The Year was 2001. George W. Bush was sworn in as President of the United States. Tony Blair and the Labour Party were re-elected in the “quiet landslide”. America Online had over 25 million subscribers. Apple unveiled the first IPod. “A Beautiful Mind” won the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Grammy for Record of the Year went to U2 for “A Beautiful Day”. In the world of pro wrestling, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was WWF – not WWE – champion for most of the year and Vince McMahon scored the final victory of the Monday Night Wars when he bought out WCW. 2001 was also the year that the original Tough Enough debuted. WWE’s wrestling training reality show aired its first episode on June 21, 2001, helmed by Al Snow, Tazz, Tori, and Jacqueline, along with 13 contestants all battling for contracts with the company. It was an interesting concept at the time, and over the next few years countless wannabe superstars submitted audition tapes to get on the show.
The original format ended in 2003, having a fourth season done via segments on Smackdown! in 2004. It was brought back in the original format with host Steve Austin for one season in 2011, before being replaced by the reality show version of NXT and, eventually, the current version of NXT. Now, almost 14 years to the day of the original debut, WWE has pulled Tough Enough back out of mothballs for another season with another crop of potential superstars. However, a lot has changed since the last time Tough Enough was on television, and in a lot of ways the WWE is a different company than it was last time around. With all the changes the company has undergone, it makes you wonder if there is still a place at the table for Tough Enough and an eventual Tough Enough winner. Will running the show be worth it for WWE and, more importantly, will it be worth watching?
If you’re not familiar with the first run of Tough Enough, I’ll let you in on a little secret: it wasn’t about finding the next WWE Champion. I don’t think anyone expected winners Nidia and Maven to one day become the face of the company. No disrespect to them, but when your gimmick is “Tough Enough Winner” you’re likely not going to rise about a low-mid card novelty act. The real reason Tough Enough was created was purely business; WWE was trying to cash in on the insane popularity of reality TV at the time. The year before Tough Enough debuted, the finale of Survivor brought in an average of almost 52 million viewers, a ratings boom that everyone wanted to cash in on. This included Vince McMahon and company. Because of this covert purpose, the caliber of the ring work was mostly irrelevant, the expectation was that people would turn in for the human drama that made reality TV famous. This is certainly still at the forefront of WWE’s decision to bring the show back. While reality TV isn’t the instant money maker it once was, the shows can still hit. WWE has found success with Total Divas, and the WWE Network has had a good run doing live podcasts that give a glimpse behind the curtain of the business. In that sense, Tough Enough certainly still has its place. WWE is banking that there are enough fans who want to see how the product is made to warrant another season of the show. If nothing else, it will provide them with more hours of contact to post on the Network.
That’s not to say that Tough Enough has been a complete failure in its stated mission of finding WWE Superstars. There are a number of careers in WWE and outside of it that owe their start to the show. While many of the winners proved to be busts, John Hennigan’s victory in season 3 gave WWE fans the man that would become John Morrison before ultimately becoming Johnny Mundo in Lucha Underground. Even more success was seen among the shows losers, as Matt Morgan, Ryback, announcer Josh Matthews, Cameron, and former WWE Champion and WrestleMania headliner, The Miz were all non-winning contestants. Collectively, Tough Enough alums account for a number of tag team, intercontinental, and hardcore title wins, as well as a TNA Tag Team Championship, an ECW championship, and a WWE World championship. That’s a pretty impressive resume for a reality show. The odds are decent that one of the contestants on this season will have at least a notable run in WWE.
However, it is impossible to discuss Tough Enough as a means of finding talent without addressing the elephant in the room, NXT. In a lot of ways, Tough Enough is like an un-evolved ancestor of NXT, with the missing link between the two being the NXT competition show that ran from 2010 to 2012. This modern version of NXT along with the WWE performance center has revolutionized the way WWE acquires and trains talent and, as a result, WWE has a stacked roster right now between NXT and the main shows. With the recent signing of Uhaa Nation and the debut of Samoa Joe, plus rumors swirling about potential interest in Austin Aries and Johnny Gargano, among others, it’s hard to see why WWE would want to give up a roster spot to some unknown signed through the Tough Enough program. Even harder to understand is why WWE would want to surrender TV time that could go to Finn Balor or Kevin Owens to someone who is only notable for winning a show.
It is a certainty that many fans will sound that refrain when the Tough Enough winner makes their eventual debut, and it’s a fair argument. Even if the Tough Enough winner (or one of the losing contestants) ends up making a run in WWE, it seems hard to be believe that the caliber of that performer would be anywhere close enough to the guys in NXT waiting for the spotlight. It also creates a number of questions about how the two will fit together. Will the Tough Enough crew work in the performance center? Will the winner go to NXT or the main roster? While NXT can trace its lineage back to Tough Enough, the two couldn’t be more different and have never existed at the same time. It will be interesting to see how WWE will put those pieces together.
So, having seen on all this, the original question still remains – what’s the point of Tough Enough and is it worth the time? While the advertised point is still giving someone a shot at being a superstar, the true purpose is to create another market to cash in on, just like every season before. WWE knows they can count on the hardcore fans, and likely the ones that follow Total Divas, to check Tough Enough out. I’m sure that some more casual fans and fans of the business in general will tune in too, at least initially, to see what the contestants bring to the table. Really, even a portion of that is all WWE needs to score a win. Reality TV is notoriously cheap to produce, and with WWE always looking to generate new product to fill out the Network, Tough Enough is pretty low risk. Simply put, even if no one watches, they don’t lose much. In terms of getting new talent, it’s a crap shoot.
While there have been plenty of dud winners in the past, I’m hopeful that with access to the Performance Center and the new age of WWE training, we might see a winner more like John Morrison and less like Jackie Gayda. While I’m sure a lot of fans would rather see that contract go to their favorite unsigned independent star, we all know that work rate and ring skill aren’t always the top criteria for what makes a WWE star. That’s just the nature of the company. Even if the Tough Enough winner ends up being a washout, WWE’s talent pool doesn’t become weaker because of it. For what it’s worth, I’ll be tuning in.
Who knows, this one might be a train wreck… but maybe the future face of the company IS in this season’s Tough Enough.