Normally, when I’m asked to pen a tribute to someone, that someone is not in the kind of condition that would lend himself to ever know what I said about him. On the rare occasion though, the assignment comes down for a person not in such dire straights. This time it did; the bloke is just merely retiring. In his wake though, he leaves one of the most successful bodybuilding careers on record, racking up 13 amateur titles and 21 pro wins over his 19-year career, including seven consecutive 212 Olympias, as well as the winner of the first Arnold Classic 212. As far as the 212 class goes, this monster from the UK is not only the GOAT, but also posed a legitimate threat to the open if he ever got to take his foot off the brakes. To say Flex Lewis is entitled to a tribute is to say a post-verdict Johnny Depp is entitled to a mega-pint.
The first thing I told Flex Lewis when he picked up the phone is that I want this to be a tribute to his career through his eyes. I want to know what were the pivotal points in his career, the anecdotes, the people, the places, that define his memories. I want his perspective, not the pundits. So, I’ll pretty much just be steering the course; the discussion is all Flex.
With that, I must offer the following caveat. The foregoing might sound good on paper, but if you’ve ever discussed anything with Flex, in any level of detail, you’ll know that keeping him on point is four levels more challenging than herding feral cats. He’s all over the place. And he knows it. The only intolerance, however, is the clock. If I had the time, I’d be more than happy to let him go on down by the way; wherever he goes it’s going to be interesting. But, nevertheless, if you want to make a deadline, or know the answer to a specific question, particularly a poignant one, be prepared for several walks away from – not to – the point.
Don’t get me wrong. The walk is sure pleasant enough. Kinda reminds me of asking for directions from an old southern gentleman on a hot summer day, with nothing to do and a tall glass of sweet tea in his hand. And that would be for the condensed version of his answer to me when asking him something such as, “How did you make the decision to give up Rugby and pursue bodybuilding full time?” At least seven times I thought he was telling me, but we ended up somewhere else. We finally did get to the point. And since it was such a struggle, I think that’s where I’ll start…
Before I do that, let’s get the “Flex” thing out of the way. In Lewis’ case, the nickname was a derivative of one given to him at the age of six by his Rugby mates, because he was so flexible. “At first it was “Flexy” then, inevitably, down to “Flex,” he said. “I went all through school – my entire childhood – always being called ‘Flex.’ I never heard ‘James’ except from my mom and dad.”
With that cleared up, back to the pivot from Rugby to bodybuilding. Flex emphatically states, “I started training with weights to help me be better at Rugby… And, because I wanted to attract girls with my muscles.” It doesn’t get more humble and honest than that.
His initial attraction to bodybuilding was something a bit unique. We all have our story of how the bug bit us, but this is out of left field. Flex Lewis had an aunt who was a nurse in London. She attended – of all things — a Tom Platz seminar that was given at her nursing school. He was doing an appearance there and doing his usual talk on nutrition, dieting, and training, and he did a guest posing. Afterward, Tom was selling his merchandise, when Auntie bought one of Tom’s books and he signed it. “She left the book in her bookcase,” Flex remembered. “I found it when I was 12 — I was staying in her room during a visit and, me being a 12-year-old boy, was snooping through her shit and I found this book on Tom Platz. I started flipping through it and I said, ‘holy shit look at those legs!’ I was playing Rugby and wanted legs like that. So, I took the book home.”
“You just took it?”
“Let’s just say I borrowed it.”
“Okay, so you have the book, but what did you lift?” I asked. “Did you have any weights?”
“Dad had an old Weider weight set with the plastic plates – remember those? They were filled with sand. He had them in the shed by the garden. Because the house is built into a hill, the garden was kind of like on the second floor. I couldn’t change the weights because the collars were so corroded. So I had to roll the weights from the shed, down the hill, and through the house, and up the stairs, and into my room, and hide them under the bed. Every night I’d pull out the wights and try to figure out how to do a squat, using the bed as a squat rack. Eventually, I figured it out and kept doing squats.”
That is classic! And, he’s doing it behind his parents’ back. Flex Lewis never completely explained to me why he felt he had to sneak in the weights. But, it’s true, they had no idea what he was doing up there. But, as with all things we did behind our parents’ backs when we were kids, it’s only a matter of time before the mission is no longer covert.
“One night my dad hears all this grunting through the door and bursts into the room thinking I’m cracking one out, and he sees instead I’m lifting weights! He stood there and bellowed, ‘What the fuck are you doing??’!!”
I cracked up. “It probably would have been the same response if you were wanking.”
He laughs, “Yeah, probably.”
But I wanted to know, “what was it about the weights your parents were against?”
“I was 12 and my mom thought it would stunt my growth.”
“Were your parents tall?” I wondered.
“No!” He roared, “They were both like 5’5!!”
Nevertheless, what mom says goes; the weights would have to wait… As far as training at home went anyway. It was too late. The bug had already bitten Flexy. He started watching WWF wrestling and saw how big the guys were. “I just wanted to be jacked on the rugby field,” he said. “After Every game I went straight to the gym, all muddy, to train. The coach hated me because I was always all dirty and I’d leave mud all over the gym… You couldn’t keep me out of there though. I wanted Platz’s legs.”
