Top 10 Best Political Players in MTV Challenge History
Today’s list focuses on the Top 10 political players in Challenge history. Part of making this focuses on the success players achieved and they moves they created. Normally, I have a long intro, but I think this one speaks for itself.
Shane Landrum — I love Shane. He made it far into both Battle of the Sexes, and he was the brains of the Lavender Lady alliance. An alliance that finished first and second on Final Reckoning, and went far into Invasion. I can’t put him on the top 10 when he never made a final.
Sarah Rice — Savvy player. At her peak (Exes 2), she played one of the best political games ever. She did rub some people wrong in her early seasons, and it was more her abilities as a competitor that carried her. Had she gotten to play Rivals 3 without Bananas, she’d be in the top 10.
Darrell Taylor — Conservative player. He should get a mention as someone who won his first four seasons in a row, only seeing one elimination in the period.
Devyn Simone — Great politician or a lay-up? The Kill Card draw allowed her to avoid some eliminations.
Jordan Wiseley — The guy has a ridiculous BS meter and rallied to get Bananas voted into elimination twice in the early game of Free Agents.
Kailah Casillas — She is willing to make big moves. Initiated vote to purge Cara on Dirty 30 and was a significant reason Bananas got blindsided on Vendettas. Wanted to do Jenny vs. Tori on Total Madness, but her and Nany’s loyalty to Jenna outweighed the choice.
Kam Williams — Great political potential. Sadly, she’s been in way too many eliminations early in her career.
Evan Starkman — He should be in the top 10, but because Kenny is on the top 10, I did not want to be redundant or count the two as one entity. Evan was the better all-around player and had more of a mind for strategy. The problem is, Evan also made more enemies than Kenny, and that matters. Kenny’s approval rating was pretty unanimous, as he even those who were team Wes would probably find themselves laughing at some of Kenny’s one-liners.
10 Frank Sweeney
Did Frank play an ugly game on Battle of the Seasons where he’d fight with people by throwing constant low blows? Yes. Was his style of gameplay where he created a monster alliance and then picked off the veteran teams boring and off-putting to casual fans? Yes. Was what he achieved iconic? Absolutely.
Entering Battle of the Seasons 2012, Frank saw that most of the teams in the game were rookies or second-time players. He took this opportunity to spearhead a giant alliance with Frank as the head of the snake. With it, they had Team’s Austin and Fresh Meat completely wiped out after the first four episodes; they took many shots at both Team Vegas and Brooklyn. There were many moments of weakness for Team San Diego, but part of that is Frank was such a prominent character that opposing teams wanted to take their shot at them. It’s unprecedented for a rookie to run the game politically, and he did it. Yes, he came off as an asshole, mostly because he was. However, the guy dominated the season politically, physically matched his political game, and got the win on his rookie season. That’s pretty spectacular.
The next season, he and Bananas benefited from one another’s connections in the house. They made it to the final, never seeing an elimination.
9 Tori Hall
She played three seasons, won twice, and made it to final five of the other. Many fans did not like Tori because of a perceived notion that she was holding Brad back when in actuality, she was often elevating his gameplay. Brad was a great athlete; he was an awful political player who either got his legs cut from under him or whose kindness got taken advantage of. Tori wasn’t someone you could push around. She understood her value and wanted everyone else to know, as well. Tori was the #1 pick of the Cutthroat draft, ahead of Laurel. During the season, she called the shots for her team, where she made damn sure that Brad never saw an elimination.
It infuriated fans that Brandon and Camila kept going into eliminations, and fans resented Tori as they painted her as a villain. In reality, she was tired of watching her husband lose all these seasons in a row and genuinely wanted him to get a win and also a nice paycheck finally. Hell, she even considered throwing her elimination against Theresa because it would theoretically help Brad’s chance of winning the final more. The proper political game is not always the game that fans cheer for.
8 Jenn Grijalva
She made the final in 4 out of her last 5 seasons (Island, Fresh Meat 2, Cutthroat, Rivals 1). Jenn was able to make these finals by establishing herself as one of the bigger female voices of the era. What I will note is that Jenn annoyed fans as she would somewhat act entitled and constantly repeat a rhetoric of rookies needing to bow down to veterans and be ready to volunteer/see eliminations before any vet would. In Jenn’s defense, she did see six eliminations in her first two seasons that had eliminations, so I guess she did “earn her stripes.” It was an effective playstyle. Jenn carried herself like a top player and got treated like one, even if she wasn’t. She was the third overall female picked in the Cutthroat draft, right behind Laurel, and ahead of players like Sarah and Paula (technically ahead of Theresa, Emily, and Cara, but they weren’t known commodities yet).
