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Shout! Factory

13 Hard-Hitting Facts About American Gladiators

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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.


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.   


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.


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.   


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Lady Ali: How Jackie Tonawanda Changed Women's Boxing
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As photographers and newspaper reporters looked on, Jackie Tonawanda allowed herself to be fingerprinted. It was October 7, 1974, and Tonawanda—who was dwarfed by the burly professional wrestlers waiting their turn—was taking the necessary steps to become a licensed professional boxer by the New York State Athletic Commission. The fingerprints would be sent off to Albany make sure she wasn't a felon; a physical would determine her fitness for competition.

Tonawanda didn't anticipate either one becoming a hurdle. Her main concern was that the state of New York had long prohibited women from prizefighting.

The gregarious Tonawanda told the assembled press in the commission's offices that she was the “female Cassius Clay,” referring to boxing icon Muhammad Ali. (Like Ali, she was known for boasting to the media and offering impromptu demonstrations of her hand speed.) Women could already be licensed as pro wrestlers and boxing managers in the state. Why, Tonawanda argued, should female boxers be exempt from officially participating in the sport?

Commissioners brushed off her complaints, fretting about being deemed negligent if women suffered injuries. Rumors circulated in the boxing community that blows to the chest could cause breast cancer. Ed Dooley, the head of the state's athletic commission, thought women fighting in a ring would bring “disrepute” to the venerable sport.

In time, Jackie Tonawanda would be hailed as a boxing pioneer, someone who stood up to the rampant sexism from promoters and the sport's sanctioning bodies. But in 1975, Tonawanda's license application was denied. Dooley refused to back off from his insistence that boxing was strictly a “manly art.” Tonawanda was incredulous. If that was what he believed, she thought, she would show him otherwise.

To prove her point, she would even agree to an extreme demonstration of her worth as a fighter: an unlicensed fight against a man, in full view of spectators at Madison Square Garden.

Although Tonawanda was the first woman to ever lace up her gloves at the famed New York arena, women’s boxing had been a ring attraction for decades. In 1876, two women took wild swings at one another in what may have been the first spectator women's match in the country. (The prize was a silver butter dish.) In 1954, women competed on television for the first time. But with so few participants in the sport, it was difficult for any real momentum to develop. And without endorsement from state athletic commissions, official records and rankings were nearly impossible to come by.

Such was the state of female fighting when Tonawanda decided to compete. Born on Long Island and orphaned by age 8, she started boxing at age 13, eventually migrating to the famed Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. As an adult, Tonawanda occupied a unique space in the art: At 175 pounds, she was larger than many of the other women who fought, making matchmaking difficult. She once stated she sparred exclusively with men because women “don't show me anything and they can’t take my power.”

With only scattered women’s bouts available, Tonawanda often fought in unsanctioned matches around the country. She managed to compile a 23-0 record (although this number would sometimes change in interviews, as would her birth year and even her height) before petitioning her home state of New York to sanction her bouts. Commission members like Dooley and former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson were wary, fearing the seeming fragility of women might give a proverbial black eye to the sport. They turned down both Tonawanda and Marian "Tyger" Trimiar, another female boxer, citing, among other things, concerns over the possible trauma the women might suffer to their breasts.

“I don't think a blow to the breast would cause breast cancer," Irwin Weiner, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University, told The New York Times when the women first applied for licenses in 1974. "On the other hand, it's a rather tender area that can be easily bruised. It might take longer to recover from bruises there.” Dooley remained insistent, saying a fight "could endanger a female's reproductive organs and breasts."

Tonawanda didn’t accept the decision in stride. She sued the state for discrimination, arguing that women had every right to compete. In June of 1975, while the lawsuit was still being contested, she agreed to compete at a martial arts tournament at Madison Square Garden that fell outside the purview of the commission. Her original opponent was to be a Thai fighter in a mixed-rules striking contest, but that fighter ended up being replaced by an unheralded kickboxer named Larry Rodania. In the opening moments of the fight, Rodania hit her with a shot that left her unable to sleep on her left side for weeks. For much of the first round, though, Tonawanda parried his strikes, getting a sense of his timing. In the second, she landed a left that cracked his jaw and sent him to the canvas.

The referee announced that Rodania was out, unable to answer basic questions like “Where are you?” But some observers expressed doubt that the bout was legitimate. Recapping the event, Black Belt magazine questioned Rodania’s judgment in taking the fight at all. From the outside, it appeared to be a lose-lose proposition: Beating a woman in the ring would impress few, and losing to one could be ruinous in the eyes of fans who wouldn't expect a woman to be competitive with a man. It's not clear whether Rodania ever competed again.

For Tonawanda, the spectacle of her squaring off against Rodania made headlines and led to more offers, some outside of the ring. Later that year, she not only received a boxing license from the state of Maine, but also filmed a small role for the Dustin Hoffman film Marathon Man. In 1976, she was invited to spend time at a training camp with Muhammad Ali as he prepared for a bout against Ken Norton. Being around Ali, Tonawanda said, made her so nervous that she could barely eat.

