THE CHALLENGE: FREE AGENTS Preseason Power Rankings – Men Division – Part I

So it begins…

At long last, the season premiere of the new The Challenge season, Free Agents, is a mere days away (the season premiere is Thursday, April 10, at 10:00 PM EST). The Challenge, the fifth MAPS (Major American Professional Sport), is entering its 25th season as a cultural institution of competition, entertainment, and nighttime extra-curricular activities. A consummate star (capital “S”) maker and cultivator (Johnny Bananas, TJ Lavin the Great, CT, the Miz, Ruthie, Paula Walnuts), Twitter chatter centerpiece, and the only entity to be on both the professional sports and reality television Mount Rushmore, The Challenge is a modern pioneer and trendsetter for what greatness is all about. Like in “love” and in “war,” all “is fair” in The Challenge (thank you for this, Sir Bananas), and Free Agents proves to be an entirely new and innovative chapter to add to this proven commodity’s prolific history.

Culture Challenged will be following The Challenge: Free Agents every step of the way this season with commentary, interviews, recaps, Zapruder film analysis, and weekly power rankings. Before we delve deep into the first part of the preseason power rankings (the men will be first up), let us peruse the MTV.com season description (a luxury not often released until after the season begins) to discover more. The MTV description is in bold and my commentary is below.

Twenty-eight money-hungry competitors arrive in Punta del Este, Uruguay,
Yes! A return to South America! Clearly a professional sport that sets the international trends, this summer’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics and Rio are following The Challenge‘s lead. The only previous season to begin in a South American country was The Duel (season 13) and the last time our favorite competitors set foot this far below the equator in the Western Hemisphere was on Rivals (season 21) when Johnny Bananas did some winning and Laurel did some Cara Maria defending.
expecting to be teamed up with an ex, an enemy, or even a weak rookie.
Is “weak rookie” referring to LaToya? Johnny from Bridgewater? Swifty? You can call rookie Nia many things, but weak would not be one of them. Honestly, when the competitors size up the competition, which rookie is the one nobody wants to work with? The rankings may provide some answers…
Little do they know, this is an individual game, and they’ll be answering to no one but themselves in the most unpredictable Challenge ever.
This is a lofty statement. One could argue that the Shauvon implant experience represents the ceiling of unpredictability, but that’s just me. Either way, an unpredictable game format is only a good thing.

The 25th season, Free Agents, forces players to compete on their own in a battle of perseverance and luck.
“Perseverance” sounds promising. “Luck” does not. For savvy veterans like the Legendary Johnny Bananas, CT, and Laurel, they have earned a certain status to not have to worry about an elimination based upon chance. Evening the playing field is one thing. Respecting the sanctity of earned greatness of the elite competitors is quite another.
The players will have no idea if they’ll be competing in teams, pairs or as individuals until moments before each challenge begins.
Now we are talking, Bunim-Murray. One of the great opportunities for The Challenge are the challenges (Yes, it can get confusing when the name of the professional sport is the same name as the events that take place within the professional sport). I love the potential application of this conceit. Forcing competitors to pick a partner or to pick teams will immediately identify the totem pole of respect, the value placed on winning over alliance loyalty, and we will finally see what happens when petty schoolyard hurt feelings come to The Challenge arena (wait, we have already seen this many times).
Winners are not only safe from elimination, but also have the power to choose one guy and one girl to send in.
Yes, this is a stock The Challenge formula, but since it works, there is no need to fix it.
The losers from that day’s challenge must take part in the game’s biggest elimination twist yet, “The Draw”, where one guy and one girl are selected by pure chance to face the two nominated players in the elimination round.
“Luck” immediately sounds better with a name like “The Draw” surrounding it. I really hope the edit shows a healthy dose of “The Draw” talk. Also, who will be the first competitor to whip out the clever, albeit cliché “Win, Lose, or Draw” allusion? My money is either on The Legendary Johnny Bananas or Leroy.
With competitors’ fates being determined by a flip of a card, no amount of strategy can protect them.
Or, in other words, the only way to ensure safety is to win challenges. Never mind, I have changed my mind on the whole “perseverance and luck” duo. This will be legit.

A grand total of $350,000 is up for grabs, and with so much money on the line, these already blood-thirsty competitors turn vicious.
Listen, “blood-thirsty” may be stretching this a little too far…
Heated rivalries will take shape, bitter enemies will clash, and heart-tugging relationships will form.
This could be the composition of any The Challenge season description. I, for one, am most interested in what “heart-tugging” relationships will form. It all sounds so perfectly dramatic.
Only the lucky few will face the epic final challenge that starts in dangerous rapids and ends at the top of an active volcano.
End of season SPOILER ALERT!
In the end, this season will find the most worthy challenger yet, the ultimate FREE AGENT.
And then it begins…on to part 1 of the The Challenge: Free Agents Preseason Power Rankings – Men Division.

PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS – MEN DIVSION

THE ROOKIES

14) JOHNNYJohnnyWhere did we last see him? The last time we saw Johnny and his long-lasting buzz cut, he was curled up next to his two favorite lady friends, Daisy and Averey, on The Real World: Portland, surviving an infamous hairdryer and a few Hurricane Nias.
The Challenge History: This is his first Challenge.
Why would you sign Johnny? The intrinsic kinship of recent past season formats were beneficial to rookie success stories (Jordan and Marlon on Rivals 2, Frank and Zach on Battle of the Seasons), but Free Agents is not likely to afford such possibility. You would sign Johnny because he will be eager and earnest in his pursuit of victory, an easily persuadable alliance member (he fits the definition of “happy to be here”), and he is no longer distracted on a daily basis by Averey’s all-consuming beauty (Sources say that a Bridgewater breakup has occurred). He flirted with a pro hockey career, so he has some serious athletic chops.
Why would you not sign Johnny? He is a classic rookie patsy for conspiratorial veterans to pounce on. Unlike the other two men from his Real World: Portland season who were ready-made The Challenge competitors, no one was chomping at the bit to see Johnny spread his athletic prowess on The Challenge game field, despite his hockey skills (there are not likely to be too many hockey rinks in Uruguay). Also, are we sure Johnny can handle this much time apart from Daisy?
Potential Allies: Portland mate Jordan, CT and Zach (Greater Boston ties could run deep), Swift (on his own rookie island as well)
Potential Enemies: Nia (the hairdryer indentations on his head prove it)
Best-case scenario: Johnny gets lucky early when the group targets Swifty first, allowing Johnny to stick around a little longer than expected.
Worst-case scenario: Johnny is the first guy thrown into an elimination and loses to a tough competitor picked by “The Draw.”
The Verdict: The Challenge has only room for one Johnny. This will be a short, forgettable first season for Bridgewater’s own.

13) SWIFTSwift Where did we last see him? We last took frequent naps (a bit of a yawn of a season) while watching Swifty pull live chicken pranks on Real World: St. Thomas, or as I like to call it, “The Real World: when we find out what happens when people stop being polite and are isolated from the rest of society by a body of water: i.e. boredom.”
The Challenge History: This is his first Challenge.
Why would you sign Swift? Swift is a little bit of an irrational confidence guy in the Vernon Maxwell/Jamal Crawford mold. How good he is may be a question for others to pose, but in Swift’s mind, he is the best, and this could be useful against this season’s veteran guy murderer’s row.
Why would you not sign Swift? Like Johnny, in a cast of veterans, rookies tend to stand out. His height and size could be an issue in any challenges that require brute force.
Potential Allies: St. Thomas bickering partner LaToya (there just aren’t a lot of other options here)
Potential Enemies: I cannot see Swift getting along too well with Jordan, Frank, or Nia; his irrational confidence ego
Best-case scenario: Swift gets lucky early when the group targets Johnny first, allowing Swift to stick around a little longer than expected.
Worst case scenario: Swift is the first guy thrown into an elimination and loses to a tough competitor picked by “The Draw.”
The Verdict: Like his Real World season, Swift’s first season on The Challenge will be soon forgotten, but this time not because of boredom, but because of shortness (and I may also be referring to the length of his stay).

BACK FROM SYDNEY

12) ISAACIsaacWhere did we last see him? We last saw Isaac, probably still reeling from the CT and Adam violent brawl on night one, lose to all-time great Landon in an elimination on season 17 of The Duel II.
The Challenge History: The Duel II was Isaac’s one and only Challenge and he last five episodes.
Why would you would sign Isaac? Isaac has always been a little bit of a wild card, and in an individual game, this can be an asset. His long Challenge absence could be used to his advantage as an up for grabs alliance member (CT, Aneesa, and Cohutta are the only people who have been on a season with him before).
Why would you not sign Isaac? He may be the closest thing The Challenge has to Tyson Zone membership. As Real World: Sydney viewers may remember, Isaac was an actual juvenile delinquent, and, after years of heavy LSD use, would occasionally hallucinate about prophetic birds (and no, I am not making this up). He is older now and undoubtedly more grounded, but I am not sure a Challenge house is the best environment for someone with some unstable tendencies.
Potential Allies: Cohutta (Sydney Strong), CT (Animalistic Connectedness Strong)
Potential Enemies: I am not sure that Isaac and Camila will have much in common, hallucinations
Best-case scenario: Since we last saw him, Isaac has become an athletic beast that everyone fears, destroying competition in eliminations and in the social game. This could get him as far as the middle episodes.
Worst-case scenario: A black bird hallucination means something most awful and he takes himself out of the game to protect fellow competitors from impending doom.
The Verdict: Honestly, I have no idea what to expect. It has been so long and it is hard to know both how the others will take to him and how he will take to the others. My best guess is that he will be a mellower version of his former self, but without clear bonds with some of the new elite, he will find himself fending off competition in early eliminations.

