From street level brawls to intergalactic wars, fighting is an essential part of the superhero genre. With mountains of muscle, impossible abilities and hyper-advanced weaponry, most superheroes are engineered to succeed in battle. These heroes usually use their fighting acumen to defeat evil-doers or occasionally resolve their interpersonal conflicts with hyper-violence. But sometimes, even Marvel and DC Comics’ biggest heroes have been forced to unwillingly use their flawless combat skills in more organized settings.
Now, CBR is taking a look back at times when superheroes were forced to battle in organized, combat-based competitions. For this list, we’ll be looking specifically at instances where characters were coerced or forced into fighting in tournaments, fight clubs or any other kind of organized conflict in comics, movies and TV. While superheroes are already a fairly violent bunch, most of these battles wouldn’t have happened outside of their specific arenas.
15. CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS
In 1982, Marvel pitted some of its biggest heroes against one another in “Contest of Champions,” the company’s first miniseries. Over three issues, Mark Gruenwald, Steven Grant, Bill Mantlo, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton introduced several new international heroes in an event that was originally meant to tie-in to the 1980 Olympic Games. In the story, the Grandmaster, an ancient Elder of the Universe, fought Death for the power to resurrect his brother, the Collector. After abducting every hero on Earth, the Grandmaster and Death each selected a dozen champions to settle their dispute.
The fighters were a mix of major characters like Iron Man, minor existing characters like Sunfire and Captain Britain, and new international heroes like Shamrock and the Arabian Knight. Although the battles were essentially a cosmic game of capture the flag with pieces of the Golden Globe of Life, some of the fights turned brutal, especially when Wolverine almost killed Black Panther. Although the Grandmaster’s side won, he had to give up his life, temporarily, to resurrect the Collector. More recently, the Grandmaster has organized several similar Contests across TV and video games. Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster is rumored to play a similar role later this year in “Thor: Ragnarok.”
14. SECRET WARS
Marvel’s second major crossover, 1984’s “Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars,” refined several ideas first used in “Contest of Champions.” Unlike that first story, “Secret Wars” was designed to be the centerpiece of a larger marketing push that included a Mattel action figure lines. In the 12-issue series, by Jim Shooter, Mike Zeck and Bob Layton, the all-powerful Beyonder transported several of Marvel’s most famous heroes and villains to the planet Battleworld. The characters were split into two groups, with Magneto unexpectedly on the heroes’ side, and forced to battle to suit the Beyonder’s curiosity.
While this miniseries gave readers a chance to see some battles between unlikely foes like Galactus and the X-Men, the competition effectively ended when Dr. Doom stole the powers of Galactus and the Beyonder. The series’ most lasting legacy was the introduction of Spider-Man’s black costume, the alien symbiote that would eventually become Venom in 1988. The success of this series spawned several sequels, including 2015’s “Secret Wars,” a massive crossover where an omnipotent Doom ruled a new Battleworld that was made up of alternate realities.
Like the latter “Secret Wars,” DC’s 2015 crossover “Convergence” brought together characters from several alternate realities and timelines and forced them to fight for their survival. Before the storyline, Brainiac had started collecting cities from the past of DC’s Multiverse on a distant planet. When Brainiac was drawn into the crossover “Futures End,” he left his collection of domed cities in the hands of the A.I. Telos. In the crossover’s titular miniseries, by Jeff King, Dan Jurgens, Scott Lobdell and a roster of A-list artists, Telos forced these cities’ heroes to fight for the right to survive.
While the main parts of the crossover focused on the heroes’ united front against Telos, “Convergence’s” ancillary titles focused on the battles between parallel worlds. These two-issue series featured bizarre match-ups, with the idealistic Captain Marvel Family battling the dark steampunk forces of “Batman: Gotham By Gaslight” and Superman taking on super-intelligent apes from Kamandi’s dystopian future. While the series received a mixed response, it brought several long-gestating storylines to a close and revitalized the DC Multiverse.
12. STORM: THE ARENA
Given the status of mutants in the Marvel Universe, underground mutant fighting rings have appeared fairly regularly. One of those operations appeared during a 2004’s “X-Treme X-Men” #36-39, by Chris Claremont and Igor Kordey. While that book usually focused on a team of X-Men that traveled the world and followed up on old stories, “Storm: The Arena” was largely a solo tale starring the team’s leader, Storm.
