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Deliberating the Niners

Courtesy of Timothy McAuliffe Phil Heath Illustration - Courtesy of Timothy McAuliffe

Atlas Flexed

A behind-the-scenes look at Mr. Olympia Phil Heath's 2012 defense of bodybuilding's most important title, on the weekend of this year's competition

Before we begin, before you meet the most genetically gifted bodybuilder of all time, before you become privy to certain facts about him — his draconian diet, maniacal habits, hell-bent creeds — facts you might find improbable if not outright impossible — you should know something about me: I was once a teenage competitive bodybuilder in the flaunting, brazen state of New Jersey. You know that T-shirt that declaims New Jersey: Only the Strong Survive? I wore one of those.

I grew up under Homeric standards of masculinity, raised by a family of wrestlers and weightlifters, in thrall of the Greek agglomerate of gods and heroes from the minute I was given an illustrated copy of The Iliad in fifth grade. Weightlifting rescued me from a vulnerable, pitiful sense of self during my sophomore year of high school after a girlfriend shucked me for a football star.

This is significant in a number of ways, which we will come to, but mainly this means that I do not gaze upon Phil Heath the same way you do. I do not see an aberrant beast, a narcissistic meathead with masculinity issues. I do not see a gorged addict who has crashed head-on into madness, the male counterpart to anorexia with its attendant psychosis, the clinically obsessed product of pills and syringes, a functionless showboat little better than those mental midgets on Jersey Shore.

No, I see something else entirely. In Heath, I see the most stunning physique in the history of bodybuilding. I see a reigning Mr. Olympia who works harder and devotes more time to his sport than almost any other athlete or artist you can name — aside from ballerinas, but we will get to that too. I see an athlete who allowed me access into his outrageous world to behold for myself what it takes to be this breed of champion, and if you come along with me now you might view him and his sport — his art — a bit more like I do. Indeed, Phil Heath might be the champ who makes you care about — or at least understand — the most misunderstood and fantastical sport on earth. 

I.  In the Gym — 10 Weeks Before the 2012 Mr. Olympia Contest

The parking spot at the door of Armbrust Pro Gym outside Denver has a sign that warns: “Mr. Olympia Phil Heath Parking Only: All Others Will Be Crushed.” When the 32-year-old Heath enters this sprawling gym it’s like watching Santa amble among his elves. At 6 p.m. on a weekday in late July, this place is a bustling paragon of the subculture: hard-core weightlifters after strength, bodybuilders wanting symmetrical perfection, teens aspiring to muscled greatness, and skin-baring fitness fanatics trying to fend off their deaths. The already amped-up air has changed in here, has become more charged since he swaggered through the door a minute ago. Even Metallica, in their distortion-fueled bruit and bluster, seem aware of his presence. You can always tell the seriousness of a gym by its music. But Armbrust is no ordinary gym — this place is a temple, and Phil Heath is its deity.

Admit it: If you have a god, he’s no stick-figure wonk. In the Book of Job, Yahweh asks the stricken man, “Hast thou an arm like God?” Heath’s arms are almost two feet in diameter and would make the good Lord run the other way in shame.

African American with fallow skin, uncommon green eyes, and faintly Caucasian features, Heath looks suspiciously either of no race at all or else of every race on earth, a glorious global amalgam. One marvels at his bubbled superhero form, at the faultless proportions of his mass, how it all jells and melds — trapezius muscles curving into deltoids curving into pectorals, biceps into triceps and forearms, hamstrings into calves, quadriceps into little kneecaps, and lats into a waist too tiny for many lifting belts (at just 29 inches, his waist looks stolen from a teenage gymnast). He possesses every desirable element on a bodybuilding stage. Of the 13 men who have held the Mr. Olympia title since its genesis in 1965, Heath is the most complete. With Adonis’s face, that golden personality, and brimful intelligence, he possesses a crossover appeal that hasn’t been seen since Schwarzenegger.

