Written by Flex Wheeler
09 October 2006



Flex Wheeler's Exclusive Interview with Shawn Ray


            Flex: Shawn, seeing as how none of your fans or foes have ever heard your story outside the restriction of your Weider contract, this is gonna be one provocative read. You're Shawn Ray, a soldier from back in the day and just about everybody in the industry is familiar with your battles, triumphs, defeats, the controversy and the legacy you've created in a pro career spanning nearly two decades.

            Let's open the window to the past and shed a little light on some of the things that shaped you into the man you are today. For starters, how old are you now?

            Shawn: I'm 39 years old. Born September 9, 1965.

            Flex: The big 4-0 is creeping up on you!  And where's the original stomping grounds?

            Shawn: Southern California. The suburbs of Orange County called Placentia. I currently reside three miles east of where I was born, in the city of Yorba Linda, home of former President Richard Nixon. I'm 10 minutes from Anaheim Stadium and Disneyland. That puts it into perspective.

            Flex: OK, fast forwarding here, you were 21 years old with a white on white "Limited Edition" Corvette, living in Marina del Rey, Calif. You were pimping in style. What was it like living on your own, especially in that area?

            Shawn: I had already been going back and forth on weekends to train in and around bodybuilders who were in the Venice Beach area at the time. It was a Who's Who of the bodybuilding world. Samir Bannout, Lee Labrada, Berry DeMey, Robby Robinson, Mike Christian and Gary Strydom were all training at Gold's in Venice and World's Gym. I used to go to the old World Gym and see Matt Mendenhall, Chris Dickerson, Bob Paris, Rachel McLish, Tom Platz, and Danny Padilla. All of these guys were training, which was like the peak of the bodybuilding era. It was like the golden era of bodybuilding all over. Rich Gaspari would pop in and out of town. In the Marina, I was alone in my little complex, but in the complex next to me was Gary Strydom, Lee Labrada, Samir Bannout and Berry DeMey. Those were my neighbors!

It was a bit too much. I mean, I had pictures of those guys in my house and suddenly they're my next-door neighbors!? I had a $1,000 monthly contract with Joe Weider, so I rented a one-bedroom apartment for $870 a month and had a $289 car payment. So that one grand was gone before I flipped a light switch or bought a steak or cracked an egg. I was living hand to mouth. But I started making appearances. I started the business of bodybuilding. I was in the magazines, so I was in demand for guest posings and seminars.

            Flex: The 1990 Shawn Ray. How would you judge him if you were to look back at that guy now? 

            Shawn: I think in terms of where the sport was then, the only thing I felt I was physically lacking was a little more width throughout the back. The rear lat spread and the rear double biceps could have been wider. When I look at pictures it's evident. But as far as the physique and the person go, I was much more raw. I was gung-ho and the whole world was my oyster. I didn't think anything political could stop me from achieving my goal.

The reality of professional sports is that it's a business. Some people will like you and some won't. Some of that will filter into the judging criteria. If you spend enough time in this industry, you'll see it's not always a physique contest, just like a beauty pageant is not always about the most beautiful girl onstage. A guy with all the potential in the world- even if he's equipped to beat Mr. Olympia- may not have enough to win the contest because of the current structure of the sport.

            Flex: Who were you involved with at that time? Who were the first stringers playing for team Sting-Ray?

            Shawn: In 1990, I was dating a model who was doing some work with Victoria's Secret. Her name was Nariah. I actually never knew her last name, because she just went by her first name, like Madonna, Elvis, Prince. I was dating a Rams cheerleader and a Raiderette. There was a little overlapping there. So, I didn't really have a serious girlfriend. I didn't want to be tied to one woman at that time. I was in love with my career and bodybuilding!

            Flex: I know that when it came close to a contest, it was time to pack up all the luggage and put it in a box until the show was over. Before we get to that, tell us about your first Arnold Classic.

            Shawn: I'd just won my first show, the Pro Ironman. Payday was $10,000. I'd been on my own for over a year and my family realized that this was a professional career I could survive on. I actually moved back with my dad in 1990 to focus and train for the show. Plus, I was planning on buying a house. 

            Flex: Yeah, I remember I helped you pack.  

