We are back with another dose of LRM’s Retro-Specs! This week I hope you are ready for muscle, mullets, and mayhem as we look to the TV screen from 1985-1989. Do you have what it takes? Muscle-up as we look back at American Gladiators!
Making Their Mark
American Gladiators hit TV screens in September of 1989 and the original show went through 1996. The concept is that each episode there are two male and two female contenders working to out-muscle, out-smart, and out-maneuver the show’s Gladiators. Initially, contenders accumulate points to win the show which then are used for a tournament seeding process. Points lead to a quarterfinal, single-elimination playoff. From there, a semi-final contender leaves with no less than $2500 in prize money. What does the eventual winner receive? $10,000 and a chance to become one of the Gladiators in following seasons!
Who could forget the great hosts and commentators including Mike Adamle with Joe Theismann, Todd Christensen, Larry Csonka, Lisa Malosky? We also cannot forget that intro music either. Once that hits you know it’s about to go down!
Seriously, what a kick-ass idea! WWF and WCW were in strong form at the time so incorporating the seemingly superhuman Gladiators into competitive TV where a “common” contender could prove how tough they are was genius. You have to remember that the show came out before the reality TV boom. Prior to American Gladiators, there was little in the way of interactive, competitive competitions on TV.
The Gladiators are no joke, and if you think they are then they will let you know they are the real deal! A majority of the Gladiators are experienced athletes and while WWF/WCW would prove to be scripted (not fake) American Gladiators is definitely not. The Gladiators are all the real deal. Let’s look at a couple of my favorites.
Nitro: I wanted that sweet 80s/90s ponytail so bad so I could look like Nitro. A football player for San Jose State University then the Los Angelos Rams in the NFL, Nitro is by far the face (and mouth) of the Gladiators. He boasts an almost perfect record in Hang Tough and terrorizes contender ankles on the wall. He is never afraid to speak his mind during interviews.
Gemini: He captivates you with a smile then destroys you with aggression in most events, especially Powerball. The gentle giant also turns into the “rage in a cage”. His resume consists of an OL for UCLA and 10 years in the NFL with the Eagles and Patriots. Canadian Football League, USFL, and martial arts as a second-degree black belt also make up the man.
The Female Gladiators
American Gladiators is an inclusive show as well. While the WWE has a women’s division, it was not until fairly recently that it was made to reflect the actual skill set of the women. Not only that but having women become main eventers is relatively new as well. This is not the case with American Gladiators. The female contenders and Gladiators share the spotlight from the first episode. Whatever events the men compete in, the women follow suit. The only variation includes a couple events and small adjustments in time. Aside from that, the prize money contenders could win is the same and the exposure the Gladiators receive is the same across genders and ethnicity which was not the case across all TV land.
Blaze: One of the best female Gladiators who is known for her collegiate excellence in the triple jump, hurdles and Javelin with Olympic qualification status. Unfortunately, injuries prohibited her from the Olympic dream. She then brings her skills to American Gladiators and is one of the fiercest. She is no stronger to being penalized in Powerball for tackling above the neck. I’ll pass on a clothesline from Blaze!
Siren: Accomplished bodybuilder and Ms. International/Arnold Classic finalist. I also thought it was so cool when I found out she was deaf ( from an accidental excessive amount of aspirin) and the show began to incorporate different methods of visual cues. Oh, she also did 57 push-ups in 60 seconds…so there’s the bar. Go try it.
The Contenders: Everyday Warriors
While the Gladiators and events take most of the limelight, the contenders are where the real heart of the show is. These everyday warriors are the reason we as kids took it to the playground. They made us feel as if anyone could at least step into the Gladiator arena. Of course, it is not that easy. The contenders are all extremely skilled and had tryouts, but there was still a possibility for people to try. If you got on it was a win-win situation. Either you one-up a Gladiator and carry unending bragging rights, or you get demolished by one and say, “did you see that Gladiator?” and also earn some credibility.
A part I always enjoy is the interviews with the Gladiators and contenders. These are not scripted and one could see just how competitive both sides are. When a contender would thank their spouse and kids, or would see them come down to the arena floor after at the show’s conclusion is always a heart-warming and sympathetic sight. The connection between the everyday athlete and the superhero-like Gladiators is what made the show succeed.
