'American Ninja Warrior' storms Japan's Mount Midoriyama


To paraphrase the Talking Heads, this ain't no "Dancing"; this ain't no "Wipeout"; this ain't no foolin' around … .

The odd celebrity may turn an ankle on "Dancing With the Stars," and the odd contestant (OK, almost all the contestants) may face-plant into a padded obstacle and go tumbling into the water on "Wipeout." But for ferocious physical challenges and amplitude, it's hard to beat G4's obstacle-course competition show "American Ninja Warrior."

The third season of the show premiered on G4 on July 31 with tryouts near the beach in Venice, Calif. It ends in Japan on Monday, Aug. 22, with a two-hour prime-time special on NBC.

"We start the season with 300 hopefuls," says host Matt Iseman ("Clean House," "Sports Soup"), "out of thousands of submissions. We do a qualifying round in Venice, where we narrow it down to our top 30, who then do an extended course in Venice.

"So it starts out with six obstacles; we added three for a total of nine obstacles. They're just absurdly hard. So we went from 30 to our top 15.

"We take them to a boot camp in the remote mountains of California … Simi Valley. It's this summer camp, and they stay up there for five nights, and we narrowed it down from 15 to 10, just more absurdly hard training."

Those 10, with Iseman, his co-host, MMA fighter Jimmy Smith, and sideline reporter Alison Haislip, headed to Japan to join competitors from around the world on the "mother course" for "Sasuke," the original Japanese version of the event.

"I'm sworn to secrecy about the results," Iseman says, "but I can say the Americans had a record-breaking performance. But it's a crazy day."

Iseman explains that 100 competitors run the course every year, but over 26 seasons of the Japanese show, from more than 2,600 competitors, only three have completed all four stages and made it to the top of Mount Midoriyama to finish the course -- and none of those three was an American.

Last year, half of the Americans completed stage one, and four made it to stage three. Alas, none made it to stage four, but it was an impressive performance.

"Our guys were animals," Iseman says. "They were trained; they were in shape."

In this year's trip to Japan, the weather was not exactly balmy, but it could have been worse.

"We were lucky," Iseman says. "It was about 98 degrees and humid. But there was a typhoon headed for Japan, so we were supposed to compete in muddy conditions. It was supposed to be torrential downpours. We had just a sprinkling throughout the day.

"The day we left, our flight was delayed half an hour. We took off in torrential downpours. Had we competed then, it would have been a mud bath."

As for prizes, "American Ninja Warrior" outpaces both the ugly mirror-ball trophy awarded to celebrities at the end of "Dancing" and the $50,000 awarded to the single competitor who finishes the day on top in the "Wipeout Zone."

But when you consider the time and pain involved, even the Americans' grand prize -- a $500,000 endorsement deal from K-Swiss -- isn't excessively impressive.And there are no consolation prizes.

"These guys are dance instructors," Iseman says. "They teach gymnastics; they're pizza delivery guys. Very few of them make a living at it. So many of them, they get nothing out of this, except they love the challenge. They know there's very likely no financial reward, and they're not likely to become famous.

"We do qualifying in Venice, which will be two or three days. Then we go to boot camp, which is another five days. Then we go to Japan, which is another five or six days -- and then your training.

"This isn't something you train an hour for. It's multiple hours every day. It's not even that you're doing push-ups and pull-ups. You're trying to re-create some of these obstacles. They're so unlike anything you do in life."One prospective ninja paid a price.

"We did have our first serious injury ever," says Iseman. "It's an unbelievably physical sport. They train hard, and it's demanding. It was heartbreaking, but the way he handled it was unbelievable."

There was even some peril for the intrepid host, most often seen facing down mountains of trash, heaps of clutter and the occasional black mold on "Clean House."

"I was getting a little hoarse," Iseman says, "and miso soup was the only thing that helped with my voice. So, I had about eight bowls of miso soup, which is probably two weeks' worth of salt. So my legs got swollen.

"It's rough acclimating back to the States. Those are the hardships I have to go through to talk about the show."

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