Mr. Olympia is the biggest bodybuilding show on the planet. Winning the show is the dream of every pro bodybuilder as the Mr. Olympia champ is considered the best bodybuilder in the world for that year. Many athletes spend multiple years in the quest, but only one bodybuilder can lift the Sandow trophy each year.
Winning the Mr. Olympia title can be notoriously hard, which is evident from the fact that the throne has traded hands just 16 times in the 57-year history of the sport.
Bodybuilders that win the title usually hold onto it for multiple years. Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman reigned on the Mr. Olympia throne for eight years each. Many elite bodybuilders came close to winning the throne in these 16 years but could never enter their names on the list of Mr. Olympia champions.
This article honors the 13 bodybuilders who got within striking distance of winning their maiden Mr. Olympia title but could never seize the throne.
Furthermore, the desire of winning the Mr. Olympia title was so strong in these bodybuilders that some even made a comeback years later to try their luck at winning the Olympia throne one last time. However, since they are on this list, it goes without saying that the Sandow trophy still eluded them.
- How We Picked The Greatest Bodybuilders To Never Win a Mr. Olympia Title
- 13 Best Bodybuilders To Never Win the Mr. Olympia Contest
- Wrapping Up
How We Picked The Greatest Bodybuilders To Never Win a Mr. Olympia Title
This article is not about mass monsters or one-hit wonders who won a pro show in the lead-up to the Mr. Olympia showdown. We wanted to limit our search to contestants with the muscle mass, quality, symmetry, conditioning, balance, and stage presence who pushed the Mr. Olympia champs to the brink.
To limit favoritism, personal opinions, and predispositions, we used the performance at the Mr. Olympia contest as the main criteria to select the best bodybuilders who never hoisted the coveted Sandow trophy.
We did not consider social media stars or pro bodybuilders who have never competed at the Mr. Olympia contest. So, sorry, Victor Richards and company.
Furthermore, the athlete should have earned a podium finish at the Olympia at least once in their competitive years. If the judges didn’t think a competitor was close to winning the title, he probably wasn’t.
We limited our search to the 1965 to 2016 period. Each podium finisher from the 2016 Olympia has won the Sandow trophy, and it would be too soon to add bodybuilders who competed at the 2017 Olympia to this list.
13 Best Bodybuilders To Never Win the Mr. Olympia Contest
Without any further ado, here are the 13 bodybuilders who many believed deserved to be crowned Mr. Olympia:
1. Kenneth “Flex” Wheeler
Flex Wheeler is considered one of the most genetically gifted bodybuilders of all time. His insane muscle symmetry, balance, conditioning, and round and full muscle bellies earned him the moniker “Sultan of Symmetry” and three runner-up Olympia finishes (1993, 1998, and 1999). The 1993 second-place finish was behind Dorian Yates, and the other two were behind Ronnie Coleman. Furthermore, he earned third place behind Coleman and Kevin Levrone at the 2000 Olympia.
In an interview, the six-time Olympia champ Yates claimed that Wheeler would have defeated him at the 1994 Olympia if it wasn’t for his car crash.
Wheeler made a comeback at the 2017 Olympia in the Classic Physique division, where he finished 15th.
In hindsight, the goddess of fortune wasn’t on Wheeler’s side. He was born with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a form of kidney disease. The four-time Arnold Classic Winner had to undergo partial leg amputation in 2019 due to his medical condition. He was then hospitalized and in critical condition after contracting COVID-19, and later underwent shoulder surgery.
For his grit and determination, Wheeler received the first-ever Olympia Inspiration and Courage Award at the 2020 Olympia and is slated to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2023 Arnold Classic.
Although Wheeler never conquered the Olympia throne, he will forever be the People’s Champ.
2. Kevin Levrone
Kevin Levrone has the most podium finishes (seven) for a bodybuilder who didn’t win the Mr. Olympia throne. He finished runner-up four times (1992, 1995, 2000, and 2002) and third thrice (1994, 1996, and 2001).
Levrone won two pro shows in his rookie season and placed second behind Yates at the 1992 Olympia.
The Baltimore native came out of retirement at the age of 51 to compete at the 2016 Olympia. He finished 16th.
3. Shawn Ray
At 5-foot-5, Shawn Ray is one of the shortest Mr. Olympia podium finishers in the history of the sport. The OG giant killer started climbing through the bodybuilding ranks right when the era of the mass monsters kicked off. He placed third behind the two Lees (Haney and Labrada) at the 1988 Olympia in his sophomore year at the apex bodybuilding contest.