Most of Phil Heath’s every year is aimed sniper-like at a single target: the Mr. Olympia Competition, the Super Bowl of bodybuilding, started by Joe Weider, a Canadian immigrant and business-minded fitness zealot with a fondness for the Greek pantheon of gods. Heath took the Olympia crown in 2011 and spends every day here at Armbrust Pro Gym, outside Denver, thinking of a repeat: “All year long my focus is this contest, and everything I do for seventy days is about me winning it. Every meal, every workout, every rep, every supplement, every ounce of sleep, every massage therapy. Everything.”

Today is Heath’s shoulder routine. Donned in wireless headphones over a black Gift baseball cap — Heath’s sobriquet is “the Gift,” and he has his own line of merchandise — he warms up with military presses on the Smith machine, a barbell attached to a frame to permit only vertical motion and thus minimize the chance of getting hurt. The screaming, train-till-you-puke, pack-on-muscle severity of the offseason has passed; this close to the Olympia he’s careful to avoid injury. Everywhere the tall mirrors give the impression of spaces within spaces, of other rooms within other rooms to vanish into. The scent of rubber and oiled metal begins to smell aphrodisiacal.

I began in a very different species of gym: my uncle’s basement in my hometown of Manville, New Jersey, where he had set up pro-grade weights and machines before a wall of cracked mirrors. But I remember this erotically charged atmosphere from the gym I trained in once my uncle’s basement no longer matched my goals. For an 18-year-old kid, it was a festival of carnality and better than any heaven you could conjure. We had a really hard time understanding how normal people walk through this world without muscle, without being fortified against life’s lightning bolts. I shifted into bodybuilding when I joined a gym called the Physical Edge, when my physique began showing stage traits — that coveted V shape — and when guys at the Edge convinced me I should. These guys made themselves mentors and taught me all about diet and nutrition. They taught me new methods of training, not simply for strength and mass but for the aesthetics required on a bodybuilding stage. My own training program wasn’t all that different from Heath’s. In the offseason I trained with heavy weights and stuffed myself with high-calorie mounds of pasta and beef; in season I honed my diet and lightened the weights to emphasize muscle division.

Between cautious sets of 10 reps, Heath leans against the frame to rest and sips from a bottle of water (he drinks two gallons per day — give your body a constant intake of water and it won’t hold on to any). A blond Amazonian beauty saunters over to him waving around her pheromones like nunchakus, her outfit a prototype for the porn version of Barbarella. You can feel a current of that temptation buzzing in the air of Armbrust Pro Gym: desirable citizens quarter-dressed and sweating, their workout grimaces remarkably coital, on pause between pain and pleasure, scanning one another with ravenous want. And of course no one here is scanned more than Heath. They glance and goggle and glance again in a synthesis of intimidation, envy, esteem, and awe.

Even to people outside bodybuilding’s arcana, to those unaware of his stunning uniqueness, Heath is a specimen impossible not to ogle, and not merely because of his mass — and at 270 pounds of adamantine muscle he is indeed massive — but because of how that mass adheres to his 5-foot-9-inch frame. His rapid ascent to the peak of Olympus signals a sea change in the criteria for pro bodybuilders. Champions from the recent past such as Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman, and Jay Cutler were monstrous, grotesque, mechanical — 300 pounds in the offseason, blocky and vascular, they looked spawned from pissed-off gods intent on hurting humankind. Heath, on the other hand, because he’s so superhero round, is, well, pretty. The human eye prefers the round to the rectangular: Think of the rolls of an infant’s body, a woman’s breast, a Roman arch. Heath has accomplished in only seven years — the physique, the titles, the endorsements — what has taken other guys 20 or more. Magazines were calling him the future of bodybuilding before he turned pro.

When I ask Dylan Armbrust, founder of Armbrust Pro Gym, what makes Heath better than the colossal others — Heath defeated Jay Cutler with a perfect score in 2011 to take the title of Mr. Olympia — he is very clear: “The aesthetics of the man are just unbelievable. He’s so round. Dorian, Ronnie, Jay — they had wide waists and big joints and had to put on massive muscle to look that way. Phil doesn’t have to do that. He can be twenty-five pounds lighter than those guys but still look just as big standing onstage with them. His genetic makeup is astounding. It could be fifty years before we see those kind of genes again.”

