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Official Article

American Gladiators

Athleticism, glittery Spandex, an obstacle course to make Double Dare blush, it all adds up to American Gladiators! During a time when we idolized Arnold Schwarzenegger for his charisma as much as his physique, this was the ideal “sporting event” for the glossy, neon decade of decadence. While the WWF/WWE didn’t coin the phrase “sports entertainment” until years later, the act of watching muscle-bound fitness models pummel the smaller contestants was the perfect mix of Olympian style excitement and Hollywood action for a Saturday afternoon. So put in your mouth guard and let’s push our way through the phenomenon that rocked TV screens from 1989-1996.

In what I always viewed as a less deadly version of The Running Man, 2 male and 2 female contestants (usually firefighters or police officers) strapped on red, blue, yellow, pink (this is starting to sound like Power Rangers) tights to battle through various events against hulking Gladiators of the same gender.  As a kid with no discernible athletic ability (I couldn’t even find 1st base in tee-ball) the straight forward nature of the events on American Gladiators created accessible programming I looked forward to watching weekly. I can’t discount the allure of the “danger” present in most of the events as well, with competitors being tackled, pelted and pounded for the duration of the 1 hour run time.

The show featured a wide variety of events, but some were more exciting than others. Games like Breakthrough & Conquer or The Wall consisted of one on one match match-ups against the titular Gladiators where “Contenders” as they were known, tried to score a touchdown, Greco-Roman wrestle or climb to the top of a wall respectively. Short and not that thrilling (though it was weird to see “girls” playing football and grappling), I usually got up to grab a Fruit Roll-Up or E.L. Fudge cookies when these events came on the screen. Luckily we had announcers Mike Adamle and Larry Czonka there to pull us back in.

The combination of Adamle’s slick collegiate look, next to Czonka’s blue collar Dad from the mid-west appearance was very comforting for some reason. While the two did the play by play the show seemed like a legitimate sports competition, but the minute they were on camera for interviews it looked like the pair were trying hard just to keep a straight face. But once the heavy duty events kicked in, we didn’t need commentary, the action spoke for itself.

Pyramid gave the contenders the goal of ascending to the top of a foam-padded structure guarded by Gladiators who would tackle or toss them back down to the bottom to try again. It was amazing to see bodies flying in every direction and frankly, it looked like a lot of fun. Speaking of bodies flying, Swingshot had the challengers flinging themselves Tarzan style on ropes in an attempt to knock Gladiators off of pedestals. Though the Gladiators were solid muscle, I feel like the laws of physics were their enemy in this one. That pendulum force and the angles at which they were making contact seemed to teeter the titans 75% of the time. The Gladiators were usually good sports about the whole thing and while we’re on the subject, let me introduce you to a few of these statuesque superstars.

In the American Gladiators roster, there was a clear A and B team when it came to on-screen charisma. Guys like Nitro and Gemini were all personality, having distinct style and attitude. Nitro was slick, but dangerous pretty boy, while Gemini was purported to have been given the name due to his violent mood swings. It’s no wonder these two appeared on most of the promotional materials for the show. The rest of the team was filled out with muscle-bound lunkheads like Laser and Turbo who basically looked like generic jocks from any 80‘s movie featuring a gym.

The Amazon like female Gladiators were just as intimidating as the men, matching them pretty well in terms of athleticism. Zap was the poster-child for the ladies, she always seemed to get the most attention though she didn’t express much emotion. Plus she has an outfit with this weird one-arm sleeve, which always stood out to me as being not terribly functional. Sometime I think she got the wrong code name because Ice was much more electric and played to the camera, while Zap, really kept her cool. Speaking of Ice, for some reason she always looked like a roided up Leeza Gibbons, in my mind.

Another Gladiator who stood out to me was Siren, who was completely deaf. I remember an interview segment on an episode where she explained how she got visual cues from the refs to know when she was allowed to “attack”. The 80s and early 90s definitely loved a good inspirational story and a hearing impaired female bodybuilder on a national TV show definitely fit the bill. Plus, Siren always seemed to be having the most fun out of everyone. Dealing with hearing issues myself growing up, I definitely gained some strength from her example to push past that embarrassment I was dealing with on a regular basis at school.

While the multi-challenge obstacle course The Eliminator was always the finale, my favorite event was called Assault. What’s not to love? A Gladiator would fire tennis balls at 100mph toward the contender who would scurry behind barriers to launch air missiles at the target behind their attacker. You could either win by hitting the target or at least firing from each station and crossing the finish line without being hit. Also, this was the one inter-gender competition, since there was no physical contact, sometimes a Gladiator of the opposite sex was on the attack. Looking back, it was definitely the weapons that endeared me to this game. Every young boy my age wanted to be firing rocket launchers and cross-bows, the fact that the course looked like a video game didn’t hurt either. 

Like any media phenomenon, merchandising picked up along with the ratings. There was a video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System, trading cards, lunchboxes and something I just discovered in preparing this article, American Gladiators candy bars! Makes sense, most kids probably wanted to get pumped like their favorite muscle-bound hero, too bad these fruit flavored nougat bars would most likely take you in the opposite direction. But no TV show proved its worth to me until it had an action figure line and American Gladiators made sure to get into the game in a big way.

