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.
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.
CHRIS HASTON/NBC PHOTO (HOGAN)
GLUTEUS MAXIMUS After getting advice from Hogan (below), the author was put on his backside in 40 seconds.
TODD BIGELOW/AURORA (DUERSON)
[See caption above]