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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Muscling In on Game-Show Glory

At first, they just seem big.


But once you get to know the Gladiators, there's much more to them than sheer bulk -- dignity, sportsmanship, studied appraisal of the opposition.


"We will massacre them," said Andrei Akulov, wiping the mist of sweat off his chin and gazing out into the stadium. "We must massacre them."


Akulov, 27, who trained as an American football player, weighs in at 205 pounds. "It's a good game," he elaborates. "I like to massacre."


A scant five days before the team flies to England for the 1994 International Gladiators Event, Akulov is one of the few Russian Gladiators to show up for practice. The other three, Vincent Battaglia explains, are getting their teeth cleaned.


"Today we had to do their teeth," says the Californian co-director of the Babylon production company. American Gladiators' advance team, which flew in to select contestants for the television game show a month ago, felt the Russians were physically sound but dentally, well, wanting. "A lot of their teeth were black and missing and stuff."


Battaglia hasn't told them about the eyeliner yet. The Russian participants, who can only be described as physically astounding, have the massacre part down cold, but their appearance on "American Gladiators" still presents some unresolved cultural differences. For instance: hair spray.


The program "American Gladiators," which has been on the air in America since 1986, combines physical competition with the flamboyant theatrics that have popularized professional wrestling in the West. In order to win over the show's huge audience, the athletes are required not only to be huge, but to have recognizable personas, fluffy hair and stage names. Each show pits a team of contestants against the gladiators, and selects challenges for them that are invariably strenuous but often whimsical -- such as climbing inside giant rubber balls and maneuvering them around the floor.


In this case, there is a higher purpose, Battaglia says. "I want to create what is missing here. When the Soviet Union ended, Russia lost heroes like Gagarin, like what Brezhnev was" -- a vacuum that could be filled by a figure from, as Battaglia puts it, "the physically challenging game-show genre."


"I'd like to create positive role models. I'm not a religious person, I'm not a do-gooder or anything," Battaglia said, watching his athletes bench-press in the weight room. "But this means a lot to me."


So drawing from a field of top-flight athletes, Battaglia has created Spartak (Sergei Ruban), Dinamit (Vladimir Turchinsky) and Bagira (Tatyana Yuraleva), the first three Russian gladiators. For the month that they have been training for the competition, Battaglia paid the athletes $100 a week to leave their jobs -- "not much," admits trainer and former Olympian Andrei Shlatnikov, "but a lot more than their monthly salary." Yelena Borodina left her job as an acrobat at the circus, Olympic sprinter Olga Dudnik left her training, and Akulov took time off from his job in the security field.


In marketing the idea of a Russian face-off to the show's American producers, Battaglia drew liberally from Cold War-era imagery to forge characters. He also utilized a little poetic license.


"It's so much easier to boil it down to a stereotype," he says. "With Sergei, I can say to them, 'He was in Afghanistan. He's a little off.' It's not true. He has killed people, but he's not a killer."


If the championships go well, Battaglia and his partner, Yury Morozov, hope to parlay the gladiators concept onto Russian network television.


"The Russians are going to want more -- not blood, necessarily, but a more aggressive game. This is not going to become Death Bout 2000," he added. "But right now for them it's a pansy game."


On the other hand, the foreign teams have been training for much longer than the Russians. Akulov said it doesn't keep him up at night. "I don't think there will be any problems or unpleasantness," he said.


"In general," he added, "I am not afraid."