In the story, Storm took a break from the team to investigate the Arena, a mutant fight club, with her longtime ally Yukio. After successfully breaking up a fight, Storm was crowned Champion of the Arena. After officially joining the operation to save its other competitors, Storm fought her occasional nemesis Callisto, a mutant Morlock who had tentacle arms at the time. Another Morlock, Masque, was eventually revealed to be the Arena’s leader, and used her body-altering powers to briefly turn Storm into a devil-like monster. After enduring the Arena’s tortures, Storm and Callisto teamed up to defeat Masque and successfully shut down the Arena.
11. CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS II
In “Contest of Champions II,” Chris Claremont, Oscar Jimenez and Michael Ryan took Storm and several other superheroes into another combat arena. In that 1999 miniseries, the parasitic Brood posed as the Coiterie, seemingly benevolent aliens, and gathered Earth’s heroes to fight in a tournament to determine which heroes were worthy of carrying Brood embryos. While most of the contestants were controlled by microscopic alien technology, Iron Man and Psylocke were able to lead a group of losing contestants together to overthrow the Brood Queen, who had possessed Rogue.
Over five issues, “Contest of the Champions II” covered 30 fights between Marvel’s biggest heroes in some capacity. While the amount of space devoted to each fright ranged from one panel to several pages, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Scarlet Witch, Phoenix and Gambit all went undefeated by the end of the event. The winners of three of the bouts, Mr. Fantastic vs. Hulk, Daredevil vs. Deadpool and Gambit vs. Hawkeye, were decided by an online vote on Marvel’s website. These results led to the memorable scene of the Hulk inhaling the elastic Mr. Fantastic, chewing him up and spitting him out like a piece of gum.
10. COUNTDOWN ARENA
In 2007, some of the winners of DC’s “Countdown: Arena” were also determined by an online poll. After spending some time in the WildStorm Universe, the former Justice Leaguer Captain Atom had turned into the villain Monarch. In the weekly miniseries, Monarch forced alternate reality versions of the same character to battle one another for the right to help him fight against the Monitors, the guardians of DC’s Multiverse.
While Keith Champagne and Scott McDaniel’s series ostensibly tied into “Countdown to Final Crisis,” another weekly series, the title’s focus was really on its 10 three-contestant battles. Fans were able to vote online to determine which versions of Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman and Green Lantern would win their respective fights. Although the series only received tepid reviews, it gave fan-favorite characters like “Superman: Red Son’s” Soviet Superman and “Batman: Red Rain’s” Vampire Batman rare starring roles outside of their own specials. The WildStorm hero Apollo, a Superman analogue, curiously participated in a bout between different versions of DC’s Ray. Despite the conceit of the series, Champagne said that this was merely due to their shared solar-based powers.
9. MARVEL VS. DC
Fan votes also decided some of the winners of one of the most highly anticipated stories of all time. After years of smaller inter-company crossovers, comics’ two biggest universes collided with each other in 1996’s “Marvel vs. DC.” In Ron Marz, Peter David, Dan Jurgens and Claudio Castellini’s miniseries, two dueling cosmic siblings forced the two publishers’ heroes to fight for the continued existence of their respective universes.
Although Marvel won six of the 11 primary bouts, the cosmic brothers abandoned the contest after realizing how pointless the conflict was. Readers determined the winner of five critical fights, giving perennially popular characters like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Wolverine and Storm victories over Captain America, Hulk, Superboy, Lobo and Wonder Woman, respectively. Throughout the crossover and an accompanying 100-piece trading card set, smaller skirmishes between characters Black Widow and Black Canary were chronicled. Despite the presence of cosmic beings like Darkseid, Galactus and Thanos, none of those battles were as crucial to the story as a flirtatious fight between Tim Drake’s Robin and Jubilee.
8. JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED
In 2006, Black Canary, Huntress, and several other DC heroines were forced to fight in the “Justice League Unlimited” episode, “Grudge Match.” The episode, directed by Joaquim Dos Santos and written by Matt Wayne and J.M. DeMatteis, marked the second appearance of the supervillain Roulette, who ran an underground fight club called the Meta-Brawl. After the first villain-focused incarnation of the Meta-Brawl was dismantled by Black Canary, Roulette used the sound-controlling villain Sonar to brainwash some major female heroes through their Justice League communicators.
