This week marks the 30th anniversary of American Gladiators, and anyone of TV-watching age during its heyday undoubtedly remembers the show’s cadre of shredded stars knocking regular Joes off raised platforms with giant Q-tips and barreling through obstacle courses inside human-size hamster balls. Ian Johnson has a different memory from the program. Specifically, he recalls an episode where a young Tiger Woods competed against the Gladiators.
Johnson is the brother of Slate designer Derreck Johnson, who alerted his colleagues to his sibling’s peculiar memory. Ian is absolutely certain that he saw Tiger Woods on American Gladiators—“He has used the phrase ‘I will die on this hill’ twice in 24 hours,” Derreck says. I called Ian to learn more.
Ian Johnson recalls watching an episode in the kitchen of his childhood home on Long Island. “I remember it was the Assault course,” he says, referring to a challenge where contestants sprinted between barriers as Gladiators shot at them with a tennis ball gun. This is where Tiger Woods supposedly appeared. “I totally remember him with the helmet and the spandex number that all of the male contestants wore,” Johnson says. “He had his knees bent and was ready to move in gray spandex.”
He says he vividly recalls the hosts conducting a brief pre-course interview with the golfer and playing the famous footage of a 2-year-old Woods appearing on The Mike Douglas Show. “That was the first time I had seen that clip,” Johnson says.
Johnson believes he saw Woods on American Gladiators before Woods turned pro, meaning Woods would have been 19 years old or younger during the appearance. “That was the thing that stood out the most. This was a scrawny guy going up against these Gladiators. I think that’s why they showed the [Mike Douglas] clip—to provide context that he was an amateur golfer. They often invited athletes onto the show,” he says.
“I don’t remember him doing too well. I don’t think he won,” Johnson tells me. “A few years later he had a famous playoff at an amateur golf event, and I was like, ‘That’s the dude who was on American Gladiators!’ ”
OK. To be clear: There is absolutely no evidence that Tiger Woods ever appeared on American Gladiators. Johnson says he thinks about the memory “every two years or so” and occasionally checks the internet for proof that it happened. “Nothing has transpired from that,” he says. After reading coverage of the show’s 30th anniversary this week, Johnson decided to expand his investigation. He contacted former Gladiator Zap to ask if she remembers the soon-to-be-famous golfer appearing on the show. Sadly, Zap says she doesn’t recall anything of the sort. “I sent an email to Nitro but I have not heard back,” Johnson adds. (He texted me the morning after our interview to say that Nitro responded. The Gladiator does not remember Woods’ appearance.)
One thing that stuck out to me about Johnson’s account was his focus on Woods’ scrawniness. The most famous pipsqueak of the ’90s was Steve Urkel, and in an episode of Family Matters (“Surely You Joust,” Season 4), Urkel competes against Carl Winslow on American Gladiators. Woods’ Stanford teammates reportedly nicknamed him Urkel, though Johnson doesn’t buy the connection. “No way I’m mistaking Urkel for Tiger,” he says. He also clearly remembers that Family Matters episode as a separate entity, one that was “pretty high in production value compared to the quality of American Gladiators.” Boosting his case is that Urkel and Winslow did not participate on the Assault course. (Their Gladiators experience included the Joust, Wall, and Eliminator rounds.)
I reached out to former American Gladiators crew members to see if they could vouch for the events in Johnson’s memory. “I have no idea,” editor Jeff U’ren tells me. “Sounds far-fetched. I mean, I edited all the shows.” Camera operator Willy McLachlan doesn’t remember either, though he allows that Woods “probably would have passed us by unremarked upon since he hadn’t become a national name yet.”
Executive producer Ron Ziskin is more definitive. “[Tiger Woods] did not appear on American Gladiators,” he tells me over email. However, he says that I am not the first person to inquire about this odd misconception. According to Ziskin, he has been asked “maybe 30 times” whether Woods appeared on American Gladiators, though he says no one has given a specific reason for bringing it up. He tells me the questions started around 12 years ago, which coincides with the infamous traffic incident that derailed Woods’ career. (Both U’ren and McLachlan say they had never been asked about Tiger Woods on American Gladiators before I’d contacted them. Johnson, too, says that he has never met anyone who shares his recollection.)
Ziskin believes people made the connection “because Tiger has been referred to as a ‘gladiator’ in many articles over the years referring to his battles as a loner.”
Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus is an expert in human memory and has conducted groundbreaking research into memory distortion. “Your example reminded me of the ‘Mandela effect,’ ” she tells me, referring to the phenomenon in which a large group of people claim to remember a public thing that did not happen. The name comes from an incident where people reportedly said they remembered watching Nelson Mandela’s funeral on television even though he was still alive at the time. Readers might remember a viral moment from 2016, when legions of people online claimed to remember watching a Sinbad movie called Shazaam. No such film exists.
“There are lots of reasons why that might happen,” Loftus says. “I don’t know if they are terribly deep or interesting, but in the example you gave maybe Tiger Woods was on some other program that was similar and people made a semantic confusion.”
I had entertained a version of this theory. Woods was profiled on a 1993 episode of ABC’s Primetime, and I figured a promo for that show could have appeared during an American Gladiators commercial break and wiggled its way into Johnson’s brain. He was living on Long Island at the time, however, and Gladiators was syndicated by Fox in the New York area.
“If I were to apply my own work to the situation I’d guess that somebody made the mistake, maybe they posted it on the internet and other people saw it and fell for it,” Loftus says. But prior to this story’s publication, I couldn’t find any online reference to this supposed Tiger-Gladiators event. Her research shows that some people will let a false memory go when they are presented with contrary evidence, but others will remain steadfast in their belief. Johnson is firmly in the latter camp.
“Dude, I am so confident,” he says. “Down to the course. He was on Assault. It’s not the Mandela effect. I don’t think there can be anything comparable to what I can see in my head: Tiger Woods in a helmet and spandex.”
I reached out to the Tiger Woods Foundation to ask if Mr. Woods has ever been on American Gladiators but have not received a response.
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