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13 Hard-Hitting Facts About American Gladiators

Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

When a sitting president endorses your syndicated program featuring hypertrophied men and women in spandex clobbering mere mortals with giant Q-tips, you’ve hit the big time. Bill Clinton once publicly proclaimed his love for American Gladiators, the series where regular Joes and Janes could test their mettle in athletic contests.

While the series, which ran for eight seasons beginning in 1989, has eased its grip on the world’s collective throat, the sight of adults in giant hamster wheels will always be a fond memory. Check out these 13 facts about hooded referees, Gladiator dinner theater, and the infamous walkout.

1. IT WAS CO-CREATED BY AN ELVIS IMPERSONATOR.

In the 1970s, professional arm wrestler Dann Carr organized a series of athletic events for iron worker picnics in Erie, Pennsylvania, which he dubbed a “workingman’s Olympics.” He happened to know a promoter and former Elvis impersonator named Johnny Ferraro, who was impressed by the turnout he had helped organize at a youth center fundraiser. It took years, but Ferraro finally sold the David vs. Goliath concept to the Samuel Goldwyn Company.   

2. FOX WANTED TO FAKE IT.

When Goldwyn’s president of television distribution, Dick Askin, was shopping the series to potential markets, he found himself in a meeting with a Fox affiliate representative who had come armed with a very attractive offer. Instead of selling market to market, he offered Askin a 26-episode deal and a commitment from all of the company’s stations. All Askin had to do was agree to script the show—outcomes, trash talk, and all. Askin, who felt strongly that the show should be organic and the results legitimate, turned him down.

3. THE ORIGINAL GLADIATOR NAMES WEREN’T SO COOL.

While most viewers remember the gigantic Gladiators as having toy-ready names like Laser, Nitro, and Zap, some of the earlier nicknames weren’t so memorable. Prior to the show’s premiere in the fall of 1989, the press got word that the athletes had names like Dominoes, Willie, Cattalus, and Evander.   

4. PULL-UPS ELIMINATED 90 PERCENT OF TRYOUT HOPEFULS.

Gladiators was constantly on the move, holding open auditions for contestant hopefuls. In an estimate given by Time at the start of its third season, it was determined that 90 percent of the 25,000 who had tried out for the show couldn’t make it past the pull-up portion. (Men were expected to do 25 in 30 seconds; women, eight.)

5. THE AUDIENCE WAS MADE OUT OF PLYWOOD.  

Early on, Goldwyn had arranged for a barter deal with Universal Studios Hollywood: In exchange for advertising the attraction on television, the show would get tourists deposited into the studio during tapings. Unfortunately, visitors riding the tram had traveled to see E.T., not Nitro: They often left, leaving empty seats. In order to make the arena look full, the crew would dim the lights and the production would prop up plywood cutouts with hand-drawn faces in the darker sections of the bleachers.

6. THE REF WORE AN EXECUTIONER’S HOOD.

Before settling into its neon-color aesthetic, Gladiators tried taking on a Roman Coliseum vibe. The most jarring component was a sinister-looking referee who wore a robe and hood and made calls with a thumbs up or thumbs down gesture. Sensing the medieval approach wasn’t working, refs switched to striped shirts by season two.

7. NOT ALL OF THE GLADIATORS WERE ATHLETES.

While behemoths like Danny “Nitro” Clark had played professional football before joining the show, producers weren’t necessarily looking for athletic ability. They originally sent out a casting call to bodybuilders, which proved to be a poor idea. Among one of the early washouts was Deron “Malibu” McBee, who later garnered YouTube infamy for getting knocked off a raised podium and collapsing in a heap of feathered hair and tanning lotion. Suffering a concussion, the ‘Bu lasted just 13 episodes.

8. THE SCORE WAS COMPOSED BY ROCKY’S BILL CONTI.

Every slow-motion shot of dorsiflexion needs some rousing orchestral music to accompany it, which is why the show hired composer Bill Conti to produce its title theme. Conti is best known for “Gonna Fly Now,” the signature track to the Rocky franchise, and won an Oscar for his work on 1983’s The Right Stuff.

9. THE EVENTS WERE DESIGNED TO FAVOR CONTESTANTS.

Courses like Joust, Assault, and others set a striking visual image: men and women of average size being dwarfed by the attitudinal, beefy Gladiators. But according to Askin, the games were actually designed to minimize their size and strength advantages so the contestants had a realistic shot at winning. “We tried to get events that gave the guy who was five-eight and 170 pounds an equal chance to either meet or beat the Gladiator,” he said.

10. THE GLADIATORS WENT ON STRIKE.

According to "Nitro" Clark's 2009 autobiography, Gladiator: A True Story of 'Roids, Rage, and Redemption, he and several of the original Gladiators weren’t seeing a nickel from the 75 licensed items like toys, Nintendo games, and apparel that were making the Goldwyn Company millions of dollars. Happy to get the work, they had signed away their likeness rights when they were hired. Goldwyn, however, was unwilling to renegotiate, and largely recast the show in its fourth season. Though it ran several more years, ratings never recovered.

