Behind the Mic with Akbar Gbajabiamila

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By now, the hit competition television series American Ninja Warrior has become a household name. For eight seasons, competitors have gone through the show with empowering stories along with jaw-dropping physical performances. There to witness it in real time is host Akbar Gbajabiamila, who signed on to co-host the show with Matt Iseman and Kristine Leahy back in 2014. Since then, he’s been a fan favorite—especially with his “Akbarisms,” a term coined by fans of the show who were touched by Akbar’s memorable one liners. We had a chance to chat with the host about his career prior to American Ninja Warrior, moments from the show he’ll never forget, and where he hopes to see himself in a few years.

Cliché: With multiple seasons of American Ninja Warrior under your belt, how do you keep your commentary fresh when you see so many competitors go through the course every year?
Akbar Gbajabiamila: The most challenging part of keeping the commentary fresh is the fact that you have so many competitors who are competing for the qualifying round. We have over 100 competitors who are competing and some of the best lines are used on competitors who may not necessarily make the final show cut. Not a wasted line because it’s appropriate for the time, but it just really is dependent on the time of day. Shooting from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m., I use the advantage of speaking under the influence of fatigue; when your brain goes, anything goes. That’s the secret for me to keeping things fresh—just letting the fatigue set in and letting it have its way.

When you were first approached with the idea of co-hosting American Ninja Warrior, what were your initial thoughts about the show? Did you ever expect it to grow such a massive following and evidently become a huge guilty pleasure?
I did not know that it was going to grow. Well, in the beginning when I was approached with American Ninja Warrior, I just knew it to be kind of a ritual thing because I’d seen it on G4 browsing through the channels and there was something that was captivating about it. Some of the commentary would be funny, and you can see these translations and how they do these kinds of things, but I did not know it was going to grow like this. A. Smith Production and NBC came together on this show and it really kind of morphed into telling a great story. The explosion also has to do with the athletes. The athletes are so hungry, so competitive, that they’ve elevated their game. There are ninja gyms up all over the place. You can go from the West Coast to the East Coast and Midwest and you’re going to find ninja gyms. That wasn’t the case three years ago, so this show has really grown to new heights. It’s better because of the athletic skills and [the competitors’] backstories.

There are so many impressive and memorable stories and moments on ANW, but is there one that sticks out to you the most that you’ll never forget?
For me, it was seeing the very first American Ninja Warrior, Isaac Caldiero. In my third season with the show, the one thing that everyone knew about ANW was that there was never going to be a winner. In fact, I did a radio show and I remember one guy said, “Well, I don’t know why they don’t just go ahead and make the prize a billion dollars, because no one is ever going to win it.” I thought, you know what, that is pretty good, I actually like that, I think you might be right! Being there to witness every year that we had done it prior, we thought we were never going to see ‘Stage 4.’ So you didn’t even have to prepare your notes for ‘Stage 4,’ or blink your eyes because it was just that difficult. And Isaac Caldiero changed everything when he decided that he was going to take his game to the next level.

The most memorable moment of that entire thing was the look on his face after he won the million dollars. That to me was the biggest thing. He looked over to me and said to me he had never had more than $5,000 in his account. And that to me was special because I could relate to him, having gone from the inner city, to San Diego State, and then to the NFL. I remembered getting my first paycheck, and I thought, “Wow, this is big money.” I just knew that look and that feeling, and I was genuinely happy for him. To see somebody start the process, go through it, and then end the process in a victorious fashion—that was special. Of course we had two ninja warriors, him and Geoff Britten, but Isaac Caldiero was the prize winner.

With so many competition series in the mix, why do you think American Ninja Warrior continues to be a show viewers will continue to watch every season?
In every person that watches the show, there’s the inner child that lives in him or her. Essentially, American Ninja Warrior is a sick and twisted version of some of your favorite childhood monkey bar experiences. You go to any park and you can see some sort of configuration that looks like an American Ninja Warrior obstacle. It just pokes at you and makes you ask the question, “Can I do that?” And then you start telling yourself, “I can do that.” And then the backstory, where you see and hear about a competitor who has overcome cancer, or who is working and competing with Parkinson’s, or the attorney who has been out of shape and just wanted a shot at the course. And when you see those types of success or even the failures, it really starts to have this cult-like following. I think it has really grown because everybody sees themselves in the competitors. You have ordinary people doing extraordinary things. These are not necessarily the LeBron James or Aaron Rodgers of the world; these aren’t your high-profile athletes. These are just ordinary athletes, competitors, and people coming out there to compete. We have some professional athletes who are out there competing; not all of them do well and most of them don’t do well on American Ninja Warrior. This is like the even playing ground for people, like, “This is my opportunity to show everyone that I could have been a professional athlete with the big lights and the big stage.”

