In our exclusive interview, former Gladiator James Crossley discusses his time on the original series and why Bradley Walsh is the perfect host for the reboot.
What are your thoughts on the BBC reboot of Gladiators?
“It seems like they’ve done a very similar show to ours. I haven’t seen it but from what I understand, they’ve got the same music and games. They’re going to put their own spin on it and they’ve got a couple of new games.”
Do you think the show needed to be brought back?
“I think time will tell. Times have changed so much. When we did it, there wasn’t even Channel 5. There were only four channels and there was no internet. That’s what people did, they would sit and watch Blind Date, Gladiators, then Baywatch. I don’t think they’ll be able to fully replicate that because the options now for entertainment are so endless. I think if they can slightly replicate it, then they’ve done well. If it can also get people back into fitness and remind them about being in shape, it could influence someone. It could maybe lift up exercise, fitness and movement.
“I also think it’s entertainment, whereas the likes of Love Island are all about drama. It’s a very different kind of entertainment. It’s nice to have something that’s physical entertainment. It’s a competition as well. Competition has been lost a little bit in modern day. If you come 25th in a race, you get a medal now. It will be quite nice to have two people go against each other and have a proper competition and remind people that competition can be healthy.”
What are your thoughts on Bradley and Barney Walsh hosting the show?
“I know Bradley very well because he married one of the head cheerleaders. When we did the show, they had a set of cheerleaders, and he was married to the head cheerleader. He was there all the time. He has a massive back story to the show, which people wouldn’t really know about. He spent a lot of time there. I like Bradley and I think he’s great, so I think he’ll do well as a presenter. I haven’t really seen his son, so I can’t really comment on him.
“You couldn’t have anyone with better insight than him. He spent years around that show, so he’s been there and he got really into it, he loved it. He’s a good person as a frontman for the show.”
What made you sign up to the original Gladiators?
“I didn’t sign up for it. I was lucky because I was headhunted, so I was in a magazine called Bodybuilding Monthly. I started weights when I was 12 years old, so by the time I was 17 and 18, I was the biggest teenager around because I’d been doing it for so long. I entered a competition called Junior North East Britain and that got me into Bodybuilding Monthly. They contacted the magazine and asked if they could get my contact number. They really wanted tall bodybuilders because a lot of bodybuilders at the time were short. They asked me to audition for the show in three days. I hadn’t done much fitness work, so they gave me an idea of what I had to do. I went to my old school and trained like a maniac, like climbing ropes and all that. They were obsessed with bodybuilders that could move.
“I went to the audition three days later and they said, ‘right, we’re going to call you Trident,’ so that was my original name. They decided to then call me Hunter because they already had a Trojan and they were too close. It all happened in a matter of days. We were actually filming the series 10 days later.”
How did you find being thrown into the spotlight?
“It wasn’t an instant thrust into the limelight. I was a printer and I’d just finished my apprenticeship. They wouldn’t give me the time off work, so I had to leave my job. Bear in mind, the whole series is filmed in three weeks. It’s really quick and you’re filming two shows a day, but then it wasn’t on TV for five months. It wasn’t a quick thing and you were in the limelight, it was a gradual thing.”
Do you think there was a pressure to succeed after quitting your job?
“Yeah, it was tricky because I wanted to be Mr Universe from the age of 12 – that was my goal. I always wanted to do something with my body and this was the chance to do it. Although my family couldn’t believe that I had left my job, for me, it was a definite move. Having been competitive, having older brothers, it made me want to prove myself to the other Gladiators.”
Was filming harder than you expected?
“It was horrific for me because I was a bodybuilder at the time. All I had done since I was 12 was bodybuilding, so I struggled massively in that first year because I wasn’t athletic. Basically, Gladiators favours gymnasts and people who can climb. I really struggled in that first year. The problem is that people think we get loads of time to train, but we actually got two days to train on 12 events. That’s one or two hours on each event. Some of the games in that first year, like Atlaspheres, I had never even done or had a chance to train on it. It was very difficult.
“Not being that athletic at the time, I massively struggled. I remember the producer came up to me in that first year and said, ‘Hunter, you’re awful.’ That was a bit of a Rocky moment for me because I went on to train twice a day for six years. That’s how I became the ultimate Gladiator in the end. I think I peaked at two or three years in. My goal was to be good at everything. Some Gladiators were happy to be good at the Duel or one or two events, but I wanted to be good at everything. It took a long time to master certain events. You had to be fast, you had to be strong, you had to be mobile, you had to be a gymnast, it was all rolled into one.”
How did you feel putting yourself at risk during the challenges?
“I remember when I did the final show, which was Gladiators vs Gladiators, I dislocated my shoulder in the first event. They wanted to pull me from the show, which was the last show for the title of Ultimate Gladiator. But I said to the physio, ‘you’ll take me off here as a corpse, I’m not leaving the stage.’ At the time, I was so competitive and so in it, I would have happily lost my arm to be on that show. That was my mentality.
“Looking back, the injuries were horrendous. But when you’re in it, you’re competitive and you’re 19 years old, your sole purpose is to win the Duel. I didn’t even think about it and I threw myself into everything.”
What positives and negatives did the show bring?
“It was an amazing way to travel the world. We went to Australia, America and South Africa. We’d do a job at Euro Disney and light the fireworks, so that was amazing. I was also obsessed with pantomime since I was three years old, then suddenly I was starring in one. It gave you a very varied lifestyle. The injuries were problematic. There were a lot of injuries during the show, but it’s a contact sport, a bit like American football. The problem with Gladiators is that everything is so intense. If you look at a game like Powerball, which is 60 seconds, you might do 15 to 20 rugby tackles in 60 seconds, which is what you might do in a 90 minute rugby game. Even rugby players thought it was full on. There’s so much impact on the body in a very short period of time.