11. RYAN SEACREST HOSTED A KID’S VERSION.

With a massive soundstage and multiple sets, producers wanted to monetize their investment even further by introducing a kid component to the franchise. Gladiators 2000 ran in 1994 and was co-hosted by Ryan Seacrest. In addition to competitors being substantially smaller, it also introduced a cerebral component: They were quizzed on knowledge of everything from history to hygiene. By introducing an educational element, stations would be able to fulfill their necessary quota of informational programming. The show ran for two years before viewers cried uncle.

12. IT EVOLVED INTO DINNER THEATER.

After the success of a 150-city tour that pit Gladiators from the series against local athletes in the early 1990s, investors decided to tweak the franchise for the dinner theater crowd. American Gladiators Orlando Live! debuted in 1995 in front of a crowd of roughly 1300 at a Kissimmee auditorium down the road from Disney World. As contestants got pummeled with tennis balls, spectators could enjoy a sweat-splattered meal for $39.95.

13. A REVIVAL MAY STILL HAPPEN.

In July 2014, producer Arthur Smith announced he was working on a “darker, more intense, more serious” revival of the series following a failed 2007-2008 attempt co-hosted by Hulk Hogan. Smith planned on taking a post-apocalyptic approach reminiscent of The Hunger Games. “And no spandex,” he told TV Guide. “Spandex has left the building.”

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MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
13 Secrets of Roller Derby
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

When sports promoter Leo Seltzer got the idea to organize a roller skating marathon in 1935, he probably didn’t expect that his event would provide the basis for a fledgling sport known as roller derby. Those early contests had skaters circling a track for thousands of miles over a period of a month to test their endurance; the current incarnation is more of a contact sport that involves players protecting—or blocking—a player known as a "jammer" who is trying to skate past the opposing team for points.

A popular sport through the 1950s and 1960s, derby briefly lost some of its luster when a bit of the theatricality usually found in pro wrestling made its way to the tracks to bolster television ratings in the 1970s. While today's derby still maintains some of that showmanship—players often compete under pseudonyms like H.P. Shovecraft—you’d be wrong to characterize its players as anything less than serious and determined athletes. Mental Floss asked several competitors about the game, the hazards of Velcro, and the etiquette of sending get-well cards to opponents with broken bones.

1. THERE’S A GOOD REASON THEY USE ALTER EGOS.

Derby players looking to erase the image of the scantily-clad events of the ‘70s sometimes bemoan the continued use of aliases, but there’s a practical reason for keeping that tradition going. According to Elektra-Q-Tion, a player in Raleigh, North Carolina, pseudonyms can help athletes remain safe from overzealous fans. “It’s kind of like being a C-level celebrity,” she says. “Some players can have stalkers. I have a couple of fans that can be a little aggressive. Using 'Elektra-Q-Tion' helps keep a separation there. If they know my real name, they can find out where I live or work.”

2. THEY CAN’T ALWAYS RECOGNIZE OTHER PLAYERS OFF THE TRACK.

For many players, derby is as much a social outlet as a physical one—but meetings outside of the track can sometimes be awkward. Because of the equipment and constant motion, it can be hard to register facial features for later reference. “You don’t really get the opportunity to see them move like a normal person,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “People can identify me because I’m really tall, but if someone comes up and says we’ve played, I have to do that thing where I hold my hand up over their head [to mimic their helmet] and go, ‘Oh, it’s you.’”

3. THEY SUFFER FROM “DERBY FACE.”

Extreme concentration, core engagement, and other aspects of the game often conspire to make players somewhat less than photogenic. “'Derby face' is common,” says Barbie O’Havoc, a player from the J-Town Roller Girls in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. “You’re pretty focused on trying not to fall over or get beat up.”

4. THEY CAN KISS THEIR FEET GOODBYE.

Hours of practice in skates usually precedes an unfortunate fate for feet. “Your feet become pretty gross,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “People sometimes say it’s because skates don’t fit right, but it can happen with custom skates. You get calluses, your toenails get worn and fall off, your bones shift, you get fallen arches. One time a doctor thought I had MRSA. He actually recoiled from my foot. I had a blister on my blister.”

5. THEY HAVE TO CONVINCE DOCTORS THEY’RE NOT BEING ABUSED.

Flying, crashing bodies skating at velocity will become heavily bruised, with players sporting black eyes and large-scale blemishes. If they need to seek medical attention when something is broken, those superficial marks often raise suspicion. “The first question people will ask is, ‘Are you okay?’” says Elektra-Q-Tion. “Once, my husband took me to the emergency room because I had broken my hand. The nurse asked him to leave the room and asked me, ‘Did he do this to you?’”

