Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The best MTV ‘The Challenge’ cast members of all time, ranked

As “The Challenge” begins its 37th season (“Spies, Lies, & Allies”), what better time to break down the best cast members in the history of MTV’s hit reality show? Much like NBA fans debate Jordan vs. LeBron or football fans argued over Brady vs. Manning, Challenge fans will go at it over whether Johnny Bananas or CT as the best male competitor of all time, as well as which female stands out among the rest.

Before we get into who we picked, a few notes on our criteria. We didn’t simply go by the numbers, as the Challenge has majorly evolved during its 37 seasons. It started as more of a reality show than a competition show — so much so that Belou Den Tex brought her infant child with her on “Battle of the Seasons 1”  and Gladys Sanabria showed up to “Battle of the Sexes 1” while pregnant. It was truly a simpler time. (Update: Melissa Reeves competed the entire season on “Total Madness” — including the first leg of the final — while pregnant, though it was unbeknownst to her at the time. The jury is still out on whether that makes her unborn child the youngest competitor in Challenge history.)

(Related: As a hurricane hit the Challenge house on “Battle of the Seasons 1,” married couple Chadwick Pelletier and Holly Brentson argued with BDT about her child-rearing practices. She literally cursed them, saying, “I hope you never get a child, yo. I hope that for your ass,” which is as cold-blooded as anything ever said on the show.)

So, while the total number of wins and finals matter, we weight them based on the era of the Challenge in which they occurred, with more recent wins being worth a little extra. The competition is more serious and the finals are generally much more grueling now.

We balance out that inherent recency bias with anecdotal evidence and intuition gleaned from watching far too many hours of this show. Hey, we’re allowed to be at least a little subjective. After all, we’re talking about an MTV reality show that is as much about getting drunk and hooking up as it is competition, so we’re dealing with a bit of an inexact science here. 

You might disagree with our picks, but that’s OK. Just don’t scream at us like Camila, punch us like CT, or wish us barren like Belou Den Tex.

(Note: The following lists have been updated since their original publishing prior to “Total Madness.”)

Best male ‘Challenge’ cast members of all time

1. Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio (“Real World: Key West”)

The facts: Bananas has appeared on the most Challenges (20) and has the most Challenge titles (7). He’s achieved mainstream success while also staying as closely tied to “The Challenge” as anyone in show history. He’s eminently quotable (Sarah probably stills hears, “I’m gonna go ahead and take the money and run, Teej” in her nightmares), remarkably mentally tough, and the quintessential schemer, which is summed up by this monologue:

“I’ve been accused in the past of being a dirty player, but, you know, nothing really comes to mind…other than, I don’t know, leaving Paula on a deserted island, destroying a relationship in order to further my position in the game, and I took $275,000 from a partner. But other than those, I can’t really think of what dirty moves I’ve done in the past.” 

Prior to “Total Madness,” we had him No. 3 on our list, but after another win that moved him into first on the all-time prize money list ($1,184,720), we had to put him in the top spot. Why wasn’t he there to begin with? Well, for as great as Bananas’ career has been, it never felt like he was the best competitor at any given time. One can argue, “The wins proved he was the best,”, which, yeah, sure…but was he really? His most impressive performance was during his solo victory on “Free Agents” when he took out both of the guys direct below him on this list in elimination comps (though he beat CT on a puzzle, which was lame). That was always his best argument for being No. 1. 

However, as was showcased on “Total Madness,” we might have been focusing too much on physical prowess and not giving enough credit to Bananas’s political/mental game. That’s just as much as part of “The Challenge” as anything, and he masterminded some dominant alliances. Beyond that, he (and his partner) ultimately took out CT in two eliminations right before the finals (“Free Agents”, “Rivals 1”) and beat him in a final when CT gassed out (“Battle of the Exes 1”). Yes, it’s tough to shake the image of the “Johnny Bananas Backpack,” and, prior to his “Total Madness” win, his lackluster past few seasons were putting an undue stain on his legacy. 

