Gladiators lasted the season and was renewed for the next, somehow. That first season, the show looked as if it had been filmed in someone's basement. Sets were crude, and the Gladiators' uniforms appeared to have been purchased at a Vegas thrift shop. Contestants had no uniforms—they competed in whatever gym clothes they showed up with. The referee was a preposterous, misbegotten Grim Reaper figure. Host Joe Theismann tended to run on.
But the producers have constantly tweaked the show to improve it. Contenders are now flown out a week early, to practice the events and undergo several days of boot camp. Throughout the show's first season the Gladiators were instructed to stay in character. They've since been told to be themselves. Says Mike Adamle, the former Northwestern and NFL running back who replaced Theismann as host after one season, "They're obstacles with personalities."
"The focus was too much on the Gladiators," says Samuel Goldwyn Jr., scion of the legendary mogul and CEO of the show's distribution company. "We realized it wasn't how ferocious the Gladiators were that interested people as much as the Everyman aspect of the show." Goldwyn is convinced that the possibility of seeing the Gladiators bested is one of the show's most attractive ingredients. "Even in the days of the real gladiators," he says, "there must have been some people rooting for the Christians."
He's right. My sympathies, I come to discover, are unwaveringly aligned with the challengers. I find myself hanging out more and more in the company of contestants like Angela Shepard, a cop from Chino, Calif., who lost in the preliminaries after spraining an ankle during The Eliminator. Afterward, as Shepard sat in the trainers' room, her already-ballooning ankle immersed in a tub of ice, cohost Larry Csonka draped a consoling arm around her. "I had 10 bucks on you to come back," he says. "If you hadn't hurt yourself, I would have collected."
United States Immigration Officer Craig Charles, from Duluth, tries to explain why the contenders do so much swaggering and celebrating after they win. "It's a total adrenaline rush," he says, "like winning a fight." Looking across the table at this 160-pounder in the lavender Lycra aerobics outfit, I can't suppress a smile. "You get in a lot of fights?" I ask.
"My share," says Charles, not smiling. Turns out he's a former Kansas Golden Gloves champion whose fistic facility has come in handy on the job. "I've had a few scrapes on the Mexican border," he says.
Chris Parisi, a 6'1", 210-pound inverted pyramid from Fairfield, Conn., came to the tryouts wearing a muscle shirt, leaving little doubt as to why his football teammates at Williams College called him Rock. Having picked up his master's degree in sports management from the University of Massachusetts, Parisi will soon proceed from L.A. to Foxboro, Mass., where the New England Patriots have offered him work—in their media relations office. He trained for this competition by pushing a car around a parking lot.
As I see it, Parisi has a bye to the second round. His opponent in the prelims is George Blasius, an orange-haired bagel store manager with the build of a Cabbage Patch Kid. Blasius, who goes 5'8", 188, advanced from the Tampa tryouts, which makes me think I should have tried out in Tampa. I feel a twinge of pity for Blasius, remembering his cruelly abrupt elimination from Assault earlier in the day. Dodging between shelters, he was nailed square in the forehead by a tennis ball. The ball ricocheted into the catwalks, 50 or so feet in the air.
"The head's fine," he says, fingering an angry welt on his noggin. "It's this ankle that's got me worried." During Powerball someone had rolled over his left ankle—"either Laser or Turbo," says Blasius. "It's killing me." He is afraid he might have torn something, and afraid to seek treatment. If the producers find out how much pain he's in, he fears they'll yank him and send in an alternate. "Right now I'll just eat the pain," he says. He is worried about the treadmill that is the first leg of The Eliminator. "If I can get up that treadmill, I'll win," he says. "If I lose, I'll go to the hospital."
"Don't worry, honey, you can do it," says Shannon McClusky, Blasius's fiancée. Mindful that cameramen often zero in on contestants' loved ones, McClusky has selected her ensemble with care. In her silver lamé slippers and billowy white dress with its uneven, "gypsy" hem, her look can best be described as Stevie Nicks Goes to Miami Beach. The cameras have no trouble finding her.