In the ensuing “Glamour Slam,” a hypnotized Black Canary almost killed her fellow hero Fire. After the Huntress freed Canary, the duo faced off against Vixen and Hawkgirl. All four of those heroes were then forced to fight a losing battle against Wonder Woman, shortly before they broke Sonar’s control and defeated Roulette. This was one of the most action-packed episodes of the series, and each hero fought with a close-range fighting style that complimented their powers and skills.
7. THE UNDERGROUND MUTANT THEATRE
The Underground Mutant Theatre and its Gladiators were the most prominent mutant fighting operation of the 1980s. In Ann Nocenti and Don Perlin’s 1984 X-Men miniseries, “Beauty and the Beast,” a down-on-her-luck Dazzler signed a contract to perform for the company and its audience as a new, singing gladiator. Although she was initially horrified, she was drugged into competing with a formula that also enhanced her mutant powers. Dazzler fought Beast, who had been brainwashed into a feral state while trying to rescue her, and helped turn the Gladiators against the Theatre’s owner, Alexander Flynn.
By 1985, Flynn and the Shadow King-possessed Karma had taken over the operation and set their sights on the New Mutants. In “New Mutants” #29, by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, Sunspot and Magma were kidnapped and forced to compete in order to save the lives of several abducted children. Dazzler and Kitty Pryde both tried to rescue the young mutants, but were possessed by the Shadow King. Although Magik, Rachel Summers and Cannonball were eventually able to free the heroes, the Shadow King used Karma to possess the New Mutants and kill the Gladiators in “New Mutants” #32.
6. X-MEN: APOCALYPSE
While there wasn’t any possession involved, another mutant fight club made it to the big screen in 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Near the beginning of the Bryan Singer film, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique discovered an underground mutant fighting ring in East Berlin. As Gustave Ouimet’s Blob was being dragged from the electrified cage where they fought, Ben Hardy’s Angel prepared to fight Kodi-Smit McPhee’s Nightcrawler.
Although Nightcrawler initially only used defensive tactics, he unwillingly began to fight when Angel told him they would both be killed if they didn’t spar. After this, the young teleporter was able to quickly subdue the other young mutant by throwing him into the electrified cage with his tail. Although Mystique interrupted the fight and rescued Nightcrawler, this short bout permanently damaged Angel’s feather wings. While the character’s metal wings have had the ability to shoot razor-sharp feather blades in comics and film, Angel’s feather wings usually don’t have any offensive capability. This scene changed that by giving Angel a pointed talon on the upper tip of each feathered wing. While not as effective as his metal blades, these talons were sharp enough to draw blood from the Blob and mark the arena’s floor.
5. AVENGERS ARENA
Several other young Marvel heroes were forced to battle each other in “Avengers Arena,” one of the most merciless titles in Marvel’s history. In that 2012 series, the minor villain Arcade kidnapped 16 teenage heroes and forced them to fight to the death in a “Hunger Games”-like competition. Over 18 issues, Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker divided readers with the shocking deaths of some cult-favorite characters.
Arcade designed his Arena Murder World to bolster his status in the supervillain community after discovering that he was a laughing stock. With the exception of X-23, most of the Arena’s combatants were either original creations or had starred in canceled titles like “Avengers Academy” and “Runaways.” Without obligations to appear elsewhere, these characters felt truly expendable, which added a palpable sense of dread to the proceedings. Although a few deaths weren’t permanent, roughly half of the book’s cast was killed at some point over the series. After this title ended, the Arena’s survivors teamed up to infiltrate the Masters of Evil in 2014’s “Avengers Undercover.”
4. ROULETTE’S HOUSE
Like her “Justice League Unlimited” counterpart, the DC Universe’s Roulette ran a super-human fighting ring. Created by Geoff Johns and Derec Aucoin in 2001’s “JSA Secret Files” #2, Veronica Sinclair ran a gladiatorial arena called the House, which catered to gambling villains. In her first appearance, she set the minor 1990s heroes Firebrand and Checkmate against each other in a deathmatch. While Checkmate walked away, Firebrand’s name was added to a list of fallen House competitors that include the D-list heroes Maxi-Man, Ram and Impala.
