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Series / American Gladiators

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Is the contender ready? Yes!
Gladiator — ready? Yeah!
Three, two, one...

American Gladiators is a popular 1989-96 (revived in 2008) athletic competition-slash-Game Show where ordinary Joes and Janes went up against big, mean musclemen and musclewomen. Think The Running Man minus Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Dawson, and all the death and gore.

Contenders competed in seven or eight different events meant to test their athletic prowess. The events pitted the contenders in some way against the professional "Gladiators". The contender that scored the most points moved on in the four-round tournament (of which there were two a season), where the winner won a cash prize and came back to face the other half's tournament winner for a bigger cash prize.

Some of the more notable events include:

  • Joust: Contenders fight Gladiators with military pugil sticks on a raised platform. This type of contest is still very popular at UK Fetes.
  • Assault: A "storm the castle"-type game, where the contenders try to shoot a target above the Gladiators’ heads before the Gladiators can shoot them with a tennis ball cannon.
  • Breakthrough & Conquer: Contenders challenge one Gladiator in a football-style dash, then another in wrestling.
  • Powerball: Contenders attempt to put balls into cylinders while the Gladiators try to stop them (sort of like a full-contact, ground-level basketball).
  • The Wall: Contenders scale a 30-foot (40', then 50' in the revival) wall with Gladiators hot on their heels.
  • Hang Tough: A game of chicken where contenders face Gladiators on a grid of gymnastic rings, and gain points for reaching the other side or running out the clock without being thrown from the rings.
  • Atlasphere: Contenders run around in giant metal hamster balls (pretty much), trying to "step" on the various raised scoring pods. Gladiators in their own balls try to prevent this.
  • Swingshot: Contenders attempt to grab balls from a center pole and put them in their scoring bins using a bungee cord.
  • Gauntlet: Contenders dash through a 50-yard (150-foot) corridor past a series of four Gladiators armed with foam bricks and quarterstaves.
  • Earthquake: A game introduced in the revival series, where the contender wrestles a gladiator atop a raised, free-swinging platform, the goal being to throw one's opponent off the side. (Think Flash's duel with Barin in the Flash Gordon movie, but without the spikes.)
  • Eliminator: The winner-take-all grand finale of each episode, where the contenders race each other through an obstacle course incorporating elements of the other events.

Originally the Gladiators were to be larger than life characters with fake backstories, but this was dropped from the original pilot and instead they were portrayed as normal ex-jocks with fancy names like Ice, Turbo, Nitro, Sabre, Hawk, Tower, etc. The popularity of the Gladiators helped keep the show going, even as Gladiators themselves left the show with a great deal of regularity over the course of the first couple of seasons. The most popular include Danny Lee Clark (Nitro), Lori Fetrick (Ice) and Lee Reherman (Hawk), the latter of which went onto the most successful career of the Gladiators after the show was cancelled. Also of note was contender Rico Constantino, who would later have a short stint in WWE as...Rico.

Of course, there were the ubiquitous celebrity episodes and special episodes. Season Two of the revival also started with an unofficial Very Special Episode — an amputee competed and, while he made a noble try, it was pitiful in the most literal definition to see him run the Eliminator with triumphant music in the background while it was obvious that he was suffering and his prosthetic simply wasn't designed for this competition.

The original series (which ran until 1996) was aired in First-Run Syndication, and later become popular rerun fodder for The New TNN, and later ESPN Classic. NBC revived the series in 2008 with a considerably bigger budget (and none other than Hulk Hogan as emcee), but essentially the same format and most of the same games. Arthur Smith of Hell's Kitchen fame was shopping another revival, which he stated would be spandex-free and have more of a Hunger Games influence, stylistically. It never made it out of Development Hell. Seth Rogen, of all people, was stated to have been working with MGM on another revival in 2018, but that too has disappeared without a trace. Currently, reruns of both the 1989 original and the 2008 revival were formally seen on Pluto TV before the channel was pulled.

There was a UK version called simply Gladiators (which also got a short-lived revival) as well as Russian and South African versions and the occasional international crossover.

