By Paul Letlow
Written for the LSWA
Ronnie Coleman didn’t start off planning to become one of the world’s greatest bodybuilders.
The eventual eight-time Mr. Olympia had a simpler scheme — he wanted a free gym membership.
His origin story is one of happenstance.
Coleman majored in accounting while attending Grambling State University, but couldn’t find work in his field. Instead, he became a policeman in Arlington, Texas, where he served as an officer from 1989 to 2000, and a reserve officer until 2003.
“One day I was out on a call,” Coleman said. “One of the guys on the force saw me, and I’ve always been pretty big and muscular. He was asking where I was working out, and at the time, I was working out at the station.”
Coleman said his setup then was “about the size of a bathroom.”
So, his fellow officer took Coleman to Metroflex Gym, where owner Brian Dobson first spotted him and asked him if he ever considered bodybuilding.
“He said, ‘You need to compete. You could be world champion one day,’” Coleman said. “I told him I didn’t want to do it at the time. I just got on at the police department and I didn’t like being on a diet and having to take drugs like I’d heard to those guys did. I didn’t know anything about bodybuilding.”
A few days passed, with Coleman working out every day and Dobson trying to convince him to give it a try.
“About the fourth day, he finally said, ‘I’ll give you a free membership to the gym if you compete in this show coming up in about four months,’” Coleman said. “Soon as he said that, I’m like, “OK. You should have led with that the first day.”
Coleman didn’t know it then, but he’d steered himself toward his destiny. From an unceremonious beginning emerged one of the greatest bodybuilders on the planet.
“Ronnie was special, man,” Dobson said. “He was amazing. He was supernaturally strong. Even now, his body does not carry body fat. He literally has no body fat. None, with paper thin skin. That’s something that you either have or you don’t. It’s rare to see a man that large that maintains that low a level of body fat.
“But he also had the ability to put on huge amounts of muscle. That made him even greater.”
For all his achievements, Coleman is part of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2020, one of 11 inductees to be honored June 24-26 in Natchitoches. He is the first bodybuilder elected.
“I was shocked,” Coleman said. “Bodybuilding is not a real popular sport in the United States. I was shocked they were putting me in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. The biggest crowds we get are five or six thousand. NFL, NBA, they get hundreds of thousands. I was shocked but I was honored they would recognize my sport like that.”
Prior to entering bodybuilding, Coleman was no stranger to the weight room, dating back to his formative years at Bastrop High School.
“I started on the powerlifting team in high school,” Coleman said. “We didn’t have but a few sports back then. Basketball, football, track and baseball. So I was on the powerlifting team when I was in high school, along with the football team and track team.
“I was pretty strong back then, pretty big also. I showed my strength and size right away. I was pretty big in elementary school. I was bigger than everybody else. I’ve been muscular my entire life.”
Coleman’s sporting life continued at nearby Grambling, where he was a member of Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame coach Eddie Robinson’s football teams from 1983-86.
“(Coach Robinson) always preached family and family values and doing the right things,” said Coleman, who played middle linebacker for the Tigers. “He used to wake us up every morning to go to class. He made sure everybody went to class. If you somehow didn’t go to class, you had to run after practice. You’d only do that one time.”
After college, Coleman never left the gym. But it wasn’t until he met Dobson that he truly uncovered his natural gifts.
“With Ronnie, his potential was obvious,” Dobson said. “His arms were already bigger than most pro bodybuilders and he didn’t even know what he was doing at the time.”
Dobson first wanted to bring in Coleman as a workout partner but realized quickly he’d found a powerhouse prodigy.
“He had the best arms I’d ever seen in person and I’d been around the best bodybuilders in the nation at that time,” Dobson said. “He’d never been in a contest or done a real arm workout outside of football training. He didn’t know who Mr. Olympia was when I told him he could probably be Mr. Olympia.”
When Coleman arrived at the gym wearing an old-school sweat suit, Dobson said he could see the veins and muscles bulging through the material.
“I remember being in awe, pretty much,” Dobson said. “For the first six months, I could probably out lift him on everything. And then after that, I never beat him at anything.”
