Bill Simmons and I have something in common – we’re both big fans of MTV’s long running series The Challenge. What started out as goofy fun has turned into something of a real sport (minus the pesky performance enhancing drug testing). Most adults, I’m sure, grow out of watching MTV reality shows, which is why YouTube comments of Challenge videos often go something like this: “I miss these Challenges. This is the last time they had a great cast!” I do miss the silly Challenge seasons of yore, but the current seasons filled with backstabbing and manipulation carried out by cast members desperate for a big payout are enjoyable in a different way.
Whether your last favorite season actually featured cast members of Road Rules, or you’ve witnessed Johnny Bananas’ rise from raspy voiced youngster to the self-proclaimed champ, there’s sure to be something on this list for you. Without further ado, here are my top ten moments of The Challenge.
- Sarah Hangs Tough Against Irulan – The Gauntlet (2004)
The Challenge can be a cruel game. When a team senses weakness, they’re quick to throw that weakness to the wolves. Sarah was far from the best player on the Road Rules team on the original season on The Gauntlet, so she became the resident whipping girl. Sarah entered the Gauntlet four times and sent four Real World cast members packing before facing off with Irulan in one last Gauntlet. This did not end well for Irulan. Sarah hung cool, like a zen bat, and she defeated her opponent.
Sarah later commented, “I am not a winner. I haven’t been a winner my entire life.” Except that she sent five people home and won the grand prize alongside her teammates. Yeah, Sarah, you are a winner.
- Jordan Falls Before the Wall – Free Agents (2014)
Jordan was right to think that sending Johnny Bananas home early from the Free Agents competition was a fine idea. Jordan was wrong to think volunteering to battle the four-time champ in an elimination was the way to accomplish that. The number one rule of The Challenge is stay out of elimination rounds if at all possible. Jordan broke that rule and flipped all the kill cards, and what’s worse, the elimination involved using hands and feet to break through a climbing wall. With only one fully formed hand, Jordan had just enough trouble creating handholds to see his enemy climb away with the win.
During an argument earlier in the season Johnny told Jordan, “I will fucking end you, dude.” And he did. He also won the season in his most laborious victory to date.
- Hall Brawl of the Titans – Battle of the Seasons (2012)
Before Battle of the Seasons all I remembered about CJ was he embarrassed himself in exile against Landon and Carley in Fresh Meat II. I don’t think anyone expected what happened when he went against the much larger Zach in a lopsided match of Hall Brawl. CJ exploded out of the gate, smashing into Zach and even partially lifting him up before winning the first round.
Zach could not stop CJ, who won three times in a row. CJ was one round away from winning it all when Zach embraced his inner Thor and outsmarted and outmuscled his opponent. The most impressive aspect of Zach’s victory was not his strength, but his ability to keep cool and alter his strategy. Most Challenge contestants lack that sort of mettle. And now this is the way I remember CJ: as a warrior who is not to be underestimated.
- Derrick vs. Goliath – The Gauntlet II (2006)
Derrick never was the sharpest crayon in the box, but the kid had a lot of heart. Captain Derrick was offered his choice of elimination against Syrus, and to everyone’s surprise, Derrick chose beach brawl. In Alton’s words, “Why’d you pick that? He’s a big boy. Big boy.” Syrus outweighed Derrick by about 70 or 80 pounds, and Derrick signed up to wrestle the behemoth.
A couple factors decided the fate of this elimination. One, Syrus underestimated Derrick and equated the matchup to a few free throws. Two, Derrick is one mean bulldog. Derrick used his legs to get leverage on the big man, relentlessly driving his opponent back. Syrus quickly became frustrated and wasted his energy arguing with host TJ Lavin when he should have been more concerned about Derrick’s speed and power. Derrick won 3-1, and in the process he became a Challenge legend.
- Johnny Becomes Backpack – Cutthroat (2010)
After his brawl with Adam on The Duel II (more on that in a bit), I never thought CT would be allowed near his fellow Challenge competitors again. So imagine my surprise when CT stomped into the Gulag to join in the elimination fun against Johnny Bananas and Tyler. And boy, he did not disappoint.
CT didn’t just beat Bananas, he embarrassed him. Within seconds CT had Bananas inverted like a helpless turtle struggling for control. Bananas had very little time to enjoy the ride, because once CT reached his destination, a bright yellow barrel, he turned on his heel and slammed Bananas face first into the ground. Check out the raw footage and you’ll know why the words “oh my God,” “Frankenstein,” and “monster” were uttered.
- “I Will Smash His Head and Eat It” – The Duel II (2009)
Adam never deserved the treatment CT inflicted on him over the years. CT had shoved Adam, taunted him, poured a drink on his head, and by the time The Duel II began, Adam was fed up. When CT confronted Adam regarding a rumor (on the first episode of the season, no less), Adam finally stood up for himself. He poured a drink on CT, and the night went downhill for Adam from there.
CT pounced, grabbing and punching at Adam as best he could with multiple cast members attempting to restrain him. This wasn’t a short fight, either. CT chased Adam outside, smashed sections of the house, and altogether acted like the incredible Hulk on a rampage. No one could properly hold the man back, and when someone asked CT, “Do you want [Adam] to die?” CT’s responded, “Yeah. I will smash his head and eat it.” I doubt I could think up a statement more disturbing.