Even with all that being said, after yet another ring in a strong season, it’s tough to deny Bananas his place in history. And, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter where we rank Bananas because he’ll say he’s the best and he has the resume and overall success (including with the ladies) to back him up. He’s won at life, and that’s really all that matters to him. 

2. Chris “CT” Tamburello (“Real World: Paris”)

CT has appeared on 18 Challenges, though four of those resulted in him getting disqualified or kicked off. Three of those were during his peak as the most fearsome Challenge competitor in history, and he almost certainly would have more than three titles if he could have controlled his temper/followed the rules (or if Eric “Big Easy” Banks hadn’t gassed out on “Gauntlet 3”). Ultimately, his resume is his resume, and while four titles and nine finals in 18 seasons is incredibly impressive, it still feels like he could have done more. 

That’s the case against CT being this high. The case for him being this high (or higher) is that his comp-to-comp peak was as dominant as we’ve ever seen. It was CT-against-the-world many seasons, and even though no one wanted to go against him, they did everything in their power to vote him into eliminations so others could face (and hopefully beat) him. He wasn’t just feared as a competitor; he was feared as a person. This clip of CT’s disqualification in an elimination round against Brad Fiorenza on “Duel 1” sums up the full young CT experience. 

CT’s dominance is about more than his game play. He’s always been one of the most entertaining cast members, gifting us with such moments as the time he leveled Bananas and Tyler Duckworth at the same time on “Rivals 1” (“Choo-choo!“); the time he had this exchange (14:42) during a cookie-eating elimination comp against Shane Landrum on “Inferno 1”: “CT, we’re not going to be able to see your six-pack after all these cookies.” “You’re not gonna be able to see Shane after all these cookies;” or the most infamous Challenge moment of all-time, the “Johnny Bananas Backpack” from “Cutthroat” — a season CT wasn’t even on but was brought back for as a special guest.

Throw in the many impressive hook-ups (including once on a roof) and touching relationship with the late Diem Brown, and CT covered all the bases. He even showed he could make an appropriate sports metaphor when, prior to winning his first final, he said, “I don’t want to be Dan Marino, I want to be Tom Brady.”

There are countless more examples of memorable CT moments (both good and bad), but anyway you look at it, it adds up to one of the top cast members in Challenge history. Let’s just hope he doesn’t have more second-round knockouts at the hands of rookies like Jay Starrett in his future.

Update: After winning Season 36 with rookie Amber Borzotra in impressive fashion, CT has moved up to No. 2 on this list. He was targeted in Week 1 and still managed to go the distance. A championship in a young man’s game after his 40th birthday? Maybe CT is Tom Brady after all. If he gets one more, it will be tough to keep him out of the top spot.

3. Jordan Wiseley (original show: “Real World: Portland”)

Jordan has won three championships and made four finals in six appearances, but his run of success isn’t just about the numbers. He’s won titles in some of the most stacked seasons ever, particularly his dominant solo win in “Dirty Thirty.” He’s done it all while proudly telling anyone who will listen that he’s the smartest and best competitor in any given season, and even nominating himself for elimination comps because he’s so certain he’ll come back. That hasn’t always worked out, as one of Jordan’s two pre-finals knockouts came when he pulled such a stunt in “Free Agents,” losing to Johnny Bananas in a classic elimination round. It was one of the few times in his five seasons when his lack of a fully formed left hand seemed to hurt his game play. 

Make no mistake, though, we’re not grading Jordan on a curve. He’s taken on all comers and handled himself in all competitions, and he’s mostly done so without the help of a strong alliance. Perhaps his most wily move was annoying the seemingly invincible Turbo so much by “copying his walk” (whatever that means) on “War of the Worlds 2” that Turbo threatened him and got kicked off the show. It was similar to LeBron James goading Draymond Green into punching him in the groin and getting suspended for Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The mere fact we’re comparing Jordan to LeBron tells you a lot about his place in Challenge history. (Yes, the analogy would work much, much better if we were comparing him to Michael Jordan, but we’ll take what we can get.)

If Jordan loses his edge and starts routinely finishing in the middle of the pack like he did on “Total Madness,” he could fall even lower, but, assuming he competes again, he’ll likely pick his battles and continue to win titles at a high efficiency rate…kinda like Michael Jordan. There, we did it. 