In 2001’s “JSA” #28, by Johns and Stephen Sadowski, Roulette turned her attention to the Justice Society. Although she was able to teleport the JSA’s members into various traps where they would be forced to compete against one another, most of the team was able to find non-violent ways to escape by working together. Although they were forced into gladiatorial combat, Black Adam and Atom Smasher were able to endure each other’s beatings until the drugs wore off. Beyond her “JLU” appearance, Roulette has also appeared on the small screen in “Smallville” and “Supergirl.”
3. CHAMPION OF THE UNIVERSE
Like the Grandmaster, the Champion of the Universe was one of the Elders of the Universe. Created by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson in 1982’s “Marvel Two-In-One” Annual #7, Tryco Slatterus was obsessed with proving that he was the best fighter in the universe. In that classic tale, he threatened to destroy Earth if its eight strongest champions didn’t fight in him a boxing match in Madison Square Garden. Although the Thing, Hulk, Namor, Colossus, Thor, Doc Samson, Alpha Flight’s Sasquatch and Wonder Man were all selected, only the Thing made it past the first round without being disqualified.
After taking a savage beating over two rounds, the Thing continued to fight and refused to give up. After seeing that unbreakable spirit, the Champion deemed that the Thing and the Earth were worthy and left in peace. Since this incident, the Champion has fought She-Hulk, Deadpool and Thanos. In 1996, this issue was adapted in the “Dexter’s Laboratory” episode, “Rasslor,” where that show’s heroes, Monkey and the Justice Friends, fought an alien wrestler voiced by “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
2. SUPERMAN VS MUHAMMAD ALI
Another famous intergalactic boxing match took place in 1978’s “All-New Collector’s Edition” #C-56, more famously known as “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.” In that oversized special, Dennis O’Neil, Neil Adams, Dick Giordano and Terry Austin pitted two of Earth’s greatest champions against one another in a bout to save the world from the alien Rat’Lar. When the Scrubb alien challenged Earth’s best fighter to a bout with the warrior Hun’Ya, both Superman and Ali volunteered. In order to determine who would fight on Earth’s behalf, Rat’Lar organized a boxing match between the champions.
After the alien depowered Superman and let Ali give him a crash course in boxing, Superman and Ali had a bout that was billed as “the greatest fight of all time and space.” After a brutal fight, Ali was able to knock out the weakened Man of Steel with his superior boxing skill. While Superman recovered and eliminated the Scrubb fleet, Ali knocked Hun’Ya out in four rounds. After deposing the treacherous Rat’Lar, Hun’Ya made peace with Ali and Superman. In the book’s final pages, Ali embraced Superman and exclaimed, “WE are the greatest!”
1. PLANET HULK
After decades spent searching for peace, the Hulk finally found a home on the barbaric world Sakaar. At the start of the definitive modern Hulk story, “Planet Hulk,” the Hulk had been exiled from Earth and sent into space by several other Marvel heroes. Starting in 2006’s “Incredible Hulk” #92, by Greg Pak, Carlo Pagulayan and Aaron Lopresti, the Hulk crashed landed on Sakaar, fitted with an obedience disk and forced to fight in the planet’s gladiatorial arenas. With the help of the other fighters and his old Defenders teammate, the Silver Surfer, the Hulk inspired a revolution and deposed the planet’s ruler, the Red King.
After years of stories that focused more on the puny humanity of Bruce Banner, “Planet Hulk” gave the Hulk his most sustained character arc in years. In 2007, the Hulk’s revenge on Earth’s heroes was the centerpiece of the company-wide crossover “World War Hulk.” The storyline was adapted into an animated film in 2010’s “Planet Hulk,” and elements of it have also been incorporated into several of the Hulk’s other animated appearances. Later this year, the Hulk is set to join a gladiatorial arena once again in the “Thor: Ragnarok.”
Stay tuned to CBR for all the latest on “Thor: Ragnarok,” which is out November 3. Let us know what your favorite superhero arena is in the comments below!
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