The Gift Unwrapped: Phil Heath
Looking for back-to-back Olympia wins this September, MMI looks back at how Phil Heath became the world’s best bodybuilder in just nine years.
As I dug deeper I found, ironically, he’d done his damage, like Michael Jordan, on the basketball hardwood. Born and raised in Seattle, WA, Heath was a slick passing, sharp-shooting point guard for Rainier Beach High School’s state championship team in ’98. He even shared the spotlight with longtime NBA vet Jamal Crawford, who went on to star for the University of Michigan before he became the eighth pick in the 2000 NBA draft, eventually landing in Chicago.
Heath earned a scholarship to the University of Denver; okay, he wasn’t so Jordan-esque in Colorado: Phil averaged just 1.3 points per game during his four-year career. But, his skills paid for his college education – and, he was soon to be marked a “slam dunk” in the world of bodybuilding.
After his playing days were officially over in October 2002, Heath bought Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding and traded in his jump shot for barbell curls, incline dumbbell curls and squats.
“I bought a digital camera, and took photos of myself, critiquing them to death,” Heath recalls in a Road to the Olympia video. He obviously liked what he saw because the following April the man who eventually became “The Gift” was unveiled. He won the novice heavyweight and overall. “I went home with all that hardware and I was hooked,” he said.
That was the night he also met Cutler, then Mr. Olympia runner-up. “I went up to Jay and asked, ‘Sir, can I please get a picture of you?’ He was 290, I was 190.” Even at that point Heath’s arms — arguably the best in the game today — were insane.
Heath nabbed the state title in 2004, setting up his breakthrough season in 2005 with overall wins at the Junior Nationals and USAs, the latter propelling him into the pro ranks.
But was he big enough to dominate on the flex-for-pay circuit? He’s admitted to me over the years that he was actually a few pounds lighter onstage than the 214 pounds that was displayed at the Thursday night weigh-in at both the Juniors and the USAs. In fact, Heath laughed back in 2006 when he told me he stepped on the scale at relatively light 209 ½ pounds after his victory at the New York Pro in his rookie season, a triumph that followed a win in his pro debut at the Colorado Pro Championships. Size certainly wasn’t a problem, at least at that point.
Sure, there were bumps in the road; the guy who’d never finished lower than first in his class fell to fifth in his inaugural attempt at the Arnold Classic in 2007. But, he was great in ’08, dominating the IronMan Pro, placing second at the Arnold Classic to Dexter Jackson and finishing off a spectacular season with a third-place landing in his initial attempt at the Olympia.
Slowly but surely Heath was getting better — and bigger. I weighed him in at 232 pounds at the IronMan press conference. Fully clothed, with shoes included, of course. Probably 225–227, at best, onstage. Although talk of the lack of depth in his chest, and width in his shoulders and back, continued, Health was quickly establishing himself as a true contender for the Olympia crown.
But a losing battle with food poisoning during prejudging of the 2009 Olympia resulted in a loss of 15 pounds — and an ensuing fifth-place finish. Heath made no excuses, promising to come back better than ever the next year.
Amen. Many — yours truly included — felt he was the rightful winner of the 2010 ASC, a contest he led after prejudging before finishing second to Kai Greene. A lot of folks felt the same way at the Olympia the same season, where he gave his best buddy, Cutler, a run for the money ($200,000 worth) before Jay was honored with his fourth Olympia title. Phil’s weak bodyparts had finally caught up with his filthy arms, crazy wheels and hamstrings and nasty calves. Yes, Phil Heath had become complete.
The narrow losses didn’t embitter Heath, but fueled his furnace for 2011. Hitting the stage at a reported 245 pounds — if you don’t know by now, I’ve insisted for decades that most bodybuilders add 10 pounds to their actual weight — Heath was even better than the year before.
With Cutler a bit off because of a torn left biceps, The Gift, now 31 and pumping iron for only nine years, was finally unwrapped at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. If there was a defining moment in the contest, it was when Heath and Cutler faced the back curtain for a rear-double-biceps pose; Heath’s tiny waist, and a back so detailed it looked like a relief map of Brazil, drew gasps from the audience. Game over.
He scored a unanimous victory en route to being honored as only the 13th person to head home with Sandow firmly in hand. For good measure, Heath followed up the win with another straight-ones-across-the-board title at the Sheru Classic in India a week later against basically the same field. His ascension to the top was no accident.