WWE in 2004 had something of a dearth of new talent, to say the least. The new “stars” on Raw and Smackdown (okay, mostly Smackdown) included such future main-eventers as Kenzo Suzuki, Mark Jindrak, Luther Reigns, Orlando Jordan, and Heidenreich.
To fill the depleted roster, WWE held its fourth season of Tough Enough. Unlike the first three seasons of the Tough Enough TV show, this one would be all-male, and there would be only one winner, rather than two, who would receive a whopping $1 million contract. Also, it wouldn’t be a TV show.
Nope, this Tough Enough would instead take place during Smackdown itself. How, you might ask, could WWE manage to fit thirty minutes of training footage and practice matches into their Thursday night program? Easy: they didn’t. Not a single second of actual in-ring footage was shown to the audience throughout the entire “season.” Instead, the entire Tough Enough season consisted of inane physical and comedy challenges that were only ever, at best, tangentially related to wrestling.
So… stupid weekly competitions, zero wrestling, a show-within-a-show, a cash prize, and did I mention that the fans got to vote on the winner? Yeah, this season could best be described as a male Diva Search.
The “season” started with the casting “special,” which in addition to exhausting my supply of editorial quotation marks, featured fifty contestants arbitrarily picked from thousands of entry videos, including the future Boogeyman, Luke Gallows, Ryback, Miz, and Mitch from the Spirit Squad. Our contestants were then subject to rigorous physical challenges like an obstacle course and 40 meter dash, all in the sand. All the while, trainers Al Snow and Bill DeMott berated them for having the chance to win a million dollars for doing stupid tasks like that. To that, I must quote that modern proverb: “Don’t hate the player, hate the concept of bringing an untrained wannabe wrestler onto the roster simply for being ‘tough’ rather than the kind of wrestling skill you might find on, say, the independent circuit.”
Of course, the prospective WWE superstars had to prove themselves on the microphone to show their charisma. Most cut promos, but one guy streaked his way into the ocean to impress the judges (none of whom, incidentally, were Pat Patterson).
As silly as it might seem to an outsider, though, mic skills and charisma are a huge part of being successful in the world of wrestling, and to hammer that point home, one of the judges of talent was none other than John Laurinaitis.
One poor soul named Brian Danovich decided that the best way to impress the judges was to run over to the on-site gym and crank out some bench presses, tearing his pectoral and biceps muscles in the process.
The next day, he proved that he was “Tough Enough” by completing the entire obstacle course once more, but with only one arm. Maybe the show would have been better named, “Tough Enough and Without Any Torn Muscles,” as he was then promptly cut by Al Snow for being injured. That announcement would have perhaps been more convenient had it come before he wasted his time doing an obstacle course and risking even more injuries. At least he got a developmental deal in OVW for his troubles (and was cut the next year).
The most impressive of the new recruits in terms of conditioning and intensity was Marty Wright, before he was the Boogeyman and while he still had teeth. Unfortunately, he was disqualified after admitting that he was in fact forty years old rather his previously stated thirty years of age. That’s not age discrimination; the winner of this contest would have to wrestle every night for years and years, and a wrestler starting out at age forty could not have the long, decorated career that the eventual winner would surely have (HA!). It just goes to show you the value of honesty (even though, if Marty had told the truth in the first place, he never would have made it to the try-outs and never would have gotten signed).
Daniel Puder was another standout, a legitimate fighter with an undefeated mixed martial arts record to prove it. That record, by the way, was 1-0, having won one fight the previous year by decision in the little-known MMA promotion, X-1. Hmmm… hard to figure why none of the announcers ever went into detail about Puder’s MMA background, though it didn’t stop everyone on the show from calling him “the UFC guy.”
Now, we can’t talk about Tough Enough 4 without mentioning Mike Mizanin, the former Real World star and future Miz who got to show off his obnoxious side (or, more accurately, obnoxious sides: front and back).
And who could forget John Meyer? All of us, apparently, as he quit between the casting special and the next week’s show, and nobody noticed.
