The Challenge’s Ten Most Improved Competitors

Henry L DiMaria
14 min readApr 18, 2023

It has been a little while now since the Ride or Dies finale and it still feels weird to say that Devin is a Challenge Champion. Had you gone back in time just a few years ago and told the majority of Challenge fans that fact, they would have said you were being ridiculous.

He is not the first player to make vast improvements over the course of their Challenge career. In fact, many players have gone from zero to hero, including some of the best players of all time. This brings up the question- where does Devin’s improvement stack up when compared to the others that made huge strides over the course of Challenge history?

10. Josh Martinez

Hear me out, Josh is still not somebody who I consider an elite competitor, or even a particularly good one. However, he has genuinely made a significant improvement over the course of his Challenge career. He started out in one of the most humiliating ways possible on the show; by losing the opening purge and being first out on War of the Worlds. Josh was returned to the game only by the grace of Alan becoming injured. Josh has two major flaws as a competitor. The first is that he is not a natural athlete and often moves awkwardly and the second is that he has a tendency to panic and get flustered which causes him to make mistakes. However, Josh has steadily improved his physical fitness to the point where he is capable of winning daily challenges and even finally took home an elimination win during Double Agents. It is arguably true that he has not improved to the same level as others, but considering where Josh started in The Challenge and where he is now his improvement is definitely significant. Josh could certainly be called ‘The Goof’ of the bunch, but he has still made big strides to make himself a significantly better competitor than the version of himself who lost the War of the Worlds opening purge.

9. Nany González

Although Nany has become one of the major faces of The Challenge franchise now for the better part of a decade, that has been mostly due to her dynamic personality and tendency to be involved in the drama rather than her game-play or competition ability. She showed flashes as a competitor through her first few seasons but was not great, as she went just 1–5 in eliminations in her first five seasons.

Nany has made enormous strides, particularly in her political game which has helped her make three straight finals. She has also significantly improved as a physical competitor. She notably showed that improvement this past season on Ride or Dies, where she won three eliminations and finished second place in the difficult 100-hour final. Nany started as someone who was brought back on the show for her drama and hookups but has grown into one of the best political players and just had arguably her best season as a physical competitor.

8. Tony Raines

At first, from Tony’s sheer physical appearance, it looked like he was going to be a strong contender. He did not live up to those expectations through his first few seasons, as his messiness and boneheaded decision-making repeatedly got in his way. On night one of Battle of the Bloodlines, he cheated on his pregnant girlfriend when he hooked up with Christina and then got into a physical altercation with his younger brother Shane, which made him a big target. He later made another boneheaded decision when he refused medical attention and later collapsed due to a ruptured spleen getting him and his brother DQed. On Rivals III Tony got in another fight, this time with his partner Camila, which had them both sent home.

After another couple of up-and-down seasons, on Vendettas Tony finally managed to cement himself as a top challenge competitor. He won the most daily challenges that season and made his first final, although he majorly disappointed. After his strong run on Vendettas, Tony returned for the Champs vs Stars 2 spin-off and this time he made the final and took home the win. Tony came back for one more season, Final Reckoning, where he, (and his partner Bananas), were one of the best competitors winning two daily challenges and a redemption over Nelson & Shane. Tony grew from an emotionally messy underperformer to one of the top competitors and a big threat to win.

7. Melinda Stolp

At one point Melinda was someone I had written off as one of the worst competitors, even putting her on My list of Ten Challenge Contestants who were on Too Many Seasons. To be fair, at that time she had appeared on four seasons with an 0–4 elimination record and was often seen as a physical liability. On The Gauntlet III for example she was on a team dominated by her Real World: Austin cast mates and was still not able to make her way to the final. Similarly on Cutthroat, Melinda was on a team full of her friends and was sent into an elimination over rookie Camila.

When she appeared on the All Stars 2 cast list I was quite disappointed since my expectations were for her to be the same as she was during her original run. Melinda smashed those expectations, proving herself to be one of the top competitors that season. Paired with her close friend Nehemiah, they won an elimination, won the final daily challenge, and finished first in part one of the final even despite an injured ankle. I was excited when she returned for All Stars 3 but unfortunately, she had to leave after reaggravating that same ankle injury. Melinda went from being one of the least successful contestants of all time to someone I really want to see back for a future All Stars season or possibly return for an MTV season.

6. Devin Walker

Devin started his Challenge career in an incredibly lackluster fashion. During his first season on Rivals III, he should have been one of the first boots but by the grace of many quits and DQs, Devin got a second chance and reentered the game. Although he made the final, that was due to an obscene amount of luck. He and rival partner Cheyenne, avoided five eliminations by pure chance and finished a distant third place in the final. He returned for Dirty 30 and had another disappointing finish, losing the opening purge and then failing to earn his way back into the game in the redemption challenge. By far, his best season to that point was on Vendettas where he won two daily challenges and eliminated his rival, Johnny Bananas, in an elimination. Devin still fell short back then, getting purged in the Help Me, Rhonda mini-final. He had another two disappointing seasons on Champs vs Stars 2 & Final Reckoning and then took a few seasons off.