The primary argument against Jenn’s game is that she came in last place for all her finals. It’s a fair point. Yet, when you look at the circumstances around her and the field of competition, that’s more Jenn the physical competitors’ fault, and not the political player. In no world does her Island team beat Derrick, Kenny, Evelyn, and Johnny. Her and Noor were good, but not better than Landon/Carley, Kenny/Laurel, or Pete/Jill. Those three teams were stacked (or carried by Landon). For Cutthroat, it was two females going up against co-ed teams of four and five. On Rivals 1, Jenn was medically advised not to compete, and they went up against Evely/Paula and Laurel/Cara, four of the ten best female competitors all-time. The fact Jenn played double agent for Wes and navigated both sides of the Kenny/Wes alliances is underrated. On her Cutthroat team, it was never a thought for Jenn to ever even see an elimination. During Rivals, Laurel and Cara weren’t able to convince the men that they deserved to avoid the final elimination over Jenn and Mandi. Jenn put in work.
7 Wes Bergmann
Some people might be wondering why is Wes so low on this list? Well, it’s more of the fact that Wes has seen a total of 22 eliminations. Not to mention, between the end of his Fresh Meat 2 run and Battle of the Seasons (four seasons for Wes), there was a stretch where he was eligible for eight eliminations and went to six of them. The stat is a ton of cherry-picking, but it’s something that has never gotten replicated. He’s been a first or second male boot three times.
Despite all these red flags, he still deserves the #7 spot and probably more because when Wes’s political game gets rolling, he is an absolute joy to watch. On the Duel, he created a minority alliance with Svetlana, Nehemiah, and Aneesa to guarantee they would call each others names in schoolyard picks. He cut a deal with Evan, where if Wes would go after Derrick/Brad, that Evan would pick CT. That’s like me telling my mom that me washing my dish equates to her cooking dinner. Wes was already going to call those two out if he had to. Except Wes’s deal got Evan to either take himself or CT out. He successfully got Darrell out first on Fresh Meat 2 and masterfully played both Exes 2 and War of the Worlds 1.
His Exes 2 game was absolutely beautiful. He made it to final four knocking out Bananas, somehow made Leroy loyal ally, and had a lay-up team in Jay/Jenna prepped to either roll over in the final, or to face in the final elimination. I could go into incredible detail about all his moves, as Wes’s best version might be the best political player in Challenge history. The problem is he has a laundry list of bad losses.
6 Mark Long
It never really felt at any point that Mark Long feared getting thrown into elimination during his Challenge career. The guy was known as the “Godfather” for a reason. He was the reality television veteran who people could go to for advice and was everyone’s friend. It also helped the guy was 6'3, jacked, and killed the daily challenges. His social game and physical abilities carried him more than his political skills.
What gets Mark on this list is his history of deal-making to assure himself the best payday possible. On Battle of the Sexes 2, Mark cut a deal to exit at the final four, where the three male winners would split their winnings evenly with him. During the Duel 2, he got Brad and Evan to agree to split the total bounty among the three of them regardless of the finish. He also likely cut a deal to let Bananas get the final elimination win on Exes 1. The guy was always in contention to win, and when he didn’t, he assured that he got paid.
5 Ashley Mitchell
Ashley has had a weird Challenge career where it’s been very boom or bust. There are three seasons where’s she been an early boot or quit, and then a 3x Finalist and 2x Champ in her other seasons. She puts a massive target on herself as she is willing to fight and get into drama with anyone. Ashley struggles playing from the bottom because of her volatility and anxiousness. When Ashley is in the middle or on top, she does remarkably well.
Ashley succeeds at being able to embed a good amount of trust within her alliances while playing for herself most of the time. On Invasion, Sylvia was one of her best friends, but kind of got used as a meatshield. Amanda actively chose to team up against Nicole in the elimination even though Ashley was struggling far more. In the end, Ashley got to the final and won, while her friends still cheered for her in the end. Likewise, Amanda wouldn’t let Zach throw in Ashley and Hunter on Final Reckoning, and it was Sylvia who eliminated Bananas/Tony. Her friends have taken many bullets for her when Ashley hasn’t. It’s not the fairest form of alliance reciprocity.
Nonetheless, it results in winning, and Ashley is a 2x Champ who’s taken home over 1.1 million dollars from the franchise. War of the Worlds 2 was her most impressive feat as she aligned with Cara after a vicious social media feud between the two during Final Reckoning. Ashley adapted and was able to make the final playing a different style of game.
4 Veronica Portillo
Veronica has been a potent political player when playing from both the top and the bottom. During her “prime” years, she was Queen V, as she was at the top of the social hierarchy, leader of the mean girls (her, Rachel, and Tina), and at one point held the record for most seasons competed on for a female. During her original seven-season run, Veronica went to four finals and won three seasons. In her three seasons with eliminations, the only elimination Veronica had to go into was the Inferno 2, where Jodi made a rogue call out that infuriated her team. Veronica won that elimination and made it to the final, where Tonya and Tina ultimately sunk her team.
