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13 Hard-Hitting Facts About American Gladiators

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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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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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#TBT
Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
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Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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