Gladiators was supposed to be the ultimate test of stamina and strength — and it’s why the iconic TV show has been relaunched several times.
The classic 90s series became a global hit and was just as popular in Australia as it was around the world.
But many of the millions of fans who tuned in are now learning for the first time that some of the high-adrenaline challenges were fixed.
The show was a smash hit in Australia in the 90s and was relaunched in 2008 with a series that involved several celebrities. Athletes including former AFL star Anthony Koutoufides (2008) and league player Mark McGaw (1995-96) featured.
Cobra, body-builder Michael Willson, has now revealed that the moving belt on the uphill travelator course in the UK version of the show was slowed down and sped up so competitors that producers wanted to win would reach the top first, The Sun reports.
The strong man, who was one of only four gladiators to appear in every ITV series of the original version in the UK, also lifts the lid on behind-the-scenes scandals — including brawls, orgies, boozed-up performances and drug taking.
In one episode, Wilson thought he was chasing down two contenders because he was so drunk.
Now the 58-year-old has confirmed a rumour that has never gone away.
“If you look at some of the old shows, on the travelator you see a little man’s head,” he said.
“There’s a bloke sitting there. He can slow it down, because it’s always dramatic when it’s a close one right at the end.
“If someone’s struggling it’s easy to take the brake off so it goes faster suddenly and the guy they like is going to go up there.
“They would put someone like Warrior, who wasn’t quick, on the wall.
“Then they know that the contestants that they like are going to get away and get the points.”
Wilson was 95kg of pure muscle when he was first headhunted to be a Gladiator on the show.
A hit with audiences, the six-foot former kickboxer was regularly cheered to the rafters when he walked out into the arena — but his on-screen smiles masked troubles.
But it was years of trying to maintain a perfect physique and high-octane stunts that almost crippled him.
He has battled numerous health scares and he was on oxygen after a near-fatal bout of pneumonia.
He has also revealed he battled a drinking problem while he was a cast member.
He was drawn into heavy drinking by his friend Jefferson King — aka Shadow — who would down six pints of Guinness before filming.
Wilson tried to match his drinking — and he confesses: “There were about three shows I was drunk on.
“Sometimes I would have six pints of Guinness, and two hours later I’m out in front of the cameras.
“There’s one show when I’m on the game called swingshot, which is like a bungee, and you can hear me going, ‘Ada ada wee’.
“I remember looking up the wall, chasing the guy who had ten seconds head start. I’m seeing two of them. I’m thinking, ‘Which one have I got to catch?’
“Ironically, I did catch him.”
His weight started to balloon due to his drinking, prompting show producer and future Pop Idol judge Nigel Lythgoe to issue him with a warning.
Wilson recalls: “Every year we were frightened whether we were going to be asked back. Nigel said, ‘You’re drinking too much and you’re overweight. You need to fix this.”
Meanwhile, lust raged amid the show’s intense atmosphere, with the ripped gladiators and members of the crew regularly hooking up at the Holiday Inn near the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham where the show was filmed.
Wilson says: “There were orgies going on in the hotel. I was cheesed off — no one invited me.”
Cooped up with all that testosterone flowing, it was inevitable that tempers would flare up.
Contestant Mark Mottram, who later became Pierce Brosnan’s 007 stunt double, got on the wrong side of the gladiators when he put up a sign on one of their rooms.
Wilson says: “Nine of us gladiators went over one Saturday afternoon. He opened the door with a towel wrapped around him.
“We all rushed in, tied him up and took him down to the foyer. We dumped him there with nothing on. We were only mucking about.”
Even worse, another contender had to be dropped for an act of alleged violence.
Cobra adds: “There was a bit of an aggravation in the hotel, so on the show he kicked someone and caught them. They sacked him. He had too much anger.”
The producers also had to let Jefferson King go because of his drug-taking.
Wilson recalls: “I’d seen him do bits and pieces of cocaine but he kept it really secret. You would do, wouldn’t you?”
He lent Jefferson money but eventually had to stop helping him out because he feared his pal would spend it on more drugs.
Wilson adds: “He kidnapped someone — along with others — for a thousand pounds. How bad is that? Deep down, he’s a very nice fella who just lost his way.”
There were wild parties where Wilson claims he saw socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, who died in 2017, kissing French footballer David Ginola’s feet under a dinner table.
And when Wilson turned on the Christmas lights in Manchester, the late comedian and actress Caroline Aherne snuck under his T-shirt to snog his broad chest.
Not all of his brushes with celebrities were so much fun.
Michael is not a fan of This Morning presenter Phillip Schofield, who he reckons took a sly dig at him when they met on the set of ITV game show Talking Telephone Numbers.
He says: “I came out and I got a massive, rapturous applause — it was absolutely great. Phil said to me: ‘I don’t have to wear that.’ He was talking about my costume.
I looked at him and I said: ‘You couldn’t.’”
After Gladiators ended in 2000, Wilson started drinking even more heavily. His weight reached 17 and a half stone and he split from his wife Pat.
He recalls: “I had a six-month period doing nothing. I was drinking too much and put on weight and got really ill.
“I got married too young, really. I was never home. We just grew our separate ways.
“We’re still married but it’s usually just seeing each other on birthdays, new years and Christmas.” Even though they never divorced, Wilson’s wife got the house and he now lives in a bungalow in Kent on the South Coast.
— This story originally appeared on thesun.co.uk and has been republished with permission