“That was it then, Rugby and weights?” That’s kind of a narrow path for a young teenager growing up in Wales.
“No… no,” he replied. My mother put me in everything; not just Rugby. I did gymnastics — I can still do a back flip if I have a few whiskies — track and field, boxing….”
“Boxing?” I was puzzled. “Aren’t all guys from the UK born knowing how to fight?”
He cracked up. I always tell him how I routinely extol the toughness and scrapping prowess of my bros on the other side of the pond. He agreed, but, he said, “Boxing is a bit more formal than street fighting, but yes, you’re right. We do a lot of scrapping in the UK. It’s accepted. Guys always get into fights. At least they used to. It’s incredible what’s happening. This generation…… Everyone is such a pussy today….. You know the thing that really irks me…?”
Oh, man… I saw where that was going. Such a diatribe would last 30 minutes. And I’d follow him right down that rabbit hole too. “So, wait….” I stopped him. I had to. “Wait… What about track & field? You participated in that for a long time, along with Rugby, all through school. If I remember correctly, you have a still unbroken record, don’t you?”
“I did,” he replied. “I actually ended up running for my country and won a gold medal in the indoor hurdles. And, yes, I still hold that record in Wales.”
So, the next obvious question is, “Why didn’t you keep running? You have a freak’n gold medal!”
He chuckled, “One would think. I was running indoors and doing well, but I wasn’t in love with it. Then I started having problems with my
feet. I was getting shin splints….. I just wanted to focus on Rugby. I went to college playing Rugby. I was scouted. I was at a very high level. There were a lot of opportunities to play overseas; I toured the world playing. My hands are scarred, all my front teeth are fake from scrapping on and off the field.”
I made note of the gratuitous scrapping. “See, again with the fighting! I know Rugby is a sport notorious for scrapping but isn’t that because it was invented in the UK? Where everyone fights?”
Flex Lewis cracked up again. “I guess it’s somewhat true he admitted. My grandfather worked in the mines when he was a kid. He worked on his hands and knees with a pick and a shovel all day. He was in three cave-ins! He’d climb out and go back to work. After work, he’d fight for pennies, so my grandmother could feed the family. Scrapping is just part of the culture in the UK. He taught me at a very young age that when you’re tough, you don’t have to flex. You just have to know how to defend yourself……But this generation has gotten soft as fuck! My grandfather was a miner when he was a kid! They wanted to employ kids in the mines because they were small and they could send them into tight, dangerous, places….. Compared to now? Oh my god, social media has created ball-less males……..”
Yup…. there we go again. Back down the rabbit hole. I couldn’t stop him that time. Not when a man is paying tribute to his grandfather. After that discussion ran its course, I asked him again about that transition from Rugby to bodybuilding. “Okay, so you were powerlifting to help you with Rugby, right? Where did bodybuilding come in?”
“I trained at the gym where all the bouncers trained,” he began telling me. “And the ‘family guys.’ if you know what that means. I trained around these guys and found myself doing more and more bodybuilding work. Then I met a guy named Steve Naylor; he had a very ‘Arnold look.’ Good enough to win the Mr. Wales, but nowhere else. He was running through training partners like Kamala Harris is running through staffers, especially for legs. No one would show up on leg day. So he asked me If I wanted to train. One day while we were training, someone put up a poster for a bodybuilding show and Steve and I went. It was the first time I’d seen the transition from off-season to competition shape. I was totally blown away. I was 19 by then. Naylor and I kept at it, and one day the poster went up again. The gym owner said, ‘Flex if you compete in that show I’ll give you a free membership.’ That was huge! That was a lot of money to me at the time.”
“How did you prep for it?” I asked. “How did you figure out how to diet and dial in for a show?”
“I’d periodically buy Flex magazine if I had the money. It was my bible. I read them cover to cover. Over and over. But there was rarely any info on diet. Then, finally, an article on Gunter Schlierkamp came out that talked in detail about his diet. (I still have the issue). I followed it by half, and cut out all the carbs. I was like a zombie. I just kept going because I needed the free membership!”
“So, the show comes and I win! I won the teen and the novice. It was a big deal. My friends came and brought air horns. There was an open bar. There were fights outside (would you expect anything else?) My friends brought me a big bag of my favorite chocolates and Snickers bars. I ate some chocolate to appease my friends. But, really, I just wanted to drink! Then I heard this voice behind me that said, ‘mate, are you doing the British championships? You can beat all these cunts! You have to represent your country. Who helped you for this show?’ I told him no one. He said, ‘I’ll help you. Monday, drive to my house.’ and he gave me the address. That was Neil Hill. And we’ve been together ever since. Nineteen years. We won 13 amateur shows together and 21 pro wins. That’s loyalty brother.” It sure is.
So, This Is Really It…
I’ve been in this industry for well over 30 years and one of my biggest disappointments is not getting to see Flex Lewis compete in the Olympia open. I was so pleased to learn of his intent in 2020 and thought there was a very distinct possibility that I’d get to witness history being made, as Flex could have been the first and only winner of both the 212 and open Olympias. The only other competitor in history who could also have pulled it off, but didn’t, is Lee Priest. The industry as a whole suffered a bit of a letdown in this potentially historic case, what happened?
