Hello again! As promised, I bring to you the second part of an article where we find out the biggest winners & losers of WWE Reality TV shows. This time we’ll be digging in to the potential men, so if you missed the women’s edition? You can find that at the following link:
As explained in part 1, WWE Reality TV began with Tough Enough in 2001. Although unlike the women, male superstars did not get their own Diva Search equivalent. Instead, they continued competing through Tough Enough and the former incarnation of NXT.
Tough Enough (2001)
In 2001, Tough Enough was a brand new concept and much could go wrong. But it didn’t, and proved to be rewarding for WWE in the short term. From it, the winner Maven, and runner-ups Christopher Nowinski and Josh Lomberger (Mathews) were awarded contracts. As we know, Josh Mathews didn’t last long as a wrestler and instead turned to announcing. He worked for WWE longer than anyone from this competition by far, til taking his leave for Impact Wrestling; where he still works as the play-by-play announcer.
Christopher Nowinski had potential, but a severe concussion sidelined him indefinitely before his career could take shape. He dedicated his life to the Sports Legacy Institute, a non-profit organization which focuses on extensively researching the effects of repeated concussion and head trauma in sports. Two other future stars didn’t make the finalists, including former TNA Knockouts Champion ODB, and current AEW (& former WWE) ring announcer Justin Roberts.
During his stint, Maven became a 3-time Hardcore Champion. But his most memorable moment came in the 2002 Royal Rumble, when he shockingly eliminated The Undertaker from the match! The Phenom destroyed the kid for having the balls, and to this day it remains his career highlight. Maven retired from wrestling in 2007, two years after being let go by WWE. He returned to wrestling for a brief stint in 2015-2016, but has not worked since. The last job he is known to have was as an account executive in 2019 for the Brooklyn Nets Basketball team. From this year, it’s probably a tie between ODB, Josh Mathews and Justin Roberts.
Tough Enough 2 (2002)
While no men won Tough Enough in 2002, several future stars were recognized here. Ring of Honor and former Impact Wrestling star Kenny King finished as one of the runner-ups, but was never offered a WWE contract. Matt Morgan was one of the finalists, but despite his size, we could say he never reached his full potential in WWE & TNA in a career spanning fifteen years. Others were in the crowd looking to become one of the finalists include Ken Anderson (AKA Mr. Kennedy), CrymeTyme’s Shad Gaspard (RIP), and the current Forgotten Sons leader Jaxson Ryker (AKA Gunner in TNA).
It’s difficult to pick a winner from this, because they all struggled to establish themselves in a consistent role. Mr. Kennedy is arguably the most successful having earned major achievements in WWE & TNA (including the World title), so if I had to pick someone it would be him. Nowadays, Mr Kennedy/Anderson can be found working for the NWA and helping to run a wrestling school.
Tough Enough III (2002)
The man of many names John Hennigan (AKA Nitro, Morrison, Mundo, Impact etc) is easily the biggest winner of 2003, having won many titles all around the world in every promotion he has worked for. He also appears in many movies and TV shows, making him one of the most versatile, currently active performers in wrestling and TV.
Not much else can be said about this season though, as the only other performer who got called up to the main roster with Morrison was Shawn Daivari; who made it to the top 75. Sadly, the other winner Matt Cappotelli died at 38 after suffering with a brain tumor for several years, which ended his wrestling career long before he was ready.
$1,000,000 Tough Enough (2004)
For the only time in Tough Enough history, it allowed only male competitors (women had the Diva Search) and the winner would earn a WWE contract and $1,000,000 over the course of four years. Funnily enough, several future stars were made here, and got way further than the actual winner ever did. The Miz is the runner-up, but whether we love or hate him, became one of the most successful stars of WWE Reality TV shows.
Another finalist includes Ryan Reeves, who would later compete on NXT before transforming in to a very hungry powerhouse called Ryback. You might have heard him? He’s rarely in the news. Another less successful finalist was Nick Mitchell, who some might remember as Mitch, one of the many members of the annoying Spirit Squad. Two of the more successful names to not even make it to the final is Luke Gallows, one-half of The Good Brothers tag team.
