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‘The Challenge: Champs vs. Pros’ Preseason Power Rankings

MTV’s competition reality show has been lovingly referred to as America’s fifth major sport — but can any of the contestants actually beat professional athletes?

(Getty Images/AP Images/MTV/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/AP Images/MTV/Ringer illustration)

In the past I’ve spoken about the competitors on MTV’s The Challenge with bluster, as though they’re the best athletic specimens America has to offer. I’ve literally called Tom Brady “the CT of the NFL.” Here’s an admission: I’ve been exaggerating somewhat. While I do believe that The Challenge is a competition requiring an impressive level of athleticism and strength, I do not believe the show’s cast members are on par with real professional athletes. The prize money for The Challenge: Invasion of the Champions, is a share of $350,000; the minimum NFL salary is $465,000. If CT had the ability to play in the NFL, he would.

Then again, The Challenge is a unique playing field. That’s what makes Champs vs. Pros, the six-week Challenge miniseries beginning May 16, so enticing (aside from counting how many times host Victor Cruz reluctantly salsa dances). When pro athletes like Olympian Lolo Jones, MMA fighter/all-around beast CM Punk, and former All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman (see the full cast here) come into the Gauntlet, Inferno, Jungle — whatever they decide to call it this season — there’s going to be a real David vs. Goliath story line. For the first time in their competitive careers, CT and Johnny Bananas are going to be underdogs. Denigrated as mere “reality contestants” for years, Challenge champions have a chance to earn legitimacy and respect from America’s other sports. (Even if the “pros” this season could more than fairly be described as “post-peak.” Baby steps, OK? First, let’s see if Wes can truck Merriman, then we’ll bring in Khalil Mack.)

Which veteran cast member has the best chance of bringing glory to The Challenge? We’ve made a power ranking for that, ordered specifically in terms of which former champ has the best chance of toppling a real pro athlete.

10. Camila Nakagawa

Challenge Rings: 1

Actual Sporting Experience: Division I college soccer (Maybe? She says she went to University of Nebraska to play soccer but is not on any of the team’s rosters); has “played every sport but basketball in my lifetime”; despite that previous assertion, has also held a basketball

Intangibles: Intense passion

Unverifiable sports experience aside, Camila has always been a middle-of-the-road Challenge competitor, so her chances in this arena feel slim. She does appear to be part of the Challenge CrossFit Mafia now, which should help her against the pros — but we’ve seen Camila flame out too many times to put any stock in her.

9. Ashley Mitchell

Challenge Rings: 1

Actual Sporting Experience: ???

Intangibles: Used to being underestimated, pretty vicious arguer

Yes, I know Ashley M. literally just won a Challenge on Tuesday night, but be honest — you thought she was going to die in the final too. Nothing against Ashley, a sneaky-smart competitor with surprising stamina who exceeded expectations in Invasion of the Champions, but she just doesn’t have the attributes necessary to take on pro athletes. She’s not out here doing CrossFit all day like Cara Maria — she’s wearing goofy dresses that hold 20 glasses of champagne:

I hope I’m wrong, because I like Ashley’s pluckiness. But I would not bet on her against actual professionals.

8. Veronica Portillo

Challenge Rings: 3

Actual Sporting Experience: ???

Intangibles: Extremely mean, survived a near-death experience, clutch

If this were the 2000s, Veronica would be WAY up near the top. One of the OG Challenge champs, Veronica still holds a share of the women’s record for most Challenge titles. She played the game with a biting edge — both politically and athletically — and stepped up when it mattered. Remember when she won her team a championship by successfully skydiving onto a dartboard? No, you don’t? That’s OK — it happened 17 years ago. And that’s the thing with Veronica: Her last Challenge was The Ruins, eight years ago. We really don’t know what she’s bringing to the table. I will be interested to see if she emotionally batters retired NFLer Kamerion Wimbley until he’s in tears, though.

7. Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio

Challenge Rings: 6

Actual Sporting Experience: Threw first pitch at Triple-A baseball game, appeared in a cross-promotional MLB.com video with San Francisco Giant Hunter Pence

Intangibles: Master tactician, turned Challenge training into a 24-hour job

Yes, Bananas holds the record for most Challenge wins, but this power ranking isn’t ordered by level of tact and strategy — the foundation of Bananas’ strength as a competitor — it’s about who might not die in a battle against pro athletes. I’ve seen CT turn Bananas into a backpack, so my hopes for his abilities against Shawne Merriman are not great. Watch this video, particularly the middle part:

That’s CM Punk (covered in god-knows-what-oh-my-lord-it’s-disgusting) telling Bananas, “You’re a fucking fan! I’ve never heard of you!” Bananas is gonna get roasted this season. I can feel it.