11) COHUTTACohuttaWhere did we last see him? We last saw Cohutta on the classic JEK Empire victory season, The Ruins, season 19, but it feels even longer than that.
The Challenge History: Cohutta has performed in two The Challenge seasons – The Island (season 16) and The Ruins (season 19). His best finish was Top 8.
Why would you sign Cohutta? Cohutta is a really sweet guy who gets along with almost everybody. More often than not, he manages to stay above the nighttime extracurricular activities fray. His southern twang is easy to root for.
Why would you not sign Cohutta? In the past, relationship entanglements have not exactly helped his game. He is not one of the most physically intimidating guys this season. Cohutta has been out of the mix for a long time and when he was in the mix, he willed his way to relatively strong finishes by being so likable. The quality of competition this season may not be so lenient. His lack of connection to the new elite could be a problem.
Potential Allies: Isaac (Sydney Strong), I have a strong feeling that he will get along really well with fellow Southerners Dustin, Jess, and Jemmye
Potential Enemies: Brute strength in the form of Zach or CT, female entanglements
Best-case scenario: With a little bit of good fortune and some key partnering, Cohutta could slip into contention and have an outside shot at the final challenge.
Worst-case scenario: He is the unlucky recipient of the first “The Draw” iteration and gets out-muscled by a bigger guy.
The Verdict: I have a hunch that Cohutta is going to be a key player this season (A similar trajectory to Chet in Battle of the Seasons, perhaps?). In his two Challenges, he has excelled at staying a little unassuming and a little under the radar, so look for a similar strategy this time around. Although not likely, I would not be surprised to see Cohutta competing at the end.

THE LAST CHANCE?

10) BRANDONBrandonWhere did we last see him? We last saw Brandon as an ill-fated member of the dysfunction that was Team Fresh Meat on Battle of the Seasons (season 23). Thankfully, he and Cara Maria got off the sunk ship in episode three before having to witness the embarrassing elimination competition between their teammates, Camila and Big Easy, who were apparently attempting to show the worst version of themselves.
The Challenge History: Free Agents will be Brandon’s fifth season. Previous seasons include Fresh Meat II (season 19), Cutthroat (season 20), Rivals (season 21), and Battle of Seasons (23). His best previous finish was Top 10 (among guys) on Cutthroat.
Why would you sign Brandon? After much frustration and futility, this could be a make or break season for Brandon on The Challenge, so it may be a worthy risk. In the past, his teams and teammates have not been easy sells, so as a solo artist on Free Agents, he might have a greater chance at success. He well-liked and gets along with most people.
Why would you not sign Brandon? His The Challenge track record looks more like Tyrie’s than like Derrick or Kenny’s. Although well-liked, his bonds may not be the strongest. His athletic chops (despite some worthy elimination fight) remain largely in question.
Potential Allies: Cara Maria and Laurel (Fresh Meat Strong); He and Leroy are Las Vegas buddies
Potential Enemies: Isaac does not seem to be someone he will find points of connection with; If he watched any of Real World: Portland, Brandon will be having none of Hurricane Nia; things did not end well with Camila on Battle of the Seasons
Best-case scenario: Brandon makes the right alliances, stays out of the ire of challenge winners, and has some luck with “The Draw” to make it to the middle of this game (Top 6 or 7).
Worst-case scenario: An early elimination drawing against one of the frontrunners sends Brandon packing prematurely.
The Verdict: Brandon, due to many past disappointments, is one of several people this season who has the most to prove, but consequently, may have the most to lose. If he doesn’t take the leap on Free Agents this season, five seasons of mediocrity may be the death knell on his The Challenge career. I think that there is a realistic shot that he could go far, but it is hard to see him beating any of the frontrunners one on one.

NO KNIGHT, NO PROBLEMS

9) PRESTONPrestonWhere did we last see him? Although during his eventual Rivals 2 (season 24) elimination episode, we last saw Preston saving face and more than showing up his disgraceful partner and until Free Agents, Bunim-Murray cellmate, Knight.
The Challenge History: This is Preston’s third season on The Challenge, but first season away from the haunting shadow of Knight as a teammate on both Battle of the Seasons (season 23) and Rivals 2 (season 24).
Why would you sign Preston? Preston’s potential can now be finally unleashed outside of Knight’s demeaning and derogatory wrath. This freedom could propel one of the best long distant runners on the show into the top group of men. He has a great social game and seems to bond with everyone not named Knight. He is really tall and will be difficult for smaller players (Swift, Cohutta) to beat in more physical eliminations.
Why would you not sign Preston? His will to compete has been a growing work in progress. He still may have some athleticism and risk aversion opportunities. Does he live to compete in Challenges?
Potential Allies: Jemmye and the other woman of the house; Frank, reasonable people, and any anti-Knight faction that is thrilled to see him freed from Knight’s darkness
Potential Enemies: His will to compete
Best-case scenario: The best-case scenario for Preston involves a whole lot of elimination luck and some solidified alliances, but there is a slight chance that he could be on the verge of a final if he gets the dealt the right cards and uses them effectively.
Worst-case scenario: The worst-case scenario is that his opposition to Knight was a galvanizing force at the end of last season and that the momentum built from his promising finish lacks the same motivation this time around.
The Verdict: This is a talented group of male competitors, but there are enough clear advantages for Preston to make it out of the first several eliminations. If he manages to stay out of the drama and under the radar of the game’s heavyweights, there is potential for a breakout season.