            Shawn: Right, you did. I left Marina del Rey to come home for several reasons. I came home to focus on my job, bodybuilding; but also to have the luxury of not worrying about paying bills. I just wanted to eat, sleep and train. I turned pro living at my mom's house. I won my first pro show living at home with my dad. I felt it grounded me. I had no distractions. I had familiar people around me that didn't have their hands in my back pocket. My friends at home didn't care that I was a bodybuilder.

The Arnold Classic was the first ever drug tested show and I won it drug free- or as drug free as one could claim to be in five months. I failed the drug test after I had already forked over the down payment on the house I had hand picked. You don't want to put the carriage before the horses, but I did anyway.  They had a deposit from me which was gonna be my winnings from the Arnold Classic for $60,000 along with the $10,000 from the Ironman.

            Flex: Did you have the money in hand? The trophy in hand?

            Shawn: I had already put the $10,000 down on this property in Walnut, California. The $60,000 was going to be the balance. I won the contest and I had the trophy. I went to Canada for a week of seminars, came home and got a phone call while I was at Gold's in Venice Beach. It was Wayne DeMilia telling me I failed the drug test.

            Flex: Holy smokes! What was going through your mind?

            Shawn: I thought, "Okay, well, prove it." I didn't know how much makes you positive, but if I was, they‘d have to prove it. Then there's my natural testosterone production to consider, as well. It was all so new, I didn‘t know what to expect. Was it a conspiracy or what? So, after talking with Joe Weider and my family, it just wasn't worth pursuing. I was 24 and at the beginning of my career. I won the contest. The world saw that I won the contest. The magazines were going to print, so I didn't care. To put it even more bluntly, I never had the money, so it didn't feel like I lost anything. After the victory ceremony, I was too high from knocking out J.J. Marsh, Renel Janvier, Vince Comerford and Mike Ashley.  Then, two days later, they called me for the trophy. That bothered me.

            Flex: They called you to get the trophy back? Sounds like someone was scheming on you.

            Shawn: Can you believe that? That really bothered me because I'd already given the trophy to my mom! And now I had to get it from my mom's house and bring it back to Venice Beach so they could present it to Mike Ashley.  It was the longest drive of my life. I couldn't feel the loss of the $60,000 because I never had it. But this trophy- which weighed damn near 70 pounds- you can believe I felt every single ounce. I felt the volume of that loss.  Handing over that trophy was worse than being notified I failed the drug test. I vowed to get another one for my mom. I went to the 1990 Mr. Olympia eight months later, faced the same test and passed it. I went from thirteenth place in 1988 to third place in 1990, which told me I belonged in the profession. I had unfinished business to handle. I went back in 1991 and won the Arnold Classic. I kept the $70,000 and the trophy. I felt vindicated and bought a new house.

Flex: Was there any doubt in your mind when you had to give the trophy back? Did you think you didn't belong?

            Shawn: No, absolutely not. There were seven other guys who failed the test, including a former Mr. Olympia. They could do what they wanted, but they couldn't deny me. I said I was gonna return and at 24 years of age, there was no doubt my career was far from over. When I got third at the 1990 Olympia, I realized I was two people away from being the best on the planet. At the Arnold, winning in front of that same crowd was the icing on the cake. I won hands down with unanimous scores. I had dinner with Arnold and Maria. I was the talk of the town. That show was on "Wide World of Sports!" I was in households everywhere. I landed the Flex magazine workout show on ESPN as a host, which ran for five years. I got a 10-year glove contract with Saranac gloves. I was commentating for ESPN. In fact, I did the USA in 1992, the year you won. I commentated for four or five years.

All that was the result of me coming back to the scene of the crime in Columbus, Ohio. After the failed drug test, Joe was the first to tell me, "You're young with plenty of time; you'll be back." I didn't lose a single wink of sleep because of his blessing. I bought my first house off that paycheck from the Arnold Classic. Also, because of the WBF, Joe Weider had to reach deep into his pockets to keep his marquee players. Being third in the world, I saw a substantial raise from the turmoil.

            Flex: What did your pay scale change to at that time?

            Shawn: I think I settled for $80,000 a year, but mind you, I had jumped from $40,000. I doubled that. I went from $1,000 a month to $40,000 a year to $80,000. I won the Arnold Classic and was top five in the Olympia.