The contestants’ first night on Smackdown was no cakewalk. First, they got dressed down by the Big Show, who ripped into the seven finalists for being handed an opportunity without paying their dues. This might have been more powerful a message coming from somebody who hadn’t been booked over Hulk Hogan in a pay-per-view main event for the world title in his very first match.
The first competition was to trash-talk the Big Show in a promo, so Mike Mizanin invoked the name of Al Snow to strike fear into his future tag team championship partner. Oh, and he forgot what state he was in.
Ryan Reeves took the opportunity to give himself not one, but two nicknames: “Silverback” and “The Vanilla Gorilla.” Why was he the Vanilla Gorilla? Presumably because he was Caucasian, or “vanilla.” Which implied that gorillas are normally “chocolate,” or African-American. So take points off for some accidental racism. Add some points to his score for not saying, “Yep yep yep. What it do?”
Dan Rodimer told the Big Show that he was “not going anywhere.” And he never did.
Nick Mitchell showed off his spot-on impression of my dog dragging his butt crack on the floor when he has rectal worms. I’m entirely kidding, of course; I don’t actually have a dog.
Justice Smith did his worst Warriors line-reading…
…whereas Daniel Puder debuted his new catchphrase of “Snap, crackle, and pop.” Puder was always way ahead of his time, trying to get that coveted cereal box deal with Rice Krispies years before Cena endorsed Fruity Pebbles.
Oh, and there was also this guy named Chris Nawrocki, not to be confused with Chris Nowinski. Or Rocky Maivia. Or Knute Rockne. Just in case you were wondering. For one thing, none of those three ever starred in 2009’s “Sex, Lies, and Myspace.”
The Big Show himself then came down to deliver bodyslams to each one of the contestants (who were all too concerned with looking tough to do something as silly as selling). He even threw in an elbow to Justice, a kneedrop to Dan, and a slap to Nick Mitchell (as if taking pre-emptive revenge for having to drop the tag titles to the rookie and four other male cheerleaders).
The following week saw the contestants do sprints, then ingest tons of pasta and milk, then do even more sprints in an apparent attempt to induce vomiting. Now that’s the definition of tough: “given to unintelligent decisions or acts; acting in an unintelligent or careless manner.” Wait, sorry, that’s the definition of “stupid.”
Next, Kurt Angle came to the ring to berate all of the contestants, asking them whether they thought they were tough. This was a trick question, of course; say “yes” and you’re arrogant, say “no” and you don’t have heart. Sort of like Lisa Simpson doing push-ups in the mud at military school. This all sounded like Kurt shooting, until he mentioned how he shot Big Show with a tranquilizer gun to prove he was tough.
After all getting torn a new one, the seven contestants had a squat thrust competition. To quote the fat naked guy on the subway from Seinfeld, who’s got time for squat thrusts? Not the television audience, as they were wisely shown a recap of last week rather than endure flashbacks to high school gym class. For some reason, WWE decided to replay Nick’s insult to the Big Show from the previous week about “stacking crap that high,” despite the fact that Kurt had just re-used that exact line on Justice Smith.
The “winner” of the interminable squat thrust contest, the visibly winded Chris Nawrocki, looked to be in the worst shape of all the trainees. That’s probably why the refs selected him as the winner, as his “prize” was getting dominated like Sharmell by Angle in a shoot wrestling match…
…and breaking his ribs.
Then came the most infamous moment of the entire season, when Daniel Puder volunteered to wrestle Angle. Amazingly, Puder managed to put Angle in a kimura lock during the 40-second encounter, allegedly nearly breaking Kurt’s arm, depending on what dirt sheet you’re reading (WWE later paid tribute to this incident by making Triple H and Brock Lesnar’s Summerslam 2012 match nothing but kimura locks). In the process, Puder got pinned, as his shoulders may or may not have been on the mat. Though Vince clearly hadn’t learned his lesson about shoot fights from the Brawl for All, the announcers were able to ignore the controversy completely, and WWE survived the terrifying prospect of something newsworthy or exciting happening on Smackdown.
Besides, this was no time to start a hot angle, as there was still serious work to do. In the ensuing weeks, the contestants would prove their worth as wrestling superstars by making out with Mae Young…
…playing capture-the-flag with the Bondage Brothers…
…dressing in drag…
…and jousting on a moon bounce.
Not included were contests on who could put on the best match, take the best bump, or sell the most convincingly. Nor was fabric for Cheerleader Mitch’s butt cheeks.
The contest culminated at Armageddon 2004 in a “Dixie Dog Fight,” a boxing match that again brought back memories of the Brawl-for-All, between the last two finalists, Mike Mizanin and Daniel Puder. After weeks of nonsense and getting screwed by Kurt Angle and the referees, Puder finally had a chance to show just what a great fighter he was and put the reality star Mizanin in his place.
All while advertising an up-and-coming website called myspace.com on his shorts. (Hey, that’s two mentions of Myspace in one induction! If this were 2005, we’d be bigger than an Owen Wilson movie!)
The Miz certainly looked embarrassing at times, throwing some of the worst punches this side of Shane McMahon circa 2009.
Puder, however, did himself no favors by failing to put down the underwhelming Mizanin despite an illegal punch to the back of the head.
Teddy Long let the audience decide the winner, and though their reaction was mixed, Long still pretended that Puder was the clear audience favorite. That made Daniel the winner of the final contest. But as usual, the victory meant nothing concrete; at best, it was a suggestion that fans should vote for Puder to win it all.
In fact, none of the competitions earned the victors anything but bragging rights, as the fans voting on wwe.com had all the say. No points, no immunity, no nothing. How else could Mike Mizanin have made it all the way to the finals, despite being the best at nothing except playing a more convincing woman than Puder or Smith?
Still, Puder won the audience’s vote, the million dollars, and a spot on the WWE roster. Sort of.
Puder allegedly had attitude problems and was resented backstage for the Kurt Angle incident. Rather than playing off the real-life bad blood between Puder and Angle, the Tough Enough winner was put in one match, getting publicly hazed by the veterans in the Royal Rumble, never to set foot in a WWE ring again. He was shipped down to OVW, where he was cut in September 2005 along with Brian Danovich from the casting special. On top of all that, he didn’t even get the million dollars he was promised, as the fine print on his contract stated that the prize money would be paid out over the course of four years, during which time the company could opt not to renew his deal.
If you think it was a bad decision to sign Puder over the other contestants, though, ask yourself, who should have won? In hindsight, probably the Miz, but think back to nine years ago when the contest aired. Who showed the most raw talent? Who was the most polished wrestler of the final seven? You don’t know, do you? Of course not. No one does. The format of the show was fundamentally flawed and never gave the fans even a vague idea of who deserved to win and wrestle for WWE.
Now, I understand that there is no such thing as true “reality” TV, and that all documentary television is edited down carefully from hours and hours of footage to present a compelling but by no means accurate narrative. The first three seasons of Tough Enough were likely just as guilty as the next reality show of distorting the facts, whereas Tough Enough unfolded live in front of the fans. The key difference between the first three seasons and the fourth season, though, was that in the early seasons, it was the trainers and not the audience who made the call as to who should continue and who should be cut. You know, the trainers who were observing the contestants all throughout their in-ring training? In Tough Enough 4, the only people who had seen the potential WWE superstars wrestle had no say in who won, while the audience awarded a contract based on who could French a senior citizen the most convincingly. For all the fans knew, Daniel Puder couldn’t take a basic bump, Justice Smith couldn’t run the ropes, and Mike Mizanin couldn’t execute a simple figure-four leg lock…
…yet the matter of whether any of the contestants could actually work took a backseat to the make-out-with-Mae-Young contests and squat-thrust competitions. Well, “took a backseat” is being rather generous; wrestling got left at a gas station a hundred miles back while the other nonsense drove the competition from city to city.
In fact, the entire Million Dollar Tough Enough can be summed up by this out-of-context Michael Cole quote.
So what, if anything, made this whole fiasco any different from the 2004 Diva Search?
At least the Diva Search winner made it to Wrestlemania the next year.