I HAVE A secret affinity for Spandex. I don't mind having my brain rattled once in a while. And I often struggle to gauge the rigorousness of physical feats. ("A four-minute mile? What, is that hard?") Any of these could explain my giddiness last week when I arrived at the Sony lot in Los Angeles to be pummeled by a Gladiator. After reruns of the 1990s show American Gladiator developed a following on ESPN Classic, NBC decided to remake the series, which pits contestants against bodybuilders, MMA fighters, Cirque du Soleil folks and ex-military men and women in 10 athletic tests.
This is an article from the Dec. 31, 2007 issue
Creator Johnny Ferraro says the new version (it debuts on Jan. 6) will be "bigger, better, stronger." I got a taste by trying The Joust, in which combatants try to knock each other off perches using tubes of padded PVC. Before competing, I had to sign a six-page waiver ("... risk of serious injury and/or death ...") and deal with a sneering page, whose eyes mocked my 170-pound recreational kickball player physique.
But I came prepared. I studied old shows on YouTube. (Lessons learned: Use bayonet jabs; keep guard up.) I had a room service waiter hit me with a pillow. I sought advice. (From Gladiator Toa: "Say prayers." From host Hulk Hogan: "Make sure your mouthpiece is in." He was serious; I shuddered when I was told they were out of them.)
My opponent was Wolf (he tends to howl), a 6'4" 235-pounder who resembles Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds. I got off one bayonet jab before he unleashed a barrage of head shots. I was carrying a 20-pound barbell, and my pipe-cleaner biceps were burning. I tried to use my back as a shield and save my energy for the occasional home run swing. Poom-poom-poom. (Him.) Wiff. (Me.) It ended with a face poke, then a scooping blow to my left kidney, like Wolf was pitchforking a bale of hay.
On the floor, I licked my busted lip while a technician checked my broken helmet. I had lasted about 40 seconds—a minor victory considering you get points for lasting 30. I mentioned this to Wolf, who laughed and said, "I could feel [my baton] cracking when I was hitting you. I didn't care about knocking you off. All I wanted to do was break it on you. That would have looked really, really cool."
DAVID GOLDBLATT'S 992-page tome, The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, traces the sport from its seeds (sown in China in 200 B.C.) through its growth in 19th-century England and its kudzu-like spread across the continents. Goldblatt provides impressive scholarship, showing how soccer was affected by political developments (fascism's rise in Europe; Evita Perón's reign in Argentina), lending perspective to icons like Beckenbauer and Best and setting off each chapter with lively quotes. ("[Soccer] can cause young men to faint, holy men to swear and strong men to become impotent for a day," says Nigerian writer Samuel Akpabot.) Brave is the reader who goes cover to cover, but rich are the rewards.