Trading Card Set of the Week – American Gladiators (1991, Topps)
Never has anything so successfully combined the disparate elements of professional wrestling, the Roman Coliseum, basic training, Rube Goldberg contraptions and a McDonald’s Playland quite like American Gladiators. Granted nothing has ever wanted to, much less tried, but you can’t this away from that show’s bizarre, insane, and enjoyable-for-its-time effort. And thank goodness this TV artifact of the late-1980s/early-1990s has been memorialized not only in archived broadcasts, but in trading cards! Rejoice and make merry! Blow the trumpets! Let the (goofy) games begin!
For those who haven’t internalized the A to Z of the program, here’s a brief primer: Premiering in 1989 in first-run syndication and lasting until 1996, Gladiators pitted everyday contestants, both male and female, against similarly-gendered Gladiators (read: bodybuilders) in preposterous athletic contests. The regular schmoes were more often than not outmuscled by their more hulking adversaries (who were however, as is often the case, muscle-bound — it was always funny to watch them run), but defeating them wasn’t necessarily the point, as contestants were actually competing against one another. Whoever could do the best against these demigods descended from Olympus itself would be the winner. The program followed a tournament format: two winners, a man and a woman, advanced each week, until a champion was crowned at the end of the season.
The real stars of the show weren’t the cast of Gladiators, who all had codenames to go with their superhero physiques. The selling points of the series were the events themselves. Joust. Powerball. The Wall (long before Game of Thrones). And the madcap obstacle course that ended every episode: Eliminator, which was like a game of Mouse Trap, but for Homo sapiens.
It was a ridiculous premise and a subsequently ridiculous show, but it worked for its time.
Old standby Topps put out its trading cards, using their usual cards/stickers split, which we’ve seen in everything from Alien to Mork & Mindy to Last Action Hero. There are 88/11 this time around, coming to 99 in total — a number that fits squarely into nine-pocket pages, a small but appreciated consideration for any collector. These cards break no ground, but they’re what you’d expect: red, white and blue, star-spangled, and displaying the full range of apparatuses and pectorals, male and female, for which the show was known.
The first half-plus of the set is focused on showcasing the assorted events. Who could forget Assault, in which contestants and gladiators fired goofy guns at one another — apparently Fisher-Price had the contract to provide the phallic ordnance:
You want to see humans turned into hamsters? Then Atlasphere was for you:
And the event that everyone thinks about when harkening back to the show: Joust, which has been replicated countless times in drunken backyard parties. Please note that more injuries have likely been caused by the terrible pun on the next card than in the event depicted:
One event that I didn’t recall being on the show was “The Maze,” which, according to the back of the card below, was added for the 1991 season. Apparently I had either stopped watching by then, or my local stations had stopped carrying it. Anyway — they really were trying to turn people into rodents, weren’t they?:
The “character” cards which form the last portion of the set show the Gladiators (the cast saw a lot of turnover during the run) in all their oiled-up grandeur — something emphasized by yet another pun that makes your teeth hurt, on the card for Nitro (real name: Dan Clark):
Yeah, that’s not at all creepy.
By the way, the backs of the cards feature some explanatory text along with a cartoon representation of a Gladiator:
One of the real eye-openers of the show was the female cast, muscley gender-bender ladies who often demolished the more average distaff competitors. (It seemed that every game of Powerball featured one of these Amazons violently bodyslamming a scrawny contestant into the ground.) Compare your biceps with Ice (real name: Lori Fetrick):
Or Zap (real name: Raye Hollitt):
The hosts get some love too. Joe Theismann, he of the most gruesome NFL injury ever, was one of the original hosts of the show, but he left in the middle of the first season. By the time the cards came out Miami Dolphins great Larry Csonka and Mike Adamle (who’d go on to have a dreadful turn in WWE) shared duties calling the action:
As for the stickers, they’re more of the same — the backs form a puzzle, which when completed is the cast photo in the first card at the top of this post. Here’s Zap about to plant some poor house frau in the ground:
The cards are nothing special, but they’re more than adequate for the subject matter: heavy on the cheese, with an extra helping of the trademark pumped-up silliness. You can find them dirt cheap online (you’ll see unopened boxes selling for under ten bucks — well under) so if you were once a devotee of the Gladiators and their shenanigans, going down this particular memory lane won’t set you back much in the money department.
There was a revival in 2008 of the series, a mid-season replacement show on NBC that rebooted the program for an HD generation. But it couldn’t quite replicate the steroid-fueled charisma of the syndicated forebear, Hulk Hogan’s presence notwithstanding. And there were imitators: Battle Dome was a series at the turn of the millennium that copied the competition element while amping up the scripted pro wrestling dynamic. But nothing has ever been able to capture the dopey magic of the original, preserved for all time — or at least until the cardboard rots — in these Topps cards.