“It was a lifetime ago, but it was by far the best years of my life. Being competitive and being someone that loved to be around other competitive people, being a bodybuilder, it was the perfect job for me. Plus, the doors that opened around you for the rest of the year were amazing. I gave it my absolute all.”
Did you ever feel pressured to look a certain way on the show?
“For me, it was a lifestyle. I’d been bodybuilding for so many years that I just enjoyed it. I still go to the gym around four or five times a week, it’s part of it and it’s been ingrained into me for so many years. I enjoy that feeling of working the body, whether that’s boxing or working with weights. Obviously, I had to change things around a lot for that show. I’d be pushing a car around a car park because I would be trying to replicate certain events so I could use certain muscle groups.
“I wouldn’t have done any of that if I didn’t get into that show. It’s interesting because it’s a sliding door moment, if I wouldn’t have been in that magazine at that time, then they’d probably never even seen me. Sometimes you have those sliding door moments that change your life.”
Do you have any backstage secrets from the show?
“What people didn’t realise is how intense the filming period was. The show took six hours to film and we did two shows a day. We would be doing the Eliminator at 1am sometimes. They did two days on, one day off. The days were so long and people got so tired. I think people thought we were training and going out, but we weren’t. People were mangled. It was really an intense two weeks.
“If you got injured in an early show, you could be out the whole series. Then if you were out the whole series, you wouldn’t get work throughout the year. It was very important, although at the time I wasn’t thinking about protecting myself from injury, the last thing you didn’t want was to get any niggles that would take you out. We had an amazing medical team, there were physios, masseuses to try and patch us back up. Although the games were dangerous, they wanted us to be well patched up to keep us going through.”
What was your diet like at the time?
“When we were actually filming, people struggled to eat. You never wanted to have too full of a stomach. Although I ate like a bodybuilder, it was always boring foods, like fish, chicken and rice. When it came to filming, I’d just eat what I could because I couldn’t really stomach much because I was nervous about the show. Sometimes you’d eat a sweet just to get the calories down you. You need calories to keep the energy burning.”
How did you feel when the show came to an end?
“We all knew after five years that it could go at any moment. We were all quite happy because we got eight years out of it in total. Obviously, it wasn’t great when it finished, but we had an amazing run. We were very lucky to get that. When you’re in it, you want it to go on and on, but like any TV show, it had a shelf life.
“It’s always difficult to replace something that you’ve done that’s such a massive high. I retrained as an actor. I trained at a college to study acting, then went on to join the Royal Shakespeare Company and toured all over the world.”
Do you have any advice for the new Gladiators taking part?
“My mantra has always been fail to prepare and prepare to fail. I do know a couple of the new Gladiators. I know some of them are crossfitters, but I know some of them wouldn’t have had the chance to practice those games, as I’m sure they’ll have joined quite late in the day. It’s just a case of finding events or training patterns that mimic the events, which is what I did. For example, I was climbing a climbing wall with a sheet of concrete attached to my back. It’s about mimicking those games. Just train to be a Gladiator if you want to be good at the events.”
“I was very big on warm-ups, so I was warming up 40 minutes before every event, whatever it was. A warm body has the potential to be healthy and injury free. There’s always going to be injuries in a show like this. The falls tend to create injuries and I don’t think they’ve got any games with big falls. I think they’ve kept the games very simple and very floor based in the reboot. I think the Gladiators will need to be fully prepared and warmed up.”
Do you think it’s more difficult being a Gladiator on TV now due to social media and comments online?
“I definitely think so. From what I’ve seen, social media can be a cruel place. They probably need somebody to help them if that comes up. I think it will definitely be a much more difficult time. When we did it, it was strange because we were super famous. We had 18 million viewers, so that was a massive shock. I couldn’t even get on a train because it was so full on. I don’t think they’ll be much of that, but what they will be thrusted into is that massive social media fame, which is a lot worse than just being famous on telly.”
Would you be up for rejoining the show?
“I’m still in decent shape. I’m 50 now, which is probably a bit old for them now. Probably my experience is good as any, but it would be fun to have a go at some aspects of the show.”
What are you up to now?
“What I do now is I have a training school for gong practitioners. I actually do sound healing and meditation events, which is an odd twist. I’ve got a training school, so I can certify people to be gong practitioners. It’s a meditation to sound. If you’re suffering from bad sleep or stress, it puts you in a relaxed frame of mind. Amazing for sleep and an excellent form of meditation. I think some people struggle to meditate and sit there with a blank mind. With sounds, it’s so much easier. We have some amazing experiences, you couldn’t even write down some of the experiences you have in a sound bath. People can go back to past lives, childhood traumas that have been stuck in their body and washed out. It’s very powerful.”
Would you do any other reality shows?
“The Circle was a pretty bad experience for me. The producers were very naughty. It wasn’t a good experience on my end. We didn’t play the show, with The Circle, the producers were playing the show. We were like their puppets and they weren’t really clear about that beforehand. They apologised to me afterwards. It wasn’t a reality show. I walked into it naively thinking it was a reality show, but they were changing my decisions left, right and centre. I was being overruled and at one point I tried to leave. I came out as being myself because I was so frustrated. I just said I was walking and left.
What about Strictly Come Dancing?
“I’m 100% up for that. The thing is, being a competitive person, I wanted to be in charge and make my decisions on The Circle. Something like Strictly, absolutely. I’d love to do it. Anything where you’re actually in a competition and how much hard work and effort you put in. Obviously, on Strictly some contestants have massive advantages, but I still think it’s about putting the work in and doing the best you can.”
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