There was also a children's version called Gladiators 2000, which featured a couple of the adult gladiators appearing on the show to help the kid players.

The 1989-96 run provides examples of:

  • Art Evolution: After the featureless set of early season 1, the rest of the first season and the following three used what's been dubbed as the "columns" set, with lots of white and blue squares everywhere. With the season 5 retool, that motif was retired in favor of a more futuristic red, black and silver aesthetic, which stuck around to the end. Assault went from the weird, war-movie like obstacles in early season 1, to the white and blue blocky barriers afterwards, and then to slicker-looking red and silver w/ clear plexiglass barriers in season 5.
  • Ascended Extra: Peggy Odita, the season 5 women's grand champion, would also serve as the referee for Gladiators 2000.
  • Blasting It Out of Their Hands: A few times in Assault, the tennis balls shot by the Gladiators would hit the weapons, sometimes breaking them, or the projectiles fired their way.
  • Blowing a Raspberry: After literally shaking Turbo off his heel during his successful ascent, contender Purple Roundy delivered this to him from atop the Wall.
  • Boom Head Shot: A few games of Assault ended this way for the contenders.
  • Bookends: The first event on the first episode of regular Season 1 competition, as well as the final event on the final episode of regular Season 7 competition, was Joust.
  • Boyish Short Hair: Zap sported this during the Season 7 Alumni Show that pitted her against Dallas, and also only sported one earring on her right ear.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Many contenders have had their runs cut short because of an injury sustained during an event. Contenders have been seen injuring their ankles, knees, eyes, pinky fingers, even their butt in one instance. This usually meant an understudy or a previously eliminated contender to replace them, though at least one instance saw a contender run the Eliminator by himself because the opponent was injured at the very end and they were so far behind points-wise it didn't matter.
    • Gladiators were not immune to this Trope either, as evidenced in Season 1 when Sunny twisted her ankle during the Conquer portion of Breakthrough and Conquer that took place on an elevated ring. Needless to say, the elevated ring was never seen again after that.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Several times, Todd Christensen compared a contender to Larry Csonka whenever they bull rushed the Gladiator in the Breakthrough portion of Breakthrough and Conquer. The next year, he would be replaced by the aforementioned Csonka.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: The Gladiators always wore red-white-blue outfits, but what colors the contenders wore changed from season to season.
  • Cool Shades: In the earlier years, the Gladiators occasionally wore sunglasses when firing the tennis cannon in Assault.
  • A Day in the Limelight: Mike Adamle himself competed in a Season 6 celebrity show, coming up in third place. He was replaced on commentary by Nitro, which may have led to him replacing Lisa Malosky in Season 7.
  • Death Course: The Eliminator, though nobody was ever in actual mortal danger.
  • Demoted to Extra: By the 1992-93 season, John Harlan's announcing was largely limited to the intro, as often episodes would begin with a Cold Open featuring the day's starting event; he wouldn't be introducing the Gladiators at the beginning either, or teasing the contenders for the next episode(which he had done since 1990). He was ultimately sacked with the 1993 reboot.
  • Double The Dollars: On some occasions in season 4, Powerball became "Super Powerball", where three goal baskets were laid out in a straight line (three points for the ones on the left or right, five for the center) and only two Gladiators were present.
  • Down to the Last Play: The season-three men's grand championship was decided by two one-hundredths of a second, as Mark Ortega crossed the finish line in 48.86 seconds to Joseph Mauro's 48.88 seconds. Which means Ortega actually ran the course 4.02 seconds faster due to the eliminator handicap system.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The first 13 episodes had a lot of differences.
    • Instead of a referee, there was a guy dressed like a Medieval executioner who would use a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to judge rule infractions.
    • The Gladiators themselves were played up as outright villains, as opposed to just human obstacles.
    • Some of the Gladiators' looks were different — both Nitro and Gemini wore headbands while Lace wore lace stockings and was decked up in make up.
    • The Powerball arena was just a semicircle.