Ray competed in 13 Olympia contests and never placed below fifth in 12 of those shows. His lowest placing came at the 1988 Olympia on his debut, where he finished 13th.
“Sugar” placed runner-up behind Yates at the 1994 and 1996 Olympia and third at 1990, 1993, and 1997 Olympia.
In the Apr. 2003 edition of FLEX magazine, Ray was voted “Best Bodybuilder Never to Win the Mr. Olympia.”
4. Kai Greene
Kai Greene is undoubtedly one of the most popular bodybuilders of the 2000 and 2010 eras. He secured a fourth-place finish at his debut Mr. Olympia in 2009.
“The Predator” finished runner-up behind Phil Heath thrice between 2012 and 2014. Plus, he scored a third-place finish behind Heath and Cutler in 2013, the year “The Gift” snagged his maiden Sandow trophy. Interestingly, “Mr. Getting It Done” was so confident about winning the Mr. O in 2013 and 2014 that he signed posters “Kai Greene, Mr. Olympia.”
The posedown between Greene and Heath at the 2014 Olympia turned out to be the most intense in the show’s history. It looked like they weren’t far from trading blows. The Heath-Greene saga will go down as one of the fiercest bodybuilding rivalries of all time.
Although the three-time Arnold Classic champ last competed in 2016, he hasn’t officially retired from the sport yet.
5. Rich Gaspari
Rich Gaspari announced his arrival in the pro bodybuilding scene by seizing the third-place finish at the 1985 Olympia in his rookie season. Although one of the most successful bodybuilders of his era, Gaspari is usually left out of the best bodybuilders who didn’t win a Mr. Olympia title list.
Gaspari’s impeccable conditioning helped him take the runner-up spot behind former training partner Haney for three consecutive years between 1986 and 1988.
“The Dragon Slayer” was one of the first bodybuilders to sport a grainy physique. He is the first bodybuilder to exhibit striated glutes, which have now become commonplace.
Gaspari won the inaugural 1989 Arnold Classic in Columbus, OH.
6. Lee Labrada
Lee Labrada is one of the best posers pro bodybuilding has ever seen. At 5-foot-6 and 185 pounds, he was also one of the shortest and lightest competitors on the Mr. Olympia stage.
Thanks to his genetics, muscle conditioning, symmetry, balance, quality, and stage presence, Labrada finished second behind Haney at the 1989 and 1990 Mr. Olympia. He also took a third-place finish at the 1987 and 1992 Mr. Olympia.
Labrada competed at the prestigious Mr. Olympia for seven years and never finished lower than fourth. Furthermore, he finished in the top three in 19 of the 21 pro shows he contested.
Lee Labrada is the father of the 2020 Tampa Pro champ Hunter Labrada. The junior Labrada is pushing hard to take care of unfinished business at the 2022 Olympia, scheduled for Dec. 15-18 in Las Vegas, NV.
7. Mohamed Makkawy
Contrary to what most people think, Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay wasn’t the first Egyptian bodybuilder to rock the Mr. Olympia roster. Mohamed Makkawy placed runner-up behind Samir Bannout in 1983 and Haney in 1984, 34 years before Big Ramy graced the Olympia podium for the first time.
The 5-foot-4 170-pound bodybuilder relied on his muscle symmetry, quality, balance, and posing skills to conquer much bigger and more muscular athletes.
Hiring Vince Gironda changed “The Magic Egyptian’s” pro career trajectory. He went from placing seventh at the 1982 Olympia to finishing runner-up at the 1983 Olympia. He is also one of two bodybuilders besides Bannout to beat Lee Haney at a Mr. Olympia showdown.
Experts believe that Haney beat Makkawy by a small margin to register his first Olympia win in 1984. Makkawy retired from competitive bodybuilding after finishing fourth at the 1985 Olympia.
8. Nasser El Sonbaty
The 1997 Olympia was one of the most controversial clashes for the Sandow trophy in the sport’s history. The five-time and reigning Olympia champ Yates had entered the contest with a torn left triceps and was noticeably not at his best. On the other hand, Nasser El Sonbaty had shown up in the best shape of his life.
Despite a lackluster performance, Yates was awarded his sixth Sandow trophy, which fans believed should have gone to El Sonbaty. Besides his runner-up finish at the 1997 Olympia, “The Professor” took home third place at the 1995 and 1998 Olympia.