Devin showed that he had advanced to another level when he returned for Double Agents and Spies, Lies & Allies. Over the course of those seasons he won two eliminations and seven daily challenges and on Spies, Lies & Allies even made his first final since Rivals III. Devin finally put everything together on Ride or Dies where he and Tori played a great social/political game using both the safety of her connections and his political deal-making. From a competition standpoint, they won an elimination and two daily challenges including the last one before the final. He ran a great final and they convincingly beat Bananas & Nany in the final showdown. Devin has risen from being a complete lay up to a Challenge Champion and one of the best modern political players.

5. Paula Meronek

For the majority of her Challenge career, Paula was well-known for things like her great confessionals, getting into a lot of messy drama, and frequent hookups. On her first season, The Duel, Paula lost a pole wrestle to Aneesa in an embarrassing fashion. She followed that up by making it to the finals on both The Inferno 3 & The Gauntlet III as part of massive teams, but her teams lost both finals and she did not impress in the challenges. She also started acting pretty entitled, particularly on The Island, The Duel II & Cutthroat, all while still being a pretty middle-of-the-road competitor.

She returned for her eighth season, Rivals where she was paired with a very strong partner in Evelyn. Together they were the dominant team on the women's side, they won the first elimination and half of the daily challenges, culminating in a decisive victory in the finals. Even though Paula was clearly the beta of their pair she definitely pulled her weight both in the dailies running the final. She came back for Battle of the Exes where she won an elimination and a daily challenge despite being paired with the less-than-stellar Dunbar. Paula came back one more time and again showed out while paired with a strong Rival, this time Emily. The pair dominated the political game and competition-wise they won more than half of the daily challenges on their way to Paula’s second win, again dominating a final. Paula went from party girl ‘Paula Walnuts’ to two-time Challenge champion and one of the best women at running finals.

4. Tyler Duckworth

Tyler is remembered by most fans for his back-to-back wins but his time on The Challenge started unspectacularly with two early exits. Tyler was thrown into the first elimination of The Duel where for some reason, he called out and subsequently sent home his Real World castmate Johnny Bananas and then was sent right back in the second elimination which he lost to Derrick. Tyler had another poor performance on The Gauntlet III. He was part of the abysmal Rookie team and was thrown into the second rookie elimination losing to Frank. He also didn’t have a strong social game, since he instead spent most of his time trying to hook up with Ryan and getting into it with teammates. His Challenge trajectory took a dramatic change when he returned five seasons later.

Before The Challenge, Tyler was a collegiate swimmer and marathoner but by putting on a significant amount of muscle prior to Cutthroat he became a much more well-rounded competitor. He won two eliminations against really strong competitors, Johnny Bananas & Derrick, and was an integral part of his team winning the final. Tyler came right back for the next season Rivals, where he was paired with Johnny Bananas. In that season, he continued to prove himself as a legitimate competitor as they won three daily challenges and the final elimination over Adam & CT. Even though Tyler got sick he powered through and they won the final, making him a back-to-back Challenge champion. His return for two seasons of All Stars has not been remarkable but that does not change that his ascent from a forgettable early boot to back-to-back champion was one of the most memorable improvements in Challenge history.

3. Jonna Mannion

Jonna has blossomed into one of the absolute faces of the All-stars, which is a remarkable feat, considering fans' perception of her after she finished her run on the flagship MTV seasons. Jonna first appeared, paired with Jasmine on Rivals, where they had a few bright spots including a daily challenge win and an elimination upset over Sarah & Katelyn. However, Jonna was still viewed as weak especially after being destroyed by Laurel & CaraMaria in the Blast Off elimination. Jonna returned for Battle of the Seasons where her social game brought her team far, but after her team lost CJ they looked like a clearly underpowered team. She had another two unimpressive seasons on Rivals II and Free Agents, before being paired with Zach for Battle of the Exes II. Working with an unsupportive and combative partner like Zach who constantly was berating and blaming her did not work well, and they lost an elimination and the battle of the exiled back to back. After her run on MTV, she was much more well-known for bringing drama rather than competition to The Challenge.