When Heath began prep for the Olympia he increased his reps from eight to between 10 and 12. High weight and low reps target the deep muscle fibers — the so-called fast-twitch muscle fibers — and pack on mass, increase strength. Low weight and high reps target the surface muscle fibers — the slow-twitch fibers — and sculpt the granite he needs for the stage. The adjectives mean the same thing: cut, diced, ripped, shredded. Because he has decreased his fat and carb intake for this necessary conditioning, his shoulder pump will come quicker now. The “pump” is what you want, what bodybuilders have named the state of a muscle so stuffed with blood it feels at the point of popping. Schwarzenegger famously likened it to an orgasm, and although he’s been wrong about much he wasn’t wrong about that.

After his shoulder workout, Heath peels down to his sport briefs to pose in a corner away from the crowd. The word gym, remember, derives from gymnasium, which derives from the Greek gymnos, which means “stripped.” At the gymnasiums and wrestling schools in ancient Greece the male athletes trained in the nude, and the original Olympic games, in legend founded by Heracles himself, were spectacles of masculine nudity. In the West, our entire mode of thinking about the male body and male beauty has been handed to us by the ancient Greeks. The prominent social place they allowed for sculptures of that beauty is unmatched in antiquity. One needn’t be gay to be stunned by the grandeur of Heath’s physique just as one needn’t be an architect or a Christian to be stunned by Saint Peter’s Basilica. When a former roommate bestowed upon Heath his sobriquet and brand name, he meant both a gift to bodybuilding and a gift of beauty to those with eye and heart enough to see it.

I snap scores of photos with my phone, drooling like an enraptured imbecile. Heath: “I need to beat these guys in every category there is — size, balance, flow, full symmetry, conditioning, muscle separation — and I’m beating them at their peak. They’ve got twice as much experience. In order to knock the champ off his throne, you have to do something we’ve never seen before, because right now I’m the ideal, and all I have to do is beat myself from last year. It’s my job to make it extremely easy for those judges to pick me as the champion.”

Balance and proportion, rhythm and harmony — these are the terms of representational art. And if you believe that this plethoric focus on the body is vain, narcissistic, superficial, then ask yourself this: How is it any different from a writer’s all-consuming focus on his book or a painter’s on her canvas? Is it really more egoistic than a ballet dancer’s brutal pursuit of perfection? Why are we so eager to dismiss the body as art? In his absurdist novel Body, Harry Crews christened bodybuilders “the mysterious others,” “the mad imaginings of a mad artist.” Unholy monks of muscle with a monomaniacal vision, professional bodybuilders possess the brand of focus that has allowed mystics and ascetics to float free of their bodies, except that their focus necessitates a further filling of their bodies — bodies forged into outrageous walking artwork, 3-D anatomical charts staggering enough to spook Andreas Vesalius, the father of anatomy. Part athlete, part artist, they use muscle tissue as their clay, their choreography. They are triumphant Greco-Roman warriors shunning the puny Christian principle that loathes the body while lauding an unblemished soul, and yet their no-pain-no-gain credo is Christ-like to its core — you must rove through hell to reach your heaven. Every bodybuilder becomes a nutritionist, a chemist, a ritualist and rebel. Masters of nature, they achieve their own apotheosis. To exist in this world of extremity is to leave the rest of us behind almost completely.

Beholding Heath’s singular physique in this intimate way is a surreal experience. The rotund poetry of the man makes him look engineered. And indeed, that’s the other component to the preparation — the open secret among bodybuilders: anabolic drugs. Like the drug ubiquity in cycling and in many major team sports, steroids in bodybuilding are obsessed over by everyone but the athletes. We as a culture like to feign shock every time we discover that the prom queen isn’t a virgin — and she’s never a virgin. I’m nauseated with boredom every time I hear that steroids are cheating. If you think steroids alone are responsible for a pro’s physique then you must also admit that all you require to win the Tour de France seven times over is the same dope plunged into Lance Armstrong. Let me stress this again: You, average male, could inject the choicest chemicals mad science has concocted and you will never, ever win the Tour de France or have the beauteous physical symphony of Phil Heath.

Mr Olympia Phil Heath poses during a media call ahead of the 2012 IFBB Australian Pro Grand Prix XIII on March 16, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia.