            Flex: I know you don't like to speak on this, but you're my dawg and this here is MD. We hit hard and real, so let it all hang out for the fans. I'm gonna ask you this and I want you to give it to me straight up, Shawn Ray style. When was the first time you used sports technology drugs?

            Shawn: Well, you're right, the whole sports technology science of bodybuilding is not something I even like to talk about. It was a side of bodybuilding I never prepared for. I never knew anything. They don't prepare you when you come out of high school after winning all these shows naturally. There's an undercurrent of "if you can't stand the heat, get the hell out of the kitchen!" There are lots of backdoor deals and shady characters who are trying to "help" you get to the top. Some guy always claims he can get you bigger, faster, stronger, whatever it takes. As a professional bodybuilder, I did what I had to do. I'm not proud of the things I did to compromise my ideas of bodybuilding from a health and fitness standpoint. But I was a grown man and I made an adult decision. I'd never recommend it for anybody else, though. What's good for one guy could mean death for another. 

            Flex: I heard that! Did you ever blink when faced with the decision that you might have to start using these things? Were you standing at the crossroads?

            Shawn: It was a major decision because it was never a part of my reality.  Unfortunately, no one prepares you. The scary part is that I'm learning and studying an aspect of professional sports I never would have dreamed of in a million years. Suddenly, you've gotta be a pre-med student! I never relied on outside sources. Nobody steals my thunder and glory- or my fall from grace, for that matter. Through trial and error I discovered what works best for Shawn Ray. Once I did that, I made decisions that affected only me, as an athlete and a person. I never shared that in conversations with anybody, be it a competitor or friend.

            Flex: It was different back in those days. It wasn't a Class III felony.

            Shawn: To put in perspective, when the reality of the situation started surfacing, I made a conscious decision to compete only once a year. There's a video in circulation from 1985, when I was a teenage champion and I said I wanted to be like Bob Paris and Lee Haney and only compete in the Super Bowl of bodybuilding, the Mr. Olympia. Since I didn't like what being a professional bodybuilder entailed, I competed just once a year. 

            Flex: Back then you could actually get doctors to assist you. You could get prescriptions, walk into a doctor's office and get your blood work done.  Was it safer then?

            Shawn: I think it wasn't as much of a big deal back then. But it's bigger now because it's grown so much. It's not restricted to bodybuilding anymore.  Look at Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and the track athletes. It's infiltrated every sport. Man, in the NFL in 1990, there were maybe 15 guys who were over 300 pounds. Now there are like 300 guys over 300 pounds. The relevant issue is that the kids coming up believe it's the fast track to becoming a better athlete. Sadly, some coaches endorse that belief. I never wanted to be a poster child for that side. I was upset that they abolished drug testing in 1990.  I placed third in the world with the drug testing. If they had kept it around a little longer, we could have changed the face of bodybuilding as we know it today.

            Flex: Do you think it's possible to be a world-class bodybuilder without steroids?

            Shawn: If I had an 18-year-old son, I would strongly advise him not to get involved with professional bodybuilding. I would encourage him to train and teach him to eat properly. I'd make certain he knew he has one body, and one body only, for the rest of his life. He would come to know that his health is all he'll have at the end of the line. Professional bodybuilding? Turn and run the other way! With the way it's going, I would not allow my 18-year-old to get involved in this game until the judging criteria changed, end of story.

            Flex: I know you've felt robbed over the years with controversial placings at the Olympia. Which Olympia should have been yours?  

            Shawn: I thought I should have won in 1994. Dorian Yates was first, I was second and Kevin Levrone was third. And you, my friend, were in my condo a week before with a neck brace on. You just bought your black BMW and came over the week I was leaving. I hit some shots and you had this look on your face like, "I'm staring at the new Mr. Olympia." This coming from a guy who had won every show there was to win in 1993. So for you to be standing there, with your jaw hanging on the floor, giving me your blessing, I went in headstrong and assured. That was all the endorsement I needed. 

I was unaware that Dorian had torn his biceps. I didn't know he was bloated and that his color was off. Plus, he had a lackluster posing routine. In fact, I was so focused on Shawn, that Dorian never entered my mind. I was more focused on the fact that I had to beat you, until your car accident. Even though Dorian won in '93, I felt you were the one to beat. My yardstick wasn't this 250-pound monster. My yardstick was Flex Wheeler. How can I get past this guy? You raised the bar for me. I knew you could topple Dorian if you repeated your Arnold Classic condition. 

