The 6 most shocking “American Gladiators” revelations from Netflix’s “Muscles & Mayhem” doc

The five-part series spotlights the rise and subsequent fall of the hit stunt-filled 1990s TV series

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published June 30, 2023 2:51PM (EDT)

Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators (Photo courtesy of Netflix)
Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

When "American Gladiators" made its debut in 1989, viewers were hooked — and wanted more.

Perhaps it was the series of stunt-filled challenges that got people really excited. Or maybe, it was the continuous supply of eye candy provided by a cast of well-built competitors known as Gladiators? Whatever the specific appeal was, the show took off in the 1990s, later paving the way for more modern action-packed competition shows (think "Wipeout" and "American Ninja Warrior") to gain popularity. But as the old adage goes, not all good things last forever.

Onscreen, "American Gladiators" was sensational. It was fun. It was over the top. And it was energetic. The show consisted of a group of amateur athletes, who competed against each other and against the show's own Gladiators in a series of strength-based contests. 

But behind the scenes, the show was the complete opposite. Gladiators were being exploited left and right, whether that was physically, mentally, emotionally or financially. And show producers and executives did little to nothing to change things for the better.

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The spectacular rise and subsequent fall of "American Gladiators" is explored and narrated in Netflix's docuseries "Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators." The five-part series delves into why the OG stunt competition show "almost ended before it began" through interviews with ex-Gladiators along with show producers, directors and managers. There's also no shortage of archival footage and animations, which add a touch of humor to the entire showcase.

From the show's sex-crazed director to its ruthless stunt challenges, here are six of the most shocking revelations from the docuseries:

The first 13 episodes were "Dark Age barbaric"
Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American GladiatorsMuscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Many of the show's executives failed to understand how dangerous the onscreen stunts were. Competitors were expected to joust one another on a thin, elevated platform that fell out underneath them. They were expected to participate in a Human Cannonball, in which they stood on a tall pedestal and got smashed by 13 people in a row. They were even expected to participate in an event called Breakthrough and Conquer, where they had to tackle each other in a handsy game of football.  


In one incident, Deron McBee, who played Malibu on "American Gladiators," split his head open after enduring a hard fall from the pedestal. McBee recalled that he also suffered from two broken ribs, a broken thumb, a concussion and a torn bicep. He said he had to beg his doctor to let him go back on the show, because they feared another concussion would lead to his death.


"We're getting knocked down to the ground," said Raye Hollitt, who played Zap on the show. "No pads. On concrete. No helmet."


Danny Lee Clark, who played the cocky and womanizing Nitro, said that competitors were expected to wear flimsy uniforms, which failed to protect them from potential physical harm. The outfits consisted of tiny red hot pants that were connected to a sequined bolero.

The show's director was a self-declared "adult films advocate"
Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American GladiatorsMuscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Bob Levy, who claimed he "was the best director who ever did 'American Gladiators,'" displayed a collection of sex toys in front of him while working in the show's control truck. There were jumping penile-shaped toys and a lineup of wind-up sex toys.


Levy also had a VHS porn collection. In the documentary, Levy said he's "a ridiculous adult films advocate." While Levy spoke of his collectibles with pride, his co-workers spoke of them with embarrassment. His wife also didn't appreciate his collection and, in one instance, tossed them into a pool in anger.


"I'm convinced that a good sex life is one of the keys to long life and happiness," said Levy when recounting the equally crazy parties he threw with the Gladiators. The parties featured naked women and were frequently stopped by police due to several noise complaints.

Producers tried to reduce steroid use with mandatory drug tests
Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American GladiatorsDanny Lee Clark "Nitro" in "Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators" (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

During the 1990s, anabolic steroids made their rounds in Major League Baseball and WWF wrestling before they reached "American Gladiators." Producers of the show discovered that several Gladiators were misusing steroids, supplements and growth hormones to boost their physiques. But the issue grew more serious when needles and syringes were found in a dressing room.


As a result, mandatory drug tests were implemented, which Clark recalled were mainly to clean up the show's public reputation and reassure both advertisers and the show's growing fanbase.


