Fifteen years ago, the WWE attempted to cash in on the reality show craze of the times with their own reality show series, Tough Enough. Beginning in 2001, the show was a competition style reality show that combined the in-house interaction of shows like Big Brother with the competition and training style like Survivor to create the next great WWE Superstar, as voted on by the public, from a handful of indie wrestlers and athletic personalities. The original series lasted for four seasons, unless its cancellation after the fourth season in 2004. In 2010, it was revived once again, this time with a slightly different format and hosted by WWE Icon “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, but was quickly cancelled again in favour of a similar (yet sillier) concept in the beginning of NXT (before it became the name of the rebranded Florida Championship Wrestling developmental system). Last year it was once again rebooted, this time hosted by Chris Jericho, but once again, it was shelved after only one season – seemingly more in favour of an indie tournament style like this year’s Cruiserweight Classic, that has yielded far more additions to the WWE roster out of the gate.
But just how successful was Tough Enough for it’s entrants? How many competitors from each season went on to careers in the professional wrestling industry, whether with the WWE or another promotion? What season produced the best crop?
Here’s a look at each season and the crop each season of Tough Enough yielded.
SEASON ONE (2001)
The inaugural season featured Al Snow as head trainer, with Jacqueline, Tazz and Tori as assistants, and was the season with the highest hopes.`Everyone was caught by some form of the reality show buzz, so it seemed like a no brainer. For the first few seasons, they crowned two winners out of thirteen televised competitors (which was narrowed down from 25 prior to the first episode). Season One Winners: Maven Huffman and Nidia Guenard.
The season one co-winner had a moderation of success in his four year run with the WWE. He debuted out of the gate in a feud with one of his trainers, Tazz, before becoming a regular lower to mid-card performer. A 3-time WWE Hardcore Champion, he was selected by Pro Wrestling Illustrated as their Rookie of the Year in 2002. Despite feuds with Evolution and a shocking elimination of The Undertaker at the 2002 Royal Rumble, Maven never became the full blown Superstar the WWE was expecting and he was released in 2005. He spent a few years on the indie circuit, including dark matches for TNA, but retired in 2007. In 2015, he came out of retirement for a few brief indie appearances.
The co-winner with Maven, Nidia entered the WWE in 2002 as the ex-girlfriend of Hurricane Helms, who paired up with Cruiserweight champion Jamie Noble in a lovable “trailer trash” gimmick. While many questioned Nidia’s win in the show itself, she showed far greater ability on the main roster personality wise than her co-winner Maven did, and for a while was part of one of Smackdown‘s most entertaining duo. She would be released from the WWE in 2004 and would spend a year on the indie circuit before retiring in 2005.
JOSH MATTHEWS, 2002-present
Josh Lomberger was a runner-up on Season One, and following his unsuccessful attempt in Tough Enough, headed to the indie circuit for a year. He finally got the call from the WWE a year later, but not exactly for the path he hoped. He was hired as an announcer and renamed Josh Matthews. Out of the Season One competitors, Matthews has managed to remain in the industry the longest. Following a tumultuous exit from WWE in 2014, he landed the head commentator position with TNA Impact Wrestling, which is still holds to this day.
CHRISTOPHER NOWINSKI, 2001-2003
Another runner-up, Nowinski has gone on to far greater success since retiring in 2003 due to injury. Following a return to the indies after losing season one, Nowinski was finally signed by the WWE a year later, where he debuted as an assistant to William Regal. He only lasted a year with the WWE before he was forced to retire from head injuries. This lead to a lifelong pursuit of research of head trauma on professional athletes, and Nowinski is the co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), which has been instrumental in many major sports organizations to reexamine their position on head trauma and it’s effects, such as the NFL and WWE itself.
SEASON TWO (2002)
Once again, Al Snow headed up the training department, with Tazz at his side, but his new assistants were Hardcore Holly, Ivory, and Chavo Guerrero Jr. Notable future indie wrestlers who were cuts before filming started included Awesome Kong/Kharma, Shelly Martinez, and future Cryme Tyme member Shad Gaspard. Season two caused controversy with the cast at the end, when the two co-winners were announced as Jackie Gayda and Linda Miles. Not in so much that both were female, but because the men were told entering the competition it would be one male and one female, like Season One.