            So I went in there cocky. I dusted off my '87 posing routine- the one I won the Nationals with. I figured this posing routine was gonna set the ditches between me and Dorian. After prejudging, you'd have thought I was Mr. Olympia by the buzz in the air. People were talking about the complete package I brought. Dorian was bigger than everybody, so I wasn't gonna catch him there.  But you could find flaws in his physique that you couldn't find on mine. The person who wins should be the one with the fewest flaws. Being so close to you in '93, with Dorian at his all-time best, gave me confidence. He was clearly off from last year. He had to get marked down for it. When it didn't happen, it took something out of me. As a matter of fact, I think I retired that night. 

            Flex: It's like the movie "Eyes Wide Shut." Going into the middle of your career you started being very vocal about your feelings. You weren't shy about sharing your passion toward the sport and the judges. When was your virginity ripped from you onstage? When was innocence lost?

            Shawn: In 1992. I'll tell you why. There were so many things wrong with the '92 Mr. Olympia in Helsinki, Finland. Dorian Yates was coming off second place and was going to be champion. He was inheriting the title from Haney. I felt I had Lee Labrada's number coming and going, frontward and backward and side to side. There was no doubt that he was in my rearview mirror. Kevin Levrone was coming off his NOC win and entering his first Olympia. He did not look anywhere near his NOC condition. Add to that some structural flaws that only time was going to heal for Kevin. I thought that was going to be the year I got second at the Olympia. When that didn't happen, I pretty much said, "I quit!"

            Flex: How many times did you quit after a show?  (Laughter)

            Shawn: I think I quit every time until I got back home and saw the pictures. I'd think, "Why would I quit, looking like this? There's nothing wrong with me." After traveling the world, reading all the articles, listening to every photographer, studying all the videos and pictures, I came to the conclusion it was the system that held me back. I could correct flaws in my body if somebody could tell me what needed fixing. But I couldn't change the judges. Every year I stood in front of the same judges who dangled the same carrot in front of me.

I got the moniker of Mr. Consistent, but they would never reward me with first. I couldn't take it sitting down. So I opened my mouth and let it flow. '92 was the first time I let her rip and I've never let up. It also elevated the bar in terms of preparation, because I knew I was never gonna get a gift from the judges. In '92, I was fourth; '93 I got third; '94 I got second. I was moving up, but still dealing with the same sets of eyes. Those haven't changed and they never will.  Which is how you end up with three champions in 21 years.

Clearly, you should have won at least one. Kevin should have one. I should have one. Cutler should have one. But thanks to the system, I got second in '96 again to Dorian Yates. I knew then that I would never win this contest. Yet, I couldn't let the judges kick me out of the game. I was too good to walk away. But with Nasser El Sonbaty on my heels and Ronnie Coleman coming up fast, it was evident things were about to change, drastically.

            Flex: '94 was the first time you felt you won. What year should Kevin have held the Sandow?

            Shawn: I thought Kevin had Ronnie's number in 1995. In 2000, there was a strong argument for Kevin to topple Ronnie, as Ronnie was off. Kevin was slightly more streamlined with a much more pleasing, marketable physique that could have taken the sport of bodybuilding in a completely different direction. I thought Kevin won in '95 and in 2000.

            Flex: What about Nasser?

            Shawn: I don't think Nasser should have ever been one of the top three bodybuilders in the world, ever. He didn't deserve to be there.

            Flex: Look out! Here he goes, boys and girls!

            Shawn: Let's be real. Nasser El Sonbaty, at his all-time best in 1996, was third place behind me. He failed the diuretic test and was stripped of his placing and prize money. However, when Nasser turned around, he went from third to thirteenth.  There is absolutely no way a bodybuilder with an okay front and an okay back should have been beaten by Nasser, who had a great front and a horrible back. It's the same thing that kept Paul Dillett from placing higher in the Mr. Olympia.  I believe they over-rewarded Nasser when he was at his all-time best for a magnificent front in several poses. But from the back, Nasser will never be remembered as a top-10 bodybuilder. Never! Bodybuilding is about the entire physique. When you get to the Olympia, it's not what you have, it's what you don't have. And if you're missing an entire back, there's no way you can be one of the top 10 bodybuilders in the world.

