"You got medical insurance, right?" asks a gladiator named Titan, his arms crossed over a shaven chest holstered in a man-bra.
"Do we have an ambulance here for you? I hope so."
If I didn't mind getting skin-firming bronzing lotion on my hands, I'd slap this dude like a rented mule, and only partly because that's what I was sent here to do. With the iconic competition series "American Gladiators" returning to the airwaves on Jan. 6, NBC has invited ESPN to Stage 30 at Sony Pictures Studios, site of the show's arena, to test its newest gladiators. Naturally, we sent the baddest 5-foot-9 (and one-quarter inch) reporter, presumably because Tony Kornheiser was busy.
I liked my chances after meeting Titan (real name Michael O'Hearn) -- actually, after I met his wildly gesticulating pectoral muscles. They talk when he talks. Though he stands 6-3 and 250 pounds, I figure Titan and his pals could beat me in any challenge that tests independent breast movement but not much else.
As I remember it, "American Gladiators," which aired from 1989 to 1995 in the U.S. and became a global brand with numerous foreign versions, was Hollywood's gauzy valentine to average athletes who wished to test their strength, speed and determination against the show's gladiators in events like the joust, the wall and the eliminator. Those gladiators, like their successors, appeared to be nothing more than large models begging for smackdowns.
Here's what else I have going for me: An extensive "Gladiators" education. By the fifth grade, I had grown a mullet that would shame former co-host Todd Christensen. Back then, I was known as the Ayatollah of Smack-ola, mostly by a much younger brother, and mostly in my living room, where I excelled in breakthrough and nerf ball assault. Beware, kids: Hell hath no fury, Zap nor Lace, like a mother with shattered picture frames.
Unlike the NFL, "American Gladiators" isn't about parity.
"Gladiators" will need all the bells and whistles it can muster because there are signs that the once-bulletproof reality TV genre is flagging. With every "Survivor" comes four cooking contests, three programs about Orange County divas, and one "Duel." We can expect more such drivel in the months to come, what with networks haphazardly churning out unscripted fare to battle Hollywood's writers' strike. Quality and high ratings aren't assured in these hyper-competitive and, what's more, hyper-real times.
If reality programming has no place in a turbulent 21st century, then the success of, say, "Survivor," "American Idol" and "The Osbornes" can be attributed to their ability to straddle the line between reality and fantasy. Good thing "Gladiators" has its campy competition stake set firmly in territory annexed by the still relevant theater of pro wrestling.
According to the clown prince of combat himself, new "Gladiators" co-host Hulk Hogan, nontraditional fight fans are drawn to admittedly "cartoonish personas" like his own. "The WWF set a precedence for 'Gladiators,'" Hogan says, "turning what was very barbaric into sports entertainment. That'll always be relevant."
Hurwitz suggests, "Viewers will be getting the escapism by investing in these larger-than-life people, but at the same time, they see its realism. The success of MMA shows that our society is more appreciative of physical competition. In an 'if it bleeds, it leads' society, if ['Gladiators'] was smoke and mirrors, people would tune out."
This would suggest that "Gladiators" bleeds -- that it's real. Really? I'm fairly certain I won't bleed today, unless of course pro bull rider Don Yates fights under the pseudonym "Wolf" because he tends to bite people. I'm guessing it's merely because he can grow facial hair and howl in his undies. Shoot, on Fridays, Saturdays and most major holidays, I'm one helluva wolf.
It's almost fight time, but I'm still haunted by my encounter with my childhood hero Hogan, and how during our chat he sullenly admitted that he's "not feeling it today. I don't know what to say."
Dealing with the implications of such a statement makes my head hurt a great deal. Honestly, it's like trying to blink away mental images of a Hogan-hosted Tupperware party with guests Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik filing Sgt. Slaughter's toenails.
Hogan still sports those wacky veins in his rippling arms, but his face is droopier, his demeanor dour. Trying to focus on the task at hand, it's clear no gladiator's prefight ritual should include such sour emotions.
I've always wanted to sucker punch a 6-8, 300-pound guy with a mohawk, so I'm pleased to learn that I'll be battling Justice (Justice Smith) and doing my damage on the pyramid, one of the returning classics, where contestants must elude a gladiator in scaling a padded 40-foot tall pyramid. Nobody ever triumphs in this event because the gladiator is given higher ground. Whatever. As far as I'm concerned, Justice is a walking keg of tree sap, even if this keg says things like, "I have fun hitting people hard," and, "How tall are you again?" and "Whoooo!"
Justice's ramblings are prohibiting me from entering into my mental zone. So is Wolf's incessant chirping: "Remember, you'll be falling 40 feet. Arms and legs will be strewn. Something'll get popped out. You're going to get hurt. It could be serious "
Blah, blah, blah. Get back in your koala cage, Yates.
But the warnings continue. One contestant was recently sent home with a broken femur and another with an ACL tear, cautions Hurwitz, who compares his role to that of a coach "because there are times when I need to yank a tired gladiator and go to the bullpen. Athletes don't want to take a play off. They're incapable of dialing it down."