4. Landon Lueck (“Real World: Philadelphia”)

You can make a strong case for Landon to be higher on this list; you can also make a case for him to be lower. He appeared on just four challenges, the last of which came in 2010 (“Fresh Meat 2”), so it’s tough to say how he would have fared in the more competitive, more physically grueling seasons that were yet to come. But considering the way he won his last season — legitimately dragging/pushing a completely out of it (and possibly deceased) Carley Johnson up a mountain — we’re confident Landon would have excelled in any era. 

Ultimately, Landon won three of his four challenges — two of which were team titles and the last of which was the aforementioned pairs title. He competed in one solo Challenge (“Duel 2”) and finished fourth, but he won five out of 10 competitions (plus one duel) and dominated that season until a surprising (and somewhat controversial) loss to Brad in the last elimination before the final. Given his calm demeanor, fearlessness, superior climbing ability, and compact strength, it’s entirely possible Landon was the best pound-for-pound competitor in Challenge history. 

One knock against Landon was his lack of memorable quotes or moments. He’s simply remembered for how dominant of a competitor he was despite a short run on the show, and that’s ultimately not a bad legacy to have — especially on a show like this where your most memorable moments are often regrettable. 

5. Darrell Taylor (“Road Rules: Campus Crawl”)

Like Landon, Darrell’s best days came in an earlier, slightly less competitive version of “The Challenge.” Also like Landon, he was a beast who could have shined anytime, anywhere (which he proved by taking out Zach Nichols and Bananas on “Invasion of the Champions”). All told, he won four finals in his first six seasons, and he almost certainly would have had won five if not for a strange incident when a drunk Brad provoked Darrell into punching him and getting disqualified on “The Ruins.” Darrell then went AWOL from “The Challenge” for nine seasons, only to lose to CT in the last elimination before the final on “Invasion of the Champions” and surprisingly struggle on “Dirty Thirty.” 

If Darrell hadn’t come back and finished with four titles in six seasons, he would probably be higher on this list, so perhaps it’s unfair that we’re knocking him down a few spots, but every appearance counts. No-nonsense Darrell wasn’t a schemer like Bananas, an intimidator like CT, or a s*** talker like Jordan, but he was undoubtedly respected by competitors and fans like. 

Honorable mentions:

  • Wes Bergmann (“Real World: Austin”). An all-time schemer and elimination-round champ who turned in one of the best single-season performances ever on “Duel 1” en route to one of his two titles. 
  • Kenny Santucci and Evan Starkman (“Fresh Meat 1”). Kenny and Evan are forever linked, not only because they came in together and had similar success (five total titles, four other finals), but also because they started the now defunct “Suck Yeah” clothing company (actual name). They also were banished from “The Challenge” together for an allegedly disturbining incident involving castmate Tonya Cooley. 
  • Derrick Kosinski (“Road Rules: X-treme”). This gritty underdog won three titles in 10 seasons and treated us to some of the most epic eliminations in Challenge history. He also taught us that the “low man wins.”
  • Brad Fiorenza (“Real World: San Diego 1”). Brad has just one title in 10 seasons, but he could easily have four. He finished the “Duel 1” final faster than Wes, but Wes had a two-minute advantage because of a soccer shootout (seriously); he lost by one second to Evan in the “Duel 2” final (literally one second); and he fell victim to the “Great Big Easy Gas Out” on “Gauntlet 3” (a sure win). 
  • Mike “The Miz” Mizanin (“Real World: Back to New York”). Two wins and two more finals in five seasons. The Miz has gone on to bigger things since “The Challenge,” but if he had hung around, he undoubtedly would be one of the most decorated cast members ever. 
  • Jamie Murray (“Real World: New Orleans 1”). Three Challenges, three championships. All were team Challenges and came before 2006, so it’s tough to say how Jamie would fare in the modern Challenge era, but he was an early beast.
  • Alton Williams (“Read World: Las Vegas 1”). Another early-season star who won a title and made three finals in his four appearances. 
  • Turabi “Turbo” Camkiran (“War of the Worlds 1”). His first season was throughly dominant (I mean, he got superhero special effects), though we still haven’t seen him in an elimination. 

