I am sitting in the reception of a Best Western hotel in Stoke-on-Trent with Wolf from Gladiators and I think he is about to cry. Minutes earlier, he had been giving me a masterclass in how to trash-talk your opponent: “You’ve got to pick something that will hurt their ego. They’re confident, they’re out there. So you say: ‘Waste of time you being here. Are you just making up the numbers?’” But now Wolf is telling me about the little girl with cancer who used to visit the live shows and he is welling up. It turns out the Wolfman is a big old softie.
Before meeting Wolf – real name Michael van Wijk, but of course we will call him Wolf – I lie in my hotel room, watching a two-and-a-half-hour supercut of his best bits on YouTube. It is a tremendous montage of Wolf throwing his helmet at competitors and eating yellow cards and shouting at the referee John Anderson. I am watching Wolf square up to a contender when my phone vibrates. He is here.
In real life, Wolf is a softly spoken, uxorious sweetheart, who buys me a Coke and bears scant resemblance to the menacing baddie we learned to love and hate in the 90s. He recalls the Wolfman persona with detached amusement. “I approached the producers and said: ‘Can I be bad?’ They said: ‘No. Everyone is squeaky clean in this. It’s for kids – you can’t be bad.’ I said: ‘Please – the name lends itself to it. Big bad wolf. If you don’t like it, I’ll never do it again.’ They said: ‘OK, for one show.’ I did it and the crowd just exploded.” The Wolf character evolved over time. “I realised you can’t be bad every show. Sometimes you have to be nice.” He puts on the Wolf voice for me. “He’s big, he’s bad,” Wolf growls. I am in raptures.
The main thing Wolf would like you to know is that, almost 20 years after Gladiators left terrestrial TV, he is still in thunderously good shape and could take on any challenge the producers threw at him, were they to bring back the show. We discuss his keto diet and training regimen. “Lots of men let their legs go,” Wolf says. “Not me.” (I suspect this is why he is wearing athletic shorts in October.) It is clear he misses the glory days of performing before a 10,000-capacity crowd, all madly rooting for him and baying for his blood at the same time. Sky brought him back as a team captain for its 2008 reboot, but it wasn’t the same. “It was like going to someone’s wedding when it should be you getting married. I wanted to take part. I was fit and ready.”
To this day, Gladiators enjoys a hypnotic pull on the British consciousness. I know this first-hand. A child of the 90s, I am so cravenly excited to meet Wolf that my most-used emoji in the week leading up to our interview is a tiny wolf. His voice – unmistakably low, dangerous – was the voice of my childhood reveries and the prepubescent inkling that being bad could be good. I am not alone. Stop the average thirtysomething in the street and boom: “Contenders … ready!” at them and they will respond: “Gladiators … ready!” with religious zeal. But before Gladiators became an unstoppable cultural force that caused grownups to go completely gaga, it was London Weekend Television’s flagship light-entertainment show.
Launched in 1992, it gave PAs, chartered surveyors and mums from Liverpool the chance to bash athletic superstars with giant pugil sticks in the National Indoor Arena (now Arena Birmingham). This was the golden age of Saturday-night TV, a prelapsarian period when Noel Edmonds and our Cilla ruled the airwaves, when there were only four channels (until the arrival of Channel 5 in 1997) and the Wolfman and Mr Blobby would face off in the weekly ratings battle. It came to an end in 2000, when LWT cancelled the show due to falling ratings. The gladiators disbanded. But when you have been a gladiator in the foam and the muck of Saturday-night telly, where do you go?
In Wolf’s case, New Zealand. When the panto bookings and personal appearance gigs dried up – no more rainy Wednesday mornings opening branches of Argos – he opened a chain of gyms. He needed to earn a living – they all did. “The money for Gladiators was pathetic,” says Wolf, now 67. Unlike the gladiators on the US version of the show, none of the British stars received repeat fees; mostly, they made money from corporate gigs. Because Wolf was the star of the show, he got the most work, which caused some resentment among his colleagues.
But none of that tension is on display the following day at the comic convention Stoke Con Trent. Children take photos with Iron Man and a man in a Chewbacca outfit drinking coffee. Bradley from S Club 7 sits behind a folding table, charging £5 for selfies and £15 for a signed photo. At the back of the room, four gladiators – Cobra (Michael Anthony Willson), Lightning (Kim Betts), Wolf and fan favourite Jet (Diane Youdale) – are perched on stools. They chat away, referring to each other by their gladiator names. Taped above them are A4 printouts of the gladiators in their prime: glossy-maned and taut, faces unlined and hair backcombed to oblivion.
“I’m just glad I haven’t kicked the bucket,” chuckles Cobra, his Gladiators costume straining over his chest. His cheery air and deep tan cannot hide the traces of his recent illness. (The 55-year-old was hospitalised with pneumonia earlier this year.) As I look at Cobra sitting underneath the photo of himself in his prime, his hair permed to a magnificent scrubbing brush, he intuits what I am thinking. “I keep seeing people bringing photos of me from 20 years ago and it’s depressing,” he says. “But what can you do?”
