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“American Gladiators” Episode Coming to ESPN’s “30 for 30”

An Emmy, Oscar, and Peabody award-winning documentary series and an amazingly cheesy sports competition reality show may not seem like a logical pairing of topics. Nevertheless, that’s what ESPN has cooked up in an upcoming “30 for 30” episode set to cover the story of the early 90s television phenomenon, “American Gladiators.”

As reported by Deadline, ESPN’s “30 for 30″ will be tackling the subject of “American Gladiators” for an upcoming episode of the series. While no air date has been given, the documentary is set to feature interviews with former gladiators, as well as show creators Johnny Ferraro and Dan Carr.

If you’re wondering why the same documentary series that covered the rise and fall of OJ Simpson, the life of Bo Jackson, and the lead up to the battle between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier would be covering “American Gladiators” of all things, then you need to try and throw your mind way back into the period of time from 1989 – 1996 when this was actually a thing.

It can be hard to imagine now, but at the time, this show was a legitimately large part of American culture. There was an episode of “Family Matters” where Carl and Urkel went on the show to settle an argument. There was a kids spin-off called “Gladiators 2000” that was hosted by a then 20-year old Ryan Seacrest. There were “American Gladiators” video games produced for the NES, SNES, Genesis, and Amiga. Even Milhouse’s mom Luann dated a fictional gladiator named Pyro in “The Simpsons.” (She later cheated on Pyro with his partner, Gyro.)

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The premise of the show is simple in description, and far more insane in execution. Two contestants with an amateur degree of physical acumen, compete in a series of extreme sports events. But instead of directly competing against each other, they’re actually competing against a cast of professional athletes hired for the show and given simple, over-the-top stage names like Turbo, Nitro, Ice, and Zap. The contestants would have to perform against these ‘Gladiators’ and score points across numerous events. The person with the most points would be given an advantage going into the final event, The Eliminator. If you’re reading this and about to contend that there were different rules for seasons one and two, yes, we know, but that’s another article for another time.

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Much to the show’s credit, it featured both men and women competing in events alongside male and female gladiators. The format gave both contestants and the gladiators a chance to shine. The gladiators themselves became iconic presences in television at the time, and the winning contestants would go on to appear in future episodes as part of a tournament playoff.

If you go back and watch the episodes, (Pluto TV actually has an entire channel dedicated to the show) you can see them in all of their early 90s glory. There’s the cheesy CGI animated intro logo, the ridiculous fashion and hair, and the sense of “extreme-ness” that only that time period can capture. You even get a main theme song composed by Bill Conti, the same man behind the theme from “Rocky.”

The other thing you’ll notice is that the events the competitors were put through are demanding. There was a legitimate amount of skill, strength, agility, stamina, and toughness needed to succeed. And this applied to both the contestants and the gladiators. Injuries happened as well, requiring the need for alternate gladiators and contestants to be on tap to substitute in. This was more prone to happening with the gladiators rather than the contestants, which again goes to show how much of themselves they were legitimately putting into these events.

So as ridiculous and over-the-top as the series may seem, it’s ripe with material to make for a compelling documentary. What went on behind the scenes? How were the athletes treated? Was there parity between the male and female gladiators? Knowing what we do about CTE today, how is the health of the gladiators following their time on the show? It could be a surprisingly fascinating topic for ESPN to dive into, and one that we’re excited to watch, especially given the reputation “30 for 30” has for quality productions.

We’ll let you know when we hear about a release date.

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