JACKIE GAYDA, 2002-present
Originally debuting as Miss Jackie and managing the flamboyant Superstar Rico, Jackie soon branched out on her own in singles competition within the WWE Women’s Division. During her tenure with the WWE, she met her future husband, Charlie Haas, one half of the World’s Greatest Tag Team. Both would also be released together from the WWE in 2005. She went to TNA for a year, before returning to the indie circuit, but family life with her husband has slowed down her wrestling appearances significantly over the years, although she did make a brief return to the WWE for the 25 Diva Battle Royale at Wrestlemania XXV in 2009.
KENNY KING, 2002-present
Following his elimination from Season Two of Tough Enough (where he competed under his real name, Kenny Layne), King headed to the indie circuit as well as sought further training, in the form of WWE Hall of Famer and AWA Legend Nick Bockwinkel. He’s had successful runs in both Ring of Honor and TNA over the past decade, where he’s 2-time X-Division Champion in TNA, and a former ROH World Tag Team Champion with partner Rhett Titus in The All Night Express. In 2015, he was part of the popular heel faction The Beat Down Clan with MVP, Samoa Joe and Low Ki, before returning to Ring of Honor to reunite the All Night Express. He still currently wrestles in Ring of Honor.
Gayda’s co-winner, Linda Miles, didn’t fare as well as the others. She initially debuted under her real name as the manager of rookie OVW call-up Shelton Benjamin, but he was quickly repackaged along with Charlie Haas as part of Team Angle, and Miles was removed from television. She returned later as the dominatrix manager of the Basham Brothers, now known as Shaniqua. When she was released from the WWE in 2004, she retired from the industry.
MATT MORGAN, 2002-2014
Perhaps the biggest success story out of Season Two of Tough Enough, the 7′, 330 lb. monster Matt Morgan started off his wrestling career under the guidance of Paul Heyman as part of Team Lesnar on Smackdown, often pairing with stable mates Nathan Jones or Brock Lesnar himself. Still a bit green around the edges, when Lesnar left the WWE in 2004, Morgan was sent back to developmental in OVW. He would get a second try on the main roster, but this time it was that of a stuttering giant. He left the WWE in 2005 and headed to the independents, including a run in Japan with NJPW. In 2007, he headed to TNA where he spent the bulk of his career as one of the companies top stars and resident big man. During his time in TNA, he was a perennial World title contender, and was a 2-time TNA World Tag Team Champion.
SEASON THREE (2003)
Al Snow trimmed the training staff down to three members, including Season Two’s Ivory, but this time adding Bill DeMott, who would go on to be NXT’s first Head Trainer years later. While it’s easily the least successful cast of the series ever, it produced the most successful winner in the franchise’s entire run, John Hennigan (who unsuccessfully auditioned for Season Two). A few notables who didn’t make the cut by the time the series hit the air include former WWE Women’s champion Melina and former WWE Superstar Shawn Daivairi. The second co-winner, Matt Cappotelli, retired in 2007 following brain surgery for a brain tumour. He failed to advance beyond the WWE’s OVW developmental system.
JOHN HENNIGAN, 2003-present
While some considered Cappotelli the better pure wrestler, there was no denying Hennigan’s dynamic charisma. He debuted in 2004 as the new assistant to then Raw GM Eric Bischoff, who kept calling him different name each week, from Johnny Blaze to Johnny Spade, before settling on Johnny Nitro. After a short uneventful run, he was sent back to OVW for more conditioning. He eventually paired with Joey Mercury and his real life girlfriend Melina as part of the team MNM and returned to the main roster in 2005. They made an impact quickly, defeating Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr for the Tag Team titles. By 2007, MNM was split up and Nitro was moved to the new reboot of ECW, where he changed his name to John Morrison. While in ECW he won the ECW Championship, before being paired once again, this time with another Tough Enough graduate, The Miz. He continued to strike gold in the WWE and by the time he decided to leave the WWE in 2011, he’d amassed a resume that included an ECW Championship, 3-time Intercontinental Champion, and a 5-time Tag Team Champion (three with MNM, two with the Miz). After spending his first eight years in the WWE system, Hennigan decided to try his hand on the indie circuit. In 2014, he signed on as an original cast member for Lucha Underground under the name Johnny Mundo, where he’s captured the Lucha Underground Championship, Gift of the Gods Championship and Trios Championship, becoming the company’s second Triple Crown winner. He’s a regular with AAA in Mexico and this past fall, he made his PWG debut at the 2016 Battle of Los Angeles.
