In Wrestling, the term Baby-Face gets defined as: “A headlining wrestler with a persona embodying heroic or virtuous traits and who is regarded as a “good guy,” especially one who is handsome and well-conditioned.” Generally, the best babyfaces are those underdogs overcoming the odds or superhero-like figures who stay on a path of hard-work/morality. On the Challenge, many of the greatest players skew the lines and are often more in the Tweener/Heel category. For this article, I decided to go through the history of the show and look back at some of the players who either were consistently beloved throughout their time on the show or hit a phase in their career where they were easily one of the most rooted for players by a majority fandom. I dug through various social media and went through old posts to see the difference between positive and negative posts regarding players on top of my subjective expertise and judgment.
Also, if you don’t like good guys, watching my video breaking down 5 (I guess 6) of the Best Villains in Challenge history. If you could drop a Like and a Subscribe, it’d be very appreciated!
Something I want to note is that I’m personally frustrated by the lack of people of color in the top 10. A lot of it came down to the fact that this fandom and most of this country are generally harsher in criticism towards people of color, and also, the MTV casting itself hasn’t always been the most favorable towards them. For example, Kam and Da’Vonne are awesome and powerful females who get inundated with hate. With Kam, it’s awful to scroll through Twitter and Facebook to see people talking about a woman striving to get her master’s degree and starting her own business, commonly get referred to as speaking “ghetto.” Comments like those speak volumes about the world we still live in.
With that out of the way, here are some honorable mentions:
Darrell Taylor — Probably my worst omission. It’s weird because Darrell is more popular and appreciated now than in his prime.
Paula Meronek — Overcoming anorexia is enormous; however, she didn’t always keep the best company or have the best actions.
Leroy Garrett — The fact he’s beloved despite being Johnny Bananas’ best friend means a lot; although, he is still Bananas best friend.
Big T — When I first made this rough draft, Double Agents hadn’t premiered, and with each episode, it feels more and more like she should be on this list.
CJ Koegel — Not enough sample size, and also, people forget he was #1 allies with Frank/Team San Diego; it wasn’t like they were rivals.
Emily Schromm & Jenny West — Great players who never felt too popular. Well-liked for sure.
Mark Long — He’s got enough good stuff going for him in his life.
Jonna Mannion — Underrated queen.
Dad Bod CT — Still has a little bit of the old CT in him from time to time.
10 Landon Lueck
While Landon was a bit problematic on the Real World when drunk, his overall depiction on the Challenge was that of a good guy superhero-figure. He was physically an elite competitor, who statistically is unimpeachably one of the best men to ever compete on the show. For those who loved the pure competitive element of the show, Landon was the perfect player. No BS, just compete. He’s the Challenge competitor you bring home to mom.
His most impressive run was his final season, Fresh Meat. Landon got Carley Johnson as a partner, and Carley was the worst player during the FM draft/combine. Similar to Casey, Carley could not climb over the giant wall in the obstacle course. Despite this, Landon was still able to win two eliminations, a daily challenge, and most importantly, THE FINAL (against Kenny/Laurel, too!). Every step of the way, Landon was completely supportive towards Carley, and when needed, pushed his limits as much as possible, often carrying as much of Carley’s weight so she could play at her peak level. Landon was the perfect partner and someone everyone could root for without worrying that he would do something massively problematic.
9 Jenna Compono (Bloodlines-Rivals 3 era)
The Challenge casts in 2016 were at an all-time low with Battle of the Bloodlines and Rivals 3. Due to that, Jenna Compono somewhat inadvertently took advantage of this weak period and began to shine as one of the show’s top female competitors. Her rookie season Exes 2 painted her as a hot dumb tall girl with a cute butt that the men were obsessed with. However, she and Jay quit the final in an embarrassing fashion. That moment honestly helped her because it painted her as a lay-up, which is important because America loves a good underdog story. When she won three eliminations on Battle of the Bloodlines and made the final of both that season and Rivals 3, people fell in love with her because the girl who “quit” is now somehow this Barbie Beast.
The Barbie part is essentially vital to Jenna because as much as people love underdogs, they want something aesthetically pleasing when purchasing products/choosing who to root for, and Jenna filled that checkbox. Add that Jenna didn’t have much personality, which is perfect for some people because they project how they want to feel about someone they love, even if it isn’t necessarily accurate. She was white bread in a way that wasn’t bad; people saw her as a blank slate they could apply whatever misnomer on, similar to how anyone could put anything on a slice of white bread: butter, jelly, meat, vegemite, etc. As time has passed, Jenna’s white bread taste has become a bit stale as people want more flavor, yet, you can’t deny that in 2016–17 she was a top seller.