If the bout was intended to elicit a response from the New York commission, however, it didn’t work. Tonawanda continued to compete in bouts outside of the state, and the commission steadfastly refused to acknowledge the rights of female prizefighters until 1978 brought a development they couldn’t ignore.

Three years prior, Tonawanda’s lawsuit had made it to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in Tonawanda’s favor and suggested she sue once again in order to have the law in New York overturned. When Tonawanda failed to follow up on their advice, another boxer, Cathy “Cat” Davis, picked up the baton and initiated a suit. When Davis’s legal action forced the commission to throw out the ban, Davis, Tonawanda, and Tremiar became the first three women to receive licenses in the state.

For the first time, Tonawanda would be able to claim a legitimate, professional fight on her record.

Despite setting a legal precedent, the court’s decision didn't guarantee that the fighters would necessarily be able to compete in New York. With so few female fighters to match up with one another, the women who were granted licenses often sought fights out of the area. The following year, Tonawanda fought Diane “Dynamite” Clark in a six-round bout in Louisville, Kentucky, in what would be her first and only professional contest. She lost in a split decision.

While it was a crucial moment for the fighters, women’s boxing continued to endure the perception that it was a sideshow. From the Rodania fight onward, Tonawanda received offers to fight men, including noted light heavyweight Mike Quarry. Quarry, Tonawanda claimed, backed out when he realized he had nothing to gain by fighting a woman.

By the mid-1980s, Tonawanda's career was winding down. She fought a man a second time, scoring another knockout at the Nassau Coliseum in 1984. It would be one of her last competitions before being injured in a 1986 car accident that ended any consideration of returning to the ring. From that point on, she became something of a mentor in various boxing gyms in the state. At Fort Apache Youth Center in the Bronx, she advised aspiring fighters on technique. Later, she trained future heavyweight contender Israel Garcia, who she met after Garcia discovered that she lived in the apartment building where he worked.

Lalia Ali faces off against Gwendolyn O'Neil of Guyana during the 2007 WBC/WIBA Super Middleweight World Title in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images

In the meantime, fighters like Laila Ali, Christy Martin, and other women began gaining notoriety and respect for being capable pugilists. While they undoubtedly faced sexism, none had been forced to insist on their right to compete. That road had been paved by Tonawanda, who demanded equal footing with her male counterparts.

Tonawanda died from colon cancer in 2009. Like many boxers, she had no pension or retirement fund to fall back on, and her remains were initially destined for a mass grave on Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field. She was saved from that fate thanks to Ring 8, the nonprofit consortium of former prizefighters that she belonged to. The group, which provides financial assistance to veteran boxers, raised enough money for a marked grave for her in the Bronx. It was proof that boxing had ultimately accepted Tonawanda, long considered an outsider, as one of their own.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Sing the National Anthem at Sporting Events?
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In early September 1814, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer and amateur poet, accompanied American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner to negotiate a prisoner release with several officers of the British Navy. During the negotiations, Key and Skinner learned of the British intention to attack the city of Baltimore, as well as the strength and positions of British forces. They were not permitted to leave for the duration of the battle and witnessed the bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14. Inspired by the American victory and the sight of the American flag flying high in the morning, Key wrote a poem titled "The Defence of Fort McHenry."

Key set the lyrics to the anthem of the London-based Anacreontic Society, "The Anacreontic Song." (Nine years earlier, Key had used the same tune for “When the Warrior Returns (from the Battle Afar)” to celebrate Stephen Decatur’s return from fighting the Barbary pirates, which included the line “By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation.”)

The poem was taken to a printer, who made broadside copies of it. A few days later, the Baltimore Patriot and The Baltimore American printed the poem with the note "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven." Later, Carrs Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together as "The Star Spangled Banner."

The song gained popularity over the course of the 19th century and was often played at public events like parades and Independence Day celebrations (and, on occasion, sporting events). In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy ordered it the official tune to be played during the raising of the flag. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at all military ceremonies and other appropriate occasions, making it something of an unofficial national anthem.

After America's entrance into World War I, Major League Baseball games often featured patriotic rituals, such as players marching in formation during pregame military drills and bands playing patriotic songs. During the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series, the band erupted into "The Star-Spangled Banner." The Cubs and Red Sox players faced the centerfield flag pole and stood at attention. The crowd, already on their feet, began to sing along and applauded at the end of the song.

Given the positive reaction, the band played the song during the next two games, and when the Series moved to Boston, the Red Sox owner brought in a band and had the song played before the start of each remaining contest. After the war (and after the song was made the national anthem in 1931), the song continued to be played at baseball games, but only on special occasions like opening day, national holidays, and World Series games.

During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports.

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