Having gained major respect from fans and officials alike for his tremendous work ethic and unsurpassed combination of size, conditioning and sheer freakiness, Branch Warren is one man who has slaved to improve year in and out and has made massive positive changes to his physique, which clearly have not gone unnoticed by the judge's.
With his highest ever placement secured in 2009 at no less than bodybuilding's biggest event, the Mr. Olympia, where he landed in second - overtaken only by an all-time best Jay Cutler - Branch is, at least on paper, a favorite to win this year's Arnold Classic, especially in light of his controversial 2009 AC placement of third behind Kai Greene and Victor Martinez.
As a multiple Arnold Classic most-muscular title winner, Warren, with his ever improving shape and nail-hard conditioning, will be tough to beat for the overall in 2010. With forceful and effective posing, though not a shade on Kai Green's virtuosity in this department, and with better-balanced muscular development and few weaknesses Branch is a powerhouse that often elicits the most applause whenever he enters the bodybuilding arena.
Come March 4-7 the world will see whether the multi-pro show winner can finally snatch his biggest prize yet, the title for which he has fought incredibly hard over many years.
With a proven track record of success at the Arnold Classic and the most consistently conditioned and well-balanced physique in pro bodybuilding's current ranks, Dexter Jackson is one man you can never count out of any contest.
A former Mr. Olympia and three-time Arnold champion with more cuts than you can point a knife at, yet, into his 40s, with time closing in on him the Blade will be looking to make 2010 his year. And what better way to do this than through tying the four-victory Arnold Classic record set by symmetrical freak Flex Wheeler.
Standing in his way will be three ultra-hungry, younger and steadily climbing champions, all of whom have been achieving great success for themselves in recent years. Of these three - Kai Greene, Phil Heath and Branch Warren - it is Branch that possesses a similarly consistent approach to conditioning, the one thing that most of his elite brethren often struggle with, and should ensure victory for him should any of his fellow competition miss the mark by the smallest of fractions.
Unlike Dexter, Branch also has the kind of gargantuan size combined with said conditioning, and the 'freak' factor that is also perpetuated in today's bodybuilding age, that forces one to take notice. You will never overlook Branch Warren in any line-up.
That said, Jackson, if he wishes to once again win the prestigious Arnold crown, would probably need to bring something new to capture the judge's attention. If he can he may win, but with the second best bodybuilder in the world breathing down his neck it will be a hard task indeed.
Upon placing 14th at the 2006 Colorado Pro many within pro bodybuilding's extremely opinionated and vocal community had written Kai Greene off as - with the exception of awesome posing abilities - just another lower tier pro with limited potential. What a difference one year can make.
Coming back with a vengeance in 2007 Green not only claimed the Colorado title but also forced onlookers to take notice of this new contender with the freaky hair, thick and ripped physique and prodigious posing abilities. Giving rise to the moniker 'the Predator' Kai stalked the stage, moving with fluidity and grace that defied belief.
With his initial foray into the major leagues Kai proved his worth with a 3rd place at the 2008 Arnold Classic, only to follow this spectacular assault on arguably pro bodybuilding's biggest event with a win the following year. As the current Arnold champion Kai entered the 2009 Mr. Olympia as one of the favorites. Gaining fourth place in that event's hardest field ever was a magnificent achievement for Greene. However, it also raises a few questions on the eve of 2010's Arnold event.
Since Dexter Jackson did not compete at the 2009 Arnold Classic and Branch Warren, who came razor close to beating him at the same event, bested him at the 2009 Olympia just how easy will it be for Kai to retain his AC title this year? At arguably his all-time best at the 2010 Olympia he still could not beat either of these men.
One thing we know for sure that could ensure he once again defies the critics is that - like his posing routines from one contest to the next, where closer inspection will reveal hidden poses and concealed meanings within his unprecedented artistic display - Greene, unlike Jackson, is anything but consistent, meaning, in his case, he tends to make rapid progress over short periods of time. On this basis it would be impossible to completely dismiss the possibility of Kai once again standing victorious in Columbus.