8 Svetlana Shusterman
What did I say about people loving hot underdogs? Jodi was easily the best player on the Duel, and the gap between her and the rest of the women was quite large. Svetlana was as good as the other second tier of women (Kina, Robin, Diem, etc.), except she was a rookie and not part of their friendship/alliance. Thus, she and Aneesa got forced to go into almost every other Duel, winning three eliminations each. Fans found themselves rooting for Svetlana because she kept pushing forward with the odds against her, was one of the most attractive humans in Challenge history, and perfectly played that underdog role. Svetlana’s second-place finish had people clamoring for literally over a decade for her to come back, with MTV calling her every season since, hoping she would appear.
It’s a running joke at this point that whenever a new season happens, Svetlana’s name is on the not likely to appear list.
7 Turbo Kamkiran (War of the Worlds 1)
Turbo had a fascinating situation during his first season of the Challenge. He had a large pre-existing Turkish fandom that treated him like a God as a two-time Survivor winner (Survivor in Turkey is similar to American Idol with fan votes deciding players’ fates). Along with that, spoilers leaked harder than ever, and a significant portion of fans knew Turbo was winning the entire time. Due to this, a tremendous amount of bandwagon fans jumped on the train, and suddenly, this rookie, Turbo, becomes one of the most rooted for players in recent history.
MTV edited this guy to look like a superhero, even adding in sound and visual effects by shooting fireballs out of his hands, which turned the guy into an almost cartoon figure. Turbo being a supportive partner towards Nany earned him love with fans after so many men on this show have been toxic towards their female counterparts over the years. One of the moments that helped Turbo was Ninja Natalie and then later Dee blowing upon him due to the perception Turbo wasn’t trying hard enough in a daily challenge where they were partnered together (when in reality, he was working hard and smart). Since most people disliked Ninja Natalie, Turbo proving her wrong by winning the challenge for them and being a fantastic all-around competitor put him on the top of the pedestal. His approval rating would dip significantly after War of the Worlds 2, but WOTW 1 Turbo had overwhelming fan support across continents.
6 Cohutta Grindstaff
One of the great travesties in Challenge history is that Cohutta has only been on four seasons. He is easy to root for as he is a solid competitor, has hilarious confessionals, and is a charming Southern Gentleman. Cohutta being smaller in size/stature only had fans more invested in him because he visibly looked like an underdog yet had the calm demeanor of a goliath.
What puts him over someone like Ace Amerson, who fit a similar personality archetype, is that Cohutta was good enough as a competitor to root for, even with the odds always stacked against him. His elimination win over Wes (Wes was 8–0 at the time) on the Ruins cemented his place in Challenge history as maybe the best elimination upset ever.
5 Alton Williams (not Battle of the Seasons 2012)
While the MTV editing team tried to portray Turbo as a superhero by adding sound effects and fireballs when competing, Alton was like a real-life superhero in his prime on this show. Alton was one of the top competitors and acted as a leader for whatever team he was on. He was the Rookie Team Captain on Gauntlet 2 for the entire duration, and going against him in elimination was a death sentence, where you could tell Alton felt terrible for he was going against.
Alton did all the jaw-dropping athletic feats CT did, except without beating people up and treating women like garbage. One of my all-time favorite Challenge moments was his cargo-climb elimination against Adam King, where he let Adam pick the game he felt most comfortable in and then completely smoked him. TJ was so shocked he tried to make Adam not feel bad about his performance, citing nobody but Alton could ever climb the net that fast.
4 Sarah Greyson
Sarah appeared on one season, Gauntlet 1, and was one of the all-time great underdogs. An added layer to her story is that she had gotten voted off Road Rules Campus Crawl for being the worst in missions/not working out. Gauntlet 1 was the first season to have eliminations, and Sarah kept voting into elimination again and again as she was perceived to be the weakest member of her team. Sarah set the record for most elimination wins with 5, and to this day is still tied for the record almost 30 seasons later.