SOMETHING TO PROVE

8) ZACHZachWhere did we last see him? Zach was last seen sophomore slumping on Rivals 2, eventually disqualifying himself (there was a bit of a directions folly) in the Jungle elimination week 5.
The Challenge History: Free Agents will be Zach’s third straight Challenge season. His Team San Diego (where verbal abusing teammates happens) won it all on Battle of the Seasons (season 23) and the aforementioned Rivals 2 (season 24) was a bit of a letdown.
Why would you sign Zach? Zach is an athletic and physical power. He feeds off of competition and gives all of his physical and emotional self in an attempt to win. Freed from the entanglements of partnering with others (he and Trey did manage to find some common ground before imploding at the end), the Free Agents format will benefit Zach as much as anyone else. He will be hungry to bounce back from a disappointing second season.
Why would you not sign Zach? Rivals 2 exposed some of his weaknesses. Will they be quelled this time around? Although this is billed as an individual game, relationships will still matter and the ones that were most important to his success on Battle of the Seasons (Frank and then, cuddle buddy, Jonna) have either ended (Jonna) or have inexplicably gone off the rails (Frank). There is much competitive pressure in a Challenge house and Zach has yet to prove how well he can handle it.
Potential Allies: CT and Johnny (Boston Strong); it is possible that he and Frank have reconciled again
Potential Enemies: Dustin; There was some healthy antagonistic banter between Zach and Chet during Battle of the Seasons; Does Jonna have lingering animus?
Best-case scenario: Zach has the physical ability to go the end in a “every man for himself” competition and through a series of elimination gut checks and momentum gains, wills himself to a final challenge appearance (at which point it is anybody’s game).
Worst-case scenario: Zach lets other competitors get in his head and it paralyzes him in an elimination round against an inferior opponent, sending him packing earlier than expected.
The Verdict: Zach as a partner or teammate is very different than Zach as an individual. Free Agents will absolutely play to his strengths. He desperately wants to win and, on paper, is completely ready to do so. I have a feeling that his Rivals 2 sophomore slump will be an aberration in his Challenge career.

7) CHETChetWhere did we last see him? We last saw one of the sport’s most reliable interviewees anchoring Team Brooklyn (along with his amazing female teammate, Sarah) to a third place finish on the sand dunes of the Namibian Desert on Battle of the Seasons.
The Challenge History: This is Chet’s fourth Challenge season. Previous seasons were The Ruins (season 18), Cutthroat (season 20), and Battle of the Seasons (season 23) when his Team Brooklyn made it to the finals.
Why would you sign Chet? As Battle of the Seasons proved, Chet is more than just a bow tie promoter. Of all the men participating, he will not let the nighttime extra-curricular activities affect his game. Although totally competent athletically, others will underestimate him (as they did on Battle of the Seasons), keeping him from being targeted early and often. He has proved he can handle endurance challenges.
Why would you not sign Chet? There are several guys participating who are physically much stronger. This will be his first challenge without Sarah, and, although able to more than stand on his own, Team Brooklyn loyalty runs deep. It is unclear who he will align with this time around. He is one of the competitors who likely benefits from being part of a team.
Potential Allies: Cohutta; Johnny Bananas; Jemmye; Devyn (Brooklyn Strong, if he can forget her Namibian Desert hair choices); pretty much everyone
Potential Enemies: Zach; CT; unnecessary drama; Camila
Best-case scenario: Chet makes the right alliances early and stays out of “The Draw” against formidable competition, paving the way for another final challenge appearance.
Worst-case scenario: The Free Agents format does not align well with Chet’s strengths and forces him to have to prove himself in an early elimination against a dominating physical force.
The Verdict: Not that Battle of the Seasons was any bit of an easy go, but I think the Free Agents conceit will be a harder sell for Chet’s game. If he finds the right people to align with and competes well in challenges, he has a legitimate shot at a finals return, but the competition will be that much better this season. I expect a strong showing, but that Chet will not be as successful as he was on Battle of the Seasons.

Read Part II

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