6. THEIR GEAR SMELLS PRETTY BAD.

“Derby stink is very much real,” says Barbie O’Havoc. “It comes down to body chemistry. Some players don’t have a problem. Others can wash their gear all the time and it still stinks. After I sold my car that I used to haul my gear in for years, my sister told me it smelled awful. The entire car.”

7. NO PLAYER WEARS A “1” JERSEY—AND FOR GOOD REASON.

Attend a derby bout and it’s unlikely you’ll see any player sporting a “1” on their jersey. “I've always heard you shouldn't use the number 1,” says Cyan Eyed, a player for Gem City Roller Derby in Ohio. “But not everyone is aware of the 1937 bus crash.” On March 24 of that year, a bus carrying 14 skaters and 9 support staff was driving from St. Louis to Cincinnati when it crashed, killing 21 passengers. Joe Kleats, a veteran player who was riding on the bus, wore the number; when he and the others died, the sport retired it in memory of the tragedy.

8. THEY HAVE SKATE MECHANICS.

The pounding endured by skates, wheels, and bearings often requires attention from someone versed in repair and maintenance work. Enter the skate mechanic, typically an official or significant other of a player who doubles as the team’s wheel-person. “Players are afraid of taking their expensive skates apart,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. But she'd prefer that skaters know how to care for their own wheels. “I don’t like the idea of someone not understanding how they work. What happens if the ref retires?”

9. VELCRO IS THEIR ENEMY.

Much of a derby player’s gear, such as knee and elbow pads, is held in place with Velcro, that useful-but-dangerous adhesion system. “The problem with Velcro is the close contact,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “If people don’t have it on correctly or part of it is peeling off, they’ll scrape you with it and you won’t realize it until you’re in the shower later and the water hits it, which is a miserable feeling.”

10. THEY TRY TO BE POLITE EVEN AFTER SMASHING SOMEONE.

Injuries are expected in derby, but if you unwittingly broke someone’s nose, it’s considered polite track manners to check up on them later. “I remember seeing a nasty injury and our league sent her flowers and a card,” Barbie O’Havoc says.

11. THEY CAN WATCH OTHER TEAMS PRACTICE.

Good luck allowing members of an NFL team to drop in on an opposing team’s practice. Derby, which prides itself on a communal atmosphere, doesn’t mind opening its doors for visiting rivals. “If I go to, say, San Diego and ask to practice with the local team there, most of the time they would say yes,” Elektra-Q-Tion says.

12. A PENNY CAN SPELL DOOM.

It’s not often something as tiny as a coin can bring a sporting event to a complete halt, but that’s what happens when you’re dependent on skate mobility. Barbie O’Havoc says that although tracks are swept and cleaned before bouts, the odd foreign object can still pop up, causing wheels (and feet) to go flying. “There’s a washer on the toe stop that can fall off,” she says. “And I’ve seen people lose their wedding rings.” Pebbles and other tiny hazards will prompt a time-out until they're found and disposed of.

13. THEY DISLIKE HOLLYWOOD.

Whenever television crime dramas depict derby, it’s typically presented as a bunch of “bad girls” with sour attitudes and a thirst for blood on the track. “That seems to be very attractive to movie and television people,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “Usually someone gets murdered.” 2009’s Whip It, a comedy-drama starring Ellen Page and directed by Drew Barrymore, didn’t fare much better in terms of believability—but players will give that one a pass. “Whip It was great press for us. That’s when we had most of our new audience and skaters come in.”

All images courtesy of Getty.

A version of this story ran in 2016.

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Shout! Factory
Original GLOW Wrestling Series Hits Twitch
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

When it premiered in June 2017, GLOW was a bit of a sleeper offering for Netflix. With the amount of original programming ordered by the streaming service, a show based on an obscure women’s pro wrestling league from the 1980s seemed destined to get lost in the shuffle.

Instead, the series was a critical and commercial success. Ahead of its second season, which drops on June 29, you'll have a chance to see the mat work of the original women who inspired it.

Shout! Factory has announced they will be live-streaming clips from the first four seasons of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), which first premiered in 1986, beginning at 9 p.m. ET on June 28. The stream, which will be available on shoutfactorytv.com and Twitch, will feature original footage framed by new interviews with personalities including Godiva, host Johnny C, and Hollywood. The show will air live from the Santino Brothers Wrestling Academy in Los Angeles.

Godiva, who was portrayed by Dawn Maestas, inspired the character Rhonda (a.k.a. Brittanica) on the Netflix series; Hollywood was the alter ego of Jeanne Basone, who inspired the character Cherry in the fictionalized version of the league. Basone later posed for Playboy and takes bookings for one-on-one wrestling matches with fans.

Shout! Factory's site also features a full-length compilation of footage, Brawlin’ Beauties: GLOW, hosted by onetime WWE interviewer “Mean” Gene Okerlund.

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