Luckily I make the drive up to Milwaukee, Chicago’s Canada, in about an hour, gunning it to 90 once I hit the Wisconsin state line. Chicagoans (and even suburbanites like me) are much more cautious with our own boys in blue than with anyone else’s. Plus doing 90 in a 70 isn’t really speeding, not when you’re in a hurry. Diego told me to meet him at the Waukesha County Expo Center at 9 a.m., and the clock on the dash read 7:43 when I pulled out of the drive-thru at Dunkin’ Donuts. Google Maps says it takes an hour and 40 minutes to get to Waukesha, but I’m always hoping to prove Google wrong.

Waukesha lies about 20 minutes west of downtown Milwaukee (according to Google) in a wooded and hilly hinterland typical of the upper Midwest. A two-runway airport sits next to the expo center, so there’s a ton of blue sky. A red barn stands beyond the parking lot, and across the street is a dairy plant where they make kefir. (I used to drink the stuff back when Mom dated this Ukrainian wrestler/engineering student/taxi driver back when I was a freshman in high school. It’s like drinking yogurt.) The expo center is small, perfectly circular and low, with a white domed roof. The parking lot is still nearly empty when I roll in at 8:52. Were it not for the bronzed gym rats in sweats holding duffle bags outside, I might’ve driven right past the thing.

I text Diego’s girlfriend Emina to let both of them know I’ve arrived. Diego’s my wife’s cousin, and he and Emina have been our wing-couple for the past year and a half. (Ro would’ve came with but she’s OT for the weekend, celebrating a friend’s big 3-0 in KC.) Diego’s been a gym rat ever since I met him back in 2009, but only this year did he stop lifting and start training, which is what serious people call it. He found an experienced coach who put him on a hardcore diet and exercise regiment, and the two of them set their sights on the National Physique Committee’s second annual Milwaukee Muscle Madness show in May.

It wasn’t too bad in the beginning. Diego only had to make a few tweaks to what he was already doing in the gym and eating at home. But then we started seeing him less and less as the competition got closer and he spent longer hours in the gym every week. In April I began waking up to SnapChats from him doing 90 minutes of cardio every morning before work. (He’s a financial something-something making stacks.) After work he was back in the gym, usually getting home around ten at night. He updated me and Ro on his progress through SnapChat, and week after week we watched him get more muscular, shredded, and veiny. Ro and I stopped hitting him up on the weekends because we were still treating our weekends as cheat days and didn’t want to lead him astray.

“Ninety-nine percent of people don’t take workouts and eating seriously.”

Emina texts back saying they’ve just left the hotel and will be here in a bit, so I get out of the car and sit on a concrete bollard in front of the building. Almost every competitor arrives with their significant other — boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, brother, sister, mother, cousin, friend — who acts as a manager/assistant. Everyone’s wearing what they’d wear to the gym, plus flip-flops, and they saunter around just as they would at their places of sweaty worship, sizing up anyone who might be the competition. Even I get a few, albeit brief stares. A wiry Asian guy eyes me as he walks up to the building, passing by in tense silence alongside a doughy white boy.

“Hey, buddies!” Diego says when he and Emina show up a little after nine. He’s wearing blue trunks and a loose-fitting sleeveless shirt that looks like it was made from a mechanic’s oil rag. His skin’s really tan, but since he’s naturally brown, the tan doesn’t look that out of place compared to most of the other guys. He’s lost over 40 pounds since January but still has a broad back and shoulders. His waist is nonexistent. There are flip-flops on his feet (if you hadn’t assumed that already). We greet each other with the half-handshake, half-hug guys do. It’s like hugging a Rodin. “Thanks for coming, man! It means so much to me that you’re here.”

Diego showing off his back in his hotel room

Diego showing off his back in his hotel room

Diego heads inside while Emina and I get tickets for the prejudging at ten. Rows of black folding chairs assembled into different sections fill the center of the big circular space inside. At the front of the room is a stage with a backdrop and a long table covered with tablecloth. The backdrop and tablecloth display logos — Bodybuilding.com, MuscleTech, BSN, Fifty Shades of Spray, Shredded Cheddar Productions. Banners along the walls also display logos, as well as advertisements for next month’s Brew City competition and the Badger State show in October. There’s plenty of drinking out of sports bottles and eating out of plastic containers and Ziplock bags. A lady promoter carrying a clipboard darts around in multicolored platform heels. To the right is a balcony where all the competitors are huddled around an event organizer giving last-minute instructions.

“Me and Diego were freaking out last night at the hotel,” Emina tells me once we’re seated. “We smoked a little and then he’s like, ‘I don’t have any food! No chicken or nothing!’ He was gonna call you to ask if you could make some chicken breast and bring it. Can you imagine? At 11:something at night? But we calmed down when we saw that we did bring his food. I think we were just too high.”