II.  The Heath Residence — Nine Weeks Before the Olympia

To the west the Rocky Mountains loom in all their muscular heft. In the driveway of this manse a white Benz coup reclines next to an electric blue Bentley Continental Supersports. Inside Heath has amassed an ultrasound machine to relieve inflammation, a Vitaeris 320 hyperbaric chamber to saturate muscle tissue with pure oxygen and thus speed recovery, and a Lux infrared sauna for destroying free radicals. He has earned the lucrative endorsements that are the aim of every pro bodybuilder. He had in hand multiple contracts from top fitness companies before he ever stepped onto a national stage. He clearly relishes his throne, his status as the monarch of this cosmos, the glittery perks of money and fame.

Heath wasn’t like me. Bodybuilding wasn’t an aim he’d been working toward since he was a teen but rather a destiny, a genetic truth revealed to him suddenly at the age of 22. He was reared by his mother and stepfather in a scarred swath of South Seattle, and turned to sports for both refuge and respect. He was recruited out of high school to play point guard at the University of Denver, but at only 5-foot-9, he knew he could ditch those plans for the NBA. He began weight training to improve his strength and size, and within only six months he and everyone else at the gym knew they were gazing upon a genetic anomaly. His physique responded to the iron with a speed, density, and rotundity no one had ever seen before.

And yet his God-given gifts, a cause for celebration in basketball, are now derided by the multitude: “You can give me credit on a skilled sport — golf, basketball — but when it comes to someone’s appearance — how often do guys compliment another man on anything? They find it feminine. It’s easy for them to say, ‘Why do you want to look like that?’ Seriously? You just have a hard time saying, ‘Man, it must take a lot of work to look like that,’ because let’s be honest, it does, whether you’re a champion or not. And the thing is, the guy who is usually criticizing me is the skinny dude who never played a sport, who was never good at one, and probably got picked on, or the guy who is completely out of shape. It would be like me judging every fat person, and there’s plenty of ’em. I could say, ‘Why do you look like that?’ How hurtful would that be?”

We are in the Heaths’ kitchen, where he spends an exorbitant amount of time. Jennie — of Italian descent and eight years older than her husband — joins me at the table as Heath boils pasta and grills steak.

“That’s his goal in all of this,” Jennie says, “to change the stereotype of bodybuilding. They even have hot dog–eating contests as a sport, and bowling, but they won’t look at bodybuilding.”

Heath agrees. “Cup stacking on an ESPN highlight? That’s pretty messed up.”

Those who contend that bodybuilding isn’t a sport because it lacks utility, a specific function of physicality, have never attempted rounds of competitive posing in lanes of scorching spotlight. The skill lies in the difficult mastering of muscle development and nutrition, in the wedding of power with grace, and in the grueling exposition of the outcome.

Jennie leans toward me, her shampooed hair like ambrosia. “He might start sweating when he eats. Don’t bug out. That’s normal when he switches his carbs.”

It’s called thermogenesis. Heath’s body is so finely tuned, so sensitive to every gram of carbohydrate, so expectant of a uniform meal every two and a half hours, that it knows precisely when he switches from red potato to white potato to sweet potato, from brown rice to white rice. He doesn’t switch carbs for a change of taste but because certain carbs actually alter his aesthetic. His muscles remain fuller and rounder on potatoes and pasta, leaner and less round on rice. Carbs are like coal into a steam engine: When they hit his system they stir his metabolic rate. “My body is saying I’ve gotta use this now, burn it up, I can’t store it.” That’s how we get fat — when our metabolism isn’t trained to burn what our bodies consume but instead holds on to it for a future use that never comes.

The diet is the most unforgiving element of this sport, more taxing than squats or dead lifts. When I began training at 16, I had so much trouble adding mass that I’d have to force-feed myself tuna fish and wheat bread — I’d sit in the hallways of my high school with malodorous Tupperware containers as other students walked by eyeing me like I was a mutated zoo exhibit. Each night before bed I choked down a quart of protein shake with the consistency of sawdust, and if I puked it all up, as I often did, I blended another and tried again.

Heath cooks a meal eight times a day, and in solidarity Jennie and her 19-year-old son, Mikey, recast their eating habits when Heath begins dieting for the Olympia competition 14 weeks from showtime.

