Are You Not Entertained?

ESPN’s two-part ‘American Gladiators’ documentary tells the story of one of TV sports’s trashiest moments

Whether you watched it or not, everyone knew about American Gladiators, the violent, coed sports competition show, which debuted in 1989. AG was Jerry Springer for sports fans – and it killed. But after spawning versions of itself in several countries and seven years of collisions and probably countless concussions, they cancelled AG because of poor ratings.

Extreme sports were the new It.

Now, ESPN is deep diving into AG with an extensive two-part doc. The American Gladiators Documentary tells the story behind this trashy television show, and it’s immensely better than the show itself.

AG got its start in Erie Pennsylvania, where male iron workers would let off steam at picnics by competing in gladiator type events, most of which included lots of brawling and body slamming. Iron worker Dann Carr thought that the ruffian roughhousing had commercial appeal. But he needed a backer.

Enter Johnny Ferraro, a former Elvis impersonator with means.

Ferraro envisioned AG as a movie, so he packed his bags and went west.  After years of getting nowhere in Los Angeles, Ferraro finally got a bite – but the buyer saw AG as a television show. Yes, Ferraro was flexible, and the rumble made it  on the air.

It’s a miracle that there weren’t more injuries. Perhaps most shockingly, AG athletes had to pay for their own medical care. Many competed hurt because they feared being replaced. Some, probably most, turned to steroids to survive on the show.  Director Ben Berman spoke to a small handful of AG athletes, including “Malibu,” “Gemini,” “Sabre” and Wesley “Two Scoops” Berry. They’re forthcoming, and it’s interesting to find out what happened to these “gladiators” after their AG run. Here’s one sad spoiler. One gladiator, who is not mentioned above, is severely handicapped. He died since filing, which the doc doesn’t mention.

Many former AG athletes refused to participate in the doc. The documentary infers that they’re bitter about their experience. While AG gave them a platform, the pay was relatively low, and AG didn’t pay them residuals or compensate them for merchandising. At one point, AG cast members attempted to strike, but it failed miserably.

Television is very much a blood sport.

When AG’s television run came to an end, Ferraro started an AG dinner theater in Orlando, Florida, and he took the AG circus to Vegas. But it didn’t work, and Ferraro wound up selling yachts.

The American Gladiators Documentary spends a lot of time on the up and mostly down relationship between co-creators Ferraro and Dann Carr. Throughout the doc, questions linger regarding this duo. Who was AG’s true creator? What is Ferraro hiding? Did the screw Carr over– and how bad? Lastly, where is Carr, and is he even still alive? By the end, all is answered, well, almost. There appears to be another creator who didn’t get his proper due.

Besides Ferraro, no one believes that AG is an artistic masterpiece. It was born out of the 1988 writer’s strike. Another writer’s strike in 2007 brought AG back for another short run, which Hulk Hogan hosted. Well, there’s another writer’s strike currently going on, so guess who’s making another comeback? Stay tuned.

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Jon Hart

Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures. He holds the Citi Field record for hawking the most pretzels during a single game.

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