    • The first two swings of Cannonball were not shown, and contestants were allowed to kick the Gladiators. (The only event, it was pointed out, where the contender had the advantage, as a result.)
    • Assault looked like a World War II set, with prop grenades that exploded in glitter instead of tennis balls; the Gladiators also wore sunglasses during this event.
    • Joust had a balance beam instead of a platform, and the pugil sticks looked like giant Q-tips.
    • Instead of running the same event for the men and women twice in a row, it was just randomly thrown together; Swingshot was for the women only and never televised.
    • The Elminator was almost entirely different, much shorter and less challenging (to start it, instead of trying to climb a vertical treadmill, they'd be pushing what looked like giant rubber balls up a ramp).
    • The contestants looked like they dressed themselves, while Mike Adamle wore a sweat suit instead of a business suit.
    • Adamle also demonstrated some of the events.
    • Joe Theismann was host. (It's said that the first 13 have never been released on DVD at the behest of Theismann. The only sign of the man is the first-half recap episode.)
    • During the early episodes of Season 1, Theismann said that the champions would have the possibility to become an American Gladiator. This was never mentioned again after the first half of Season 1, and while the second half did add four new gladiators (Laser, Blaze, Titan and Gold), none were contenders from the first half of Season 1. In 2020, Season 1 men's first half champion (and eventual grand champion) Brian Hutson said the producers realized neither he nor women's champion Tracy Phillips had the build to be a gladiator, so the idea was dropped.
    • Laser and Gold took over the uniforms of the gladiators they specifically replaced in the second half of Season 1, Malibu and Sunny respectively.
    • Speaking of Sunny, her final appearance came in the first half semifinals of Season 1 when she twisted her ankle falling out of the Conquer ring...which was raised for that one show and then never again after Sunny's injury.
    • The scoring system in the first half of Season 1 was on a larger scale. The best possible score in Joust, Breakthrough & Conquer, Human Cannonball, and Assault was 100 points. In future seasons, the best possible score in each of those events was 10.
    • When Pyramid was first introduced in season 5, the original goal was to pull a handle and ring the bell at the top of the Pyramid. This was soon replaced by a button that the contenders needed to hit (which would play a laser zapping noise).
  • Eye Scream: One contestant suffered a scratched cornea after being hit in the eye by a tennis ball in Assault. He had to be replaced by an understudy.
  • Epic Fail:
    • The Wall had a habit of making this happen, as a few contenders were pulled down by the Gladiators who just simply had to reach over from where they were standing. And on at least one occasion, a contender fell before their head start had ended.
    • One game of Assault ended when the contender tore a knee ligament before he had even reached the first station.
    • At least one run of the Eliminator was done alone because one contender had been injured just before the Eliminator and he was so far behind they didn't even bother with the replacement.
  • Fanservice: Let's be honest, the Gladiators were very easy on the eyes as well as being quite capable of kicking your butt.
  • Foreign Remake: The British version (and other European versions) took the format up to eleven by transforming it into a big-budget, primetime spectacle that looked more like a WWF show than the more sports-like presentation of the original. The American audience did get exposed to the UK version during the international tournaments, and the NBC revival was based more off the European style too.
  • Game Show Host: Mike Adamle hosted for the entire run, with Joe Theismann for the first 13 weeks. Theismann was replaced by Todd Christensen for the remainder of that season followed by Larry Csonka from 1990-93, Lisa Malosky from 1993-95, and Dan "Nitro" Clark for the final season (1995-96). Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali hosted the NBC revival.
  • Genius Bruiser: Per the Family Feud special featuring the Gladiators, Hawk had a Master's Degree in finance and, at the time the episode was taped, was starting to get a PhD in Economics.
  • Gladiator Games: No blood and gore, but considering that the title has "gladiators" in it, well, duh.
  • Golden Snitch:
    • In the most well-known version, the points from the first six games were converted to half-seconds of head-start time in the Eliminator. And yes, large deficits have been overcome.
    • The travellator at the end of the Eliminator in the revival provided a snitch-within-a-snitch: failing to reach the top on your first try all but guaranteed that your opponent would catch up with you.