To add to the underdog story, the Gauntlet was genderless. Sarah eliminated two men straight up! There is a decent portion of casual fans who stopped watching the Challenge once the Fresh Meat got integrated into the show/after Road Rules ended. Yet, if you bring up the Challenge to them, they might remember Sarah Greyson. You could make the argument that her winning all those elimination and it being such a success from a story-telling perspective is why MTV kept the elimination format as a standard for most seasons going forward to the present day.
3 Derrick Kosinski
Gauntlet 2 Derrick winning four eliminations and going into five total and consistently beating men twice his size is and was legendary. Over Challenge history, Derrick has had a consistently high approval rating due to his gutsy performance in eliminations. He is just generally a cool guy and family man who is completely appreciative towards his fans. There isn’t much to say since all you need to do is watch Derrick’s performances and eliminations to understand why he is beloved. Derrick is the Challenge competitor you show your kids to prove that no matter the odds stacked against you, you can overcome them and that size doesn’t always matter.
Captain Derrick on Gauntlet 2 is the peak for him of what is a generally beloved career.
2 Cara Maria Sorbello (Free Agents Era)
Between Fresh Meat 2 and Rivals 2 (her first 6 seasons), Cara Maria had a decent following that loved her a lot because she had an alternative look to her and was seemingly picked on every season (even by her partners). She was an underdog, but not a widely beloved underdog since she consistently partnered with strong people and was commonly seen as an anchor to them. Around the end of Rivals 2, you could feel the tides turning a bit more positive, and she was breaking into a more featured role. Free Agents hits, and Cara is more confident, is in the best shape of her life, and comes in with her best friend and former rival Laurel. Cara then wins two eliminations early in the season, one of them being an all-time battle against Nia. Despite being much smaller, she wins the reverse tug of war type battle after going against one another for almost two hours and having literal rope burns and battle scars afterward.
Cara’s popularity grew immensely with that win, and it didn’t stop there. Her and Laurel’s friendship devolving on the show with Laurel treating Cara poorly and even prioritizing someone like Jessica Mccain at times over her despite their real-life relationship endeared Cara to fans. Due to Cara’s performance on the show becoming better and better, she became a believable underdog who could win, and when you put her up against a megalith like Laurel, the more you want to see that underdog win. Once again, the one thing people love more than an underdog is an attractive and talented person they’ve convinced themselves is one, and Cara spent multiple seasons crafting the narrative, and now suddenly, this girl who was the #1 Fresh Meat draft pick and has perfect jaw structure is realizing her potential. Then… it happened.
She breaks her hand in her elimination with Jessica Mccain (that she won)! If you didn’t already fall in love with Cara, your heart went out for her at that moment. However, it wasn’t the end of her season since she decided to keep playing with a broken hand! Holy shit, Cara had fans in the palm of her hands with this choice because now we have a hot and crippled underdog who won three eliminations and is also best friends CT (got to remember being CT’s friend boosts your popularity 10 points). Johnny Bananas helps her even more by voting her into elimination with the broken hand, and then in the elimination itself, she faces Laurel in Wrecking Wall, a game that requires you to punch holes through a wall, and this girl has a broken hand. Legitimately, you could not have written a better story to make this woman simultaneously so sympathizable and so badass. If they sold Challenge merch, Free Agents Cara shirts would’ve doubled in sales over the next highest person. It peaked at Free Agents but stayed relatively high until about Final Reckoning and has dipped precipitously more recently, yet, even then, she still has loads of fans from that Free Agents run alone.
1 Diem Brown
What do I need to say? Battling cancer multiple times and then coming on the Challenge where she always put in 110% to every aspect of the game makes Diem the easiest to root for competitor all-time. Then you add in all the stories of Diem affecting people’s lives in positive ways, where she had these deep and intimate relationships, and it’s stack this woman up even higher. Diem was friends with JEK, Wes, and CT, all at the same time as they actively hated one another because she didn’t care about their drama; she cared about her individual relationships with one another. Cara Maria’s thanksgiving story is one of the best descriptors of the person Diem was:
Her popularity was always high, and especially on Duel 1, where she courageously took her wig off in the first water challenge of the season, and then the rekindling of her relationship with CT on Exes 1 is another season where the two of them do so much heavy-lifting for the show. RIP Diem.
In my original rough draft, I had Coral Smith as my #2 originally, and then as the list kept changing and changing over multiple drafts, she slipped off by accident in my notes. If you are a massive Coral fan, I apologize. She’s a bad ass who does not wrestle, but beats bitches up.