Just missed the cut:

  • Abram Boise (“Road Rules: South Pacific”)
  • Mark Long (“Road Rules: USA 1”)
  • Zach Nichols (“Real World: San Diego 2”)
  • Tyler Duckworth (“Real World: Key West”)
  • Theo Von (“Road Rules: Maximum Velocity”)

Best female ‘Challenge’ cast members of all time

1. Evelyn Smith (“Fresh Meat 1”)

Is Ev really better than Emily? Maybe, maybe not, but as is the case with the male list, the complete resume has to be factored in. Ev appeared on four more Challenges (7) than Emily and won two more titles (3). She should have had a fourth, but she also fell victim to Big Easy’s medical DQ on “Gauntlet 3.” Honestly, she probably would have had a fifth if she didn’t tank an elimination for KellyAnne Judd on “The Ruins.” She actually might have six if she wasn’t a last-minute replacement on “Fresh Meat 2” and forced to partner with Luke Wolfe. (You might remember Luke from his grand scheme of kissing another guy in order to get a kiss from Jenn Grijalva.) 

Ev was physically dominant during her seven seasons, and she could also play the mental game, which was best shown on “The Island” when she went head-to-head with Bananas the entire season and ultimately put herself in a position to force Bananas to betray one his best friends, Paula Menorek, and team up with her in the finals. 

Evelyn was just 24 when she called it a Challenge career, so she clearly had more good years left. Either way, she did more than enough to earn this top spot. 

2. Cara Maria Sorbello (“Fresh Meat 2”)

Cara Maria has appeared on the most Challenges ever for a female (14), and even though she has just two wins, she’s made a staggering nine finals. She also won the first Challenge with just one overall champion, narrowly edging Zach Nichols on “Vendettas.” Without that, she’d probably be lower on this list, especially when you factor in that her first title (“Battle of the Bloodlines”) came in one of the weakest seasons in modern Challenge history. (Raphy Medrano? Stephen Buell? Get the hell outta here.)

Regardless, the resume is sound, but Cara Maria, despite looking the part, has rarely felt like a dominant force. And if she is a dominant force, why isn’t she winning more finals? (The same argument could be made about younger CT.) She also complains — a lot — which doesn’t seem like something a best-ever should do, but drama is an integral part of “The Challenge,” so maybe that’s a plus for her. 

The bottom line is Cara Maria has been an elimination beast during her time on “The Challenge,” and even if she’s not winning it all, she’s making finals (including dragging human albatross Marie Roda to the “Final Reckoning” final, which is probably her best achievement on the show). No other female can say that, so her all-time spot is secure (even if it annoys you). 

3. Emily Schromm (“Real World: D.C.”)

Physically, Emily is arguably the best female competitor ever. That’s no knock on Ev or Jenny West or anyone else on this list, but the woman is a monster. However, she appeared on just three seasons (not counting her “Champs vs. Stars” appearance), and with just one win, it’s tough to put her in either of the top two spots.

To be fair, she made the finals in all three seasons despite having mediocre (at best) teammates all three times. Just look at who she made finals with: Jenn on “Cutthroat” (no other wins), Ty Ruff on “Battle of the Exes 1” (not close to any other wins), and Paula on “Rivals 2” (one other win in 10 total tries, and that was with Evelyn). 

As we did with Landon above, we have to project a bit with Emily, but long-time viewers know just how good she was.

4. Laurel Stucky (“Fresh Meat 2”)

Laurel’s legacy was unassailable (four challenges, four finals) until two disappointing performances in her past two appearances, the latter of which featured an unfortunate “crotch chop” after she thought she won an elimination round against Ninja on “War of the Worlds 2” (she didn’t). That aside, it’s still tough to overlook how physically dominant Laurel was/is. She breezed to finals in his first four Challenges, finally winning during the individual “Free Agents” season. It’s kind of surprising she didn’t win before that, as she was arguably on the best team on “Fresh Meat 2” (Kenny) and “Rivals 1” (Cara Maria), but such is life. 