Leaning in, he lets me in on a secret: sometimes he would be drunk during filming. “I remember looking at the Wall and thinking: ‘I’ve got to chase this guy up it and I’m bleeding drunk.’” He almost got fired by the producer Nigel Lythgoe, but the crew stuck up for him. Not everyone was as lackadaisical. “Hunter, the swot, would be up there early in the morning, practising on the Wall. That’s why he used to catch everyone!” He breaks off to sign an autograph.
At Jet’s table, business is brisk, as I expected it to be: she was the show’s heart-throb. I am struck by how vulnerable many of her – mostly male – fans seem to be. One man’s hands shake as he unpacks a plastic wallet full of photographs for signing. Another presents her with a handmade twine bracelet, which she accepts graciously. Although she spends a long time chatting with fans and seems genuinely invested in their stories, watching some of them part with money in exchange for autographs and photos makes me uneasy.
After the event, I catch up with Jet at her hotel. Dressed in a chunky jumper, her hair still in that famous side-sweep, Jet appears tired from the day’s exertions – I recognise a fellow introvert – and rarely makes eye contact. She trained as a choreographer before being recruited for the show at 22. (She is now 49.) Fame was jarring. “It was weird,” she laughs, face in hands. “Being famous was never on my trajectory.” What was it like, being the show’s sex symbol? “I hated it. You know how I’d do the hair flick and cartwheels and the funny naff dancing? There was a reason for it. When the camera was coming to me, I wouldn’t stand still … When you’re moving, people can’t look at your cellulite.”
Jet left the show in 1996, after sustaining a neck injury falling from the Pyramid. (It was notorious for injuries – Amazon, Rhino and Wolf also injured themselves there.) She tried presenting, before qualifying as a psychotherapist. Her training enabled her to reflect critically on her fame. “There is something that happens in that moment where someone discovers you are famous … You can’t be who you genuinely are.” She is thankful that most people know her by the Jet persona, not her real name. “It’s Jet that’s famous. Diane is a private person.”
Looking back, it is easy to forget the level of fame the gladiators enjoyed. Rhino – real name Mark Smith – got recognised on safari in Zimbabwe. “We were in the Land Rover and someone leaned over and said: ‘Eh, Rhino, do you think we might see a rhino?’” (They did.) He is speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, where he works as an actor and producer. “I think I’m the most successful gladiator!” Rhino laughs. “I’ve been very lucky.” He recently produced the forthcoming Orlando Bloom film The Outpost – and celebrated turning 50 by going skydiving.
“My ambition is to get Hang Tough in churches,” says Ace (Warren Furman) as we sit drinking coffee in the shadow of York Minster. That was the game in which gladiators swung themselves across the arena on a series of hanging rings. “You know how you do the communion? I reckon you should be able to Hang Tough your way straight up there. I think people would enjoy that.” It takes me a few beats to realise he is serious – he has the equipment already and just needs to persuade a church to let him rig it up.
Ace, 47, became a born-again Christian five years ago and is charmingly self-aware about his conversion. “The other gladiators think I’ve completely lost my mind.” I like Ace – he is hilarious and sincere and doesn’t try to convert me. He tells me about his 2017 appearance on This Morning, in which he announced he was a “gladiator for the gospel”. He had originally turned it down, until he realised it would be live. “I thought: ‘I can share the gospel live on telly!’ I’m in.”
When Gladiators ended, he struggled to adapt. He chased celebrity for a while and dated Katie Price back when she was Jordan. After the celebrity work thinned out, he retrained as a construction manager. His labourers would ask him what Price was like in bed, or mock him for his McVitie’s deal. (“I took a contract for the Ace biscuit, not knowing that the strapline was ‘The incredibly thick chocolate biscuit’,” he snorts. “That was the bane of my life.”)
For a long time, he didn’t like talking about the show. “You’re remembering a time when you were earning loads of money and you had fame and fortune, and now it’s gone. It was depressing.” He is grateful to Gladiators for getting him off steroids. (The producers knew he was using them, but asked him to get “his levels down” after testing.) Now he sees Gladiators as an advantage for his Christian evangelism – he appears in schools dressed as a gladiator, spreading the good news.
But his first attempt at proselytising in a primary school didn’t go to plan. He had bought a plastic gladiator outfit from eBay, but it was cheap-looking and naff. “This kid comes up to me, grabs the plastic sword and taps it. He goes: ‘You ain’t a real gladiator.’ I was like: I’m such a loser.” After that debacle, Ace prayed: “I said: ‘Father, you need to get me something … You need to get me some proper gladiator armour.’” The prayer was soon answered: Ace found an original costume from the 2000 Russell Crowe film Gladiator on Gumtree, for £60.
Earlier, standing in the cathedral’s crypt, Ace tells me about the mass grave of Roman gladiators that was unearthed nearby. Whether physical or psychological, a gladiator always pays a price. Ace recalls standing on the arena floor during the 2015 Gladiators reunion. “It was melancholy,” he says. “We were all ringing each other afterwards and saying: ‘Remember when we were young?’”
Yes: I remember the gladiators when they were young and in their prime, godlike in the rubber and foam of 90s entertainment TV. I need only to close my eyes and I am eight again, crossed-legged on the floor, palms slick with excitement. On the telly, a gladiator stretches a hand towards the next hanging ring. Eternally swinging: above them, Mount Olympus; beneath them, crash mats.