One of the youngest men competing on the pro circuit today, Phil Heath is also one of the most hotly touted pros around - and with a moniker like "The Gift" there is almost a pre-formulated expectation among fans and judges alike that he will trounce the opposition by virtue of his incredible physical genetic 'gifts'. This can be both good and bad.
Good because it may send a signal to the judges that he is one to watch, which on a subconscious level might ensure he is automatically considered in the final standings before a competition even begins. Bad because it may force Heath to place unwanted pressure on himself' before an event and to become disillusioned if he does not quite make the cut when the dust settles.
Since he began competing in the big time Phil has garnered good, though, for someone of his abilities, mixed results. Third place at the 2008 Olympia followed by fifth the following year at the same event (albeit following illness) has shown that he has the ability to eventually win at the highest level. But he also has structural flaws some other competitors don't have, namely narrow clavicles signifying a lack of upper chest development.
Overall width and extreme size are also lacking compared to others within the big leagues. Though bigger than Dexter he does not quite have the same flowing lines and overall balance and proportionality the Blade has.
Though possessing better aesthetics compared with Branch he does not have the Bulldozer's immense size, grainy conditioning and stage presence. Probably closer in size and shape to Kai Greene, Phil will, in this author's opinion, be running neck and neck with the Predator for third place at this year's Arnold.
Probably the most gifted tall man competing in pro bodybuilding today,Toney Freeman is always right in there when he hits his conditioning, which unfortunately for him is not always the case.
With the same great X-frame and phenomenal leg, arm and shoulder development combined with top-line posing skills and great aesthetics for one so tall and wide shown time and again Toney can never be counted out. The question is, can he pull ahead of Heath, Greene, Jackson and Warren to win his first major event? If he can he had better do it soon.
Finally getting his due rewards is Ronny Rockel as highlighted with his seventh placing at the 2009 Olympia. With few flaws and perfect conditioning the only thing holding him back is a lack of overall size and the 'wow' factor so many at the top possess.
If the number one criteria for pro bodybuilding success is symmetry, proportion and full round muscle development Ronny should, at least on paper, be top six at all of the pro shows he enters. It looks like it is finally heading that way for the German giant killer.
With a disappointing 2009 behind him - where he placed 11th at the Mr. Olympia and fourth at the Atlantic City Pro - Melvin will be wanting to bring his pro career back to where it was in 2008, where he was at his best ever to secure sixth at the Olympia.
With great shape, stunning posing abilities and flowing muscle development Anthony has few flaws and when he is on he is always in the mix. Look for Melvin to redeem his 2009 season and climb back up the rankings in 2010.
Knowing that with his genetics he cannot compete toe-to-toe with the Dexter's and Kai's of this world, Hidetada has made it his mission to come in as cut as humanly possible, which has automatically elevated his pro standing, as shown with his back to back second placements at the 2009 Europa and Atlantic City pro shows.
Ninth at the 2009 Mr. Olympia capped off a stellar year for the Japanese champ who has reached a level of dry, crisp conditioning that has only served to accentuate the impressiveness, yet Franco-like compactness of his physique.
Having paid his dues Hide will be looking for further elevation as he enters the 2010 Arnold Classic. If he brings his recent conditioning with several improvements in overall size he is likely to place eighth, or better.
Johnnie Jackson is always on for a bodybuilding showdown and does not back away from any event. What has not often been on recently is Jackson's conditioning, which needs to be flawless for him to maximize his chances of success against men with vastly more superior genetic potential.
Still, with his excellent upper body development and stunning V-taper, should Johnnie come into this show with his best conditioning he could climb several places from ninth.
The big man from Russia possesses some impressive size and has become a fan favorite with his unassuming manner and powerful physique. But standing alongside the shorter, more compact and better-balanced competitors it is apparent that Shelestov suffers from 'tall-man syndrome', characterized by long limbs with gaps between muscles where on a shorter competitor - like Ronnie Rockel - there is often greater muscle fullness and roundness.
This relative stringiness affects proportionality and detracts from overall muscle balance and aesthetics. Unfortunately, or fortunately for those who can achieve it, bodybuilding athletes with the structure and height Sergey has must be around the 300 pound mark to really make an impact alongside men under 5'8" who tip the scales at over 250. On this basis, and assuming he arrives in condition, I have Shelestov in tenth place.