On the Inferno 1, Veronica got voted into two eliminations, except she had enough power to get her team to throw the daily challenges to guarantee Veronica would get the lifesaver, and so they could also potentially get Katie off the team for the final. During the Ruins, Veronica used her showmance with Evan to force a tie vote that led to Ibis getting blindsided and elimination (also giving Veronica an extra week). Veronica played most of Dirty 30 on her own and was more upset that people in the game were often reliant on a hive mind type game. She made a power move in the end-game by taking advantage of a Britni burn vote on Leroy to force a second vote, which resulted in Leroy getting voted in, instead of Hunter. Now, Hunter ended up getting voted in regardless via the double-cross, but Veronica shook up the game and forced people to make a decision versus going with the easy play. Veronica is someone who makes strong political moves when given the opportunity; it’s just the fact that you need to win daily challenges in the modern era to do so.
3 Coral Smith
During the Gauntlet 1 and Inferno 1, eliminations were gender-less. Due to this, the prevailing strategy was to throw women into eliminations to trim the fat for the final. Coral made both finals as the only female on her team (they threw in males before Coral), both because she was good at the daily challenges, and because she carried herself like a leader. She made it to the final of Battle of the Sexes 2, which is remarkably impressive when you consider only 3 out of 18 females made it, and there were 15 vote outs. The Battle of the Sexes formats yielded the least finalists compared to cast size at 16% (1/6). Even the original Duel with the two finalists per gender produced a 20% chance of making the final.
Coral made it to the final of her first four seasons and was dominating Fresh Meat 1. Fresh Meat 1 only opened up after Coral and Evan left the game. The blemish on Coral’s record is the fact she quit on the Gauntlet 3 because she was on the bottom of the totem pole, and put into multiple eliminations as the Vets were attempting to “trim” the fat. In actuality, Coral probably was the second or third best girl on their team, and they did not need to throw her in. What put Coral on the bottom is she wouldn’t tolerate the chauvinism of her male cast members, especially CT. CT’s was belligerently off the hinges this particular season, and throw in JEK, and it’s a toxic cesspool if you’re aren’t willing to meet their demands. Coral took her ball and went home.
2 Johnny Bananas
His politics sucked for most of his early career. He was a jackass who was an early exit twice and almost got voted off the Island when Abram was literally asking people to vote him out because he was quitting. What he did to turn around his career is leach of Kenny and be the little fish eating Kenny’s leftover scraps. At that point in time, Bananas never had a chance of being a leader or top dog, so he did the next best thing, bandwagon onto someone else who was. He became a 2–3 Champ running with Kenny, and once Kenny got banned, Bananas was able to do an impression of Kenny.
I will note, once Bananas got into that central figure role, he did a damn good of holding onto it. On Battle of the Bloodlines, he avoided eliminations by cutting a deal with Aneesa and then gave himself more time by playing up the Abram/Thomas/Cara drama. It was enough of a distraction to get him to the final five, and very close to an additional. He never even whiffed an elimination on Rivals 2. Even though Cory put him #1 on his hit list on Dirty 30, Bananas managed to get to the final four males (pre-redemption) and only saw an elimination because of a 50–50 a Double Cross pull. He consistently made deals on Rivals 3 whenever a rogue team won a daily challenge to ensure safety, even though he and Sarah were far and away the most significant threats. From the Island to Free Agents, he won 5 out of 7 seasons, a mark that will likely never happen again. The guy keeps allies around him who don’t aspire to usurp him (Kyle, Leroy, Reilly). He consistently burns people who have his back the following seasons.
The best and worst part about his game is his total bitterness. When someone wrongs him, he goes after them or throws digs at them on social media, and creates an image of a player that he wants casual fans to see. It’s very Donald Trumpian, where if he says something enough, it sometimes catches on. The way he treated Sarah after Exes 2 and Rivals 3 was over-dramatic and painted her as this backstabber when she was just playing the game. Yet, it’s a useful style of play because nobody wants to receive the treatment he gave to Sarah. The ugly games are sometimes the best.
1 Kenny Santucci
He played 8 seasons of the Challenge and made it to 7 finals. Nobody else in Challenge history has ever made 7 out of 8 finals, even if you isolate a dominant stretch of their career. Kenny socially and politically dominated an era of the Challenge. What ranks Kenny over Evan is that Kenny never had the target on his back that Evan did. Kenny also did a much better job of bridging his allies together. His alliance was known as “JEK,” except Johnny and Evan would often bicker, and it was Kenny who would keep them together.
In his final six seasons, Kenny only went into one elimination via vote-in, and that was when Wes had his giant alliance on Fresh Meat 2. During the Island, he mocked people like Johnny was, except he never once feared to lose his key and convinced multiple players to bend to his will. If you think people giving up Red Skull chances in 2020 is crazy, Kenny convinced Derrick to compete in a face-off to double the odds that Johnny could get his key back from Evelyn, and he strong-armed Ryan into taking KellyAnne’s key.
There is no indication that Kenny wouldn’t have kept dominating either. Who’s to say he wouldn’t have been making more finals? I’m glad Kenny (and Evan) got banned because even though he was individually charismatic, he created a very competitively dull and toxic era of the show.