  • Handicapped Badass:
    • Siren, who was actually deaf and needed visual signals in replacement of the bell. This was not hidden — during a break in the action, Siren actually asked the crowd, because she was deaf, to "applaud" for her by rapidly opening and closing their hands in full view.
    • One contestant named Willie Cooley was also deaf.
  • Iconic Sequel Character: Larry Csonka only came onboard with the second season in 1990; Joe Theissman and Todd Christensen preceded him. The second season also saw the debut of referee Larry Thompson; he had been preceded by both the unidentified "executioner", then NFL referee Bob McElwee. Wesley "Two Scoops" Berry, perhaps one of the most famous contenders, didn't show up until season 5 in 1993.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: For a period, the opening spiel quoted above mentioned The Samuel Goldwyn Company. This was dropped completely with the 1993 revamp.
  • Licensed Pinball Table: Averted; Gottlieb had plans to retheme a The Legend of Zelda pinball for American Gladiators, but the licensing deal fell through at the last minute. Click here for details.
  • Mad Marble Maze: Atlasphere, of course. Kind of subverted in that there wasn't an actual maze, instead the players would attempt to settle in or roll over triggers inside octagonally-shaped scoring pods.
  • Market-Based Title: The British Gladiators renamed Joust. They called it the Duel. (The Joust name was reused for another event which was basically the Duel on mechanical bulls; this event wound up being removed for safety reasons.)
  • The Maze: An event added in season 3 was, well, "The Maze". Contenders would attempt to navigate it and exit the other side (there were only two correct paths), while Gladiators lurked within with blocking pads to impede their progress.
  • Meaningful Name: The first Lace wore lace stockings.
  • Powerball Is Slaughter: The male Gladiators tended to treat personal fouls as a job well done.
  • My Greatest Second Chance: If a contender got injured after the preliminaries, the replacement was the top scorer in the previous round, who immediately returned to the draw.
  • Obvious Rule Patch
    • After the infamous Cannonball incident with Malibu, they quickly told contenders that they couldn't extend their legs out any more.
    • The first two seasons featured penalty points for failing to complete any obstacles properly, but the penalty was so small that several contestants chose to drop off the handbike and lift themselves back on the platform. After Season 2, the penalty for falling from the handbike was increased to 10 seconds for the women and seven seconds for the men.
    • The scoring pods in Atlasphere were redesigned several times, either because of the contenders getting stuck in them or being unable to get it to settle in the pod and cause the smoke plume to activate. They eventually added a sensor surrounded by lights to remedy this, and they also began playing a laser zap sound effect in season 4 to indicate a successful roll over the sensor.
    • The target above the Gladiator's head in Assault also had a few rule changes. At first, just hitting the target only awarded 7 points; the full 10 would only be awarded if the contender's projectile struck the white circle dead-center on the target (this was a carry-over from the early season 1 format). This got changed by season 3 to just award 10 points if you hit the target since it would've been nigh-impossible for someone to hit the exact center. With the season 5 revamp, the rule of crossing the finish line at the end of the course was instead changed to hitting a button atop a pillar.
    • Season 1 and Season 2 each featured five preliminary matches in each half, with the five winners and three highest point totals among the non-winners moving on to the quarterfinals and being seeded 1 through 8 based on their point totals. However, this led to several immediate rematches (and one Season 1 contestant, Craig Williams, ended up facing John Shumski in *three* consecutive shows after he became the alternate following injury to his actual opponent, Phil Carroll) in the quarterfinals, making the opening round sometimes seem pointless. Starting in season 3, the preliminaries were increased to six matches, with only the winners advancing to the quarterfinals. This didn't eliminate rematches because the highest-scoring loser in the quarterfinals would advance to the semifinals to face one of the three quarterfinal winners, but it did mean a rematch couldn't occur until the semifinals at the earliest.