The white boy who came with the Asian guy asks if the seats in front of us are taken and sits down before we can even shake our heads.

“Then he was texting his coach saying ‘I can’t do this. What should I eat tomorrow?’ It really freaked me out because he said he wasn’t that high, and I didn’t know if he was lying or not or if I was just too high. His coach texted back, ‘First of all, RELAX.’ We started laughing so hard when we saw that. Then his coach said he couldn’t tell him what to eat until he saw what he looked like in the morning. Depending on how Diego looked in the morning, his coach would tell him to eat more carbs or protein. He needs carbs to puff up his muscles, but not too much or else he’ll look fat. Diego heard a story about this guy who went to a show and got nervous and started eating a bunch of doughnuts back stage. Everybody kept watching him because he was freaking out and just kept eating. Then he packed up his bag and left before the show even started. Isn’t that crazy? Anyway, last night Diego was posing in the mirror for a long time and I didn’t know what to do — I didn’t know if I should keep looking at him or not — so I started watching the TV. Then he says, ‘I see you watching the TV.'” She laughs. “He’s gotten so emotional lately.”

“He’s been under a lot of stress,” I tell her. “He’s been telling me and Ro how much he loves us and appreciates us.”

“Yeah! Like last week I went to his house and he was meal-prepping and saying how people don’t take workouts and eating seriously. He said, ‘Ninety-nine percent of people don’t take workouts and eating seriously,’ and then he goes, ‘No offense.'”

“Me and Ro have been giving him space since he’s been in the zone. It’ll be fun to have him back for the summer though. This show was perfecting timing.”

The lights dim — showtime. Emina whispers info about how these things go down. The men’s groups are divided between bodybuilding (the meatheads), physique (the beach bodies) and this year’s new category, men’s classic physique, which is between the first two. The women are separated by physique (the bodybuilders), bikini and figure (the equivalent of men’s classic physique). Men’s bodybuilding and physique also have separate classes for older competitors, as do women’s figure and bikini. Each group progressing from smaller classes to the larger ones. The judges make their decisions after the pre-judging, though the winners aren’t announced till the evening show. Judges sit at a table in front of the stage like at a pageant, with the head honcho seated in the middle.

First up is men’s master’s bodybuilding 35 & over, and then 40 & over. Each guy struts on stage like a rooster entering a cockpit. Drake’s latest earworm plays softly in the background. “There you go, babe! Keep them abs tight!” says a lady in the second row. Her kids look embarrassed. “Go ahead, yell!” she tells them. “He wants that!”

“Front double biceps,” the center judge says over a mic.

The men on stage raise their arms in the classic bodybuilding pose every boy has done in the bathroom mirror at least 50 times. The crowd applauds.

“Relax.”

The men relax.

“Front lat spread.”

“Watch this!” says the lady in the second row.

The men flex the back muscles on the sides of their torsos, transforming each one into a version of Superman.

“Woah!” the lady says as the audience claps.

“Quarter-turn to the right,” the judge says.

They turn.

“Your favorite side chest pose.”

The men angle their chests toward the crowd and flex their pecs, shoulders, arms, abs, everything.

“Relax.”

They relax.

“Quarter-turn to the right.”

The men face the back curtain.

“Back double bicep.”

Their arms go up as they flex not only their arms but their backs, glutes and hamstrings too. Applause.

“Relax.”

They relax, a bit.

“Back lat spread.”

They place their hands on their waists and spread their lats as far as they’ll go, showing off their wide, rippling backs, some more wide and rippling than others. The key here is to have that V look, definition, and back muscles on top of back muscles. A good back usually gets the loudest applause. If you don’t have the V, then stay your ass home.

“Relax.”

They relax a bit.

“Quarter-turn to the right.”

They turn.

“Side triceps.”

Like the side chest pose, only the forward arm goes straight down.

“Relax.”

Not really.

“Face forward.”

They swing forward, puff up their chests, and tighten their abs.

“Abdominals and thigh.”

Each guy points the toes of his favorite leg on the floor in front of him and bends forward, flexing his leg muscles and abs, along with everything else.

“Relax.”

Yup.

“Your favorite Most Muscular.”

It’s clear what’s required here, as each competitor slips into the pose he thinks shows of his body most. Some do a version of the front lat spread. Others opt for the “crab” pose, flexing every muscle in their bodies. It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you look good doing it.

“Lookin’ good, babe!” the lady says.

“Relax.”

They stand at attention. Then the judge says “Thank you” and sends them off.