Laurel was 9-0 in elimination comps prior to a surprise defeat at the hands of Camila Nakagawa on “Invasion of the Champions” and the aforementioned loss to Ninja on “War of the Worlds 2.” Perhaps we’re downgrading her too much for coming back for more while Ev and Emily have stayed away and kept their sterling records intact, but, again, we’re looking at the full picture here, and Laurel hasn’t done herself any favors lately. 

Still, even with just one finals win, Laurel has earned her spot in the top five, and she could continue to move up if she returns and wins another one. 

5. Ashley Mitchell (“Real World: Ex-plosion”)

Ashley has won the second-most prize money in Challenge history ($1,121,250) and has done so in a more competitive era, so it’s easy to pick her here, but is she really better than Rachel Robinson, who had one of the best individual seasons ever on “Duel 2,” or Camila, who scratched, screamed, and scowled her way to two titles and four finals in 10 seasons? You could argue for any of the three, but a closer look at the resumes shows Rachel made just three finals despite being on some pretty weak casts, and Camila…well, she’s super annoying and got herself banned from “The Challenge” for being too much of an insurance risk. Let that sink in for a second. 

Ashley isn’t exactly easy to live with either (remember when she sabotaged her own team on “Champs vs. Stars 2,” which was a spinoff show for charity?), but she’s made three finals in eight seasons (really seven seasons if you don’t count “Dirty Thirty,” where she withdrew before the first competition), winning two, including an individual title on “Invasion of the Champions.” She’s also one of the iciest females in Challenge history, opting to keep $1 million for herself instead of sharing $500,000 with her partner, Hunter Barfield, after they won “Final Reckoning.” Her reasoning was debatable, but the bottom line is it was her choice and she could give any reason she damn well pleased. 

Finally, Ashley is a hook-up queen, and she’s not ashamed of it. She’s living her best life, as they say, and making a ton of money while doing it. Like LeBron James, she’s invested some of that money back into her body, which undoubtedly has only enhanced certain aspects of her Challenge performance. 

Honorable mentions:

  • Rachel Robinson (“Road Rules: Campus Crawl”). Rachel posted two wins and three finals in seven seasons, including a win on “Duel 2” when she technically finished ahead of all the males in the final.
  • Camila Nakagawa (“Spring Break Challenge”). Say what you will about the “Camilanator,” but she got the job done more often than not. She also punched a PA in the face, walked into a pool with her clothes on, and went on a racist tirade against Leroy Garrett, so there’s that, too.
  • Sarah Rice (“Real World: Brooklyn”). Sarah had a tumultuous Challenge history, getting disqualified because of her partner twice (Trishelle Cantella quit on her, and Vinny Foti was an idiot, as usual) and having to withdraw during a final because of a medical issue. Even worse, after one of her two wins, she didn’t get any money because Bananas kept it all. Still, five finals and two wins is pretty good, especially since one involved her stabbing Bananas in the back
  • Jenny West (“War of the Worlds 2”). Arguably the most physically dominant female in Challenge history, West only needs one more season like her title-winning showing on “Total Madness” to move into the top five.
  • Jodi Weatherton (“Road Rules: X-treme”). She competed in just three Challenges, but she took home two wins, including an impressive solo showing in “Duel 1.”
  • Susie Meister (“Road Rules: Down Under”). Two wins and four finals in four team seasons is solid, but Susie also brought entertaining commentary and narration skills to the table.
  • Veronica Portillo (“Road Rules: Semester at Sea”). All three of Veronica’s wins came in team challenges before 2005, but the mere fact she was on a season in ’00 and again in ’18 merits a mention here.

Just missed the cut:

  • Holly Shand (“Road Rules: Latin America”)
  • Coral Smith (“Real World: Back to New York”)
  • Tori Hall (“Road Rules: Viewer’s Revenge”)
  • Paula Menorek (“Real World: Key West”)
  • Aviv Melmed (“Fresh Meat 1”)
  • Natalie “Ninja” Duran (“War of the Worlds 1”)


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