Monday’s International Classic contest, free to watch, remains heavy on bodybuilding with a dash of celebrity as rap star Nelly receives an award

By Michael Aushenker

A bodybuilder competes during a 2013 contest at Muscle Beach

A bodybuilder competes during a 2013 contest at Muscle Beach.                             Photo by Michael Hall

If you hear a buzz around Venice Beach that “it’s getting hot in here,” know the phrase may have little to do with the weather.

That’s because Cornell Iral Haynes, Jr. is receiving Muscle Beach International Classic’s first-ever Muscle Beach Celebrity Fitness Award on Monday.

Now if that name doesn’t ring a bell, try his professional alias: Nelly, the two-time Grammy-winning rapper, currently featured on Eric Fleishman’s “CelebritySweat” videos.

Celebrity cameo aside, the Muscle Beach International Classic is a decades-long Memorial Day tradition.

“Muscle Beach is the home of the greatest bodybuilders on Earth,” said event organizer Joe Wheatley. “It’s an iconic part of the Venice culture. It carries on a great tradition. We’ve been doing it for 40 years.”

Following Saturday’s Muscle Beach Raw Power Lift-off, a full-scale power-lifting meet, Monday’s Classic includes bodybuilding, figure and bikini contests as well as men’s and women’s physique competitions.

“These are amateur contests — entry-level competitions to get their first shows under their belt,” Wheatley said.

Air Force General Ellen Pawloski returns to deliver opening remarks on Memorial Day, with an interactive display of the U.S. Air Force’s Command Center Alpha and an F-16 appearing on the nearby basketball courts.

But the draw, of course, is the bodybuilders.

“We’re expecting a record number of athletes,” said Wheatley of the event’s roughly 200 registered participants.

That’s up about 50 from last year, when “Pumping Iron” documentary star Lou Ferrigno received the event’s Lifetime Achievement Award from Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics writer who co-created the comic book character that became Ferrigno’s signature TV role, The Incredible Hulk.

“Lou was deserving of the Muscle Beach Hall of Fame and I thought it was awesome,” Wheatley said. “[Los Angeles City Councilman] Mike Bonin joined them on stage. It was a great time. Stan was funny. Lou was humble.”

Hosting this year’s ceremony is Fleishman, a.k.a. Eric the Trainer, whose “CelebritySweat” videos have showcased workouts with movie and music stars, including Nelly.

“Nelly is one of the greatest artists in hip-hop,” Fleishman said, retracing the rapper’s reinvention from pop hip-hop to club hip-hop to country hip-hop. Last weekend, Nelly nabbed an American Music Award for Best Country Song for “Cruise,” his hit collaboration with Florida Georgia Line.

Nelly, of course, is best known for an army of hits off his 2002 album “Nellyville,” led by the Pharrell Williams-produced club banger “Hot in Herre.”

“He’s very athletic. He’s a great sportsman. He’s just a fun guy to hang around with,” Fleishman said.

Hanging around the likes of Ferrigno and his “Pumping Iron” co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger has been nothing short of surreal for Fleishman, who grew up on a farm in rural Maine.

“I owe all of my success to the old school bodybuilders: Lou, Arnold and Don Howorth, the ‘Duke of Deltoids’ and first hall of fame recipient. He was the first mentor of mine.”

Other big influences: Frank Vale and Jack LaLanne, with whom he shared airtime.

“[LaLanne] was talking about the importance of greens. He’d say, ‘If it tastes good, spit it out!’” Fleishman recalled.

Reading Marvel and DC comics put Fleishman on his path to becoming Eric the Trainer.

“The individuals that looked closest to those superheroes were these bodybuilders,” said Fleishman, the palm trees, sand and beautiful girls of Venice twinkling at him from afar. “To a 13-year-old kid living in a cold and desolate place, that’s about as foreign to me as Mars or Venus.”

Also surreal for Fleishman is that he now weight trains the sons of Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger.

“It’s a tradition; the greatest bodybuilders of all-time have congregated [at Muscle Beach],” he said. “It’s wonderful to make the journey to be part of that tradition now and to give back to that legacy.”

The Muscle Beach International Classic starts at 10 a.m. Monday at the Venice Beach Recreation Center, 1800 Ocean Front Walk, Venice. Monday’s finals begin following the 1 p.m. celebrity fitness award presentation. The event is free for audience members. Call (310) 399-2775 or visit