The Power of Defeat… and the moments that reveal character


By John Hansen, Natural Bodybuilding Editor

One of the biggest stories trending this week is the poor attitude that was displayed by Carolina Panthers superstar quarterback Cam Newton after his team lost the Super Bowl. Newton walked out of the postgame press conference after answering a few questions and was roundly criticized by both fans and media for his unsportsmanlike conduct.

On the day following the press conference, Newton spoke to the media and explained that he had nothing to apologize for. He admitted that he was a “sore loser” and he didn’t like to lose. He also said, “Show me someone who is a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

Not too many people would disagree with his explanation that it sucks to lose. Any athlete who prepares for a competition does so with the attitude that he or she is going to win. After putting your heart and soul into both preparing and competing for a contest, it’s absolutely heartbreaking and devastating to lose.

It can also be argued, though, that it’s the way you handle defeat that defines your character and maturity. After all, any child can throw a temper tantrum and get publicity after losing a competition, but how many have the strength and inner resolve to overcome those immediate feelings of defeat and disappointment and smile through their adversity? Cam argues that only “losers” can do that.

Although it may not seem like it at the time, losing can be the best thing that happens to a competitor. I know from personal experience that I always came back much better the year following a loss. Nothing creates that deep drive and determination that manifests itself in your gut like a devastating loss.

Let’s look at some examples of a few “losers” in the bodybuilding world who handled their defeats with grace and humility and came back to turn the tide in their favor.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger entered his first Mr. Olympia contest in 1969, he was extremely confident that he would walk in and easily win the title. After all, Arnold was already a four-time Mr. Universe winner at 22, and, after a year of living the good life in America, having moved here in 1968, he had made tremendous progress in his physique and was feeling like the King of the World. Then he ran into the wall of muscle that was The Myth, Sergio Oliva.

Sergio was one of the most genetically gifted bodybuilders ever to step on a posing platform. Never before had a bodybuilder displayed such incredible mass and proportions combined with a tiny, 28-inch waist and superb symmetry. Although Arnold was perhaps the biggest bodybuilder competing at the time, when the young Austrian Oak got a good look as Sergio removed his clothes in the pump-up room, he knew he had lost. Sensing victory, Sergio sealed the deal by slowly walking past Arnold as he made his way to the stage. Now pumped to inhuman proportions, The Myth spread out his lats wider and wider as the formerly confident Schwarzenegger watched with shock and awe.

When Arnold had his chance to do his thing on the posing platform, he gave it his all and his American fans cheered him. In the end, however, Arnold was correct in his backstage assessment, and Sergio was awarded his third Mr. Olympia title.

Did Arnold throw a hissy fit and walk off the stage? No! Instead, the future politician did the smart thing and acted like a winner even in defeat. He wrapped his massive arms around his fiercest rival and planted a big, wet kiss on Sergio’s cheek. The audience and judges loved it!

Fast-forward one year later: Arnold defeats Sergio not once, but twice. He beats him at the 1970 AAU Mr. World and then dethrones the champ at the Mr. Olympia contest a few weeks later.

In 1983, Lee Haney was competing in his first year as a professional bodybuilder. One of the most promising physiques to come in along in more than a decade, Haney lived up to his potential by winning the coveted Night of the Champions and then taking a very strong third place in his first Mr. Olympia contest. The following week Lee competed in a series of pro Grand Prix events in Europe. Remarkably improving with each contest, he got bigger and harder as the week wore on. Mohamed Makkawy, the amazing Egyptian bodybuilder who had placed second at the Mr. Olympia, was dominating the Grand Prix events with his superbly ripped and symmetrical physique.

At the last contest on the Grand Prix circuit, Haney had dramatically closed the gap between him and Makkawy. For all of his strengths, the diminutive Egyptian, at only 5’2” and 150 pounds, was noticeably outsized by the massive 5’11”, 240-pound Haney. As the contest reached its conclusion, most of the audience was expecting to see an upset, with the rookie pro beating the experienced veteran; however, everyone was surprised as Makkawy’s name was again called out as the winner. After displaying such an amazing transformation over the course of the week, Lee Haney had to be terribly disappointed that he couldn’t pull off a victory at the last contest of the tour.

Did Haney show his disappointment by pouting and walking off the stage? No! In one of the most feel-good moments of the year, Big Lee wrapped his arms around his much smaller rival and picked him up off the ground in a big bear hug to celebrate Makkawy’s victory. The fans, the judges and the bodybuilding photographers in attendance loved it! The picture of a smiling Lee Haney hoisting a shocked Mohamed Makkawy into the air at the climax of the contest soon made its way into every major bodybuilding publication in the world.

Fast-forward one year later: Lee Haney wins his first Mr. Olympia contest in a unanimous decision over second-placed Mohamed Makkawy.

In 2008, popular Mr. Olympia winner Jay Cutler missed his peak for the prejudging and was in a close battle for the title with top contenders Dexter Jackson and Phil Heath. Although he made tremendous improvement for the finals the next evening, Cutler was surprisingly defeated in a tumultuous upset by Dexter Jackson. After only two Mr. Olympia victories, Jay Cutler lost the Mr. Olympia to another competitor.

Previous Mr. Olympia winners Lee Haney and Dorian Yates had never been defeated in their long reigns. Even Ronnie Coleman, who Cutler dethroned at the 2006 Mr. Olympia, won eight straight titles before he lost the crown. Although it could be argued that each of these great champions could have lost at least once, the bodybuilding judges that decided the outcome were always kind to the incumbent champ and mostly forgave them for occasionally missing their peak. Cutler, after only two years on top, could have displayed indignation and disgust that he was not afforded the same latitude as his predecessors were. Instead, however, Cutler met the surprise decision with an easy smile and remained onstage to raise the arm of the new Mr. Olympia and show his respect toward the decision.

One year later, Jay Cutler displayed the courage and tenacity of a true champion by coming back to compete in the Olympia and do something that had never been done before in the history of the sport. He made remarkable improvements to his physique and he got the title back to become the 2009 Mr. Olympia!

The greatest athletes in the world, from Muhammad Ali to Michael Jordan to Walter Payton to Arnold Schwarzenegger, have all tasted bitter defeat in their quest to win a world championship. Each of these amazing champions was the best in his respective sport but was not immune from devastating loss. Their defeats made them even better athletes and forged the desire and drive to win again. Accepting their loss with grace, dignity and a smile doesn’t make them losers. Instead, it reveals the inner strength that truly defines a winner!

A three-time Natural Mr. Universe and the first Natural Mr. Olympia champion, John is the author of the book Natural Bodybuilding (2005, Human Kinetics). A 14 year columnist for Ironman Magazine, John is the founder of where he covers the NPC Florida Bodybuilding scene and interviews legendary bodybuilders. John is also the promoter of the NPC Natural Suncoast Classic and offers consultations on training, nutrition and posing – in person and online.