Jonna took six years away from the show before she returned for All Stars 1,2 & 3. In All Stars 1, she played a great social game by avoiding eliminations and surprising fans in the final where she finished tied for first among women. On All Stars 2, she topped that performance by again and played a great social game. Paired with MJ, she won a daily and came from behind to win the final. Incredibly, she had an even more impressive season when she came back for All Stars 3 where she won two eliminations and two dailies on her way to her second consecutive championship. Jonna has taken herself from a player who brought great drama but was an underwhelming competitor to a back-to-back champion, and most recently the first Challenge Legend picked in The Challenge: World Championship draft.

2. CaraMaria Sorbello

CaraMaria is still one of the most popular Challenge contestants despite the fact that she has not appeared on a season since War of the Worlds 2, which, at this point, was t more than three years ago. But her Challenge career started rough. On Fresh Meat even though she was the first overall pick, she & Darrell were seen as a threat and sent home in the first elimination. In the next season, Cutthroat, she made the final but dragged her team down on a few occasions and was protected from eliminations by Abram. This continued to make a lot of cast members and fans view her as weak. On Rivals, CaraMaria was paired with one of her biggest doubters, Laurel, and proved herself to be capable as the beta in a partnership. They won two eliminations, a daily challenge, and got second in the final. CaraMaria then had unremarkable seasons on Battle of the Exes and Battle of the Seasons (2012) before she came back as a replacement partner for Cooke on Rivals II. That was a rebound season for her; she won two eliminations, a daily challenge and took second place in the final, and really turned the page as a competitor. CaraMaria held her own as an equal partner with Cooke.

Over the course of her next six seasons, Cara was one of the show’s top competitors. She had a great season on Free Agents where she won two daily challenges and three eliminations but broke her wrist and therefore lost to Laurel in a heartbreaking fashion. CaraMaria then went on to win Battle of the Bloodlines alongside her cousin. In that season she also won seven daily challenges and two eliminations. She later won the spin-off Champs vs Pros season, reunited with her original Fresh Meat partner Darrell. She had a great season on Dirty 30 where she won five daily challenges and finished second place. On Vendettas, CaraMaria played a good social game and stayed under the radar, and then turned it on in the final. She beat the other women and the men on her way to becoming the first solo champion. Cara has continued to be a force of nature on several seasons since then. She is a dynamic personality who does not back down from drama and is also one of the all-time best female competitors. She has grown from a first boot and somebody who needed to be protected to become one of the biggest stars of the franchise, a three-time Challenge Champion, (assuming you count Champs vs), and somebody who holds several records including the most finals made and most elimination wins.

1. Johnny ‘Bananas’ Devenazio

Johnny Bananas has become synonymous with The Challenge franchise. He is the all-time winning contestant with eight Challenge wins, (seven on the flagship series and one additional Champs vs win). People forget that much like his long-time rival, CaraMaria, Johnny Bananas also had a rocky start to his Challenge career. Johnny was sent home by Tyler in the first elimination on The Duel. He had a solid run when he came back as a ‘good guy’, ironically on The Inferno 3. There, he lost the final but was arguably the third-best guy on his team behind Alton & Timmy. Bananas returned for The Gauntlet III and was the very first player sacrificed by the Veterans team and got eliminated by Evan in just the third episode.

Bananas took a significant step forward in his next few seasons. He became a champion on The Island, though he arguably rode Derrick and Kenny’s coattails. That victory subsequently made Bananas eligible to be part of the Champions team, where he again benefited from a strong alliance and was able to make it deep into the game before he had to go into elimination and beat Dunbar (who is pretty mediocre) on way to his second win. The next time Bananas came on was Cutthroat where he was clearly the leader of his team, though that team was the least successful of the three. His season ended when he was taken out in the legendary Bananas backpack elimination.

Over his next few seasons, Bananas ascended to the status of a true Challenge Legend. He came into his own and out of Evan, Kenny & Derrick’s shadows. He won three of his next four seasons, (Rivals, Battle of the Exes & Free Agents), all of which were paired or individual seasons, and in the one season he did not win he finished second. Over that same time period, Bananas won twelve daily challenges and had a 5–0 elimination record beating Mark, Jordan & CT twice. He has become the most recognizable personality to ever be on the show, holding many records including the most wins, most appearances, the most consecutive seasons and most daily challenge wins. He has continued to be one of the show’s most elite competitors with two more main series wins on Rivals III & Total Madness and another on the Champs vs Stars spin-off. Johnny Bananas has had a major journey in his time on The Challenge.

He started as a first boot and the first man to sacrifice from The Gauntlet III Veterans team. Then he became a two-time champion riding the coattails of Kenny, Derrick & Evan. Finally, he came out from their shadows and established himself as the face of the franchise and arguably the Greatest of all time. The nature of Johnny Bananas making significant improvements as a competitor not just once but twice, made him the clear choice to be at the top of this list.



Henry L DiMaria

I blog primarily about The Challenge but occasionally stretch into other reality TV @HenryLDiMaria