Other things I'd like to have known before I signed a six-page liability waiver: Like most gladiators, Justice played collegiate sports, hoops at Alcorn State (and pro ball in Switzerland); he started lifting weights at age 10 because he "wanted to be like Conan the Barbarian"; he has a black belt in tae kwon do and now fights in K-1, a combat sport that mixes various martial arts; also, that he models his game after Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
Says Toa (real name Tanoai Reed), who was a University of Hawaii gridder before he was a stuntman for his cousin Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson: "I mean, we're hitting hard, bringing our A game because if we don't, there are consequences."
"We're asked to play characters, but when the whistle blows, the contenders are playing for $100,000 and for glory, and they'll only get it by beating us," explains Stealth, real name Tanji Johnson, a former U.S. Air Force officer who's now hobbling around the arena on crutches thanks to a hyperextended knee. "We have to take it seriously. We have our safety and reputation to protect."
For the lead female gladiator, up-and-coming MMA fighter Gina Carano (Crush), maintaining respectability was paramount. "That's why I wasn't sure I was going to do this," says the Muay Thai fighter who hopes to improve her 5-0 record in a February cage match. "These people come from a different world. I'm serious about my fighting career, and I don't want to give the impression that I'm, you know "
I'm starting to feel for these gladiators. They tell me they idolize Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, and they're fighting for their health, their pocket books and a future in sports, acting or both. But if they're not careful, they'll forever walk in big yellow boots, hollering on a stage today and on "Big Brother: Celebrity Edition" tomorrow.
The stunt coordinator yells, "Go!" As I start my climb up the pyramid, my first thought is that the pads negate my speed advantage; it's like running on Shaq's belly. My next thought is to make a mental note of Justice's expression, which might read: "I wonder, can I eat him?"
No time to ponder this. With a little misdirection, I gain a step on Justice and climb a step above him, extending my arms to a white dotted line three-quarters up the pyramid, which I'm told would've netted me five points. That's as close as I'd get to the top.
I feel what I'd describe as bear claws burrowing into my neck. Soon, Mr. Justice is tearing my shirt, and several back muscles clean from my bones, before sending me soaring through the sky. Twenty feet later, there was a thump, several cracks and what I'm later told sounded like a "hurrnghah." But I'm nothing if not resilient. And stupid.
"Remember, you still got to get up in the morning," Justice notes, just before I meet him halfway up the pyramid, make a jab to my right, then spin around like Adrian Peterson, if he was drunk and in a wheelchair. Moments later, I'm back on the floor, gasping for air.
"Don't be too down," Crush says. "The other day he picked up this small Asian guy, twirled him over his head and threw him from the top." Great, except I just witnessed a former "Real World" cast member successfully reach the Pyramid's summit. So, on the jock scale, I fall somewhere between a small Asian dude and a complete tool.
At least I've earned Justice's respect: He says I'm fast ("Like a sloth"), and that I'd probably fare well against a female gladiator. This isn't a bad idea. Momma told me never to hit a woman, but a woman with a thick neck is fair game. I have visions of beating Stealth over the head with her crutch, but it won't be my call.
"You're fighting Crush? In the joust?" exclaims Hurwitz in disbelief. "Nice knowing you. Can you maybe write this story before you do it?"
I'm not concerned. Co-host Laila Ali gave me some tips: "The best thing to do is get the first hit in, then use your man power." So it seems I have a shot, and something called "man power. "
Of all of the females, Crush, a soft-spoken, oft-smiling brunette beauty is the one you'd take home to Momma. And Carano doesn't exactly reek of confidence. She signed on "because they're paying me to play games on TV," and although she's an MMA pro, she "never trained with weapons. I showed up the first day, and all of the rest of the girls passed on the joust, so it fell to me."
Just before we met each other atop two elevated platforms with our pugil sticks, Crush had one more note: "You're going to kill me," she said.
Then she thwacks me in the head not once, but six times in rapid succession. It's quickly a bludgeoning. My only thought: Do not hit her in the breasts.
Defending myself like a fetus with leg spasms, I take what I believe is the eighth shot to my earhole before endeavoring to strike her with a move I'd never before seen on "Gladiators" but always promised myself I'd attempt should I ever joust: A 360-degree, whirling dervish of a spin that ends with a backhand strike to Crush's back. There are hoots and hollers, but this seems to spark something in her. She returns the 360, but with much more force.
New strategy: Hit her in the breasts!
I poke my stick at her chest, miss, and deftly block a final blow with the back of my head before losing my balance and plummeting to the canvas below.
Apparently, I battled Crush a second time, inexplicably giggling like a schoolgirl with each crack to the face, but I can't say for sure. I'm fairly certain I have a concussion, and very certain that I'm completely incapable of tying my shoes.
I also know, thanks to my scribbled notes, that when it was over I thanked Hulk Hogan for decades of entertainment and the cupcakes he baked me, and then headed for the studio gates to angrily picket with the striking writers -- which would've been cool if I were a member of the WGA. I also ate lunch (twice, according to crumpled receipts found in my shoes) and spent the remainder of the evening on a bicycle looking for my car.
My pad had one other note, in unfamiliar handwriting: "You left your wallet and keys. Go now, and send us Kornheiser!"
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.