What it was like to see Ronnie Coleman in his prime

Ronnie Coleman won his last bodybuilding title in 2006. But even all these years later he’s yet to be surpassed, widely being said to be the greatest of all time.

I got to to see him at the height of his career.

NZ Grand Prix 2001

I saw Ronnie at the 2001 New Zealand Grand Prix, two weeks after his victory at the Mr Olympia.

At the time I didn’t realize what an opportunity it was. Having top pros competing in New Zealand is unusual, even if it was really more of an exhibition, given that Chris Cormier was Ronnie’s only real competition.

I’d seen one professional up till that point, Nasser El Sonbaty, who guest posed at a local competition. Nasser himself was cartoonishly impressive, but Ronnie was on a different level.

The show

Chris Cormier was one of the best of the lauded ’90s bodybuilding era, and he too had just competed at that year’s Mr Olympia. He was top five in the world, but side by side he was no match for Ronnie.

Given Chris’s caliber, the contrast was remarkable.

There was an intangible quality to Ronnie that was utterly dominant. If Chris looked like a superhero, Ronnie was the idea the artist rejected because his muscularity was too absurd for a comic. He had an inhuman look, more special effect than man.


The person in charge of the show lighting is a friend, so as well as free entry, I got to go backstage.

Standing a few feet from Ronnie in that casual context was surreal. There were other regular-sized people people around, and he looked like four of them squashed together.

At a distance with a shirt on you could mistake him as obese.

Seemed like a nice guy, too

When I saw Nasser El Sonbaty earlier that year, he’d insisted on posing with the winner of the show, delighting in making the amateur guy look foolish.

Conversely, there was also an amateur section of the NZ Grand Prix, and it was suggested that Ronnie pose with the winner of it. But he refused, saying he didn’t want to diminish the amateur guy’s glory.

Bodybuilding royalty

It was an exciting experience at the time. Even beyond seeing a Mr Olympia, there was an added mystique to famous people because it was before we had social media access to everyone.

However, in hindsight it’s only become more valuable, given what a unique specimen Ronnie truly was. No champion has matched his belief-defying combination of pleasing shape with sheer size.

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