The German bodybuilder also seized third place at the 1996 Olympia but was later disqualified for testing positive for diuretics.
El Sonbaty was fluent in seven languages (Serbian, English, Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, and German). The Professor died in his sleep during a visit to Cairo in 2013 at the age of 47.
9. Robby Robinson
Robby Robinson was one of the most outspoken bodybuilders of his era. He placed third behind Frank Zane and Ed Corney at the 1977 Olympia and runner-up behind Frank Zane at the 1978 Olympia.
Although “The Black Prince” won two heavyweight Olympia titles (1977 and 1978), he never won the overall Olympia title. Olympia introduced two weight classes — under and over 200 pounds — in 1974 and followed them until 1979.
After winning the over 200-pound division in 1977 and 1978, he lost the overall title to Frank Zane, the winner of the under 200-pound division. “Mr. Lifestyle” switched to the under 200-pound division in 1979 to go head-to-head with Zane but fell to third place in the weight class.
10. Branch Warren
To put it bluntly, bodybuilding pundits never considered Warren the frontrunner for the Mr. Olympia throne. However, it all changed in 2009 when the Texan showed up at the Olympia in the best shape of his life and took second place by beating the reigning champ, Dexter Jackson. However, he was bested by Cutler, who regained his Mr. O throne.
The two-time Arnold Classic champ placed third behind Cutler and Heath at the 2010 Olympia. Although Warren could never repeat his stellar performance at the Olympia, he was on everyone’s watchlist at every show he competed in next.
11. Mike Mentzer
Mike Mentzer was one of the most controversial figures in bodybuilding. He ruffled many feathers by winning the Mr. Olympia heavyweight division with a perfect score on his debut in 1979. However, he lost the overall title to Zane, who won his third title that year.
While Mentzer fans were expecting him to snag his maiden Sandow trophy at the 1980 Olympia, the unexpected happened. Schwarzenegger came out of retirement after a four-year hiatus and won the Mr. O title. In protest, many bodybuilders refused to compete at the 1981 Olympia, while Mentzer announced his retirement from competitive bodybuilding.
12. Victor Martinez
Although Victor Martinez had a very successful amateur career, he only sprung into the limelight in the pro circuit in 2006 with a third-place finish at the Mr. O behind Cutler and Coleman.
Martinez continued his dream run into 2007 by winning the Arnold Classic title and placing runner-up to Cutler at the 2007 Olympia. Many bodybuilding fans believe that “The Dominican Dominator” should have won the Sandow trophy in 2007.
While Martinez’s fans waited to see their favorite bodybuilder reclaim what was rightfully his, in January 2008, the Dominican slipped in the street and ruptured the patellar tendon in his left knee. He returned to the Mr. O stage in 2009 but could only manage a sixth-place finish.
Martinez is the second Dominican bodybuilder to turn pro.
13. Serge Nubret
Serge Nubret had one of the most aesthetic physiques in the 1970s. His barrel chest, tiny waist, washboard abs, thick arms, and tree-trunk legs helped him earn third place at the 1972, 1973, and 1975 Mr. Olympia.
“The Black Panther” had a cameo in the bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron” (1977), where Arnie and other bodybuilders are awe-struck watching Nubret pose on the Olympia stage.
Besides being a great bodybuilder, Nubret was a promoter of the sport. He became the head of the French and European IFBB bodybuilding federations from 1970 to 1975 and then found the World Amateur Body Building Association (WABBA) to host amateur bodybuilding competitions in 1975.
We know what you are thinking — we missed Lou Ferrigno. Actually, we didn’t.
Although debatable, Ferrigno did not make it on this list. Our reasoning for this is simple. Ferrigno appeared in four Mr. Olympia clashes, his best being a third-place finish, which he shared with Frank Zane. The 6-foot-5-inch bodybuilder never even won his weight class at the Olympia and finished runner-up behind Robby Robinson at the 1994 Master Olympia. While Ferrigno looked like a solid challenger to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the cult-classic bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron, he wasn’t a frontrunner for the Mr. O throne.
Mr. Olympia champs like Dorian Yates, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Ronnie Coleman, and Phil Heath would arguably have never achieved their stardom if it wasn’t for archrivals like Shawn Ray, Flex Wheeler, Serge Nubret, and Kai Greene.
Some of the bodybuilders on this list were more popular than the Mr. O winner in the year they ended in second or third place. Although they might have never lifted the Sandow trophy, these 13 bodybuilders are undoubtedly some of the greatest of all time.