For 37 seasons and counting, MTV’s “The Challenge” — formerly known as “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” — has been one of the most consistent reality competition shows on all of TV. It is full of complicated physical challenges, of course, but it also comes with plenty of interpersonal drama between players.
Ahead of the show’s 500th episode, Variety ranks the Top 20 seasons so far, plus looks back at the show that started it all.
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Honorable Mention: Road Rules: All Stars
Season 1 (1998)
This was where it all began. If not for “Road Rules’s” adventure spin on MTV’s reality TV format, there would be would be no “Challenge.” “Road Rules: All Stars” placed five “Real World” alums into a “Road Rules” format — traveling in a Winnebago — and sent them off on assignments in the United States and New Zealand. Unlike “The Challenge” as we know it now — and as has been the case since Season 2 — there were no winners and losers on this. Instead, all five cast members won a trip for two to Costa Rica.
Season 31 (2018)
After the success of including MTV’s “Are You the One?” cast members in “The Challenge” (starting with Season 26, “Battle of the Exes II”), “Vendettas” — essentially a new version of “Rivals” — saw “The Challenge” open the floodgates with alums from “Big Brother,” “Geordie Shore” and “Ex on the Beach.” The net has only widened since this season, but 31 seasons in, “The Challenge” proved it still knew how to keep things interesting. This season also marked the final time Cara Maria Sorbello could officially be considered an underdog in any way, shape, or form, and she ended up being the sole winner.
19. The Duel II
Season 17 (2009)
Rachel Robinson was an absolute juggernaut this season — and was the winner of the female competitors — while Chris “CT” Tamburello got eliminated in the first episode for beating the heck out of Adam King — who tried to fight back and was also eliminated — in the first episode. (CT threatened to smash Adam’s head… and eat it.) But this was also the season where the cast had to do the Haka for the opening credits, which you can revisit below.
18. Battle of the Sexes
Season 6 (2003)
Much like Rachel in “The Duel II,” Ruthie Alcaide was a juggernaut in “Battle of the Sexes.” Unfortunately, despite making it to the finals, the men’s team (the final three guys) ended up beating the women’s team (the final three girls). But this wasn’t just a season about men versus women, as this was a season with the original “Real World” bad boy, Puck aka David Rainey. The season premiere even saw Puck get into an altercation with David Edwards, spitting on David and almost getting kicked out of the house… until the rest of the house stood up for Puck, threatening to quit if Puck was eliminated. Not exactly the way things go down these days on “The Challenge.”
17. The Island
Season 16 (2008)
“The Island” was the height of unrelenting misogyny on “The Challenge” — with no consequence whatsoever — as well as a franchise attempt to try a “Survivor”-esque approach to things. But the twists and turns of this season — particularly in the rivalry between Evelyn Smith and Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio — can’t be denied.
16. Battle of the Seasons
Season 5 (2002)
To really hammer home just how different “The Challenge” was less than two decades ago, one of the competitors — Belou Dex Tex — brought her baby along with her to Cabo San Lucas. Production also provided her a nanny to care for said baby during the day so she could compete. (That didn’t mean people didn’t challenge her ability to be a good mother.) Now imagine a baby — an actual baby, not just Josh Martinez — on “The Challenge” these days. And things came to a head when it came to Belou’s mothering skills during Hurricane Juliette, which affected the season’s production schedule and led to a memorable cast toga party. In terms of format, the original “Battle of the Seasons” paired competitors from the same original seasons of their respective shows, which was especially key in solidifying the ride-or-die partnership of “The Real World: Back to New York’s” Mike “The Miz” Mizanin and Coral Smith during this era of “The Challenge.”
15. Rivals III
Season 28 (2016)
This was the season in which Bananas pulled what could be considered the ultimate, dirtiest move in “Challenge” history (taking all the first place prize money for himself, instead of sharing with his partner and former friend Sarah Rice). While that final moment is one that will live in “Challenge” infamy, the season — which changed things up in having male-female partners this time around — didn’t quite live up to the highs set by the previous two “Rivals” seasons. It did, however, end the failed experiment of having Bananas’ cousin, Vince Gliatta, as a regular part of the franchise.
14. War of the Worlds 2
Season 34 (2019)
Slightly improving upon the previous “War of the Worlds” concept, “War of the Worlds 2” initially divided its 32 competitors into two teams of 16: Team USA and Team U.K. (And in true big reality TV brain fashion, Team U.K. also included an Australian and a Turk. CT also ended up on Team U.K.) The season was executed well, though, in blending the various reality show stars into the “Challenge” franchise, especially with the ascension of Dee Nguyen (before her subsequent heel turn and ban from the franchise).