            Flex: What year did you think Jay Cutler should have won?

            Shawn: Jay clearly won in 2001. Anyone could see that. Ronnie was way off.

            Flex: Who else during your time do you think should have won but didn't?

            Shawn: I thought you should have won in 1999, because Ronnie had lost something from 1998. I felt for you, when you took the medal off and shook your finger at the crowd. I could see it wasn't Ronnie you were trying to slight. It was the fact that you improved on flaws that Ronnie hadn't. In '98, Ronnie owned it, gyno included. He should have been marked down, but he had taken his physique to another level. In '99, he lost something. Just like you were at your best in '93. Sometimes we hit our peak and it's hard to get that back. That trophy should have been yours. Not because you were a better bodybuilder, but because you were better than Ronnie on that day.

            Flex: You're noted as one of the artists of the sport for your posing skills. What spurred you to put on such stellar posing exhibitions onstage?

            Shawn: I came up under the tutelage of John Brown, who was known as a showman, a performer. He didn't have the best physique in the world, even though he was a two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World. He was first and foremost, a performer. He entertained the crowd. I couldn't dance onstage and do some of the things John did, but I could pose. I could transition and strike the mandatories. I could hold them and show my physique. I became a performer in that sense, because nobody else was doing it. I was high in demand. I was doing guest stints in Spain, Russia, Mexico, England, Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and places I can't even pronounce. All because I knew how to show off all the hard work I did in the gym. That added up to dollars and cents.

            Flex: Who's a performer now? Who's a performer and who's a posing expert? Because there's a difference.

            Shawn: There's new pro, Frank Roberson, National champion- now he's a performer. He's an entertainer. He can bring a crowd to its feet with the way he structures his posing routine. Best posing entertainer has to go to the two people that won the award I created, Best Presentation, and that's Melvin Anthony and Darrem Charles. Right now, I wouldn't follow those two guys if I was competing because they can hit the mandatories to perfection. They're very fluid in their transitions, too. But by the time they're done showing you their bodies, they break it down into foot stomping, hand clapping, hair-raising entertainment the fans love to see. Those two guys lead the pack in posing and entertaining.

What's nice about being a veteran- yet still coming in as early as I did- was that I was able to influence different people. It's evident that some people were inspired by my style. And my style was based on someone else's, so we all feed off each other. I can see John Brown in Vince Tayor. And I can even see some of me in your style.

Flex: Let me clarify that. It's been documented in multiple interviews.  In 1990, when you won the Pro Ironman, I bought that video, and me and my buddy Ron Flowers would watch it over and over. Then we'd turn the camera on me and I would try to emulate your actual posing routine. Until I grew up as a person onstage, I kind of took some bits and parts of Shawn Ray's routine and turned them into Flex Wheeler's routine. That's how it works.  Even Dexter gives some tribute to me. Anyone who contributes either to you or to me has to acknowledge the source of inspiration. I think most of us can say it began with John Brown. He's the well for lots of cats. And then other cats would say Bob Parris and Lee Labrada; Lee, especially. I remember Lee putting on a premier, spellbinding, breath-holding routine. It wasn't pure entertainment like a John Brown or Vince Taylor, or even me or you, but just clearly artistic posing. It was mind-boggling.

            Shawn: Exactly. I think evolution has a way of perpetuating old soldiers' legacies. Take the music industry, as an example. Music evolves and much of it is founded and rooted in the old school. Elvis Presley said a lot of his influence came from gospel music. That's where Elvis' rock and roll originated. Mine came from some people who helped lay the foundation for posing. Chris Dickerson was 42 when he won his first Olympia in 1982. But he had been around in the ‘60's as the first black Mr. America to ever win that award. His style of posing influenced people, including me. In turn, I influenced people still competing today. It's nice to see these styles of posing live on. It's great that they're evolving into something new. Unfortunately, what I see on the Olympia stage is not indicative of this excellence. I'm frustrated with the lack of structure.  I wouldn't even call them posing routines; more like guest posing.

            Flex: You led the charge on several things in our sport. One was the way pro shows are run. When did you feel it was necessary to take a lead on the way the IFBB was conducting shows?

