ESPN’s Dark American Gladiator Documentary Will Ruin Your Childhood

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Deron “Malibu” McBee, a former contestant on the hit show “American Gladiators,” vividly remembers his first day on set in 1989. Assigned to the intense “Human Cannonball” event, McBee endured a serious head injury and concussion when a contestant collided with him. Despite the severity of the incident, the show’s producers and directors seemingly brushed it aside. McBee’s doctor warned him of the potential consequences of another hit, but he insisted on returning to work.

The competitive show, which aired from 1989 to 1996, offered little job security to its participants, who often taped multiple events per day. McBee continued as a gladiator for several more years, enduring a torn bicep and three broken ribs.

The darker side of the show, focusing on the physical toll it took on the athletes, is explored in ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series titled “The American Gladiators Documentary.” The show’s creator, Johnny Ferraro, and other executives prioritized increasing the show’s physicality to boost ratings, often neglecting the well-being of the athletes.

ESPN's Dark American Gladiator Documentary Will Ruin Your Childhood
Samuel Goldwyn Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Injuries were rampant, and the participants faced significant risks. The lack of safety regulations and oversight led to numerous accidents, such as a gladiator being impaled by a metal shard and requiring 75 stitches. The documentary highlights the profound impact these injuries had on the athletes’ lives, both physically and emotionally. Tragically, William “Thunder” Smith, featured in the documentary, passed away shortly after filming at the age of 56. Smith suffered seven herniated disks in his back during a game called “Hang Tough,” where he fell onto improperly inflated safety mats. His injuries left him in chronic pain and reliant on pain medication.

Another gladiator, Dan “Nitro” Clark, admitted to using painkillers and steroids to cope with injuries and maintain his physical appearance. Despite the toll on their health, many gladiators persisted due to financial pressures and a desire for fame.

The show eventually faded out in 1996, attributed to factors such as greed and ego among the participants and changing television preferences. A revival of “Gladiators” occurred in 2008 but failed to gain significant viewership.

The show is set to return in the UK later this year, shooting at the Utilita Arena in Sheffield and airing on BBC One and BBC iPlayer. Despite the challenges and injuries faced by the gladiators, the allure of the show remains, and McBee reflects on his time on “American Gladiators” with mixed emotions.

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