Dobson taught Coleman how to train as a bodybuilder, which was totally different than the power regimen he already knew.
“He taught me how to pose, and how to diet,” Coleman said. “He taught me everything pretty much about bodybuilding.”
Beyond Coleman’s genetics, Dobson said his pupil had an amazing passion to work. Gym temperatures routinely topped 100 degrees in the summer, but Coleman never let up.
“The majority of these guys had sponsors and very few of them worked,” Dobson said. “With Ronnie, he worked a full-time job as a policeman. He’d be there every day, on time. We used to start training at 10:30 and go until about 12:30. He’d haul butt home, take a shower and work until 10:30 at night. The majority of these guys didn’t do that.”
Coleman enjoyed early success, including a Mr. Texas win in 1990, but his emergence on a world-wide stage took longer. Although he was sometimes frustrated along the way, the thrill of competition always brought him back.
“I was pretty hooked on it my first show,” Coleman said. “I had so much fun up there on that stage. I enjoyed myself so much, even if I wasn’t winning. There were a bunch of times I didn’t win and I still had a lot of fun. Once I started winning and became No. 1 in the whole world, the feeling was so great it’s hard to describe.”
Then came more accolades, including the prestigious Mr. Universe title in 1991 and ultimately his first Mr. Olympia crown in 1998. Coleman won his eight titles consecutively through 2005, tied with Lee Haney for the longest streak in Mr. Olympia history.
Beyond pumping iron, diet was an important factor in his training. He said he consumed about 3,500 calories per day with his weight ranging from about 280 to 330 pounds.
“Mine was pretty simple,” Coleman said of his training diet. “My intake was small. I’d eat grilled chicken, grilled steak, and grilled turkey. That was my protein.
“For carbs, I’d have white rice, baked potatoes and grits. Grits were a big part of my diet. I’m from the south. Lot of people here like oatmeal, but I didn’t like oatmeal that much. I liked grits.”
Another interesting tidbit, although he was judged on his appearance in competitions, Coleman said he rarely looked at himself in the mirror.
“Once you get to looking at yourself in the mirror, you see the same old thing all the time,” he explained. “It’s hard to notice changes in your body when you’re looking at yourself every single day. I would start out looking in the mirror but after a while, I got discouraged about it. I just quit doing it. I’d let my nutritionist or whoever was getting me ready for a show do it and went with what they said.”
An imposing figure in his prime, Coleman is described by his inner circle as humble and introverted.
His best friend Robert Lee was his mother’s hairdresser when he first met Coleman almost 30 years ago. They began working out together and Lee eventually helped him train for shows.
“First time I met him, I didn’t like him,” Lee said. “We’ve been friends all these years because we’re so opposite. I’m loud and like to have fun and Ronnie is just quiet. If you didn’t know him, you’d feel like he has an attitude but he doesn’t. He’s just a very quiet person.”
Coleman’s reign ended when he lost the Mr. Olympia title to Jay Cutler in 2006. He finished fourth in 2007, his last Mr. Olympia competition.
From there, Coleman used his brains after brawn by launching a business selling his own line of bodybuilding products. The athlete’s encouraging catchphrases like “Yeah buddy!” and “Light weight baby!” became famous to his followers.
“When I was starting out, I started endorsing body building products. About my third or fourth year as a pro and did it my whole career,” Coleman said.
“After I retired, I was still endorsing products and decided I could make just as much money myself endorsing my own products. I started my own company with my own products. Now I endorse my own products and use my own products. I make products that work for me instead of relying on somebody else’s products working for me.”
Coleman’s story reached a wider audience in in 2018, thanks to Russian filmmaker Vlad Yudin’s documentary “Ronnie Coleman: The King,” released on Netflix.
“Ronnie just had it all,” Cutler said in the documentary. “He was big. He was strong. He was bigger than everyone and he was more conditioned than everyone.”
Always on the go, Coleman said he hasn’t had time to watch the film but noted its effect on his popularity.
“I’ve been so busy,” he said. “I never cared much for watching myself on video either. I heard it came out pretty good and I know from the response I’ve gotten on my appearances; a lot more people come out. I’ve become a lot more famous because of that.”