If you are of a certain age, you very likely remember coming home from school and finding a rerun of American Gladiators on your TV. If you have no idea what we’re talking about, go find some American Gladiators videos on YouTube and then come back. The show mixed the gaudiness of professional wrestling with legit athletic competition. The result was a testosterone-filled extravaganza of spandex and foam crash mats. Here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about what can only be described as a classic pop-culture phenomena that was American Gladiators.
10. The Original Set Was Based on the Coliseum
You may remember the red, white, and blue themed American Gladiators, but that wasn’t the original concept. The first season of the show was designed like an ancient Roman gladiator arena. The stands were elevated so spectators could look down on the combatants. Hooded figures were used instead of referees, representing the executioner. It all lasted exactly half a season. The set was redesigned so that the stands started on the same level as the playing area, and the mysterious hooded referees were replaced by veteran NFL referee Bob McElwee, complete with stripped uniform.
9 Joe Theismann Was Involved
Legendary Super Bowl winning quarterback Joe Theismann was actually part of the show at the beginning. He served as both co-host and the announcer for the first half of season one. He exited the show quickly and most fans barely remember he was ever a part of it.
8. There Were Several Different Foreign Versions
The ‘American’ part of American Gladiators wasn’t an exclusive part of the show. The show spawned several different versions in other counties — Australia, Denmark, Finland, Nigeria, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Versions in Spain, France, and Poland were planned, but scrapped during production. The show was also translated into Spanish and Japanese and shown in Mexico and Japan, respectively.
7. There Were Tons of Steroids
In an era where steroids and other PEDs were barely on the social radar, the world of American Gladiators was filled with people trying to get the edge on their competition. Dan Lee Clark, better known to many as the gladiator ‘Nitro’, wrote a tell-all book in 2009 that detailed much of the drug abuse. He described a violent, roid-rage fuelled fight with fellow gladiator Laser that left him with scars on his face. He also said they had doctors who would help them take steroids “the right way.” Yikes.
6. Olympic Champions Competed
In seasons 5 and 6, special contests were created called the “Gold Medal Challenge.” As you would expect from the name, the challengers were made up of athletes who had won Gold Medals in previous Olympic Games. They come from a wide variety of sports, as boxers, downhill skiers, speed skaters, gymnasts, volleyball players, figure skaters, track and field stars, and basketball players all competed. They men’s and women’s division both competed for grand prizes of $10,000. Picabo Street, pictured below, won the 1994 edition of the tournament.
5. It Got Real
While the show sits firmly in the genre of ‘sports entertainment’, the same as pro wrestling, the competitions were legit. Nothing was predetermined or scripted on American Gladiators. Sometimes the adrenaline of competing would bubble over and create real-life incidents. There was one memorable moment when Turbo, frustrated by a challenger bending the rules, clocked him with an overhead left while in mid-air. The UK version of the show also had one gladiator, Wolf, attack a player after an event had finished.
4. Only One Gladiator Competed In All Seven Seasons
The show had a surprising number of gladiators for something that lasted just seven seasons on television. In total, 32 different people were given tacky one-word gladiator monikers. Our favourite names? Probably Zap or Rebel. Only one gladiator, though, managed to compete in every single season of the show. Jim Starr, better known as Laser, was a fixture on the gladiator roster from beginning to end. Conversely, one female gladiator, Jade, appeared in just a single episode.
3. It Has Many Ties To Pro Wrestling
You probably already knew that wrestling legend Hulk Hogan co-hosted the rebooted version of the show in 2008 with Laila Ali. But that’s not the only pro-wrestling/American Gladiators crossover. The original season two runner-up was named Rico Constantino, and he went on to wrestle for the WWE as ‘Rico’ for many years. Semi-popular midcard wrestler Ludvig Borga appeared as a gladiator in the Finnish version of the show. Matt Morgan, who wrestled for WWE and TNA, was a gladiator in the 2008 revival. Lastly, longtime co-host of the original series Mike Adamle began to work for the WWE as backstage interviewer, play-by-play announcer, and even a stint as the General Manager of RAW.
2. There Was A Deaf Gladiator
Shelly Beattie was a professional female bodybuilder who finished in the top three of both the Ms. Olympia and Ms. International competitions. She was also deaf since the age of three. She learned sign language, something that she often used while on TV during her time as the gladiator Siren. Because she couldn’t hear the whistle or the horn, she had to take visual cues from gladiator referee Larry Thompson and fellow gladiators. Sadly, she battled with mental illness and committed suicide in 2008.
1. The Original Prize
Most athletes who competed on the show were awarded cash for their victories. By the time the show reached seasons six and seven, the two champions (one male, one female) received $25,000 for winning. But the original plan in season one was to award the winning duo a spot as a gladiator in the next season. For whatever reason, that idea was dropped halfway through the debut season in favor of cash prizes. While cash is always king, it still would have been pretty cool to see how the best challengers fared as gladiators themselves.