eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney, the winningest Mr. Olympia of all time (tied with Ronnie Coleman). For context, Haney weighed around 250 pounds in contest shape.
Labrada graced the Olympia stage seven times from 1987 and 1993. He never placed lower than fourth in any of those competitions, taking second twice in 1989 and 1990. Of the 22 pro shows he competed in during that same period, Labrada placed outside of the top three just three times.
Nowadays, he hopes to see his son, Hunter Labrada, win the championship that he couldn’t.
Rich Gaspari was one of Haney’s training partners in the early 1980s. After turning pro, they became respectful rivals at the Olympia.
Gaspari and Haney went head-to-head every year from 1985 until Haney’s retirement in 1991. Haney won all of those competitions, but Gaspari made the contests close by placing second for three straight years from 1986 to 1988.
The smaller Gaspari was no match for Haney’s combination of mass and conditioning, so the New Jersian leaned into the latter. Gaspari came into competitions so lean that he sported striated glutes — which is when one’s body fat is so low, you can see the ripples of the muscle fibers under the skin. Though striations are commonplace in competition, Gaspari is thought to be one of the first athletes ever to achieve this level of shredded.
“The Dragon Slayers” most significant win was at the inaugural 1989 Arnold Classic in Columbus, OH. He also racked up six European Grand Prix wins (forging a rivalry with Labrada in the process) as well as a pair of wins in 1986 — the Los Angeles Pro Championship and the World Pro Championships.
Shawn Ray made his Olympia debut in 1988 — the same year he earned his pro card — and placed 13th. After taking 1989 off, he graced the Olympia stage from 1990 to 2001 and never placed lower than fifth.
His career spanned the eras of Haney, Yates, and Coleman. The closest he ever came to winning the title was in 1994 and 1996 when he placed second to Yates. Many fans felt he should’ve won the show in 1996.
In 1991, Ray picked up his first Arnold Classic win (he also won the title in 1990 before it was stripped due to a failed drug test). Fun fact: The year that Ray retired, Fox Sports hired him to commentate over a recording of the contest, set to air later that year. Ray agreed and commented on each competitor’s performance, including his own. Since retiring, Ray has solidified himself as a media personality within the bodybuilding space, working for Muscle & Fitness and Digital Muscle.
After Phil Heath dethroned Jay Cutler in 2011, many fans expected the title of Mr. Olympia to flip-flop between the new champion and rival Kai Greene.
Greene won the Arnold Classic in 2009 and 2010 and placed third in the 2011 Olympia behind the heath and Cutler. Greene took his best shots at “The Gift” in 2012 through 2014 but finished as the runner-up each time. It got tense.
At the 2014 Olympia, Greene and Heath kept posing into each other’s space. At one point, it seemed as though they were going to throw blows. That would be Greene’s last Olympia appearance as a competitor up to this point.
Greene won his third Arnold Classic in 2016 and two other contests but hasn’t competed since that year. Even now that he is in his mid-40s, fans wait with bated breath to see if “Mr. Getting it Done” will come back for one last run at the Sandow.
Kenneth “Flex” Wheeler
When you talk about the best bodybuilders to never win an Olympia, nine out of 10 people are going to think of Flex Wheeler. In 1993, Wheeler dominated his rookie season; he won four contests, including the Arnold Classic, and placed second at the Olympia to Yates.
Many journalists felt that it wasn’t a matter of if, but when, Wheeler would seize the crown. That coronation was expected to be the 1998 Olympia, the first year since Yates’ retirement. In a shock heard around the bodybuilding world, Wheeler placed second to a lesser-known bodybuilder named Ronnie Coleman, who had finished ninth place the previous year.
Wheeler’s rematch came the following year in 1999, but Coleman won again. What followed was one of the more awkward scenes in the sport’s history. Upon hearing his name called for second place, Wheeler turned his back to the crowd as Coleman fell to the floor in tears of joy. Boos rang throughout the Mandalay Bay Arena in Las Vegas, NV. Wheeler was awarded a silver medal by late bodybuilding journalist Peter McGough, awkwardly let McGough raise his hand, and then promptly removed the medal from his neck.
Wheeler placed third in the 2000 contest after claiming his fourth Arnold Classic title that same year. His final appearance in the Men’s Open came in 2002 when he placed seventh. He came out of retirement to compete one more time, but in the Classic Physique Olympia in 2017. He placed 15th.
In October of 2019, Wheeler suffered circulatory vascular issues that resulted in the amputation of the lower half of his right leg. Despite this, Wheeler documented his rehab and recovery on social media. At the 2020 Mr. Olympia, Wheeler received the inaugural Olympia Inspiration and Courage Award.
Levrone wasted no time making his mark in the pro ranks after winning the NPC Nationals in 1991. In his rookie season of 1992, he would score two pro wins and place second at the Mr. Olympia to new champion Dorian Yates.
The Baltimore, MD native took second place three more times in his illustrious career — 1995, 2000, and 2002. Between 1992 to 2003, Levrone never placed lower than sixth at the Olympia. in 2016, he come out of retirement at the age of 51 for one last Olympia; he finished tied for 16th.
During the press conference at the 2016 Olympia, Levrone managed to coax Cedric McMillan into an impromptu posedown, which fans ate up. Levrone was no doubt in it to win, but he was also having fun during his comeback.
Even though he never won the big one, Levrone has won 20 professional contests, including the Arnold Classic in both 1994 and 1996. He is the only competitor in bodybuilding history to place second in the Mr. Olympia on four different occasions.