13. The Gauntlet
Season 7 (2003-2004)
Looking back on “The Gauntlet,” it was about as low-key as a season of “The Challenge” could get — with most of the elimination rounds taking place in the house pool — but it still provided a lot of lasting memories, like the ice cream challenge and Abram Boise’s threesome with Rachel and Veronica Portillo. “The Gauntlet” changed the show’s standard elimination format from a points system (with the lowest points leading to one’s elimination) to the competitive elimination rounds (which, in this season, was known as the titular gauntlet). This is the alliance and popularity-based voting system that “The Challenge” continues to be known for today. And with that change came the new strategy of teams trying to get out their weak links — which in this case, for the “Road Rules” team was Sarah Greyson, mostly based on her underachieving performance in her original season, “Road Rules: Campus Crawl.” However, despite being sent into the Gauntlet by her team five times, Sarah was able to come back each time and even ended up being one of the season’s winners. Unfortunately for team “Real World,” their dreams of winning were foiled by Coral’s allergic reaction to a spider bite in the finals, the final cap in a season that saw The Miz struggling to choose between Coral (his closest ally) and his new girlfriend Trishelle Cannatella.
12. Fresh Meat
Season 12 (2006)
This season was the franchise’s way to introduce new blood to the competition without casting them on “The Real World” or “Road Rules” first; the titular fresh meat were people who had auditioned and were heavily considered for those series or filed as cast alternates. “Fresh Meat” paired 12 “Challenge” newbies with 12 “Real World” and “Road Rules” alums. A good portion of the first iteration of “Fresh Meat” essentially set the course for the direction of the series for an era, and Kenny Santucci, Evan Starkman, Evelyn and Diem Brown were all brought into the franchise via this format.
11. The Ruins
Season 18 (2009)
A Champions versus Challengers season, “The Ruins” is both arguably the best season of the Johnny-Evan-Kenny era of “The Challenge” (with “The Island” being the worst) and a sobering reminder of what that era wrought, with the on-screen treatment of Tonya Cooley and her subsequent lawsuit against MTV, Bunim/Murray Productions, Evan and Kenny. But still, while a season like “The Gauntlet 2” managed to make an uninteresting final out of two evenly-matched teams, “The Ruins” made a very compelling one out of the opposite: The outcome to the five-person Champions team (who won every daily challenge but one) versus the two-person Challengers team was always going to be obvious, but it didn’t make it any less fun to watch KellyAnne Judd and Sarah go through it all together.
10. The Gauntlet 2
Season 11 (2005-2006)
“The Gauntlet 2” was actually a pretty terrific season of “The Challenge”… that is unfortunately marred by a terribly underwhelming and anticlimactic final. Recent seasons of “The Challenge” may have had issues with finals ending with a thud based on editing choices, but this was more of a miscalculation choice: This final (called “Bet Your Booty”) ended up being determined by a wager system of three games — an eating challenge, a memory challenge, and a relay race — with the Rookies and Veterans placing bets (with doubloons, honing in on the season’s pirate theme) on each challenge. The Veterans placed 248 of their 250 doubloons on the eating challenge (where the Rookies only placed 1), and by winning that challenge first, they officially solidified their win for the otherwise highly-competitive season. (The underwhelming nature of wager-based challenges would appear again later in the franchise in “The Duel.”) But things like Jo Rhodes calling the cops and leaving the show on the first night in the house; Aneesa Ferreira’s “cut you with words” rant against Cara Zavaleta; Derrick Kosinski’s ascent as the ultimate underdog and leader, just almost making it to the very end, and Mark Long’s first retirement from “The Challenge” made the previous episodes so fun. This season also ushered in the beginning of a new era, with the introduction of T.J. Lavin as the host — and a man who hates quitters.
9. Battle of the Exes
Season 22 (2012)
Sure, a pair of exes who were never even previously seen onscreen together in a romantic way — Bananas, who constantly denied anything happening as he’d been in a relationship at the time, and Camila Nakagawa — won the season, while “The Challenge’s” biggest on-and-off, will they-won’t they pair of exes — CT and Diem — ended up in second place. Sure, nobody had had any idea that Aneesa and Rachel had ever even been a couple (apparently after meeting on “Battle of the Sexes”) until it had been revealed in “The Duel II.” And sure, Cara Maria and Abram may have actually been back in the “on” stage of their particular on-and-off relationship at the time. But that didn’t make “Battle of the Exes” any less fun of a season to watch. Plus, this season started the trend of Lavin’s favorite part of any “Challenge” season: trivia. It also featured Emily Schromm’s accidental blackface and Long retiring from “The Challenge” (again).
8. Rivals II
Season 24 (2013)
A solid sequel to the original, “Rivals II” was naturally the season of the CT and Wes Bergmann — who ended up winning the season for the men — rivalry. Unfortunately, Twitter beefs between people who had never even been on one of these shows together — Bananas and Frank Sweeney, for example — were also considered bases for rivalries, which admittedly did take the wind out of the sales of the premise a bit. Tweets also counted as the flimsy excuse for why Cara Maria worked as a replacement rival for “Challenge” newbie Heather Cooke; they actually made an excellent team in this season.