“I took two trash bags of banned food out of here as soon as his diet started,” Jennie says.

No fruit, no sugars. Those simple carbs are too quick. Fruit doesn’t build muscle. During prep he consumes only 40 grams of complex carbs per meal — roughly half a bagel. Counting calories is crap. Heath counts grams — the grams are what matter. Between 70 and 75 grams of protein per meal — roughly 10 ounces of chicken breast — are needed to sustain his anabolism. He has an organic chicken sponsor, a local farm, that trims and weighs his portions. They don’t freeze the meat, only deep-chill it, because freezing and thawing reduces its quality. As it gets later in the day, he swaps chicken for steak because steak is a denser protein and can carry his body through the night. As the contest nears, all of his protein comes from fish because it’s leaner than meat — several pounds per day of tilapia, halibut, orange roughy. For weeks everything in the house, including their dogs, reeks of fish.

“People don’t get the diet,” Jennie tells me. “Can you guys go to the movies? No. The last thing he wants to do is sit in a movie theater that smells like popcorn and hot dogs.”

“No sporting events,” Heath says. “No summers.”

Jennie isn’t pleased by this. “No summers because that’s when everyone is barbecuing and drinking beer.”

And what’s it like to have a life with this man?

“I’ve had a hard time finding my place in this with him,” Jennie says. “I’m a pretty family core person, and that’s when it would get hard. This last year, with him taking the title and traveling, was the hardest. There were times when I’d have to call and say, ‘OK, I’m struggling, you need to be home.’ Anything I need to argue with him about, I write it down, get a list going, because even tension, people don’t understand what stress does to your cortisol levels.”

Cortisol, a steroidal hormone produced in the adrenal gland, creates havoc with the body’s processing of protein and glucose and can wreck the long-fought-for aesthetics of Heath’s physique. How’s that for a sweet deal? Three months out of every year your wife can’t argue with you.

“If Jennie and I got in a really bad blowup, if we were both crying, I could drop eight pounds in a day.”

“Nothing can take the focus off,” she says.

Heath graduated from the University of Denver with a degree in business and IT, but, aware of the pitfalls of bodybuilders’ put-on hyper-masculinity, he would have made a superb psychologist. The paradoxical “femmy”-ness of bodybuilding isn’t lost on him — the tanning, the hairlessness, the fetishizing of food, the repining for male regard — and he’s the first to admit that he lacks some essentials of stereotypical manliness (he’s hopeless with home improvement and doesn’t know his way around Lowe’s). He has a small shopping problem, a weakness for Louis Vuitton bags (Jennie calls him “Posh”). This irony never occurred to me when I was a kid — the irony that we hyper-muscled boys had turned into a clan of adoring femmes who sought the esteem of other boys and older men, who tanned our bodies bronze and shaved our bodies smooth, who dressed in spandex and obsessed over food. We boys had morphed into female stereotypes and in the process of impressing one another forgot the reason we had turned to bodybuilding in the first place — for the girls.

“He’s a sex symbol,” Jennie says of her husband, “and that’s hard on me.”

“Sex symbol to women and men,” Heath says.

“Not many people’s husbands are running around the world in little panties.”

Before I leave the Heaths’ that night, I slide across the table a photograph snapped in an alien epoch — I’m 18 years old, onstage competing in my second and last bodybuilding contest. I was never any good — I was runner-up in my first show and took fourth place in my second — but I’ve never been able to forget that euphoria of triumph as I walked offstage clutching a trophy. I was so proud of my adolescent self for enduring workouts harsh enough to snap a man, for sticking to a 12-week diet of mind-boggling blandness, and for prancing around in a banana sack before an auditorium of very discerning people.

Heath: “No way.”

Jennie: “Is that you?”

Heath: “Dude, you had some delts on you. And legs.”

Jennie, tearful: “So you get it! You understand!”

Indeed I do, my friends. Indeed I do.

