What does a ninja warrior look like in 2016? For starters, he’s probably not wearing an all-black jumpsuit and swinging nunchucks.
Instead, he might look like 33-year-old Isaac Caldiero, a seemingly ordinary dude with lean muscles and a rock climber’s mangy flow. Before season seven of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” last September, Caldiero was living in a 1978 RV and traveling the country with his girlfriend, each working just enough hours to support their shared passion for rock climbing and Caldiero’s “ANW” training.
“I like saying that I got my PhD in rock climbing,” Caldiero said in an interview with Outside Magazine. At the season finale, Caldiero added another accolade to his resume: first competitor to win “ANW,” taking home the one million-dollar prize that has eluded ninja warriors since the show’s premiere in 2009.
Since “ANW” began in Los Angeles seven years ago, the four-stage obstacle competition proved impossible to complete until this year. The show, originally created as a spin-off of Japan’s “Sasuke,” is a TV series that challenges competitors to complete a series of highly technical obstacle courses. Each stage increases in difficulty from the one before — “Jumping Spider,” “Floating Boards,” “Psycho Chainsaw” and “Cliffhanger” are just a few of the obstacles the contestants have to maneuver. "Mount Midoriyama,” a rope climb stretching six stories tall, is the pinnacle stage of “Sasuke,” though very few competitors even make it past stage one. Originally, the top ten “ANW” competitors would fly to Japan to attempt to summit the final climb, but in season four of the series, an identical course and rope tower was built in Las Vegas.
Though the competition has shifted entirely to the U.S., becoming a primetime summer fixture on NBC, there have been several international competitions between ninja warriors. At the season five finale, NBC declared a competition between the U.S. and Japan, pairing five all-stars from “ANW” with five from “Sasuke.” The rules of the competition were simple: each team would take turns sending members onto the obstacle stages (called “matches”), with the goal of winning three out of five matches on each stage, earning points for the team. As the stages progressed, more points were earned — one point was awarded for stage one, two for stage two, etc. If there was a tie, both teams would nominate one contestant to race up Mount Midoriyama, the fourth and final stage of the competition.
In the U.S. versus Japan competition, no tiebreaker was necessary: the U.S. won easily, earning six points to Japan’s zero. In 2014, however, a new team was introduced to the international competition — Team Europe — raising the stakes in the premiere of “U.S.A. v. The World.” History was made in this competition, as Team U.S.A. and Team Europe were tied at stage three and had to continue to the tiebreaker round on Mount Midoriyama. In an epic race to the top of the tower, French rock climber Sean McColl beat Travis “Tennessee Trader” Rosen by just three-tenths of a second, winning the World Championship title for Team Europe.
On Jan. 31, U.S. paired off again against teams from Japan and Europe, but this time the ninja forces were in our favor. Competing for the U.S. were Kevin Bull, Drew Drechsel, Ian Dory and Caldiero, still fresh from his “ANW” victory last September. Geoff Britten, who finished runner-up to Caldiero, had to drop out because of a sudden fever, leaving experienced ninja Joe Moravsky to take his place. Caldiero pushed the Americans to victory by winning the third stage, completing the upper-body intensive course in a jaw-dropping time of 4:28.84, which crushed former champion Sean McColl’s time of 5:42.25 and Team Japan’s 6:29.38. The final team tallies were U.S. with 10 points, Europe with eight points and Japan with zero.
Caldiero was all smiles after his victory stage — and rightly so. Not only is he the first contestant ever to conquer “American Ninja Warrior”; he’s also the first American to conquer the world. Folks around the world have a few questions for this ninja warrior — mainly, how can mere mortals do the crazy stunts he does?
For Caldiero, rock climbing might be the key. “With climbing you’re building all these stabilizer muscles in carrying awkward bags on the hike to the crag,” Caldiero told Outside. “Then there’s the mental aspect of it too — you’re doing death defying stuff. That’s similar to (‘American Ninja Warrior’) — it’s one-shot, one-kill. You hit the water and that’s it.”
Whether they’re champion rock climbers, Olympic gymnasts or ex-military veterans, ninja warriors worldwide have one thing in common: they’re not to be underestimated.