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‘The American Gladiators’ documentary has more twists and turns than the Atlasphere obstacle course

The early 1990s rough-and-tough reality game show is rife with creator contention, explotation, triumph, and broken bones.


Contenders ready! Gladiators ready!” If you grew up during the early 1990s, you’d probably recognize those words from referee Bob McElwee and the famous theme song by Bill Conti as a part of the American Gladiators. In many ways, the reality show’s inception in September 1989 was the right place at the right time. The big action star was still at the height of popularity, the 1988 writers' strike (eerily similar to 2008’s and the current one) bred an opening in which networks were looking for unscripted programming, and a fitness craze had swept the American zeitgeist. Even as critics panned American Gladiators as “Crash TV,” audiences took hold of the everyman versus athletically dominantly athletic strongmen and women.

Other documentaries with a nostalgic flavor usually follow a particular formula – first-hand accounts, looking back at good, bad, and scandalous times, and an overall look at the lessons learned by all the parties involved. The first part of The American Gladiators Documentary almost adheres to that strategy. Although it’s worth mentioning, most of the former Gladiators, such as Ice and Nitro, do not appear during this documentary because of the various things that happened (some comments were book excerpts and recordings). When you watch it, you’ll find out director Benjamin Berman builds this two-part story chronicling successes, injuries, creator credit strife, deceit, and much more. While contestants and gladiators excelled on screen, a cost comes with it all – a heavy one many people paid to put on a physical spectacle like this show.

American Gladiators Try outs Photo by Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

At the center of everything (at least initially) is co-creator Johnny Ferraro, who has been waiting for this moment to be back in front of your television screen. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Ferraro paints the story of himself always wanting more. He’s initially an Elvis impersonator who bills himself “Prince of Rock and Roll.” This takes him to Hollywood, where many of his dreams fall on deaf eyes – which tends to happen often. His insistence on being remembered for having his own thing leads him to meet a producer to pitch his American Gladiators idea. Then it’s off to the races – or that’s what Ferraro wants you to believe. When Berman is interviewing him, he poses the Winston Churchill quote: "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

Ferraro operates this mantra throughout the three hours allotted – he has a grand vision, showmanship, and affinity to be looked upon as great – often jostling with Berman on how to tell this story. At a particular moment, he asks how the American Gladiators' name came about, and Ferraro quickly defers from talking about it. His hesitancy to speak about anything beyond his narrative comes from the early beginnings of the games themselves. They weren’t concocted on the fly, but rather by “Apache” Dan Carr, a former arm wrestling champion and Ironworks union rep.

Carr made the obstacles back in the early 1980s for workers to partake in during Ironworks picnic competitions. The first show wasn’t the glitz and built-up sets you see in reruns– t’s first iteration happened at a local gym on March 27, 1982. Getting an account from Carr himself proved difficult, at least initially. For one, many gladiators and producers didn’t know who he was, and Ferraro had legal control over who Carr could even talk to. It leads Berman back to Erie to speak to local reporters and townspeople who see the story differently. Upon discovering manuscripts from Carr's unreleased memoir, Tuf Luck expresses how angry he was to be erased from the American Gladiator history books.

The documentary dives into all facets of the origin drama but also makes time to spotlight those like Gemini (Michael Horton), Malibu (Deron McBee), Elektra (Salina Bartunek), and Sabre (Lynn “Red” Williams), who speak to what it was like being briefly at the top of this pop culture mountain. It didn’t come without costs – if you can believe it, the Gladiators weren’t paid well and cut out of the extensive merchandising deals. Many were injured and had to perform that way because they feared losing their spots on the show. Former gladiator Thunder (William Smith) became disabled after a fall into a mat that wasn’t inflated correctly. Some steroids and drugs masked the pressure to perform constantly.

While the performers look back with some fondness and sorrow, at the center is Ferraro – no hesitation on his part to replace them and contended that he paid them adequately. In most ways, the American Gladiators documentary mirrors how the American dream plays out for people. Usually, a figurehead at the top takes most of the credit, and others suffer. Ferraro is unwilling to let go of the one win he was a part of, even as others urge him to. (there was an attempt to make a film at one point). In this current age where people long for the comfort food of the past, are things dead? A brief revival in 2008 didn’t bear fruit, but everybody loves to see a story of David beating Goliath.