III.  Las Vegas — Olympia Weekend

At the Trump Hotel in Vegas, Heath has commandeered a baroque, carpeted conference room for a men’s magazine photo shoot. In some nooks of the hotel there is buzz that Heath’s chief competition — Kai Greene, an astonishing monster from New York — has come to Vegas in the freakiest shape of his life. But when the champ arrives for photos he doesn’t care about buzz. He’s slow-moving, down to 250 pounds, all the oomph sucked out of him by the vampiric demands of the Olympia. The contest is only 28 hours away and he’s water-depleted; every sentence is labored. The trick at this crucial juncture is to keep his body full and round on the right carbs and protein while siphoning the remaining fluid from between his skin and muscle tissue. Carbs require water to be assimilated, and because he’s not drinking any, that required water gets pulled from beneath his skin, creating the dry see-through aesthetic you see onstage. The problem, of course, is that dehydration feels downright bubonic. What’s more, Heath has retreated so deep inside himself that I wonder if he’ll have the patience for an hour of photographs.

Halfway through the shoot all is well, and then his trainer, Hany Rambod, hurricanes into the room. Rambod is a lava-blooded, high-strung former med student, perhaps the most sought-after trainer in the sport, an expert who can mean the difference between winning and not. He’s none too pleased with this photo shoot — Heath should be on his back, his legs elevated to reduce water retention — and he’s even less pleased with how Heath looks to him right now. Where everyone else beholds a physical exemplar to chasten Zeus, Rambod sees a champion who’s not as round or rested as he needs to be. The camera stops clicking for Rambod to inspect Jennie’s notes of what Heath has eaten these last several hours. Then he orders Heath through several poses — back double bicep, side chest, front lat spread — his head wagging in consternation.

“You flattened out,” Rambod says. “When did you last eat?”

Now there’s an edgy exchange between them in which Rambod assaults Heath’s priorities and says he himself is “at critical mass” — meaning, I think, that he’s supremely pissed off. Heath tries to mollify him, but there’s no mollifying Hany Rambod. He orders the Heaths back to the hotel suite, dashes from our midst, and just like that, with only half the pictures the magazine needs, the shoot is shut down.

“He’s right,” Heath says, pulling on clothes. “I can’t lose this show for some fucking photographs,” and then he, too, is gone.

Ninety minutes later Heath returns and we witness firsthand the wizardry of Hany Rambod. Heath feels far less fatigued and his muscles have filled, rounded, hardened. The difference might be subtle, but after rest and a meal of steak and potatoes he has gone from second place to first. This is part of Rambod’s priceless function: He provides an objective eye on Heath’s condition during this tense last phase, because Heath’s own psycho-emotional state can cause him to misjudge the mirror and commit an uncorrectable error of nutrition.

At the meet-and-greet an hour later, Rambod says, “We’re trying to get that Saran-wrapped look. On the cover of magazines, that look isn’t weeks of looking like that. You can only look like that for one day, and you’re trying to peak during that one hour of competition tomorrow night.”

If Heath peaks too soon or too late, there’s no recovering from that, and he has lost the title. Every minute detail of his diet must be monitored to make sure he peaks at maximum roundness and hardness during that single hour onstage Friday. Or as Heath tells me: “I want people weeping. I want them to say this is the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen.”

Heath has a spray-tanning appointment in a room at the Orleans Hotel — if an athlete’s skin isn’t bronzed, every striation will get washed out in the strong sheen of stage lights. A walkie-talkied employee escorts us through the empty arena so that Heath might bypass the heart-wrecked throng who won’t get to have photos taken with him, and Heath isn’t indifferent to that. There’s the stage to our left, alight with an enormous screen proclaiming in proud scarlet: “Joe Weider’s Olympia.” In the center aisle of the arena Heath pauses to take in the stage, and then folds over the back of a seat, hands gripped in prayer. He stays that way for a minute or more, swiping at tears. Then we’re moving again toward the hotel. “I just got caught in that moment,” he says. “I’ve gone through a lot in my life to get to this point.”

The spray-tanner has bedecked a hotel room in a hazmat motif certain to scare the maid — sections cordoned off by heavy sheets of plastic and duct tape, a standing tent in the bathroom, fans straining to thin the toxic scent. Naked, one hand on his rooster, legs spread, Heath chats and jibes as the tanner coats him in even lanes of wet bronze. It’s close to 11 p.m. and he’s the most animated I’ve seen him all day, his garrulous self despite dehydration. He talks about the sureness of his winning the Sandow tomorrow — the first-place trophy is a statue of Eugen Sandow, the pioneer of bodybuilding. I briefly consider asking about his chief rival, the massive Kai Greene, but I can’t muster the nerve.