    • When Hang Tough was introduced in Season 2's second half (to give the show seven events without using Human Cannonball), both contestants and gladiators were initially unsure of themselves on the rings, which led most contenders to simply hang back and wander aimlessly away from the gladiators for 60 seconds to take a free five points. After a few incidents of this, the show color-coded the rings into blue, silver and red sections and required contestants to completely exit the blue rings to score anything in the event. Bonus points were also awarded for reaching the red rings (7 for a draw compared to 5 for silver), which was dropped in later seasons once contenders figured out the rings and it no longer became necessary.
  • Product Placement:
    • The original version had the clock sponsored by Armitron from season two until the end of its run. Typically, a sponsor of some kind, usually an M&M/Mars product or a Nintendo game console, would be plugged before an event. From mid-season 1 onwards until they left Universal Studios, ads for the aforementioned M&M/Mars products could be glimpsed near the arena ceiling. The later seasons had the in-studio video walls marked as the Slim Jim Superscreens, with the Slim Jim logo in the corner during replays.
    • A rather odd case was having a banner for GamePro magazine in the Gladiators' training room in the earlier seasons; this was likely because GamePro TV, a short-lived TV adaptation, was co-produced by Samuel Goldwyn Television.
  • Product Placement Name: The 2008 revival had Subway Replays and the "Toyota winning moment".
  • Punny Name: The telestrator was dubbed the "Zonk-astrator" and later the "Nitro-strator".
  • Remember the New Guy?: On some occasions, new Gladiators would randomly appear and be introduced, but then disappear again; they mostly appeared on the live tour version of the show and would occasionally sub in on the actual show (presumably when other Gladiators were either injured or busy).
  • Retool: While the show evolved in mundane ways for its first four seasons (ie. adding events and gladiators, changing intros and what not), the biggest retool came in Season 5. Besides more new events and gladiators, the series changed its logo (with a new "AG" symbol modeled after the British "G" symbol), updated its music package, replaced Larry Csonka with Lisa Malosky, and updated the Eliminator, specifically adapting part of the British version's course. The reverse treadmill was moved from the start of the Eliminator, as it was during Seasons 2-4, to the end. As it turned out, it was a lot easier to get up that treadmill at the beginning than at the end.
    • A smaller retool occurred in the final season; another logo change, a slight set change, and replacing Malosky with Dan "Nitro" Clark.
  • Scary Black Man:
  • Sigil Spam: In the last couple of seasons, the stylized "AG" symbol (originally shaped into an abstract star) was everywhere.
  • Special Guest: A few movie and TV actors showed up as contestants. Dean Cain, at the height of his popularity as Superman in Lois & Clark, specifically participated because he was a college football player and wanted to show off (and he did extremely well, scaling the Wall in record time amidst all the jokes that he really couldn't fly). His opponent was John C. McGinley, later known for being Dr. Cox on Scrubs. Debbi Dunning from Home Improvement was also in that episode.
  • Speed Round: Beginning in season 4, the last event before Eliminator would be dubbed "Crunch Time" and be worth more points than usual.
  • Spin-Off: Gladiators 2000, a kids' version with two pairs of contestants and Gladiators as coaches. It tried to be educational by shoehorning puzzles and questions related to health and fitness into the games (i.e. the Pyramid became the Food Pyramid by adding oversized food for players to collect, Snapback required placing bones on a diagram of the human body, and the Eliminator incorporated questions into its obstacles for bonus points). MGM, who owns the series, put said spin-off back into syndication in 2008 to tie in with the NBC revival.
  • Statuesque Stunner: Shirley Eson (Sky) fit this trope too, standing at 6'3'' tall.
  • Studio Audience: All of the episodes were taped in front of a live studio audience who repeatedly went nuts with cheering the competitors and Gladiators.
  • Unnecessary Combat Roll: Happened a few times in Assault.
  • Unnecessary Roughness: There were a few instances of the Gladiators and contestants mixing it up in the heat of competition. Once, Turbo actually punched a contestant during Swingshot.note  Another famous example is Gemini getting into a fight with contestant Billy Wirth during Powerball in Season 1.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: One contender from the second half of season 1 was named "Purple Roundy".
  • Worthy Opponent: The Gladiators would often congratulate the contenders after an event if they did well, or at the least survived. Whenever someone got injured, many of the Glads, even Nitro, would often express remorse for causing the injuries. One episode even had Gemini carrying off an injured female contender himself.

The 2008 revival provides examples of: