Long before Evelyn proved lone wolves can win on “The Island,” or Johnny Bananas nabbed Free Agents gold solo, The Challenge introduced the first every-man-for-himself warzone — The Duel — and changed the way the game was played.
In 2006, the series' 13th season invited 10 men and 10 women from Real World and Road Rules to compete in Brazil for the game’s biggest prize ever: $150,000 for each first-place finisher. Host TJ Lavin explained that the show would operate differently than did previous seasons and that each cast member would compete for himself or herself. Each mission would include a subsequent Men’s Duel or Women’s Duel, during which two cast members would battle head-to-head, and one would send the other home. And by the end of the first mission, “Reaching Out,” it was clear that even ironclad alliances were subject to disbanding.
The Duel nomination ceremony proceeded like this: Each mission’s male and female winners kicked off a selection ceremony in which cast members would alternate picking competitors of opposite sex to spare from potential elimination. Eventually, only one would remain. This cast member would be immediately sentenced to The Duel and could choose to face off against any member of the same sex, save for the day’s winner. Duel games ranged from tests of brute strength (“Push Me”) to puzzle exercises (“The Ascender”), and the fact that even the season’s strongest players feared entry proved each mini-game was uncomfortably chancy.
Longtime fans will remember that eventual Challenge emblem Bananas was the first cast member booted from the game, a fate made worse by the fact it was his first time on a “Challenge.” And, strangely, it was Bananas’ former Real World: Key West housemate Tyler who chose Johnny as a Duel opponent (Tyler bested his frenemy in a game of strategy called “I Can”). Still, Tyler’s victory high was quickly deflated, as he and a third Key West housemate, Paula, were the game’s next two victims.
(That is, of course, excluding Tina, who was rather infamously disqualified from the game after punching Beth in the face during a mission called “Ring Toss,” an experience Tina likened to striking a “dead pig.”)
Still, “Ring Toss” wasn’t completely blemished by the violence. The late, great Diem Brown very memorably won the mission on the women’s side after revealing — for the first time — a nearly bald head that had been singed by radiation and cancer treatments. Diem’s resolution left her the last woman standing in the endurance contest, and fellow competitor Evan deemed it one of the most inspirational things he and some of his cast mates had ever seen.
And for a while, it seemed like Diem and her eventual alliance ruled the game. Diem, Evan, Robin, Jodi, Kina, Brad and CT — with whom Diem shared an emotional beachside kiss at the start of what would become the game’s most memorable love story — seemed to have total control. Out of desperation, Nehemiah, Wes, Beth, Svetlana and Aneesa formed a rebel faction, and while they only occasionally won missions, it was nearly impossible to take them out in elimination rounds: Wes took out mammoth competitor Derrick, Aneesa sent home Paula and Robin (the latter of whom Aneesa nominated after Robin’s nasty tirade) and Svetlana made a particularly bold move when she eliminated Beth to prove she was nobody’s puppet. By the time the game whittled down to its eight finalists, Wes, Svetlana and Aneesa all remained to fend off the game’s top-tier threats: CT, Jodi, Diem and Evan.
Sensing CT would clear an uncontested path to victory with a bid to the final mission, Wes and Evan formed an eleventh-hour informal alliance, the objective of which was to take CT out. And, as Wes and Svetlana won the show’s 13th mission, “Sunken Treasure,” it was up to Evan to get the job done. Still, he proved to be no match for CT, who eliminated a frightened Evan after a decisive “Ascender” win.
Two missions later, though, Wes would get his wish, when his “Paddle Me” win meant Brad and CT were immediately Duel-bound. And while CT was sure he’d secured a “Push Me” win after less than a minute, he’d secured the game’s winning flag illegally, and was disqualified from the game. He viciously argued the game’s result with TJ, and when Wes couldn’t stand CT’s bellyaching anymore, he jumped into the fight, and stirred up an argument that was so intense, it’d eventually lead to the duo’s Rivals II match-up.
The final miles of the women’s race operated pretty similarly. When The Duel had been reduced to four ladies, besties Svetlana and Aneesa agreed that if Jodi — who’d won five missions, herself — made it to the final mission, nobody else stood a chance. Aneesa swore she’d take Jodi into The Duel the next time she had the chance — unfortunately, Jodi continued winning, meaning Aneesa’s only choice after being last in line upon the “Around the Block” selection ceremony was Diem.
The selection wasn’t without drama, though, as Aneesa had haphazardly promised Diem earlier in the day that she wouldn’t nominate her, sure that Diem’s initial performance in the game meant she’d eventually win anyway (surprise, surprise: Jodi took the W at the last second). Aneesa eventually bested Diem after a particularly emotional “I Can” matchup, and sent the fan favorite packing.
Unfortunately for Aneesa, a final Duel-matchup against ally Svetlana after the “Paddle Me” mission (Jodi had won it…again…) didn’t go her way. Though Aneesa had unquestionably earned a position as Duel finalist, she had to concede the final spot to Svetlana, who became one of very few rookies to make it to a Challenge finale on her first try.
The game’s final task — “The Rio Deal” — challenged Wes, Brad, Svetlana and Jodi to fight to the top of an ocean-facing mountain in a race that was punctuated by a series of checkpoints. Wes and Jodi secured early leads after winning a preemptive soccer mini-game that gave them two-minute head starts, and they pretty much never lost them. Through tests of endurance, balance and resolve, each proved their performances through the game weren’t flukes, and left Sventlana and Brad stranded in respective second-place spots.
As part of history’s most picturesque victory lap, Wes and Jodi each hang-glided off the top of the mountain down toward Buzios, Brazil’s scenic beaches to celebrate their wins. There, TJ presented each with giant novelty checks as both champions broke into hysterics.
“This changes my life -- it would change anybody’s life,” Jodi cried to the camera, while Wes took the opportunity to thank then-girlfriend Johanna of Real World: Austin for her support. He insisted the prize money would serve as a nest egg for what he hoped would be a family. Sadly, the couple would split soon after.
Eighty-three million viewers watched The Duel. A decade and 16 seasons later, we can’t say it’s a surprise.