            Shawn: My whole career- even when I got second, third and fourth in the Olympia- I was pounding the drums of change, asking who was picking our champions. We have bodybuilders, like you, who can win every show they enter. Kevin can win every show in any state or country. But he could never win the Olympia because he could never get past the champion. And do you know why? Because it's the same judges. They won't let outsiders come in and judge that show. If it's an international show, it needs to be judged by an international panel with representatives from every country. Look at the Olympics. You don't have seven Americans judging one figure skating event or gymnastics routine. These are subjective sports, just like bodybuilding. They need representatives from each country. We have the most international field of bodybuilders when it comes to the Mr. Olympia. Yet we have the most lopsided representation of American judges that have judged the show multiple times- sometimes in consecutive years and with husbands and wives on the same panel!

            Flex: Why is it like that?

            Shawn: There are only one or two people in charge of picking the judges.  I know professional judges who have been here for 20 to 30 years and have never come close to judging the Mr. Olympia. On the flip side, I know judges who have done at least 10 Mr. Olympias! That's a huge problem. And it affects all the other shows. Let me give you an example. Last year, Kris Dim got thirteenth place at the Olympia. Markus Ruhl got fifth. One week later in Europe, Kris beat Markus two times in a row in one week's time with two separate judging panels. The week before, there were eight people between them. How is that possible?

If that happens outside the U.S., why can't they do that inside the U.S.?  How much more exciting would the Mr. Olympia be if we had different people winning because we have fresh judges deciding the outcome? The look of Mr. Olympia can change every single year if you have new opinions weighing the outcome of the show. There shouldn't be a standard. Our standard right now is 290 pounds. There's not going to be anybody left!

Flex: Do you think the judging criteria are flawed? Or is it that the judges outside the U.S. aren't any good?

            Shawn: Categorically, I think when it comes to the Mr. Olympia, the selection of those judges is highly questionable. It's anonymous, even to the athletes. You were a pro for 10 years and you have no idea how these judges are selected.  It's the deepest, darkest secret, next to where Jimmy Hoffa is buried. None of us knows how or from where these judges are being pulled until they decide to send us a list. There's no athlete representation in terms of their selection. You have 60 judges around the world qualified to judge Mr. Olympia. Out of the 12, they continually choose six or seven Americans. As an athlete, you should have a problem with that selection process. 

Every year, I've argued for more accountability from the judges. I argued that they put their names on the score sheets, which they've done, no thanks to anyone else but Shawn Ray. I argued that they stick partitions between them when they judge. That happened. I've been arguing for them to go digital and that apparently has happened. I've argued for them to move closer to the stage.  At the 2001 Olympia, you had to have eagle eyes to see the competitors onstage. They actually watched us on the big screen. They compromised the seats so they could get more VIP tickets to make more money. The athletes suffered because the judges weren't looking at the athletes, they were looking at the screen. 

I have continually argued points that benefit the athletes, even now that I'm off the stage. I still argue about these judges and their accountability. My latest argument is rotations. Until these judges are selected at random and anonymously, the Olympia contest is always going to have an asterisk on it as far as I'm concerned. These judges don't change their opinions every year.  They don't change what they're looking for. It's a very biased, opinionated panel of judges. Due to the lack of rotation, no one will ever knock off a Mr. Olympia because there actually is no Mr. Olympia. We need to a have random selection with a totally international representation of judges, each one from a different country, to make up a panel of 12.

            Flex: Whew! Obviously, you feel very strongly about that topic. Glad you got that off your chest. How long have you been a Weider athlete?

            Shawn: Since 1987. I was the longest running Weider athlete in history.

            Flex: How were they with respect to you being a rebel with the judges?  Did they have your back through all the controversy?

            Shawn: I had the full support and authorization from Joe Weider to be Shawn Ray. That is, I should never worry about speaking on things I felt strongly and passionately about because that's what ultimately defines you as a person. When I got Joe Weider's blessing to be myself, it was me against the world. This is my mentor, advisor and boss. I feared nothing. There was never any fear of repercussions when my paycheck was coming from a person who gave me their blessing.


Don't miss my column next month when my interview with Shawn Ray continues. He tells us what he really thinks of Joe Weider, why he really quit pro bodybuilding and much more.