The Challenge: Fresh Meat: A Retrospective

By 2006, The Challenge needed a facelift as the old guard began to move on in their lives. With Road Rules on hiatus, the show had to find a new avenue to replenish its contestant pool. Despite coming off several popular seasons of The Real World, there just wasn't enough talent to fill in the vacuum left by the original generation of challengers leaving the show behind.

Hoping to establish the next generation of stars, The Challenge made the historic decision-a term used loosely here- to feature 12 contestants that had never previously appeared on The Real World or Road Rules. Collectively called fresh meat, these competitors were unknown to the audience. While casting has expanded over the years to include various other reality shows, the idea of featuring anyone outside of the Bunim/Murray Productions family seemed unfathomable at the time.

Season 12 also shifted the format of the game for the first time in several seasons. No longer where teams divided into badasses, good guys, rookies, veterans, Real World, or Road Rules. Instead, the season featured teams of two, consisting of one alumni and one fresh meat.

These gambles paid off. The season featured some memorable moments and a likable cast of challengers, some of whom would become synonymous with the show over the next few years. In many ways, Fresh Meat was, well, fresh. Ultimately, it was the necessary reset the show desperately needed.

Fresh Faces Goin Places

Fresh Meat is a pivotal moment in The Challenge's history, as it officially closed the book on the OG era and launched the next chapter in the show's run, the Fresh Meat era.

It's important to note this is a designation I created solely to define the different generations of Challenge seasons and the overarching themes or characters that commonly comprised them. But the Fresh Meat era, spanning from seasons 12 through 21, feels like an appropriate distinction for this period in the show's mythos.

Many of the competitors featured on the original iteration of Fresh Meat would become synonymous with the show. Contestants Evelyn, Ryan, Big Easy, Evan, Diem, Casey, and Kenny all went on to some modicum of success on future seasons.

In particular, Evan and Kenny would later break out as the faces of the franchise. Despite neither winning this season, both would come to dominate the show physically and strategically for the next five years. They were the equivalent of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in The Challenge world for a brief moment in time.

Others, such as Evelyn and Diem, returned several times over the next decade to much fanfare. Of course, the show documented Diem's battle with cancer throughout her entire run on the show, including up until Battle of the Exes II. Sadly, she passed shortly after her medical evacuation on that season, but she remains a fan favorite to this day.

The competitive track record of this cast speaks for itself. In total, castmembers would combine for 39 future appearances on The Challenge, including 18 combined final appearances and eight wins.

Ironically, Fresh Meat winner Aviv never appeared on another season of the show again.

Let's Get Physical

With each passing season, eliminations and finals seem to get more physical, especially as the show brings in talent from other avenues. While the preceding seasons started this trend, Fresh Meat feels like an important stepping stone in this change.

The daily missions continued to feature more daring feats, such as incorporating heights, deep water diving, and swimming with sharks. The days of ice cream eating contests, itching powder, and improv competitions are long gone, and fortune favors those who are physically fit.

It is Fresh Meat's eliminations where the shift is most evident, though. Known as the Exile, the elimination rounds amounted to the equivalent of a mini final ran every other episode.

The Exile was a race between two teams, with each carrying bags weighing the equivalent to their luggage. Along the way, teams have the opportunity to work on puzzles that, if completed, would result in a reward, such as dropping the weighted bags or a reduction in time. The first team to cross the finish line wins, returning to the house for their shot at the grand prize.

When considering the totality of competition, Fresh Meat featured arguably the most difficult set of challenges the show had seen to that point. The season established a new direction for the daily missions and the eliminations that continue to impact gameplay in the modern Challenge era.

And it is in Exile where one Fresh Meat challenger established his reputation as an elimination beast and crotchety partner.

Welcome to the real world, Austin

While the fresh meat may have been the new kids on the block, they weren't the only rookies to compete in the season. While considered "alumni," The Real World: Austin cast made their grand entrance into The Challenge universe during Fresh Meat.

Of the seven strangers picked to live in Austin, four showed up in the wilds of Australia with dreams of winning The Challenge. Wes, Johanna, Melinda, and Danny entered The Challenge house with a strong alliance that should have dominated the game.

Instead, the four of them alienated the house right from the jump. Challenge veterans have a long history of targeting rookies. It's a rite of passage for anyone new to the game. But it didn't help their cause when Wes asked the whole house if the four of them could have a private room.

As they literally separated themselves from the rest of the house, the Austin kids made themselves an easy target early on. By the end of the third Exile, Wes and Casey were the only team left standing out of the four.

From the ashes of a fallen alliance, though, rose the fire of a determined redhead from Kansas who would begin to cement himself as one of the biggest threats in Challenge history: Wes Bergman.