7. The Inferno II
Season 10 (2005)
Instead of “Real World” versus “Road Rules,” “The Inferno II” mixed and match the two shows — for the first time — separating competitors instead into two teams: Good Guys and Bad Asses. (The Good Guys included actor and “Real World: San Diego” cast member Jamie Chung, participating in and winning her first and only season of “The Challenge.” “The Real World: Philadelphia” cast member and future “Queer Eye” Fab 5 member Karamo Brown was on the Bad Asses team but ended up being one of the only two people eliminated from it before the finals.) If there was one word to define “The Inferno II,” it would be “intensity,” especially as the competitors all tried to live up to their Good Guy or Bad Ass designation — whether it was Tonya throwing Beth Stolarczyk’s luggage and clothing into the pool or Julie Stoffer’s “The road to God is straight and narrow” crash and burn.
Season 20 (2010)
Two words: Johnny Backpack. A few more words: Maybe a show that named its elimination round the “Gulag” (unlike other seasons where the elimination round is the same as the season’s title and vice versa) shouldn’t be half as good of a season as “Cutthroat” was. The three-team format, while not the norm for “The Challenge,” added to the season’s intrigue. As did the Johnny Bananas Backpack.
5. Free Agents
Season 25 (2014)
Similar to “The Duel,” “Free Agents” was an individual challenge, with pairs and teams only coming into play during the daily challenges. Of all Bananas’ “Challenge” wins, “Free Agents” could be considered the one he most earned, as he had to fight his way through multiple elimination rounds — including one against CT — as well as a target on his back courtesy of Jordan Wiseley to get said win.
4. The Duel
Season 13 (2006-2007)
“The Duel” could be seen as part of Bananas’ villain origin story. This is wild to think about after 20 seasons of Bananas — not counting spin-off series and specials — but he was eliminated in the very first episode of the season. But really, “The Duel” was the season of CT and Diem and their budding romance — as well as the burgeoning rivalry between Wes and CT after a blow up as the result of CT’s (somewhat unfair) elimination.
3. Fresh Meat II
Season 19 (2010)
Filmed in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, “Fresh Meat II” was made to be a powder keg of a season. Not only because it was the first official season known as “The Challenge” (no longer pitting “The Real World” versus the defunct “Road Rules”), or because of the battle lines drawn between Kenny and Wes (Wes’ declaration to Kenny that “Payback’s a bitch, bitch!” rang in the opening credits every week), but because it was also the first challenge in which the competitors never went out on the town. They did their challenges and then they stayed inside at the “Challenge” house, spending the cold Canadian nights in close proximity to each other non-stop. This raised tensions and led to some breakdowns. The most sportsmanlike host Lavin had to call out Evelyn’s elimination tantrum: “I’ve never seen a four-year-old on this show before.” It also introduced a new wave of “Challenge” regulars, most notably Laurel Stucky and Cara Maria. (Laurel, along with Kenny, dominated in daily challenges, while Cara Maria’s name was constantly mangled by Darrell Taylor.)
Season 21 (2011)
The first season of “The Challenge” not to include any cast members from “Road Rules,” “Rivals” introduced a simple premise for the game: pairing up rivals (male-male and female-female) from over the years, forcing them to work as partners if they both wanted to win $100,000. (Later, these would be called “vendettas,” which is not as catchy or even as to the point as “rivals.”) And in this iteration of “Rivals,” actual distrust was at work, not just Twitter spats that would guarantee a pairing. The biggest main rivalry stories of this season were Kenny and Wes (whose rivalry was a major component of “Fresh Meat II” and whose relationship culminated in the most-memorable Wes literally carrying Kenny up a mountain after Kenny spent the season calling his partner the weak link), Adam and CT (who had issues since their initial season of “The Real World,” in addition to CT beating up Adam on the first night in the house on “The Duel II” and getting kicked off the season for that), and Laurel and Cara Maria (who ultimately ended up actually gaining a respect and friendship for a time after this partnership). The continued rivalry between CT and Wes was also part of the story, featuring CT trash-talking Wes all night long (which you can watch below) and paving the way for a “Rivals II” partnership for the duo. CT was memorably determined to get Adam to admit they were finally friends and he probably would’ve won the whole season, had it not been for Adam throwing it for his buddy, Bananas, instead. This season was also notable because Lavin returned to host after recovering from a life-threatening accident.
1. The Inferno
Season 8 (2004)
Once again pitting “Real World” alumni against “Road Rules” veterans, the original iteration of “The Inferno” took a page out of the original “Gauntlet’s” book with a “Road Rules” alum (Katie Cooley) getting the weak link treatment — not only being thrown into the Inferno elimination round multiple times multiple times, but also having to contend with the fact that her own team would throw challenges to get rid of her. (It didn’t help that the “Real World” team considered her their “mascot.”) Katie, however, was a badass elimination queen and ended up winning with her “Road Rules” team, despite all their naysaying. The heat was truly on in “The Inferno.”
Most memorable moments: Julie trying to pull Veronica’s safety harness on a zipline (watch below); Brad Fiorenza’s atomic wedgie necklace; Julie trying to wrestle Coral and Coral’s iconic response: “I don’t wrestle. I fucking beat bitches up”; Ace Amerson being the second person to go home, as opposed to being the first this time around; Yellowcard performing “Way Away” as the competitors smashed up standing sets; CT’s iron stomach during the cookies and milk Inferno.
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