I remember my friend Erik had several of these toys in his collection and they were about the same scale as the Starting Line-Up sports themed figures of the time. You could buy a male Caucasian or African-American Contender to battle your favorite Gladiators, but no females. They must have thought girls weren’t playing with these toys, but why then make a lonely Zap figure with no one to battle? Another minor thing that always bugged me was that Gemini’s figure had no facial hair, we all loved the man and his ’stache, don’t rob us of the added play value! I will give them a thumbs up for replicating every major event from the show in playset form, including the most famous ones Joust and Atlasphere.

When I think of the Joust event I mainly remember how it was parodied on an episode of Saved by the Bell where the Bayside teens go through a military boot camp and fight their Gladiator opponent Beldo! And of course in the Zack Attack fantasy episode, Lisa became “Lethal Lisa” after quitting the band. That wasn’t the only sitcom connection, Carl and Steve Urkel from TGIF staple Family Matters competed against the real American Gladiators (and mostly each other) on a special crossover episode.

The Atlasphere got it’s moment of tribute on The Simpsons when Milhouse’s recently divorced mother, Luann started dating Pyro, who uses the giant rolling sphere as his main mode of transportation. The funniest part of that event was the fact that they had stagehands with football practice pads on the outskirts of the arena keeping the balls from rolling into the audience. As you can imagine this was pretty ineffective, so most of the time the “Pad-Guys” were jumping out of the way trying not to get crushed. It’s hilarious to me that it was even a role to be filled on the show, I can only hope it paid well and that they had a good insurance plan. Yikes! So much more left to talk about, I didn’t even get to events like Hang Tough and Powerball. But I can’t end the article without mentioning the show that tried to steal some of American Gladiators audience. 

Knights and Warriors took the idea of having muscle-bound nemesis for average athletes to compete against, but added a medieval flair to the occasion. They took the entertainment value to the next level by making the “Warriors” into actual evil villains, who relished in bashing the valiant “Knights” with giant swinging mace-like balls while they jumped hurdles (you can’t say they weren‘t inventive).  With names like Lady Battleaxe and Chaos, they really could have had their own Mortal Kombat style video game, as they were far from the All-American image of the more widely loved Gladiators. You can watch an episode at this link.

So tell me, which was your favorite American Gladiator or event? 
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retroboy Posted on Nov 06, 2018 at 12:46 AM

I used to watch the kid verison of it

Poshy2005 Posted on Nov 09, 2015 at 09:10 PM

I loved American Gladiators. I used to watched it all the time. Even the new version that NBC came out with. Siren was one of my favorite female Gladiators from the original along with Zap. For the males it has to be Nitro.

Vaporman87 Posted on Feb 25, 2015 at 04:57 AM

I was saddened to find out that Siren committed suicide in 2008. R.I.P.

Vaporman87 Posted on Jan 03, 2015 at 05:32 PM

Rowsdowermoblile... away!!!

Hoju Koolander Posted on Jan 03, 2015 at 04:22 AM

Hoju Koolander Posted on Jan 03, 2015 at 04:19 AM
@pikachulover Sky was appropriately named, she had good reach in The Wall and Hang Tough. I did actually catch an episode of Gladiators 2000, but the educational element took away the fun for me. GUTS on Nickelodeon was more my style, but came at the end of my Nick watching phase so I only saw it a few times. Thanks for mentioning it and the Hulk Hogan hosted reboot.

@vaporman87 "Rowsdower!" oh, I own The Final Sacrifice on DVD, but I never made the Csonka Connection. It's funny how the brain can miss things like that.

I had a hard time finding an attractive female Gladiator to crush on, but I always thought Lace was okay, since she was just fit and not ripped. My favorite male Gladiator was actually Hawk from the later seasons, he had a lot of energy and a little touch of crazy that made him extra cool.

pikachulover Posted on Jan 03, 2015 at 02:47 AM

I liked American Gladiators as a kid. My favorite was Sky because she was really tall and the kids at school used to think I would grow up to be like seven feet! Sorry to say I only grew to be 5'7". When I was kid I wanted to be on a Gladiator on the show.

I'm surprised you didn't write about the kids' show Gladiators 2000. I liked that show. They would teach me about proper hygiene and nutrition.

Do anybody remember when it was spoofed in Eek the Cat? Sharky watched a show called Patriotic Warriors and his favorite was named Platinum.

When the revived version came out on NBC it wasn't as good. I didn't like that version.

Vaporman87 Posted on Jan 02, 2015 at 05:33 PM

Sweet! I can't say I watched American Gladiators religiously, but whenever I saw it on as I flipped through channels, I stopped to see the action.

My favorite events were usually the jousting and assault segments, but I also like the even where the contestant had to swing across on ropes, trying to avoid the Gladiator.

There were times that I wondered if the Gladiator was not quite giving it his/her all. Like, maybe they had to hold back a bit at a director/producer's request in order to make the show exciting. I don't know though. I haven't heard anything like that from any former Gladiators or folks on the show. Still, who knows.

My favorite Gladiators were Blaze and Siren (because I thought they were attractive). Among the male Gladiators, I really didn't have a favorite.

My favorite event was Assault. How I wished I could be a part of that one!

Watching this show was never the same for me after watching the MST3K episode "The Final Sacrifice". In that episode (if you haven't watched it, you absolutely MUST!) Mike and the Bots constantly refer to Larry Csonka because the main character's dad looks exactly like him in a photo. Just a funny little tidbit there for you to chew on.

Anybody who might suggest that the competition was never fierce on the show might want to watch this clip.

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