While Wes's reputation has morphed over the years to be a strategic mastermind, it was his elimination prowess that he was known for in his early Challenge days. During Fresh Meat, Wes competed in five of the eight Exiles, convincingly winning all of them. Wes's five elimination wins are still the record for most ever by a male contestant in a single season.

More impressively, Wes did so with one of the weaker partners in the house, Casey. And unfortunately for her, Wes would often stop being polite and start getting real by berating her throughout challenges and eliminations if she didn't meet his expectations.

I would be lying if I said it wasn't hard rewatching Wes spew some pretty vile comments in Casey's direction. I don't know if producers would tolerate the same level of verbal abuse in today's game.

Thankfully, Wes has matured over the years, in and out of The Challenge. While he had to rely on his physical ability to make it through Fresh Meat, you can see the early signs of a strategic mind. After the rest of the Austin alliance left, he began focusing on his other relationships, including Kenny. The future rivals would forge an uneasy understanding that allowed them to make some big moves at the end, paving the way to the finals for both of them.

First, they managed to flip the script on the house and vote in Darrell and Aviv after Derrick convinced Diem to target Theo and Chanda with only five teams left. Then, Tina and Kenny managed to pull out a win in the final daily, giving them the power to select the one team to save with the other two would face off in the last Exile. They chose Wes and Casey to join in the finale.

Now, you cannot say for sure that Wes's willingness to work with Kenny saved him here, and I actually think Casey was more vital to the partnership than Wes. But they were nominated into the first four Exiles. Of the last four, they only saw one. Wes deserves some of the credit for his flexibility with his back against the wall. He carried -in the literal sense at times- his team to a third-place finish.

Darrell and Aviv For The Win

If you let Darrell get to a final, you better be prepared to lose. The guy has competed in four finals, winning every one of them. He still holds the record for most consecutive wins by a male contestant. His four wins are only second behind Johnny Bananas' record seven.

Darrell's win on Fresh Meat was the last of his four consecutive, but it may have been his best overall.

He took a more strategic approach to this season, relying on his brain as much as his brawn to help carry him through. Darrell entered the house with a long list of friends and quickly aligned himself and Aviv with Derrick, Diem, Theo, and Chanda. This alliance would lay low for the first few weeks, allowing the house to focus on the Austin kids. By the fourth elimination, though, they had the numbers to control the house vote.

An untimely injury to both Evan and Coral required them to withdraw from the competition. The duo looked like the season favorites to win as they dominated daily missions early on. After their removal from the game, the alliance was virtual locks for the final as long as they remained loyal. Sounds easy, right? Well, not so much.

Coming off a third consecutive daily mission win, Derrick and Diem decided they wanted to target a strong team. With five teams left, they had limited options. They nominated Theo and Chanda for the Exile while the rest of the house voted in Darrell and Aviv to face them.

Darrell and Aviv managed to save themselves from the next elimination, but Darrell lost trust in Derrick. Darrell and Aviv would eventually have to face Derrick and Diem in the final Exile after a surprise victory from Kenny and Tina in the last daily mission.

Unfortunately for Derrick and Diem, Darrell is virtually unbeatable in a foot race. He and Aviv pulled out an important win heading into the final.

Much like the eliminations, the final took physicality to a whole new level of difficulty during Fresh Meat, offering the blueprint for all subsequent finals. Over a ten-mile race, teams would have to complete various checkpoints and puzzles while roped together. Completing- or not completing- these puzzles would result in a potential penalty of carrying up to 100 pounds in weighted bags.

Once again, Darrell and Aviv outsmarted the competition. They were the only team to solve the two puzzles presented in the finale, allowing them to carry less weight than the others. They had no weight to carry up the final stretch of mountain, while the other two had 100 pounds split between their partners.

Darrell is already hard enough to beat in a foot race, let alone when you have to carry additional weight. By the time Darrell and Aviv reach the top of the mountain, the duo stands tall as the season's winner.

It's kind of a shame Aviv never returned. She proved strong at puzzles and was more than capable of holding her own with Darrell. One has to wonder what her career could have been.

Lasting Impact

Overall, Fresh Meat may be the most important moment in the show's history, paving the way for the next generation of The Challenge.

The Fresh Meat cast remains a popular group with the fanbase. None of the original fresh meat has appeared on the show since 2014, but fans still remember them fondly. While returns for some will likely not be possible, perhaps the recent announcement of an OG season will see a few individuals jumping back into The Challenge world.

More importantly, the show cemented the shift to a more physical game. The Challenge branded itself as "America's fifth professional sport" over the last few years. That change is not possible without Fresh Meat and its commitment to presenting more difficult challenges.

Would the show still be around today if it didn't start making these shifts? I'm not sure. But I do know that it would certainly look different if it didn't.

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