As the story goes, 2017 was going to be Flex’s last 212 Olympia. It ended up being the worst year of his life. Three weeks before the Olympia, Flex’s training partner, Dallas McCarver, passed away suddenly. Shortly thereafter, 10 days before the show to be exact, a massive hurricane began bearing down on south Florida. “So we boarded up the house and went to Vegas,” he said. “We lived in a hotel the whole time before the Olympia. As soon as we got there, everyone who knew Dallas wanted to talk to me. At the Meet the Olympians event, I had a line of people waiting to see me. They were all crying. It was so emotional for me, but I had to suppress all that. And, on top of that, I had a camera crew for BBC following me around the whole time….. They were cool and ended up doing a tribute to Dallas in the documentary.”
Needless to say, his suppressing of emotion might have done the trick, because he won the 212 again and he did again the next year, 2018. The decision was made then to go for the 2020 Olympia open. He took 2019 off to put on size. He was pushing really hard for 2020, then got really sick, the result of which made eating a bit of a challenge. No appetite, couldn’t eat, whatever he could force down usually didn’t stay down. Then there was the shoulder injury… “It was horrible,” Flex remembers. “I was going to so many doctors’ appointments. I was missing meals, I couldn’t train right for a championship. I felt like shit.”
So, instead of doing the 2020 open Olympia, Flex Lewis went to Columbia for stem cell therapy to try to help rehab his shoulder and reset his gut. “I was so focussed on rehabbing injuries and doing the stem cell therapy,” he said. “I took off four months of training. That was hard. My gym was my church. I was going nuts. To take my mind off my misery, we decided to sell the gym in Florida, move to Vegas and open one up there. While I was off of everything, my wife and I decided to have another kid. After we found out she was expecting, I called Neil and we decided to go for it again, and do the Olympia open in 2021. Then
the same thing happened. My guts were shot. I could have bought a house with what I spent on doctors and therapies to get back on stage. I still couldn’t eat. My life was miserable. I had to step back and analyze my life. I wasn’t living. I was force-feeding. I wanted to be the first-ever two-division champion, but it just wasn’t in the cards.”
Well, if I’m disappointed in not getting to witness such potential history, I can only imagine how my friend feels. The way he positions it makes sense though, “If you’re the best you don’t have to say so. I’m not going to talk about what never was. But, I know enough people, not to mention Neil, who’ve seen me with the brakes off, and we know. Staying under 212 was so hard. I knew if I could have exploited my full potential I would have won the open. But the doctors’ visits and hospital stays weren’t making me a champion.”
About health in general, Flex Lewis has this to say: “Up until the last couple of years, I’ve been very healthy all through my career. I knew exactly what I was doing. I’ve done things as minimally as possible. People look at my condition and say things about drugs. It’s not true. I suffered. I suffered a lot. If I had done the drugs I knew some of these guys did, I’d never have made the weight class. It scares me what some of these guys do. Some don’t even get yearly check-ups. I proposed to get medical clearance at the beginning of each season. I think it’s the only way to save these guys.”
On Joe Weider…
“I can’t say enough about Joe Weider and Peter McGough. I was broke and struggling when I got a call from Peter. He said Joe wants to offer you a contract. I remember I was in Ralph’s grocery store. I was on a burner phone and was afraid to answer because they’d charge me. I said, ‘Peter are you taking a piss?’ In the middle of Ralph’s I yelled, YAAAAAAAA!!!!!! Like an out-of-your-heart yell. At that moment everything changed.”
What About Arnold?
Flex Lewis says, “There’s no better person, other than maybe the Rock, who has paved the way for us just-let-me-show-you kind of guys. As cliche as it may sound, he was a massive inspiration. I use him for a blueprint now. He’d been told, just like me, you’ll never make it. He came to this country, just like me, and wanted to achieve the best.”
“You won his first 212 Arnold Classic in 2014,” I said. “That must have been a big deal for you.”
“It was a big deal. It was a show I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pull off. After the Olympia, I always take off for a few months. I started prepping for the Arnold at under 200 pounds. So, I grew into that show – old school. Neil stayed with me for six weeks. It was a massive feat that I still can’t believe we pulled off.”
“Would you say that’s the most memorable show of your career?”
“It was up there,” He replied humbly. “But the show I always remember most is the last show.”
Every champ wants to walk away a winner, not because he lost. Flex’s most memorable show is his last show – his eighth consecutive Olympia. Not a bad memory to drag around with you for the rest of your life.
And that’s it folks, posing trunks on a hook, tanning goop in the bin, a Cubano in one battle-scarred hand and a whisky over ice in the other. He may even be wearing a straw hat and a Hawaiian shirt right now, with just enough of a breeze blowing to rustle the palm fronds. It’s over. As disappointing for some as that may be, there’s no denying it was one hell of a run. And he did it right. History will prove that no pantheon of modern bodybuilding would be complete without Flex Lewis at the table.