All sports are currently on hold … except for The Challenge. That’s right: Old favorites like Johnny Bananas, CT, Wes, and Jordan are back, mixing it up with newcomers from Big Brother (Bayleigh Dayton), The Amazing Race (Jennifer Lee), and Survivor (Jay Starrett) for a season they’re calling “Total Madness.” The Ringer staff has no idea what that means, but they do have predictions for the new installment of America’s fifth sport.
1. Who is the odds-on favorite to win The Challenge: Total Madness?
Sean Yoo: The odds-on favorites heading into most seasons of The Challenge are usually the heavy-hitting veterans like Johnny Bananas, CT, and Cara Maria. Two of those three are playing this season, and although Johnny was voted out early in the last few seasons, an individual competition favors both guys, given their ability to dominate challenges, survive eliminations, and stay afloat within the social game. Given their résumé, both guys will have huge targets on their backs. It’ll be a real test to see whether either of these two legends can cement themselves as the Challenge GOAT.
Ben Glicksman: Jordan. He’s won each of the last three Challenges he’s been on, and put on an absolute clinic in War of the Worlds 2. He’s the favorite until someone outdoes his tug-of-war elimination performance from last season.
Mallory Rubin: Jordan Wiseley. My dude has three Challenge titles, a burgeoning cover-song act with fiancée and fellow Challenge competitor Tori, and a confusing but effective I-mean-business facial hair strategy. He’s in his prime and as confident as ever. His competitors will surely target him early, but this is Jordan—he once put himself into an elimination challenge against Bananas just to flex and look tough. Did it work? It did not! Does it matter? It does not! Jordan’s the kind of Challenge competitor who wants the target on his back. As he once put it: “One way or the other, we’re making record books.”
Andrew Gruttadaro: Jordan, CT, and Rogan are the favorites, as far as I’m concerned. But I’m going with the field over those three.
Conor Nevins: Jordan. How can you bet against Jordan after his championship performance in last season’s War of the Worlds 2? Jordan checks all the boxes for a must-watch Challenge competitor: He’s an abrasive, combative personality, usually at the center of the season’s most heated arguments. He’s also a genuinely great athlete and one of the most successful competitors in Challenge history. And he loves eliminations. His victory over Josh in a tug-of-war challenge was a tour de force of skill and strategy. Jordan’s not the most diplomatic player, but his flair for the dramatic and strength as a competitor make him great television and a good bet to win the whole thing.
Juliet Litman: Given that Jordan Wiseley is in the conversation for greatest living athlete—and possibly one of the top 25 athletes of all time—he has to be the favorite. To bet against Jordan is to ignore all fundamental truths of the Challenge universe. When I think of greatness, I think of Jordan swinging the giant hammer in an elimination last season. That was one of the most impressive feats I’ve ever witnessed and is the reason Jordan should never be underestimated. I’m ready to put him on the Challenge GOAT short list (alongside Landon, Alton, Cara Maria, and Johnny Bananas).
2. Will the final feature more Challenge alums or more alums from other shows?
Nevins: To the show’s detriment, risk aversion and strength in numbers have become the surest path to safety and, ultimately, success in The Challenge. It’s a strategy that uplifts experienced alums with built-in relationships—the most predictable part of any season is watching the newest contestants get voted into elimination challenges first. But as TJ said in the promo, he’s sick of people skating by, which might be bad news for those who’ve been doing this the longest.
Glicksman: I’ll say Challenge alums, but I have no clue which show half of these people are from anymore. Shouts to whoever came up with the idea to turn every reality show on the planet into a feeder system for MTV. Brilliant stuff.
Litman: The Challenge has been revived in recent years thanks to their reverse Brexit—an infusion of talent from other shows and other countries, especially the U.K. Thank you, Joss, Kyle, and Kayleigh. Though, while we can’t be sure that Challenge alums will dominate, MTV alums will. The combination of The Challenge and Are You the One? can take down the Big Brother contenders from all countries.
Gruttadaro: Other shows! The Challenge has been rinsing its talent pool ever since Dirty 30, and that’s begun to pay off over the past two seasons, with Turbo winning War of the Worlds and half of the War of the Worlds 2 winners coming from non-Challenge origins. I think that percentage only climbs higher in Total Madness.
Yoo: Ever since The Challenge started incorporating contestants from other reality shows, the only ones who have found real success are the U.K. reality stars and Turbo, whereas the Big Brother folks have struggled to stay in the game. I predict the tide will go back in favor of The Challenge alums this season, as they begin to feel the need to reassert their dominance in this game.