After them come the lightweights. One of them is the Asian guy, whose name is either Chinese or Taiwanese. He has big intense eyes, a braid hawk with shaved sides, and skin the color of lechón. He’s also ripped, though not so jacked — clearly the favorite.

The light-heavyweight class features the most competitors thus far: four. A female judge asks the less muscly guy in the middle to switch places with a more impressive dude on the end, earning hoops and hollers from the crowd. Centerstage is where you want to be. The poor guy sent to the side now looks completely out of place, even though he has the sort of beach body most guys would give their less favorite testicle for. He’s been blown out by the competition, and he knows it.

“Oh my god! … He’s in the middle!”

When the heavyweights strut out, the potbelly on one of them shocks the crowd into silence. “Oh my god,” Emina whispers as we both stare at it in awkward astonishment. He stands with his back arched and his ass lifted so high that his belly button almost faces the floor, making his stomach sag more than it normally might. “He must’ve eaten too many doughnuts,” I mutter.

Once the monsters in the super-heavyweight class stomp off, it’s the ladies’ turn, beginning with women’s physique (the bodybuilders). A single short woman from Anchorage, Alaska competes in the first class. She prances on stage with a peppy smile, her arms and legs flowing like a gymnast’s as she makes the quarter-turns. As with most female bodybuilders her skin is leathering and wrinkly, making it hard to tell how hold she is. She’s either 29 or 43. She has a wide, muscly back, her abs are the definition of what abs should be, and the rest of her body is shredded and in the right proportions — a nearly perfect specimen. The crowd loves her, if more for her size and attitude than anything else. Were she competing against 10 other women, she’d still deserve a trophy.

Next up: men’s classic physique, and a club boy with a full mohawk who looks as though he’s been dipped in gold or gave King Midas a pound. Posturing beside him is the same Asian dude, whose focus and poise make an even bigger fool out of Goldilocks. When the judges ask them for their favorite Most Muscular pose, he swoops down with his right leg far out to the side, chest facing the floor, arms out and bending slightly upward like an eagle’s wings. The audience gasps and then cheers as he slowly turns his face up straight ahead. Staring out of his skull are a pair of vulture-eyes like the one in Poe’s story.

Compare him to one of the next guys who trots on stage. There’s nothing particularly remarkable or damning about him at first, but then he turns away from the crowd to reveal the biggest and stupidest spider tattoo I’ll ever lay eyes on. It’s fugly, like an early draft of the Spidey logo that didn’t make the cut, like a preschoolers drawing of the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and it’s spread across his upper back from shoulder to massive shoulder.

Following that comical interlude comes arguably the two best bodies of the entire competition, at least on the men’s side. The shorter, darker black guy looks more or less how you imagine him — pure bulging muscle, no fat. The much taller light-skinned kid is 19-year-old Jordan Plantiko, and I only mention his name because it’s worth mentioning. He won the International Powerlifting Federation’s World Sub-Juniors Championship in the 204-pound weight class back in 2014, benching 435 pounds twice and squatting 705 pounds twice. On stage he looks like Marvel’s next superstar — tall, massive, chiseled, with a pretty face. And if the world weren’t unfair enough already, he smiles like a guiltless boy. Everyone’s eyes are glued on this Adonis as he goes through his poses, each one receiving an ecstatic round of applause from the crowd.

Diego’s competing in the regular physique class, group C. Instead of Speedos everyone’s wearing board shorts, which hurts Diego since he’s got muscular thighs. There’s also a lot more competitors in this class, with at least a dozen people sharing the stage in Diego’s group alone. Still, Diego stands out in the lineup, especially when he turns around and opens his wide rippling back. The only thing he’s missing is abs. His waist is narrow enough, he doesn’t have a potbelly, but he needs to work on those abs. Every angle should offer the judges something to draw their eyes to. Of the 12 or so men on stage, five are asked to line up in the center while the others are instructed to line up on the sides at an angle. Diego is one of those on the side. When the five in the center walk off stage, another five are picked to line up in the center. This time Diego is picked, and not only that, he’s asked to stand centerstage. His smile stretches to its limit as he gracefully swoops through the different poses and postures he’s practiced a thousand times before. Emina and I are perched on the edge of our seats and smiling as hard as he is. “Oh my god!” she says. “He’s in the middle!”

