THE CROWD at the Baltimore Arena last night was 400 strong -- literally, 400 strong.
They had come, in muscle shirts and spandex pants, with cut biceps and massive quadriceps, to compete for the chance to be slammed into mats and knocked over with sticks.
They wanted to be gladiators.
More precisely, they wanted to battle the American Gladiators, from the TV show of the same name.
The show's concept is simple. Everyday people "fight" the gladiators -- hunks and hunkettes with names like Nitro, Thunder, Blaze and Ice -- in jazzed-up versions of jousting, wrestling and football.
Dismissed as "Trash TV" when it debuted four years ago, the program is a hit among syndicated shows and fast taking on cult status.
Witness the response to the tryout for the show's first-ever live tour, in Baltimore Oct. 16. Weightlifters, college athletes, police officers and other gym rats competed for 12 spots -- eight men and women contestants, four alternates.
Julius Bryant, tryout coordinator, carefully explained the four-part test to the aspirants. At each station, contestants would have to perform a task within a time limit. Pass, and it's on to the next station. Fail, and it's goodbye.
It sounded reasonable: 45 push-ups for men, 25 for women, in 60 seconds; a 40-yard -- in 5 seconds, 6 for women; wind sprints in 15 and 17 seconds, respectively. The last event was Powerball, one of the gladiator games. More on that later.
"About half will fail at the first station," Bryant said privately. Only 10 percent would pass all four events, moving on to an interview.
For the ultimate national winner, $50,000 in cash and prizes waited, promoter Kevin Spence promised. No reaction. There would be testing for anabolic steroids. Nervous giggles.
No one seemed overly confident.
"It's like when you're at home, watching a game show, you know all the answers," said 26-year-old Michel Buster of Randallstown, an administrative assistant for Diamond Comics Distributors. "But here, if you freeze up, you get hurt."
Buster was a rarity for this crowd -- a good athlete who wasn't fanatical about his workout regimen. He was there for kicks.
"If I trip and fall on my tail end, at least I tried," he said. "That's all I can ask of myself."
Ivory Turner III, 27, a lightweight bodybuilder with three titles, was asking a lot more of himself. Turner ripped through his 45 push-ups, then ran the 40-yard -- in 4.8 seconds. But at the wind sprints, he clocked in at 16.3.
After several men failed to do the wind sprints in 15 seconds, the referees changed the rules -- 17 seconds for men, 20 for women.
It helped Turner, but not Buster.
"Well I did it and I didn't do it," he said with a shrug. "I sound like Yogi Berra."
Tryout coordinator Bryant noted the stricter times had held in Augusta, Maine, the first stop on the tour. But Bryant wasn't implying that Baltimore's would-be gladiators were wimps, far from it.
"Baltimore looks strong," he said, after watching a high percentage of contestants pass the push-up station. "In New York, some people just heard the rules and said, 'I'm outta here.'
* As a 32-year-old with graying hair, baggy gym shorts and a
Samuel Beckett T-shirt, I understood that feeling.
My editors had recruited me for my Stairmaster prowess and my weightlifting regimen, conducted under the watchful eye of a trainer, Cyndi Reaves. But I had been training for rowing, not gladiating. At post-time, I was a long shot.
In push-up position, I thought guiltily about how I always skipped that part in aerobics class. If I flunk, I promised myself -- I'm still going to skip them.
It took me 38 seconds to do 25. No one tried to sign me for an endorsement deal, but it was a passing score. On to the 40-yard --.
Here I was absolutely confident -- of losing. I cheerfully took my mark, ran like hell, and uttered a horrible expletive when the referee said my 6.05 time was good enough.
(Although the tryouts are fairly rigid, referees have some leeway. With so few women scattered among the contestants, the refs cut us some slack. And one cute-but-not-speedy man confessed he ran slowly, yet remained a contender.)
At the wind sprints, I saw Eve Ripoli, a 31-year-old personal trainer and competitive bodybuilder. She hates to sweat and seldom runs. But Ripoli had incentive to move.
She knows two female gladiators from competitions and she wants blood. "I competed against two of them -- I don't know their names on the show -- and I want my chance to get even."
Ripoli and I squared off for the wind sprints.
"Don't run against her, run against the clock," the ref told me.
"Like it will make a difference," I said.
Ripoli clocked in at 18.8 and I squeaked by with 19.95. Powerball next. This time, I said the expletive under my breath.
Powerball is the meanest, nastiest sandlot football you can imagine. One person tries to stuff a ball in a trash can. The other person can do anything short of a body slam to thwart the score. Score twice in the allotted time and you go on to the interview. Or, defend successfully on two-out-of-two tries and you also move on. Simple. Also dangerous.
Gladiator Thunder, aka Bill Smith, told me in a telephone interview that he hated Powerball's risks. A woman in Augusta, Maine, broke her arm. A man in New York popped his knee.
I looked at Ripoli's biceps. The women on "American Gladiators" have 15-inch biceps. Ripoli is definitely in their class. I have an 11-inch biceps -- flexed. My calves are 15 inches. At the widest part.
I was going to die.
But Ripoli played Powerball against another woman. She defended the goal easily, going on to the interview. Everyone in line agreed she looked like a sure thing.
I faced Cindy Lopata, 26.
"I'm your worst nightmare," she said to me, Rambo-style.
. She might as well have been. Lopata coaches soccer at Beth Tfiloh and plays rugby. She scored on her second try, knocked me off the mat twice. Finally, I had lost!
Not so fast, the ref told me. Despite my performance, they sent me to the interview. I waited expectantly for a Miss America-type question. How would I use fitness to create world peace?
Instead, the interviewer asked some basic questions, then said they would call within a week. Given the outstanding performances by other women, I don't expect to be measured for a spandex costume.
Rocky-like, I ran up the office steps.
And got a stitch in my side.