Rubin: Challenge alums, though I’m excited to see what Jay from Survivor gets up to here. Speaking of which: The current Survivor: Winners at War model is probably the best chance the non-Challenge alums have. On Survivor, the New School players who lack comparably deep ties have banded together to eliminate the Old School players with entrenched bonds and alliances. If the Other Show crew does something similar here, they might have a chance.
3. Which legendary Challenge competitor will flame out the earliest?
Gruttadaro: Don’t ask me why, but I’m going with Jordan here.
Yoo: I can’t see Aneesa thriving in an individual competition. It depends on how the voting will play out, but if the onus of the game is on yourself and making it out of an elimination, I don’t see her making it too far this season.
Rubin: I’m very worried about Wes and his incredibly lush beard. But I’ve been Team Wes for much of my life, so I badly hope that I’m wrong! I’m basically approaching this like I do all sporting events in which my cherished teams participate: saying publicly that I fear the worst, so that if things go poorly, I don’t look like a fool (at least for that reason!), and if things go well, I can celebrate the pure joy of exceeded expectations. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. I hope you brought a beard brush with you, Wes.
Litman: Aneesa has given television a lot over the years, from her phone calls to her mom on The Real World: Chicago to her feuds on The Challenge to her messy relationships that carry over to the show. But this season of Survivor has taught me that new players don’t respect their elders, and barring an athletic transformation, I don’t see these new kids appreciating her.
Nevins: Nany. She’s had impressive showings in each of the past two seasons, even if she fell short of the final on both occasions. In War of the Worlds, she benefitted from her partnership with Turbo, a truly transcendent competitor who was a great addition to the franchise because he competed like he was a character from a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie—but unfortunately he never quite understood that he was on a reality television competition and not in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Anyway, Nany was isolated for much of War of the Worlds 2, at odds with the season’s dominant alliance. She did some of her best work under these circumstances, despite not having the benefit of any of the game’s political advantages. So why will she flame out in Total Madness? Two of Nany’s close friends, Jenna and Kailah, will be alongside her, and you have to think they’ll try to leverage their friendship into a potent alliance. But Nany played her best game with her back against the wall—I just don’t see politics playing to her strength.
Glicksman: Ashley, who has a track record of either reaching the final or completely imploding after Episode 2. If she flames out, though, don’t feel too bad: Her combined $1.12 million in Challenge earnings from 2017-18 is nearly equivalent to Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s salary ($1.17 million) over the same two-year span.
4. Who is this season’s breakout star?
Litman: Knowing virtually nothing about Tula, I see “Big T” commanding our attention. A catchy nickname goes a long way.
Glicksman: Faysal Shawn “Fessy” Shafaat, if only because his show bio includes the following passage: “The former Division I football player views The Challenge as his redemption after not getting drafted into the NFL.” Sounds like someone who has his priorities in order. Also, what do we have to do to get Gronk on The Challenge now that his playing days are over?
Nevins: Bear, a veteran of the British reality television circuit who is only on his third Challenge. And what a breath of fresh air he’s been. He brings a pure energy to a franchise that was in danger of becoming too professionalized and stale. He’s a credible competitor, devastatingly handsome, utterly repugnant in many aspects of his character, but charmingly endearing in others. He’s a fabulous interview and relishes mixing it up with the competition’s stalwarts. But mostly, he’s really just interested in hanging out by the pool, having a drink, and trying to hook up. The show needs that kind of energy.
Gruttadaro: Jay Starrett, the Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X alum who I think is going to be sneaky athletic and sneaky dramatic. He’s a lithe dude with a kind face who seems like a good guy—until maybe he isn’t?
Yoo: Mattie! She’s probably the most physically dominant female on the show. We’ve already seen her outperform her fellow competitors in her first season, and the sky’s the limit for her as long as she can stay in the game on the social side of things. If I had to choose a rookie who will break out this season, I think I have to go with Faysal Shawn “Fessy” Shafaat, solely on the fact that he competed on American Ninja Warrior.
Rubin: I have incredibly high hopes for Asaf, who has now been on more reality shows than I can track. The Israeli heartthrob won over legions in his first MTV go-round on Are You the One? and is also part of the Big Brother, Ninja Warrior, and So You Think You Can Dance? families. And now he’s introducing long hair to the equation! He feels like a lock to end up in a showmance and beef with a big-wig vet who wants Asaf to fall in line—and while I realize that describes nearly every person on the show, I just can’t shake the feeling that Asaf’s going to dance his way into a memorable Challenge debut.