6. Ashley Kelsey

Challenge Rings: 1

Actual Sporting Experience: CrossFit

Intangibles: Underrated willpower, sneaky strength

Ashley K. is a bit of a wild card — she’s appeared on only two Challenges and wasn’t an integral player in either, so it’s hard to gauge her skill set. She’s this high for one reason: After winning The Challenge she got super into CrossFit — like, “people watch videos of me doing CrossFit” into CrossFit. This girl is cut now, and I could see her giving the pro snowboarders and surfers some issues.

5. Wes Bergmann

Challenge Rings: 2

Actual Sporting Experience: High school soccer, high school swimming

Intangibles: Maximum hate-ability, endurance for pain

We’ve seen the worst of Wes:

But we’ve also seen the best of Wes — years of deft political maneuvering and extraordinary physical prowess, like his pole-wrestle elimination win against Derrick, a bulldog of a man, in The Duel. (There is not video of this on the internet, which is a crime to history. How are we going to tell our kids about it?!)

Wes has regularly been a strong Challenge competitor. He was on state championship swimming teams in high school, and he has a gear that flips on in win-or-die situations — the guy has won 13 eliminations. He’s going to be a tough out. Then again, every time I’m close to convincing myself that Wes might be able to beast CM Punk, that image of him collapsed on a hill pulls me back. There is a good chance one of these pro athletes turns Wes into a wheezing, hammy-grabbing mess once again.

4. Jordan Wiseley

Challenge Rings: 1

Actual Sporting Experience: High school baseball, football, and wrestling, college club wakeboarding

Intangibles: Gets under opponents’ skin, overcomes adversity

The seasons of The Challenge starring Jordan could be fairly retitled Everybody Hates Jordan. His ego’s bigger than Kurt Russell’s in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and he seems to take real enjoyment from annoying other people. If this was a power ranking of who I like the least, he’d be at the top of it. But the guy does deserve some credit from an athletic standpoint. Jordan, who was born without fingers on his left hand, has won four out of the five elimination challenges he’s been in, and, along with teammate Sarah, was basically unstoppable in Battle of the Exes II. What’s holding him back is his physical stature. He’s a little shrimpy, which is a problem in a competition featuring two former NFL linebackers.

3. Cara Maria Sorbello

Challenge Rings: 1

Actual Sporting Experience: CrossFit

Intangibles: Can ride a horse, can fit into small places, distractingly red hair

Sure, Cara Maria has only one title, no one on The Challenge ever seems to want to be on her team, and she often lets her emotions hinder her performances. But I mean, look at this:

Or this:

Cara Maria is an athlete who only seems to be getting more athletic. She’s won 12 eliminations out of 17, beating opponents in endurance competitions (Nia in Free Agents) and physical challenges (Aneesa in Bloodlines). I am scared of Cara Maria, and Lolo Jones should be too.

2. Darrell Taylor

Challenge Rings: 4

Actual Sporting Experience: Boxing

Intangibles: Poise, has the clutch gene

Darrell won his first four Challenges in a row; he’s one of the best to ever compete. And he’s a legit boxer, as fellow Challenge cast member Brad can attest to:

(MTV)
(MTV)

Ouch.

Until he reemerged this past season, it seemed Darrell’s competing days were behind him. Before Invasion of the Champions, he hadn’t been on The Challenge in seven years. The same questions I have about Veronica heading into Champs vs. Pros, I had about Darrell. But he proved that he’s been putting in work in his interminable offseason. As the owner of a gym in California, Darrell’s stayed in fighting shape, and he had an easy time on Invasion until running into CT in an elimination challenge. He’s got the pure athleticism, strength, and stamina to match up with any Challenge competitor. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when Darrell is thrown into the ring with someone like CM Punk. He’ll be the underdog for sure, but possibly in the same way the Cavaliers are going to be an underdog against the Warriors.

1. Chris “CT” Tamburello

Challenge Rings: 2

Actual Sporting Experience: Division III college basketball, this picture suggesting he once played a game of softball

Intangibles: Off-the-charts adrenaline, unadulterated rage, adherent to “The Patriot Way”

You’re not going to convince me that anyone should be at the top of this list besides CT. He has the physical stature — 6-foot-1, about 205 pounds; he has the results, notching his second title Tuesday night; he has the Dad Strength; and he has the wow factor, as I’m sure Johnny Bananas will tell you.

Champs vs. Pros is going to be intriguing mainly due to CT, and seeing if his absolute domination of Challenge contestants continues when real pros are in the mix. Imagine CT beating Merriman and doing the “Lights Out” dance. It’s still a long shot, but if anyone’s going to punish a pro athlete, it’s going to be CT.