Serious competition in the bikini class (kr_fitnessfiasco/Instagram)

Serious competition in the bikini class (kr_fitnessfiasco/Instagram)

Last up is bikini, with by far the most competitors of any class, male or female. A good ass pays, and fake tits don’t seem to bother anyone, judges included. I crane my neck to peep some of the talent as Diego leads me and Emina out of the convention center to go grab lunch. “How did I do, guys, honestly?” “Well, Honestly? I was nervous for you,” I tell him. “I started thinking, ‘What if Diego gets blown out of the water?’ But then you walked out and I was shocked by how good you looked compared to everyone else.” “Really? Thanks, man!” “You should’ve been in the top five,” Emina says. “You were so good!” “You just have to work on your abs. But your back was better than everyone else’s.” “Yeah, I know,” he says, still smiling. “Now at least I know what to work on.”

…the only person I’ve ever seen who could take on a silverback (at least one past its prime).

Waukesha has a downtown like any other place in the Midwest. It even has a Main Street, where the three of us find a burger pub run by a middle-aged blonde lady womanning the stove and a young Asian dude behind the bar. I sip a tall 312 and ask Diego what he was feeling on stage. “It’s like climbing a mountain.” Did you see any of the other guys on stage with you? “Not at all. I was just focused on my poses. I was in the zone, just like in the gym — headphones on, hoodie on, world off.” Are you nervous for tonight’s show? “No because they already did the judging. My coach told me I can just relax now and enjoy it. Tonight’s show is all about showing off and having fun.”

I tell him how surprised I am by how fascinating the whole experience has been so far, and it’s true. I came to the show thinking that bodybuilding competitions were merely beauty pageants for gym rats, but I’ve come to realize they’re much more than that. Bodybuilding is a close community of individuals — men and women, young and less young — from a wide variety of backgrounds who all believe in pushing themselves mentally and physically to see how physically impressive they can become. The snobby intellectual in me instinctively scoffs at the notion of placing so much emphasis on a person’s “mortal envelope,” but bodybuilding is really no different than me studying and writing and debating others in my quest to become as mentally extraordinary as I can. Mens sana, corpore sano — they’re two sides of the same biological coin. It’s all an exercise in self-discipline and self-improvement.

That the night show is more relaxed than the prejudging, I highly doubt. As soon as we reenter the convention center I feel as though I’ve walked into a completely different building. Every seat is filled and there are still people standing around. Tables have been set up along the edge of the circular room for sponsors to sell their merchandise. The long table onstage is now covered with trophies of various shapes and sizes. A pair of yellow foam crowns grown to the Shredded Cheddar male and female winners for the most shredded bodies. Mini plastic busts of Arnie go to those who win their classes.

Stage set for the night show

Stage set for the night show

Competitors in the bodybuilding class individually perform routines set to music. One overly ambitious kid does a number of poses to Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, but the music is too awe-inspiring for his lackluster body. Nineteen-year-old Jordan Plantiko later finds himself in a pose-off with a much shorter but equally impressive dark-skinned black guy, after which the center judge passes a piece of paper to the massive MC. I can’t tell if this all for real or just showmanship. In the end, the kid loses to the other guy, who also takes the overall trophy. (Jordan would win one in another class though — the first of many, I’m sure.)

As far as I can tell, the only other Latino in the competition is Jonathan Hernandez, a young guy from Guerrero, Mexico who doesn’t speak a lick of English and lives in Waukegan. He competes in men’s classic physique, swaying his hips to a reggaetón beat that gets the intended reaction from the ladies in the audience. Another guy in hipster glasses poses to a “Ridin’ Dirty” spoof about riding Segways. Beginning your routine while crouched in a variation of the Tebow — you know, the one Iron Man does when he lands — gets old after the third or fourth guy. One stud has his last name, FIRESTONE, tatted across his back in Gothic font like brazers do on their trucks. Halfway through the show, pros Akim Williams and Seth Feroce come out and stalk the crowd, posing for audience members up close and taking photos with a few. I snap a great pic of Emina with Feroce, and by a lucky coincidence, Diego’s mom, who came for the night show, gets a photo with the beast Williams. The two men are monstrous, way bigger than anyone else in the room. Williams especially is unbelievable — the only person I’ve ever seen who could take on a silverback (at least one past its prime).

Even though Diego doesn’t place, it’s still a good first show for him. That he would lose all the weight, sculpt his body to near perfection and give serious competition to more seasoned bodybuilders in an actual show seemed like a wild fantasy to everyone only four months ago, including Diego himself. He’s come a long way mentally, physically and emotionally, and now he’s gained at least some experience as a competitor. Developing his abs and building more muscle is the goal for next year. All he’s focused on now is relaxing a bit and enjoying the summer — and the new body he’s worked so hard to achieve. I ask him what’s on his mind over drinks and Mexican food later that night. Surely he’s brimming with a sense of accomplishment and possibility. He smiles at me, his eyes wild. “Emina’s homemade blueberry and cream cheese pancakes!”

Featured image: istolethetv/Flickr

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