5. Who is most likely to disappoint TJ Lavin?
Yoo: Rule no. 1: Never disappoint TJ Lavin. Looking at the cast list, the only person who has previously disappointed TJ is Ashley. She’s complained heavily in previous challenges, and even though she’s a former winner, she’s also a notorious quitter.
Nevins: Rogan. TJ said he was sick of competitors “skating by” and Rogan, last season’s champion, is Exhibit A, B, and C of the kind of strategy that allows players to advance without truly testing their merit.
Rubin: If there’s one thing TJ absolutely will not abide, it’s a quitter. And in the season trailer, we appear to see and hear two concerning things back to back: first—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—Zach and Jenna fighting about their relationship and then TJ saying, “Do you want to quit, Jenna?” Maybe this is just season-preview editing magic, a Bachelor-style “This season on” feint to get us to anticipate something that will never come. I hope so, because I want Jenna to stay and fight for her prize. But the answer to this question is “whoever quits,” and based on the preview footage alone, Jenna seems to be in the running for that dishonor. Again, I hope I’m wrong!
Glicksman: Cory, Kailah, or both. Whoever it is, I hope they inspire TJ to top his iconic “Don’t take care, hope to see you never” speech from a few seasons back.
Gruttadaro: I’m picking a rookie because I trust the vets to fully comprehend the cosmic consequences of quitting on TJ; I’m going with Bayleigh Dayton from Big Brother 20 here, who’s going to stage a walkout when her Big Brother boyfriend Swaggy C gets sent home. And then TJ will be all, “You serious?”
Litman: Kailah is a disappointment to us all.
6. Will you miss Cara Maria and Paulie or are you relieved they’re not playing this season?
Yoo: HELL NO! Cara Maria and Paulie made the last few seasons of The Challenge almost unbearable, and I hope they take a few more seasons off to deal with their issues. It’s team Tori and Jordan all the way.
Nevins: It seems counterintuitive, but I think it’s possible for one to become too good at being on a competitive reality television show. Cara Maria appeared genuinely bored and disinterested for much of last season, and Paulie, well … all that try-hard showmanship left him a little gassed when it mattered most. They both could use a break from the franchise for one season, at least.
Litman: I’ve still not forgiven Cara for boycotting Tori and Jordan’s engagement party. She has morphed from impressive Fresh Meat kid, to one half of a compelling and mystifying couple (with Abram), to legitimate competitor, to legitimate favorite, to intolerable reality TV personality who needs to log off. Even worse, Paulie has never been interesting. They won’t be missed.
Glicksman: I’ll miss rooting against them. I won’t miss Paulie’s bizarre obsession with headbutting people, though.
Gruttadaro: BRING ON THE FRESH MEAT! But seriously, the only way to guarantee that The Challenge continues in perpetuity (as it should) is by introducing new competitors in favor of staid, now-annoying standards.
Rubin: I’m just waiting for Abram to come back.
7. What is your dream scenario for Johnny Bananas and Wes this season?
Rubin: I’d like CT to once again break out the Bananas Backpack, and for it to somehow result in Wes staying in the game long enough to tell us about his 12 new business ventures.
Nevins: They’re the most recognizable and well-known personalities in the franchise’s history, yet so much of their character capital is invested in their hatred and distrust of the other. It’s time to break the cycle. They’re both too compelling in their own right, and too essential to the season’s narrative arc to destroy each other—and they’re also too old. They should turn Total Madness into a pilot for their two-man Laurel and Hardy–style comedy spinoff series and join forces.
Yoo: Bearded Wes needs to go far this season. I mean, have you seen this beard? It’s hard to imagine these two bitter rivals teaming up, but if they want to go far in this game, I think it would be a great strategic move for them to flip the script and join forces. You can call the duo “Bearded Bananas.”
Litman: As a passionate Wes defender who is relieved that Swole Wes gave way to Normal Wes, I’d like to see him take out Johnny one last time. Send these two to an elimination in Week 3—just enough Bananas and early-season intrigue. Even the rookies know to take both of these guys out before the final.
Gruttadaro: I want to see them in an elimination against each other, with the winner going to the final. I also want to see Bananas shave Wes’s Yukon Cornelius beard while he’s sleeping.