When “Ninjas” Stopped Bodybuilding Legend Flex Wheeler From Participating in Mr. Olympia 1997

The IFBB Mr. Olympia contest is unarguably the most significant annual bodybuilding competition. While The Arnold Classic, founded by seven-time Mr. Olympia winner Arnold Schwarzenegger, comes close, it still has to settle for the second spot. The Mr. Olympia contest, through the clever tactics of Joe Weider, also managed to dethrone the Mr. Universe in the 60s despite the odds being in favor of the NABBA contest.

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However, with the symbolic title of the most prestigious contest, the IFBB flagship event also faces the most scrutiny. Fans flock to see their favorite bodybuilders compete, and even the slightest lapse in judging fuels debate for months after the contest. Hence, it’s no surprise that Joe Weider’s creation, on some occasions, has been immensely controversial. With the 2023 Mr. Olympia right around the corner, let’s take a look at one of the most bizarre editions featuring bodybuilding legend Flex Wheeler’s dramatic exit, ninjas, and controversy.

Dorian Yates’s final Mr. Olympia


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The 1997 Mr. Olympia shaped up to be quite competitive. Dorian Yates, who took the mantle after Lee Haney retired with eight Sandow trophies, had shown chinks in his armor. The Englishman shocked the world in 1991 when he kept up with the Haney. In 1992, Yates realized his potential by winning the contest. However, Yates planned to hold on to the title by pushing the envelope.

The English champion focused on his two biggest assets, size and conditioning. During his Olympia reign, Yates laid low in England and every year emerged with more muscle mass and granite-like conditioning. Dorian Yates became the original mass monster. However, others stepped up their physiques in response, and Flex Wheeler and a handful of elites became Yates’s perennial rivals.

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Flex Wheeler’s chances of beating his rival

While Dorian Yates took muscle mass to never-before-seen levels, Flex Wheeler stuck to his biggest advantage, symmetry, and proportions. Flex Wheeler’s earned the nickname, The Sultan of Symmetry. The year Yates won his first Mr. Olympia, Wheeler placed second, showing off his incredible symmetry, proportions, and posing. However, Yates always maintained the size advantage.

However, in the following few years, others like Kevin Levrone, Shaw Ray, and Nasser El Sonbaty would emerge as Yates’s significant rivals. Wheeler was involved in a car accident that kept him from competing for the year. However, the bodybuilding legend had a strong showing in 1996, placing 2nd at the Arnold Classic, winning the Ironman Pro, Night of Champions, and placing fourth at the Olympia.

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His success continued in 1997. The Sultan of Symmetry won the Arnold Classic, Ironman Pro, and San Jose Classic, completing the triple crown. With Yates suffering a devastating tricep injury, Wheeler was among the prime contenders for the then five-time Mr. Olympia’s crown. However, drama ensued days before the contest.

Ninjas robbed Flex Wheeler?

48 hours before the most prestigious annual bodybuilding contest, the 1997 Arnold Classic champion shocked the bodybuilding world. The five-time Ironman Pro winner announced his withdrawal from the Mr. Olympia competition. Flex Wheeler appeared with a bandaged left hand and forearm and explained that he was the victim of a failed carjacking.

The bodybuilder later explained, in a video, that he had been attacked by multiple carjackers. One of these men seemed to be a trained martial artist. However, Flex Wheeler, a Taekwondo black belt, successfully fended them off, albeit sustaining several injuries. Over time, the story got twisted to refer to his assailants as ninjas.

Stunned fans had a plethora of reactions to the news. While many showed concern, others went as far as to accuse Wheeler of fabricating the story. Some skeptics theorized the Arnold Classic champion didn’t peak at the correct time. They claimed instead of pulling out of the competition formally, Wheeler concocted the martial artist carjacker story.


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Was the 1997 Mr. Olympia Wheeler’s golden opportunity?

Despite the drama, Flex Wheeler never deviated from his story. While the 2004 book Flex Ability skimmed over the incident, none of the theories of Wheeler lying about the incident held water. However, Wheeler pulling out of the competition would only be the beginning of the controversy. Dorian Yates showed up to the Olympia with a massive triceps injury he had suffered only three weeks before stepping on stage.

While Yates maintained his size, the injury affected his on-stage look. After 1996, Mr. Olympia, many thought the original Mass monster looked beatable. However, in 1997, many fans thought Nasser El Sonbaty deserved to be the English champion. In fact, fans felt so strongly about Yates’s sixth victory that even today, people on the internet argue how Sonbaty became an uncrowned Mr. Olympia that year.


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Hence, looking at all the facts in unison, one might say the 1997 Mr. Olmypia might have been a golden opportunity for Flex Wheeler. Despite being the favorite, Wheeler lost to Ronnie Coleman in 1998. He became runner-up again in 1999. Unfortunately, after 1999, Flex Wheeler’s rare kidney disease forced him to retire in his prime.

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Author: ZeroToHero

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