Arash Markazi
Tuesday December 18th, 2007

There is something inherently wrong with this picture. I've been told to expect some surprises as I walk onto the set of American Gladiators, but this is bordering on the ridiculous. With a neon lit obstacle course serving as his backdrop, Hulk Hogan is quietly sitting down in front of makeshift bleachers with a book and a highlighter, totally oblivious to the whirlwind of action around him. He finally looks up when questioned on his reading material.

"It's the Science of Success by James Arthur Ray," says Hogan. "This guy was part of The Secret. It's a smart fun read. It's the third time I've read it. You should read it, but if you're going to read anything, you got to read that Secret book first. The words just jump up at you. I'm a reading freak."

Suddenly American Gladiators has turned into Hogan's book club and I am officially surprised before I've met a single Gladiator.

Hogan, dressed in a black tank top, bandana and jeans, is speaking softly and almost philosophically about life the day after American Gladiators, which will debut next month on NBC, taped its season finale. This is a calmer gentler Hogan than the one that used to yell at me through the rabbit-eared television in my room on Saturday mornings to "train, say your prayers and eat your vitamins."

"This is a logical extension of where I should go," says Hogan about his new role as a host rather than an active competitor for the first time in his career. "I've gone from being this bald-headed, screaming, crazy, one-dimensional wrestler to a father and a husband, and people got to see that on Hogan Knows Best. They realized that I have problems with the kids and my wife and I don't always get along and it made me more tangible. It at least made people realize I wasn't this cartoon character."

If the show didn't do that already, Hogan's personal situation -- his wife has filed for divorce and his son is facing charges of reckless driving -- at the moment have wiped away the last remnants of his "indestructible" wrestling persona.

"I've had some crazy days and some things that caught me off guard," says Hogan. "I'm riding the highs, surviving the lows and leaning into the wind. It's all an attitude thing for me and being positive and knowing things are going to get better. I have no other choice. I can't crawl into a hole or jump off a bridge, that's not an option for me."

Seeing as how Hogan knows best, it only makes sense to ask him for some advice on taking down some of the Gladiators in a couple of events, specifically the Joust and the Pyramid, since I'm scheduled to try my hand in both today. Oh yes, the surprises never end.

"You're going to do this?" asks a surprised Hogan. "Well, make sure you put your mouthpiece in and make sure your helmet's tied tight. Oh, and when you do the Pyramid and a Gladiator grabs you and throws you, don't be flailing, stay tight, because I've seen some people get some hyper-extended arms or twisted ankles."

OK, so protect my teeth, shield my head and when a Gladiator wants to throw me down a 20-foot pyramid, get into the fetal position and try not get injured. I think I can do that.

My first event is the Joust, the show's marquee and most popular event, and luckily for me it's slightly less daunting than the one on the actual show, which takes place 10 feet above a water tank. This junior Joust is only a couple feet above a padded surface so I should be relatively fine except for the fact that I won't have a mouth piece. All right, so I might get my teeth knocked out, but at least I'll be dry, seems like an even trade off.

"Get the first hit in," says Laila Ali, who will co-host the show with Hogan. "You got to get the first one in because it's hard when you're up there and you get off balance and it's over. Go out fighting."

"Go out fighting?" I think to myself. "No way, I'm in it, to win it, baby." Well, at least that's what I was thinking before I strapped on my helmet, was given my "pugilstick" and introduced to my opponent.

It is quickly apparent that the fine folks at American Gladiators have a sadistic sense of humor as they put me up against Militia, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound former Marine, who smiles and rubs his hands together when he takes a look at me.

"This is going to be fantastic," says Militia, who goes by Alex Castro when he's not beating up shlubs like myself. "It's going to hurt. Try to keep your legs open and stay low but no matter what you do you're going to get hurt."

The only thing scarier than Militia's "advice" and the look on his face is recalling the six-page legal agreement I signed, which absolves the "Peacock" and all its Gladiators of anything and everything that happens to me, before hopping on my circular platform . I've basically signed over my life for one lousy column. I quickly push those negative thoughts out of my mind and hit Militia with a couple of swift shots to his legs, which don't move him.

"What was that?" he asks in his thick Cuban accent. "Did you want to do this?"

I suddenly feel two quick hits to the sides of my head. Before I can recover, a third shot knocks me down to the mat.

"Yeah, that's what I meant to do," I say as I attempt to get up. "I'll get you next time."

Unfortunately, Militia takes my tongue-and-cheek line as a challenge for a rematch, and I once again find myself on the podium, this time hitting him a few times on his perfectly shaved dome, which doesn't faze him. In fact, judging by the smile on his face, he seems to like it. When he finishes humoring me, he hits me in the stomach and finally puts me down with another swift shot to the head.

"Are you good?" Militia asks as he looks down at my battered body.

"Not at the Joust," I say; still on my back and slowly taking off my helmet. "But I'll be fine."

Seeing how well I stacked up against Militia, one of the show's reps suggests I face a female in my next event. Leading me toward the female Gladiators, who are lined up in a row, she tells me to pick the one I want to face. "Pick anyone," she says. "Crush, Venom, Siren, Helga, whatever you want." I suddenly feel like I'm on an episode of Cathouse as I scope each one out before finally settling on Siren.

After being selected, Siren (Valerie Waugaman), a buxom body builder, steps up to me and says, "OK, take it easy. I'm not looking to get hurt. I want to be back for a second season."

She clearly missed my epic performance on the Joust against Militia.

"Don't worry," I tell her. "I was going to say the same thing to you. You know, except for the second season part. I don't think I'm going to be asked back."

Siren hardly breaks a sweat as I attempt to go past her on the Pyramid, which is constructed of 10 steps of foam rubber blocks that stairway down to the floor with the Gladiator standing on the fifth step. The goal is to get to the top. My goal at the point is just to survive.

After getting up to the fifth step, I try to juke past Siren before she grabs me, wraps me up and straddles me as we tumble down the Pyramid. She then gets up, leans over me and snarls as she would over a contender on the show.

"I think you'll be fine for the second season," I tell her.

After mastering the science of failure during my two events against the Gladiators, the only thing left for me to do now is find Hogan and borrow his book. At least I can read about success even if I can't find any here at the Gladiator Arena.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.