Phil Heath 2

IV. The Competition

The following night at the Orleans Arena, Heath is the last of the 19 competitors to appear backstage. He enters in flip-flops from behind a tall scrim, trailing a cooler on wheels, headphones fastened, zipped to the chin in the black warm-up suit worn by every man. At the center of this wide space a black rug has been lain before a wall of mirrors. In between assortments of workout equipment, men lie on their backs like fallen soldiers, most with their legs raised on benches. They glance over at the champ because he’s the only man they’ve been thinking about all year. Heath finds a chair apart from them — face stern, head bobbing just slightly to whatever music croons to him — and seconds later he’s encircled by a crush of cameras and mikes and lights.

The atmosphere back here does not come close to chummy. Paramedics sit on standby near a gurney (there’s always a risk of fainting, or worse, if you screw up the diet). Slowly the supine begin to rise and strip. They maunder behind a curtain where a platoon of women apply oil with blue surgical gloves, then they return to grab weights to inflate themselves further. One by one each will perform his routine, and then all will emerge onstage for comparison.

There’s a giant off in a corner by himself, seated with his back to the ruck, his head hidden deep in a hoodie. This is Kai Greene, and they call him the Predator — a two-foot length of braided hair hangs from the top of his skull like a fuse. If it were your chore to craft a character the inverse of Phil Heath, you’d craft Kai Greene. Withdrawn and eccentric, an orphan raised as a ward of the state of New York, a visual and graphic artist who still resides in the projects, he evinces enigma and involution. And when he disrobes for oil, it’s obvious that there might be trouble: His waist is nearly as narrow as Heath’s, his dense back shredded, massive quads cut to ribbons. In the 2011 Olympia he took third place. Tonight he has come to take it all.

Heath notices Greene from where he warms up on the carpet — it’s impossible to say if that expression on him is confidence or concern. But as Greene ascends the metal stairs to the stage, Heath joins the half-moon at the monitor to see exactly how much trouble he might be in. The thousands in the audience thunder for Kai Greene.

And they thunder once more when Heath stalks into sight, his posing music a mix of Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Jay Z, and 50 Cent. The art of posing is tantamount to dance in its presentation of shape, form, and flow, and the posing routine of many a bodybuilder is quite literally a dance routine. A flawless pose begins slowly, fluidly, in time with the music, and then tenses into a burst at the corresponding spot in the song. Not only does a great pose direct attention to the muscle group being flexed, it also highlights the rest of the body in relation to that muscle group. The clumsy poser is sibling to the clunky-footed ballet dancer. I never had a fraction of Heath’s fluid grace because I was never comfortable enough with those muscles hung on me, never fully convinced that this was the identity I wanted.

Heath poses to the judges perched in the orchestra and to the audience tiered left and right. Their criteria are clear as per IFBB guidelines: Athletes are rated by “size, shape, density, separation and definition, in relation to symmetry and natural aesthetics,” in addition to the “qualities of balance, proportion and the overall ‘flow’ of the physique.” Heath shines in every one of those criteria — the man looks drawn by the imagination of Stan Lee.

At the end of Heath’s routine, the 19 men stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the lip of the stage. The judges call them through a series of poses for comparison, and within 20 minutes 17 of them are split into two lines at either side. Only Heath and Greene remain at center to duke it out, and during their pose-for-pose comparison, something is askew. Greene keeps inching forward, and when the judges call a pose, he waits almost until Heath is coming out of his before beginning his own — so as to leave the judges with the final impression and also save himself from having to be compared too closely shot-for-shot. At one point he pretends to punch Heath. The crowd laughs, but Heath is not amused. The announcer says, “They say you gotta knock the champ out, and I guess that’s a good way to do it.” It’s a brazen move, and Heath lets him get away with it. In other words: Kai is controlling this combat. He can’t quite equal Heath’s rotund thickness, but he’s close — closer than anyone expected.