"It was like, 'Wink-wink, you're going to give us a little bit of time to get clean,'" said Clark regarding one drug test he was given six weeks to prepare for. "The most interesting thing of all, they never told us the results of the drug test. It was just to tell the advertisers, 'Yes, we drug-tested the American Gladiators.'"


Clark continued, "For me, I wanted the 'juice' because I wanted and needed to put on that muscle, so I could become somebody." That's when he decided to go to Mexico to buy steroids, only to be caught red-handed by border security who ultimately threw out the substances and let him go with just a ticket.


"You wonder how far someone will go just to compete," Clark said. "For me, it was having guns pointed at the back of my head."

Every single one of the Gladiators' live shows were sold out
Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American GladiatorsLori Fetrick "Ice" in "Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators" (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

As part of their nationwide tour, the Gladiators staged live shows where they went up against random contenders who believed they were strong enough to take them down. Even though there was no compensation for participating, contenders were more than happy to be able to participate in a the spectacular experience. Fans and spectators were also incredibly happy to see their favorite characters in action. 


"That was a big deal," recalled Hollitt. "Big deal because we were selling out all the stadiums."


Lori Fetrick, who played Ice on the show, recalled the grandeur of the entire tour: "Walking into Madison Square Garden, and all the lights hit you, and the auditorium was full, and you just hear the roar of the people. And that's when you go, 'Holy s**t. We're kind of famous!'"


The Gladiators' Florida show was also jam-packed — the big showcase attracted 16,000 people, compared to about 6,000 people for an MC Hammer show that took place the night before. The Gladiators also performed in a sold-out show at the Chicago Stadium the night after Michael Jordan played a game.


Jordan quickly became a fan of the Gladiators following their show. Other celebrity fans of the show included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Costner, Gene Simmons, Steve Martin, Dennis Rodman and President Bill Clinton.

The Gladiators' tour bus was pure sex, drugs and rock and roll
Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American GladiatorsLori Fetrick "Ice" and Danny Lee Clark "Nitro" in "Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators" (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

During their 50-week-long tour, the Gladiators engaged in plenty of fun on their tour bus, which included sex, drugs, booze, groupies and rock and roll. There were also frequent parties and strip tease competitions.


However, the non-stop debauchery coupled with the physically strenuous shows soon took a toll on all the Gladiators. 


"It was the most fun I had in my entire life," said Jim Starr, who played Laser. "What people didn't see is we competed every night, seven nights a week, all over the country. Soon as one show was over, we would take a shower, get on that tour bus, and travel to the next city. And that next city could be one hour away, could be 10 hours away. So we were on that bus trying to sleep. Training every day. And injury after injury. We were getting so beat up."


As more Gladiators dropped out due to injuries, producers went to local gyms to recruit muscular individuals as "fresh Gladiators" who served as replacements. Unfortunately, for one injured Gladiator, the tour became the end of their career for good.


Debbie Clark, who played Storm on the show, "snapped" her ACL tendon in a competition tackle that took place during a Hartford, Connecticut, show.      


"They kicked me off the tour," Clark said. "That was how everything ended for me as a Gladiator. Not just as a gladiator, but as an athlete. My life was never the same."

The show was finally canceled in 1996
Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American GladiatorsLori Fetrick "Ice, Debbie Clark "Storm, Sha-ri Pendleton, Blaze, and Danny Lee Clark "Nitro" in "Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators" (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The show later fired Ice, Zap, Gemini and Nitro after they demanded more pay and a cut of the Gladiators merchandise, which included Mattel action figures of their individual characters. Prior to the big showdown, the show's executives made it clear that the Gladiators were dispensable — so much so that Zap kept her pregnancy a secret and continued to participate in violent stunts so producers would not cut her from the show.


Following the show's cancellation, producers tried to maintain the popularity of the franchise with a dinner theater show in Orlando, but it was a major bust.


The show was revived in 2008 and lasted only two seasons. Several other revivals were planned in 2014 and 2018. Yet another revival is currently being pitched and may feature WWE wrestlers as stars on a reboot of "American Gladiators."

"Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators" is currently available for streaming on Netflix. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube:


By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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