TV was never really fair to jocks. If you were a nerd, there were any number of game shows you could try out for, but if you were a muscle bound fitness guru, your game show pickings were slim. But a little program called American Gladiators set out to right that wrong, taking revenge back from the nerds and putting it back in the brawny 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 on syndicated television.
The hour-long spectacle pitted four contestants (two he-men, two she-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.
The show’s makers devised plenty of tests to drain the players’ strength and stamina: The Joust had one player and one Gladiator facing off on opposing tall pedestals with what looked like giant Q-tips. For the SwingShot, players bungee hopped past angry Gladiators to recover large balls from another pole. Powerball was a variation on that theme, a rugby-esque competition to shove balls into large containers while the Gladiators tried to stop that very thing. The nigh-impossible Hang Tough sent players scrambling across a grid of overhead monkey-bar-like rings, with Gladiators chasing and trying to pull them down. Speed was a must in Assault, an event that had one Gladiator shooting a tennis ball cannon at the dodging player, who fired back from each of four airgun stations, trying to blast the Gladiator. And then there was the Atlasphere, that hamster-ball-type device that the contestants and Gladiators rolled around in, with contestants trying to run over pods on the ground.
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After all events were completed, the two sets of contestants faced the final challenge, The Eliminator. This obstacle course had several parts, many involving (you guessed it) 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.
Mike Adamle hosted the gladiatorial melee, sharing the microphone with a variety of co-hosts, including 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 wrestler-like smack talk between matches. 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 eventually cancelled, but watch your backs, nerds… Gladiators don’t like to be beaten, and you never know when they’ll stage a big-muscle comeback.
This post originally appeared on the long defunct website, Yesterdayland. It now appears here as a way to preserve it.