SEASON FOUR (2004)
The final run of the original series, it was renamed $1,000,000 Tough Enough, with the added stipulation of a $1million WWE contract (spread out over 4 years, with only the first guaranteed). One contestant, Marty Wright, was replaced before filming started, when it was found out he’d lied about his age. But it ended well. Wright was signed to WWE and became The Boogeyman. While it produced a handful of solid wrestlers, the season’s most memorable moment was the shoot fight between it’s winner, MMA fighter Daniel Puder against WWE Superstar Kurt Angle in the middle of a WWE ring on live television, when Angle challenged the winners to a quick match. Puder accepted.
“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, 2005
DANIEL PUDER, 2004-2011
Whether the shoot on Angle had anything to do with it, Puder didn’t last long in the WWE. He spent the bulk of the time in OVW and had a few glimpses on the main roster, before being released in 2005. While he would have short stints in Ring of Honor and NJPW afterwards, he spent the bulk of his time in MMA, primarily Strikeforce. He retired in 2011, with an 8-0 record in MMA.
Ryan Reeves was an early cut due to injury, but his fire and tenacity made an impact and he was signed to the WWE in 2004. He spent five years in developmental, from Deep South to OVW, before making the jump to the roster as part of the Nexus angle in 2010. Originally as Skip Sheffield, his repackage to the aggressive Ryback brought him his biggest success. He was released from the WWE this year following a dispute with management, with one run as Intercontinental champion in his resume. He has just begun his journey on the indie circuit.
Nick Mitchell didn’t win Tough Enough, but he did have a more successful run in WWE than the victor this season did. He was packaged as Mitch, a member of the Spirit Squad, the faction of varsity male cheerleaders where Dolph Ziggler made his WWE debut in. And due to Freebird Rules, he collected a Tag Team title run during his stay. He was released by the WWE in 2007 and briefly attempted the world of MMA, but after one fight, he retired.
THE MIZ, 2004-present
He may not have won, but there hasn’t been one contestant of the show’s entire run that has made the impact on the WWE roster like Mike “The Miz” Mizanin. A former reality TV star with MTV’s The Real World, Miz was a natural behind the camera with athleticism to boot. His reality TV background rubbed many fans the wrong way for years, but after 12-years in the WWE, he has emerged as the company’s greatest heel on the roster with a body of work that includes a run as the WWE World Heavyweight Champion (who headlined Wrestlemania), a 6-time (and current) Intercontinental Champion, 2-time US Champion, and 6-time Tag Team Champion. The scary part is that The Miz finally seems comfortable in his role and is doing some of his most entertaining and captivating heel work, as evidenced by his “shoot” this year on SmackTalk Live with Daniel Bryan.
SEASON FIVE (2011)
After a six year hiatus, WWE tried it’s hand at Tough Enough once again, this time bringing in the Texas Rattlesnake “Stone Cold” Steve Austin as the shows host, with a training team now run by NXT Head Trainer Bill DeMott and guest trainers Trish Stratus and Booker T. While it was seemingly replaced by the NXT game show, it actually ran parallel with it the first season.
Ironically, the first contestant eliminated wound up being the only contestant to gain a regular spot on WWE television following the season, when she became part of the Funkadactyls that accompanied Brodus Clay to the ring alongside current WWE Superstar Naomi. When they duo split, both went on to singles careers, although Naomi surpassed Cameron almost instantly. She retired from the industry following her release from the WWE earlier this year.