- Big Easy Collapses – The Gauntlet III (2008)
Remember what I said in the first entry about a team sensing weakness? Throughout The Gauntlet III veteran guys were convinced that the women on their team were dead weight, so they had no qualms about throwing challenges to “trim the fat.” Even though Johnny Bananas warned the team early on that Eric aka Big Easy would hold the team back in the final challenge, Bananas’ protests fell on deaf ears. Though the veteran team dominated the entire season, when it came time for the final, it didn’t take long for Big Easy to show how ill prepared he was for an endurance race. He could barely swim, he couldn’t maintain a jogging pace, and eventually he crumbled.
God bless Brad, the long suffering Challenge loser who remained the only veteran to defend Big Easy against the mob. Evan, CT, and Evelyn berated Big Easy for his lackluster performance, and they showed little concern for the big man’s wellbeing. After Big Easy required medical attention, Evelyn, in her best villain voice, yelled, “This is costing us $300,000!” Once Big Easy rolled away with the EMTs, the veteran team overtook the rookies and appeared to win the final challenge. But TJ crushed their hopes for cash (veterans Adam, Diem, and Robin would never go on to win a final), saying that without Big Easy at the finish line, the win didn’t count.
- Sarah Sacrifices Bananas – Battle of the Exes II (2015)
Sarah came to Battle of the Exes II to win. She commented, “I’ve played the nice girl… and you know how many times I’ve come in first? Never.” She didn’t try to become a political figurehead like Wes. She didn’t let herself become a pawn like Leroy. She didn’t get lost in the shuffle like Zach. No, Sarah did none of that. Instead she kept her head down, played her own game, and executed the best chess move in Challenge history.
When Sarah found an opportunity to pit two strong teams against each other in the last elimination before the final, she seized it. She threw Johnny Bananas and Nany in against Leroy and Nia, much to Bananas’ chagrin. Yes, Sarah and Bananas were friendly with each other in the house. Yes, you could say they were in an alliance. But there can be only one Challenge winner, and there’s absolutely no way Bananas would have stepped aside in the final challenge, like a proper gentleman, to allow Sarah her very first victory. Bananas whined about Sarah’s decision and some viewers judged her for it, but she made the right move, and she should never apologize for it.
- Landon and Carley Destroy the Final – Fresh Meat II (2010)
If I were drafting competitors for the ultimate Challenge team (à la fantasy football), Landon would be my first pick. His political game is pretty much non-existent – he has the mindset of older competitors like Alton who believe in fair play – but he is the premier physical competitor. Seriously, tell me a physical task Landon would not excel at.
Landon’s Fresh Meat II partner Carley was the last female partner left in the opening draft of the Challenge season, presumably dooming Landon’s hopes for success. Surprisingly, Landon and Carley did reach the final, but they were up against Kenny and Laurel, two competitors who rarely experience defeat. Throughout their Challenge careers, Kenny and Laurel have amassed combined winnings of over $400,000. Landon’s solution to the problem of stiff competition? Turn on beast mode and push Carley to an upset victory.
Landon jumped his team to an early lead, single handedly carried an 80-pound duffel bag uphill, and he even stuck his head into Carley’s backside to assist her up a snowy mountain. And while lesser men like Wes or Evan have screamed and cursed at their struggling female partners, Landon chose to encourage Carley, helping her every step of the way to the finish line. To her credit, Carley never gave up; though she couldn’t match her partner’s stamina, she gave Landon everything she had. In the end, even Kenny and Laurel had to admit Landon and Carley deserved what they earned.
- CT Wins His First Challenge – Rivals II (2013)
I can understand why viewers would root against CT. He’s been a real asshole over his reality TV career, regularly picking on people smaller than him. But he also helped Diem regain her self-esteem after losing her hair to cancer. And he seemed genuine in his attempts to made amends with Adam in the first Rivals. Perhaps more importantly, he’s one of the most intimating competitors The Challenge has produced. Well, it took nine seasons and nine years, but CT finally took home the gold(en idol) in Rivals II.
Rivals II teamed CT with Wes, which is somewhat funny, because both CT and Wes have more rivals (i.e. enemies) than anyone else. But Wes must be CT’s good luck charm; their team won the last couple challenges before the final, keeping them out of the riskiest elimination rounds. And CT did not waste any time when he and Wes faced off against Johnny Bananas and Frank in the final. He solved the first puzzle, chugged from a couple bottles that contained something that looked like sewer water, and he never stopped hustling while simultaneously encouraging Wes.
With the finish line fast approaching, CT repeated the words “everything we’ve worked for” to Wes. CT knows what it feels like to fall short. He could have won The Duel, should have won The Gauntlet III, had a good shot at Rivals, and stumbled in Battle of the Exes. Rivals II is the culmination of everything he’d worked for. Love him or hate him, CT is The Challenge.
Wes Becomes Backpack – Rivals (2011)
This moment is MTV editing at its finest. Wes sits on the dirt squealing in pain. Kenny offers to carry him. The music builds. Wes protests, but complies. Kenny, speaking directly to the camera, says, “Well ladies and gentlemen, just when you thought I couldn’t get any more amazing…” The music swells as Kenny lifts Wes like a pale sack of potatoes and begins carrying him up the trail. Classic.