Marty Wright is unique in that he is the only guy to have been disqualified from a reality TV show (lied about his age), yet impressed enough to earn a contract. Only The Boogeyman could spawn from such a controversy. Speaking of which, the winner Daniel Puder was adamant to rock the boat. In what was a shoot fight, Puder locked in the Kimura on Kurt Angle, but WWE didn’t want him going over their Olympic Gold Medallist, so the referee called for the match in Angle’s favour. Dave Meltzer & Scherer shared their thoughts:
“It was real. If you don’t follow fighting, Puder had Angle locked in the Kimura, or keylock as Tazz called it, although Tazz didn’t let on the move was fully executed. Not only was Angle not getting out of the move, but most MMA fighters would have tapped already. Angle couldn’t tap for obvious reasons. The ref counted a three even though Puder’s shoulders weren’t fully down, trying to end the thing, because the reality was Angle would have been in surgery had it gone a few seconds longer or had Puder not given up the hold.” ― Dave Meltzer
“As you would expect, Kurt Angle was less than happy backstage at Smackdown after almost being forced to tap out to Tough Enough contestant Daniel Puder. Downright ticked off would probably be the best way to describe his mood. The unscripted nature of the contest was the main reason that Angle was made to look so bad since Puder just reacted to the situation and could have forced Angle to submit had the referees not thought quickly and counted a pin that wasn’t there on Puder.” ― Dave Scherer
After a brief stint on the main roster and OVW, Puder was offered a developmental contract in Deep South Wrestling, which he declined and he likely got released for doing so. In a 2007 interview, he buried OVW hard by calling it a barn with the same 20 fans who all looked the same.
His former manager Kenny Bolin said had he not fallen asleep so often in training and got off his phone, he might have drawn more people. Also, Puder apparently cried when he found out he was no longer with WWE. Later in his career, he had brief runs in Ring Of Honor & New Japan Pro Wrestling. As of 2018, he operates four non-profit organizations.
Tough Enough 5 & NXT (2010)
Andy Leavine won the revived season of Tough Enough with Stone Cold Steve Austin hosting, but it was a disaster. He didn’t get anywhere and was released a couple of years later. The only true wrestler in this competition was independent wrestling star Matt Cross, who had years of experience under his belt, but was eliminated second after Carmella because Steve Austin said he had no personality. Everyone lost here, it was disappointing.
NXT however, was a different animal altogether. Here’s a list of superstars who came through NXT in its first few seasons.
- Wade Barrett (winner)
- Kaval aka Low Ki (winner)
- Johnny CUrtis aka Fandango (winner)
- Daniel Bryan
- Husky Harris aka Bray Wyatt
- Skip Sheffield aka Ryback
- Heath Slater
- Derrick Bateman aka EC3
- Michael McGillicutty aka Curtis Axel
- Conor O’Brian aka Konnor of The Ascension
- Justin Gabriel
- David Otunga
- Byron Saxton
- Darren Young
- Alex Riley
- Brodus Clay
All these guys, aside from Kaval & EC3, enjoyed plenty of airtime on WWE’s main roster. When they were making the next generation, they sure put more talent in to it than Tough Enough. It’s a shame The Nexus got buried, huh?
Tough Enough 6 (2015)
Chris Jericho hosted the last season of Tough Enough with the support of Renee Young. And again, it felt like a bit of a waste because none of the winners achieved anything big in WWE. The girls had a better of time it, but there was one standout who became something in NXT. Patrick Clark (aka Velveteen Dream) is a popular NXT superstar and former North American Champion with a flamboyant character. However, this year saw allegations of grooming young boys and girls directed at Clark.
He has denied these claims and WWE later stated they had investigated the matter and are satisfied. However, despite this, several fans remain skeptical and believe he should be suspended or fired til they provide more details. Since these allegations came to light, Velveteen Dream has been used in more of an enhancement role. He is helping to get other stars over, instead of challenging in the main event scene for the NXT Championship.
It almost feels counter productive. WWE put in so much time in to these, and while they found a star here and there, they were few and far between. They sure had more success with the women… however, it did highlight the talent of Daniel Bryan; bringing him in to the sports entertainment world after setting professional wrestling on fire for years. The Miz may never have got his foot in the door without Tough Enough. And would we have Bray Wyatt without NXT’s Husky Harris? There’s three former WWE Champions right there.
The rest of the contestants have struggled to make it to the upper echelon, but can be happy knowing they had the opportunity. NXT and the Performance Center have replaced the need for these shows, as it’s easier to risk a new face on the third brand than to throw ’em in to the deep end. They get time to develop, and if something goes wrong it’s not a problem. The trend I have noticed is that the biggest successes in WWE Reality TV shows are those with natural charisma pulling off a character. Actual wrestling ability doesn’t mean much, as it’s all about the talking and being easy to work with.
Many of the winners had potential, but for whatever reason couldn’t handle the pressure and improve/impress enough to appease management’s expectations. Like Al Snow said, how do you give $1,000,000 worth of expectation when you’re starting from nothing with no skills? Many of these athletes were always doomed to fail. Is there room for another WWE reality TV show? Or will NXT always be the answer now? With that said, I thank you for reading this two-parter. Take care of yourself and see you again soon.