Do You Remember? American Gladiators

TV was never really fair to jocks. If you were a nerd, there were many game shows you could try out for, but if you were a musclehead, your game show pickings were slim. But along came a program called American Gladiators that set out to right that wrong, taking revenge back from the nerds and putting it back in the hands of workout kings and queens. Once more, might made right, and the rest of us got to sit back and watch the mayhem unfold every week on syndicated television.

Beginning in 1989, the hour-long show pitted four contestants (two men and two women) against a lineup of menacing Gladiators with names like Nitro, Zap, Gemini, Ice, Lace, and Laser. The contestants were actually competing against each other (man vs. man, woman vs. woman), trying to outscore each other in a variety of events. The Gladiators were just there to make sure everybody scored as few points as possible.

After all events were completed, the two sets of contestants faced the final challenge, The Eliminator. This obstacle course had several parts, many involving angry Gladiators. The contestant with the most points got a head start, but no lead was safe until the finish line was crossed. Along with their fabulous prizes, winners got a chance to come back for later rounds, and in the first season at least, the overall champ was allowed to come back as a new Gladiator the following season.

Let’s talk about that first season for just a bit. Although the show would end up being produced and promoted as somewhat of an actual sporting event, the first half of the first season was embellished with thematic elements. Things such as a judge wearing an executioner’s outfit complete with hood, “real life” obstacles in the Assault instead of the geometric shapes to come later on, and a bridge with trap doors that were used for the joust instead of the now familiar platforms. You can watch the video below to see these elements.

Mike Adamle hosted the show, sharing the microphone with a variety of co-hosts. The cohosts were plucked from the NFL, for the most part, to lend credibility to the show. Co-hosts during the show’s run included Joe Theismann, Todd Christensen, Larry Csonka, and Lisa Malosky. Like any good host of a testosterone fest, Adamle and his co-hosts gave plenty of face time to the Gladiators, who delivered wrester-like smack talk between matches. The gladiators themselves were not only muscled up and athletic, but most of them had charisma and good looks to match, and they captivated audiences with their words of warning to the contestants.

The games the contestants competed in against the gladiators became stars on their own, and everyone had their favorite to watch. My personal favorites were The Assault, The Wall, and of course The Eliminator. Here is a partial rundown of the most used games over the course of the series:

  • The Assault – The contender had 60 seconds to hit a target using a series of projectile weapons, while avoiding high-speed tennis balls being fired at them by a Gladiator using an air-powered cannon. The course spanned the entire arena floor with each weapon located at a safe zone that provided some cover for the contender. Each successive station brought the contender closer to the Gladiator’s cannon, and traveling to each one required the contender to cross open space where the Gladiator had an unobstructed shot at the contender. The contender’s run ended immediately if he/she hit the target or was hit by the Gladiator’s fire.
  • Atlasphere – Atlasphere was conducted across the entire arena floor and saw the contenders and Gladiators enter spherical metal cages to do battle in a sixty-second event. The object for the contenders was to roll their spheres into any of four octagonal scoring pods while the Gladiators used their spheres to impede the contenders’ progress.
  • Breakthrough & Conquer – In Breakthrough, the contender began at the 15-yard line of an artificial turf field and had to carry a football into the end zone for a touchdown. A Gladiator was positioned inside the five-yard line and had to remain there until the contender reached them. The contender scored by getting any part of the ball over the goal line without being tackled, going out of bounds, or losing hold of the ball. The contender then moved over to a circle to grapple with a second Gladiator for 10 seconds. The contender won by forcing any part of the Gladiator’s body to touch the floor outside the circle. If the contender was forced out, they could re-enter the circle and keep grappling until time expired.
  • Hang Tough – Hang Tough saw the contenders use a series of hanging gymnastic rings to swing themselves from one side of the arena to the other with the object being to reach and land on a platform on the opposite side while trying to avoid being taken off the rings by a Gladiator or falling off on their own.
  • Human Cannonball – The object of this game was simple: swing on a rope from an elevated platform and try to knock a Gladiator off a pedestal some distance away. The Gladiator was given a blocking pad for protection.
  • The Joust – The Joust saw the contender and Gladiator face off against each other on pedestals with pugil sticks for thirty seconds.
  • Powerball – Powerball was an event where the contenders attempted to score by depositing red and blue colored balls (originally rubber play balls, then soccer balls, and finally much smaller Nerf balls) into a series of upright plastic cylinders while trying to evade three Gladiators who defended the playing field.
  • The Wall – The Wall saw contenders trying to ascend a rock-climbing wall without being pulled off by a pursuing Gladiator. The original series conducted the event on a 32-foot structure. The contenders were also given a head start on the Gladiators, with the men receiving fifteen seconds and the women ten. 
  • The Eliminator – The Eliminator served as each episode’s final event and was the only event where the contenders faced off directly with each other instead of against the Gladiators. The Gladiators would still participate but as the years went on they were involved less and less. The Eliminator was an obstacle course laid out over the entire arena floor. The obstacles used varied from year to year.

With that kind of showmanship and the thrill of the competition itself, American Gladiators turned into a surprise hit, starting a multi-season run that eventually led to several international versions and a kid-gladiator spin-off in 1994, Gladiators 2000. The show was later revived in 2008 with a prime-time spot on network television, but the magic was gone and the show faded out relatively quickly, leaving us with just the nostalgia for what once was.

About Mickey Yarber 235 Articles
Editor-in-Chief Sometimes referred to as the Retro Rambler...I was born in the '70s, grew up in the '80s, and came of age in the '90s. I love to share all the fun stuff from those years via my Retro Ramblings column.

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