One of the finalists, I was delighted to note, was my old friend Tiberius. (Having flunked the chin-ups, Lithium was chronicling his buddy's experience with a camcorder.) Tiberius was up against a malevolent-looking Steven Seagal clone who smothered him with violent attention. Tiberius took a thumb in the eye and finished the event squinting. During the 15-second intermission, as they switched positions, Tiberius told Lithium, "I'm gonna hurt him."
Their collisions were titanic, but Seagal—who was limping and holding his right knee when they finished—scored twice. "He's a nice guy," said "Seagal," whose real name was James Aronson, a "musician and actor" from Melville, N.Y. "But I could see, when he first saw me, he was a little bit intimidated by my size. Then I just pretended that he was the only thing between me and my girlfriend. My mind-set was everything. I'm not...stable."
That trait must have been evident during Aronson's interview with producer Brian Gadinsky, because Aronson didn't make the cut. Gadinsky is partial to articulate contenders. This year's crop of recruits included a high school history teacher, a baker, a fire fighter, a cop, a playwright, a chiropractor, a private investigator, a dancer and a world champion bull rider who is also a member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
Weeks later I fly to Los Angeles to sit in on the taping of a few shows. One of the first people I run into is Dan Goldberg. Normally Goldberg would allow himself seven to 10 seconds for chatting. Not now. There has been a scare on the set. Raye Hollitt, the immensely popular Zap, has been knocked silly in Hang Tough. After Hollitt yanked a contender from the gymnastics rings, she and her quarry plunged to the mat. The contender landed on Hollitt. Still woozy, Hollitt is helped into the dressing room.
Hollitt had the makings of the ideal American Gladiator—good looks and physical prowess—as early as her high school years in Dallas, Pa., where she was prom queen and state champion in the javelin. She moved to LA. in 1983, became a paralegal and won the Miss Los Angeles bodybuilding competition. In '89, the same year she became a Gladiator, Hollitt got a part in the movie Skin Deep. She was cast as a rippling temptress who nearly induces cardiac arrest in John Ritter.
An hour after her scare in Hang Tough, Hollitt (who had given birth to a daughter eight months earlier) is scheduled to compete in The Joust. She could plead wooziness and get another Gladiator to sub for her, but Hollitt is anxious to prove that maternity has not diminished her ferocity. She swats her first opponent off the pedestal in five seconds.
Turning her back on the victim, Hollitt brought the pugel stick—an enormous Q-tip—up from her ankles in a murderous backhanded roundhouse. She uses the identical move on her second victim, who takes the butt end of the stick flush in the face, hits the mat scapulae-first and stays down. It's someone else's turn to be helped to the dressing room.
The contenders are having a bad day at The Joust until Robert Bender competes. Bender, of Bartow, Fla., who attended the Florida School of Preaching, knocks Horton's stick out of his hands for an automatic win. Later, I catch Horton alone in the corridor, castigating himself. "Just a damn poor job of jousting," he is saying.
Before he landed this gig three years ago, Horton was another sort of gladiator, an offensive lineman for nine years, first at UCLA, then in the CFL and the USFL. Losing your stick, he knows, is a rookie mistake, like forgetting the snap count on third-and-goal. "Ya gotta hold on to the stick—it's your livelihood," he says.
The Gladiators know they are expendable. Says Fetrick, "They let you know, in subtle ways."