There is even an opportunity for celebrities to make their mark featuring John C. McGinley (Scrubs), Debbie Dunn (Home Improvement) and Dean Cain (Louis and Clark). Some episodes would even have a specific focus such as the Gladiators vs. Pro Football players, Black Belts, and many more!
The Rotating Events and Obstacles
So. Many. Great. Events. I could go on forever, but I had a few favorites. Assault makes contenders utilize different projectiles while evading an onslaught of tennis balls shot from a cannon. Getting blasted with one always looked awful!
Powerball has contenders trying to place balls in different pods while Gladiators are waiting to come destroy them.
Break Through and Conquer makes contenders try to score a touchdown on a Gladiator then immediately move to a wrestling circle where the contender must last the time limit or knock the Gladiator out of the circle!
While the Eliminator at the end of the show is always cool (I would wait for a contender to choose a door of mystery only to run straight into a massive wall of an individual right before the finish line) and aside from Assault, two others were my favorite.
Who can forget The Wall? As if climbing walls aren’t already cool enough let’s have 60 seconds to climb a wall with only a 7-10 second head start from the animal chasing you.
Hang Tough has Gladiators and contenders navigating rings while the contender looks to avoid being taken down by one of the impeccable specimens waiting for them!
The Events Responsible For Changing Our Childhood
So, how did these events change our childhood? Think back with me. You and some friends watch American Gladiators and the next day you all head out for recess. The monkey bars look like a great alternative for Hang Tough. You battle each other for supremacy while the teacher blows the whistle (you pretend it’s the referee which justifies you ignoring it). Powerball? Sure, get any type of ball and set your own boundaries. Joust and Assault: grab your Nerf weapons. I cannot prove it, but I feel that Nerf found an increase in sales with the show. Set up a coarse for Assault and pelt each other. No Nerf weapons? Use rocks, it’s the 80s after all. The Wall is tough to recreate, but climbing walls began to be built in schools as part of a new form of physical education.
The variation of these new events that are different from “typical” sports begins to take hold. Because of the show our childhoods were not only changed, but shows in the same vein are born: Guts, Ninja Warrior, Titan Games, Wipeout, Real World Challenge, etc. The American Gladiator concept even reached into 11 other countries across the globe!
Toys, Games, and Merchandise!
Toys, posters, shirts, (my Nerf weapon increase theory). American Gladiators has its share of add-ons. While I can talk about how obviously jacked the toys are or the number of games associated with it, let’s go to the one many of us are probably thinking of. The NES game.
While so many NES games are difficult, this one is no different. Take Joust for instance. One would think the actually jousting part would be the most difficult part, but add in the hitboxes for that plus jumping to other podiums and it’s like trying to land the damn plane on the aircraft carrier in the Top Gun game.
But the worst is…The Wall… If you are ever curious as to what it would feel like to have your forearm on fire while a bolt of lightning is speeding through your fingers and hands due to cramping, then play this level. The image above may look confusing enough, but to make matters worse are the controls. The A button controls one side of the body while the B button controls the other. So, find your overhand grip and get to down while also having to use the D-pad to move up, down, left, and right. Oh, there is also a timer…and Gladiators chasing you down who have computer stamina rather than your burning arm and fingers. BUT, the game is worth playing and leads to games for the SNES, Genesis, and Amiga.
ALSO SEE: G.I. Joe Battles Its Way In The Toy War With The USS Flagg I LRM Retro-Specs
While the show would try to make two unsuccessful comebacks, it still holds a deep place in our history. I think the follow-ups have not been as successful because of the excessive amount of reality TV and competitions available. There is a reason the original has been on ESPN Classic though.
Do you miss American Gladiators? Who is your favorite? What is your favorite event? Do you think you could muscle-up and take down the Gladiators? Are there any TV shows from 1985-1989 you would like us to cover? For now, we say goodbye to our look at the 80s, but we will come back around again! Be sure to check in next week when Retro-Specs rolls into the early 90s! Leave your thoughts in the usual spot, and thanks for reading!
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