Backstage once more, Heath sits in exhaustion and mops sweat from his shoulders. The others have gone. A reporter from Flex magazine approaches and suggests that Heath isn’t as detailed as he could be. Exasperated, Heath defends his conditioning, and then: “I don’t need any negativity right now.” Not long after, back at the Trump, Heath and Rambod hold a private council to scrutinize photos and strategize for tomorrow night. Insider wisdom has it that only 90 percent of the contest is won on Friday night — Saturday still matters. Jennie and members of Team Heath meet down in the lobby lounge, the mood among them ill at ease. It wasn’t supposed to be this close. No one has ever seen Greene’s waist that small. And why wasn’t Heath more ferocious during that duel with him? As a lifelong athlete, he knows when to untether the beast. An unaskable inquiry, a shelf cloud, hovers over Team Heath. What if he loses?

V. The Competition Continued

At 6 p.m. the next night, Heath is in their suite at the Orleans devouring a hamburger. If you’re thinking that a burger can never be good for the physique, you’re right — if the physique is yours or mine. But Heath’s body fat percentage is so low, his metabolism so high, and his anabolic rate so efficient that the burger’s density will get stuffed directly into his muscle bellies, keeping him round. And what I notice about him is twofold. First, he’s fuller and harder than he was 24 hours ago — he spent all day going from the kitchen table to the bed and back again. And second, he’s mad as hell. If last night he had on a game face, he now wears a war face.

And from the moment he arrives backstage he mentally drubs the others — that easeful strut and those authoritarian glances at Greene announce he will not be bested. He lathers another burger with ketchup to smash it down. We two retreat to the solitude of the bathroom to check his fullness, and in that mirror, beneath those fluorescent bulbs, with me next to him like an apparitional toothbrush, he looks otherworldly. “He’s not this big,” he says, referring to Greene, and the only response I can give is an astounded nod of assent.

When the onstage clash between these two titans finally comes, Heath is so aggressive, so domineering, and so charismatic, Greene seems to be shrinking before our eyes. The Predator can’t return the Gift’s glares of intimidation. He looks sluggish and almost sick up there. The crowd is aflame. This is the spectacle they came for. And here’s what those two are thinking up there — they’ve whipped themselves like workhorses the whole year for this brief time onstage before the judges, and they know what the judges want, and they know there’s nothing at all that can be done now to improve their lot, only perform as they have practiced and present their sculpted figures with grace and élan. Nothing is subjective here, nothing left to capriciousness, to chance. And Heath knows he’s got it all, knows he’s the athlete-artist who in 30 quick minutes might be one step closer to resurrecting his sport from the boneyard of mainstream irrelevance.

Their showdown finished, Heath and Greene rest off in the left wing as the others compete. Heath is high-wattage — he can’t keep still. Greene, meanwhile, folds onto the railing, his head low, visage glazed over as in shock. A woman applies an ice pack to his nape and a paramedic advances within reach.

Heath never did feel a flash of doubt, was never bothered by the whispers. He knew all along that Kai Greene could not conquer him. When the announcer hollers Heath’s name as victor, his team weeps in bliss and relief.

Among the numerous reasons I abandoned bodybuilding, there is this: the inevitability of growing up, of growing out of an identity in extremis that was never really mine. There are myriad ways to be a man, to become a man, and at 19 I discovered that the pursuits of the mind and spirit can rival those of the body — their accomplishments are just as muscular, just as robust, and for me they were transformative in a way that bodybuilding never was. It always feels like a kind of miracle when you are found by the identity that endures. But I haven’t lost my reverence for the monastic dedication this sport can impart, and I never lost my ability to stand ecstatic before an uncommon champion like Heath. His own fulfillment lies in realizing his fate, in altering the image of his sport, in doing what he was born to do.

Onstage in Vegas, Heath has his fist pumped high. He is given the gold medal, the first-place trophy, and the check for $250,000. “Man,” he said, “it feels freakin’ good to be king up in here.” And no matter what you might think of Phil Heath, if you still consider him a human aberration or if you agree with me that he’s walking artwork, you can’t change the fact that he has earned what most men clamor for: He is the undisputed ruler of his world.

William Giraldi is the author of the novel Busy Monsters and fiction editor for the AGNI journal at Boston University.