Speaking of the best stories and moments…what is your “Akbarism” that would sum up this new season of ANW?
“Big-time, primetime, showtime, all-time, good time.” I usually reserve that one for a performance that is outside of this world.

To see somebody start the process, go through it, and then end the process in a victorious fashion—that was special.

Are Monday nights designated as an ANW night in your household?
Monday night is definitely an American Ninja Warrior night for the family. It’s a great opportunity to spend time with the kids. There are a lot of shows on TV that you can’t watch with your kids. I watch this with my 4-year-old twins, with my 7-year-old daughter, and my 15-year-old son. We all sit there together and we all equally enjoy it. As a parent, it’s not like I’m sitting there watching the same cartoons that we have seen a million times. We can enjoy this as a family, and it’s also a good break from some of the social media that consumes our kids and our family, myself included. You know it’s real when your 15-year-old son doesn’t want to watch the NBA championship, but he will watch American Ninja Warrior with you.

When you retired from the NFL in 2008, did you have a set career path you intended on pursuing afterwards?
Yes—broadcasting. I always knew that I wanted to get into broadcasting and hosting. It’s something I’ve felt since I was a kid. In fact, I went to San Diego State after receiving a scholarship out of Crenshaw High School. It’s very typical when you get a scholarship for a big program or a football program or whatever sports you play that they try to push you towards one of the more athletically friendly majors. And at San Diego State, it was criminal justice. I had no intention of going into criminal justice, and they tried to push me that way, and I fought and I fought. I said, “Look, I want to be in communications with a focus in media studies,” and I was able to get that. I was happy that I stuck with it because if I was going to get a degree, I wanted to get a degree in something I wanted to do, and that’s what I did.

After I retired from the NFL, I immediately pursued it. Knowing that I wasn’t a Hall of Fame player, I knew that I had to take more of a backdoor approach, and that backdoor approach for me was to go back to San Diego and start my career. C.S. Keyes, who was a local anchor at the time, offered me the first opportunity to get my feet wet in the industry. Then NBC, the local affiliate there, gave me the opportunity to co-host the weekly post-game show for the San Diego Chargers in 2006, and that was the leg up that propelled my career forward after football. That led to me doing college football games, hosting at the NFL network, and then hosting American Ninja Warrior, and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.

What do you like to do whenever you get some time to relax?
Travel, which seems kind of crazy. Between spending time with my family, which is priority, traveling is one of the things I have always liked to do. Many guys like to golf or do whatever. You can find me doing three things in the form of relaxation: working out, traveling, and spending time with my family, my kids, and my wife. [That’s usually] what I’m doing when I’m not on NFL Network, American Ninja Warrior, and my spin-off show, Team Ninja Warrior. I have traveled to 40 countries and I’m trying to reach 60, all by the age of 40.

Becoming a television personality can be daunting for many. For you, how did you become so comfortable in front of the screen?
Well, the secret for me was taking acting classes. In person, without the camera, I’m just me. What I didn’t realize is that when cameras are on you, there’s the pressure to feel like you have to perform. So taking acting classes was one of the greatest tips I received. I used that to become more of me. And that’s what acting really is, just becoming more of you and letting you shine through whatever the character is. But this time I’m not portraying anybody, I’m just being me and this allowed me to relax and to be able to have a relationship with the camera in front of me. And a lot of times I don’t even notice the camera; I’m almost in my own world.

What are some goals that you wish to accomplish over the next few years?
Daytime TV would be the next step for me. I say that because I realize that I have a social responsibility to utilize my platform for positive efforts. What better way to influence culture than to be right at home sharing your thoughts on some of the hot topics going on in the world? You look at the climate of our country today, everything from race and law enforcement to politics, and sometimes you just need to hear a positive spin. We’re flooded and inundated with negative imagery and news, and daytime TV has always been the opportunity to give you a break from some of that, and if you have the right person up there, [you can get] a different outlook on it. I think daytime TV would be a good platform to me to promote positive change in the community.

Read more Celebrity Interviews at Clichemag.com

Photographed by Bobby Quillard

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