ANDY LEAVINE, 2010-2013
By all rights, he was the Golden Boy, the hand picked winner of the fifth season. He had been in WWE developmental for a year prior to the season started and was released just so he could enter this competition (no current WWE employees were eligible). And while he won Season Five, he only lasted another year back in developmental before being released. He headed to Puerto Rico to join Carlos Colon‘s WWC, where he became the WWC Universal Champion, but ultimately retired in 2013.
MATT CROSS, 1999-present
Easily the most experienced competitors to ever appear on Tough Enough, Matt Cross was already an 12-year veteran of the industry when he appeared on the fifth season, having spent time in CZW, Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling NOAH in Japan prior to the show. He joined the upstart Lucha Underground promotion in 2014 where he still competes under the masked identity of Son of Havoc, where he’s a 2-time Trios Champion, alongside another Tough Enough competitor, Ivelisse, and Angelico. He still wrestles around the world as Matt Cross as well, including stints in Progress, PWG and SMASH.
Ivelisse was a 9-year veteran of the indie circuit (and trained in Puerto Rico with WWC), when she landed in Tough Enough. Although she was eliminated, she ended up in NXT that year under the name Sofia Cortez. She lasted a year in WWE’s developmental system before leaving due to frustrations with Bill DeMott, but landed on her feet as part of Lucha Underground, where she’s been one of the company’s top stars. She’s also a 2-time (and current) Shine Champion.
MARTY THE MOTH, 2003-present
The third and final competitor of Tough Enough to find wider success in Lucha Underground, Martin Casaus was also a long time indie veteran when he joined the cast of the show. Unfortunately, he was forced from the competition due to injury, but has since became one of Lucha Underground’s most psychotic and captivating characters, Marty The Moth.
SEASON SIX (2015)
Last year’s attempt to reboot the franchise ended terribly, as one of the show’s judges panel, former World Champion Hulk Hogan, was forced to leave the show mid-season due to racist comments in a video leaked by Gawker. But while it’s two winners, Josh Brendl (aka Bronson Matthews) and Sara Lee (released recently) failed to make an impact, several other contestants are already on their way.
MANDY ROSE, 2015-present
She was the one that most people expected to win, but instead came runner-up to Sara Lee. A former fitness model, Mandy Rose has recently made her NXT television debut, as well as joined the cast for the latest season of Total Divas.
An indie MMA grappler, Daria Berenato brought a legitimate air of toughness to the competition, but was still eliminated early. She was still signed to WWE developmental and trained at the Performance Center for the past year. She recently made her NXT television debut, backing up the duo of Peyton Royce and Billie Kay.
The Brazilian born Gabby Castrovinci may not have landed in the WWE following her Tough Enough experience, but she’s head first into the industry now. She headed to Germany after the show to train further with wXw, making her ring debut with them, before returning to North America and signing with TNA, where she’s been renamed Raquel. Under the same name, she’s recently debuted with Shine as well.
LAUREL VAN NESS, 2014-present
Chelsea Green was already on the indie circuit before being a last minute injury replacement on the fifth season. A protegee of WWE, WCW and ECW Legend Lance Storm, this Canadian had a short run on the show before being eliminated. She debuted in TNA this summer as part of Maria Kanellis‘ “management team” for the Knockouts division, under the new name Laurel Van Ness.
PATRICK CLARK, 2014-present
Although one of the youngest competitors, he had already wrestled for Maryland Championship Wrestling (MCW), CZW and wXw by the time he joined the show. A lifelong WWE fan, he seemed a natural to win the competition, but his bravado seemingly rubbed some the wrong way and he was eliminated. He was soon signed by the WWE though and has recently made his NXT debut.
While Tough Enough hasn’t produced the “Franchise players” that maybe WWE thought it would, it’s clearly helped along some serious talent and helped nurture some others. With the WWE Network looking to fill content (and no other Network seemingly willing to bite on another season), should it return, it would most likely be Network exclusive. But if the CWC showed them anything, people are far more invested in indie showcases like that to choose from than they are reality show blueprints.