The Challenge has a long, long history. If you magically had access to every season, you could watch for a month straight without repeating episodes. This makes it hard pick to out the cream of the crop, but I’m going to try to do that.
In this list, I’m going to highlight some of the best Challenge episodes we’ve ever seen. It’s impossible to establish an objective criteria here, but the main factors are excitement and memorability. Things like impressive eliminations, badass challenges, explosive drama, and relationship development will make episodes considered for this list.
There are some rules when writing the list. All entries must be the single 30/60/90 minute episodes we saw on TV. Splitting up drama to create cliffhangers will seriously impact the possibility of seeing an episode on this list. There is one exception. On earlier seasons, MTV would air two episodes back-to-back as the season opener. If episodes were aired on the same day as an intentional combination, they will count as one. An example would be “Kickin’ Things Off/ Anxieties Run High” from Fresh Meat. The episodes both aired back-to-back on May 29, 2006. Clearly MTV wanted this to be a single, cohesive, hour-long piece. So, I will count this episode and similar episodes as one.
Also, this list is not a ranking of the seasons. There are some great seasons that won’t be represented. This is simply because you need to watch the full season to immerse yourself in the story, and single episodes don’t have strong impacts when isolated.
25. Damned If You Duel… (The Duel 2 episode 1)- Most epic fight in Challenge history, but also kind of gruesome. The hype in 2009 was unreal though.
24. From Theresa With Love (Double Agents episode 6)- Smuggle Run was a solid challenge, someone finally made a sneaky/ smart game move, and two of the best female competitors faced off in elimination.
23. Run For Your Money (The Inferno 2 episode 4)- A continuation of the Beth drama, Run For Your Money is a solid mission, and the Shack Attack Inferno was fun.
22. There Will Be Blood (Battle of the Bloodlines episode 1)- Bloodlines went downhill quickly, but the introduction to the season was a huge mess. We can give all thanks to Tony and the relationships he was willing to jeopardize.
21. Friend or Foe (The Duel episode 11)- This episode contains CT & Diem’s first kiss. While the Stacking Stairs challenge was kind of dull and the Brad vs. Eric elimination isn’t too memorable, the episode remains in Challenge history for the kiss alone.
20. The Chronicles of Nanyia (Battle of the Seasons episode 9)
Looking for an hour of trashy reality TV fights and endless explosions? This is the episode for you. There are fights in every corner of the house, a Vegas team deteriorating, and a broken potted plant. Some people might not like this episode, but for some people this is exactly what they want in a reality show. Tension, drama, and disrespect.
19. Ev vs. The People (The Island episode 5)
There isn’t a lot to say about The Island. For most people, it’s a disaster of a season… except for one episode. The game was mostly run by a misogynistic alliance, and Evelyn was determined to do something. After being omitted from numerous face-offs, Ev finally got her chance to play. She won the Bridge It competition, one of the more strategic games on the season. Then, she stood up to the alliance. She gave Bananas and his alliance a big F-you and stole Johnny’s key. If he wanted it back, he’d have to earn it. Sadly, the rest of the season wasn’t so glorious. Bananas won his key back and Ev joined his alliance.
18. Grope The Rope/ Bird Feeder (The Inferno episode 1/2)
The Inferno was a different type of game. Dictated by politics over performance, many of the missions were on the sillier side. This is why we see contestants running around in chicken suits on the first episode of the season. But this did create an early redemption arc for Syrus, who excelled early in the game. Of course, the headline of this episode was the Veronica and Julie fight hundreds of feet in the air. Julie tried to unbuckle Veronica’s safety line to scare her into losing the Grope the Rope mission. It didn’t work, but there was a level of pure terror in Veronica’s eyes. Julie played a dirty game to help a team that didn’t care about her, but that’s foreshadowing for later in the season. Bonus: this was CT’s first episode of The Challenge ever.
17. Rumor Has It (Vendettas episode 10)
As a whole, the formatting of Vendettas is a bit of a disaster. Where production failed, the cast compensated with drama and deception. Nothing demonstrates the chaos better than this episode where Devin exposes a dirty little secret as a form of psychological warfare. He reveals Bananas and Kayleigh made out, which sends the house into disarray. Natalie and her friends seek revenge by throwing all of Kayleigh’s belongings out of her room and over the balcony. Meanwhile, Devin’s plan paints Bananas as a villain. Tony is convinced to send Bananas into elimination, and Devin sends his “vendetta” packing in an elimination consisting of a convoluted Lite Brite.
16. An Officer and a Gentle Woman (Invasion of the Champions episode 9)
It’s incredible to see how much could fit into an hour-long episode years ago. We open with flirtation between Nicole Z. and Laurel, then Nicole Z. and Cara Maria. This is quickly ended when the cast gets home from the club and Laurel and Amanda start fighting. Then, Camilinator shows up. By this point in time fans had come to expect Camila to turn into the Camilinator. What they didn’t expect was the day she’d meet her match: Amanda. The two girls would scream back and fourth until the veterans separated themselves from a wild Amanda. We also see the Fallout Challenge. A fun game that Camila wins after nearly hanging herself. Then, the episode ends with a cliffhanger. One of the most epic eliminations ever: Bananas vs. Darrell in Balls In.
15. The Finale (The Gauntlet 3 episode 9)
This episode opens with a veteran male elimination: a rarity on this season. Ball Brawl is one of the better Gauntlets, though the one we saw this episode was a speed-driven blow out. Of course, the real show is the Army Strong final challenge. By design, this is one of the cooler old-school finals. It’s a race, but the checkpoints are mini versions of the challenges throughout the season. The Rookies manage to take an early lead forcing the Veterans to push Eric to move faster than he can. Karma smacks the team in the face. After throwing challenges to force female eliminations, no male was brave enough to face Eric in a Gauntlet. He is medically disqualified, and the Rookies win by default because the Veterans didn’t reach the finish line as a full team.
14. Total Eclipse of the Heart (Battle of the Exes 2 episode 9)
If you ever want to see a redemption twist done right, look no further. Episode 9 of Exes 2 saw Bananas & Nany reenter the house after battling their way back through Battle of the Ex-iled. In the words of Sarah, “this changes everything.” Wes & Theresa are now in the minority, and Leroy & Nia realize they’re at the bottom of Bananas’s alliance. As a result, they are forced to go into elimination. The result is one of the most epic and vulgar fights we’ve ever seen. Nia called Nany every name in the book, and Theresa is smiling the whole time. Episode 10 was very close to making this list. The end of Exes 2 is pretty epic, but diminished by cliffhangers and drawn out drama.
13. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (Final Reckoning episode 20)
Final Reckoning is a long season, but the second half is much better than the first. When the pace picks up and the pressure starts building, the competition gets intense. It all boils down to the final, which might be one of the more polarizing ends to a season. Many viewers dislike this final, but it comes across as more competitive than grueling. Any team stood a chance of winning, but Ashley & Hunter get the title. In the end, Ashley is able to keep the whole $1 million for herself, crushing Hunter’s dreams but getting revenge for his cruel comments. Many people feel bad for Hunter, but after Rivals 3 all Challengers had to have expected a winner-take-all twist. Plus, he was pretty mean-spirited to Ashley throughout the game, so Ashley’s decision feels more justified. Disagree? That’s fine. Regardless of your opinion, you’ve got something to say about this episode.
12. Always a Bridesmaid… (Cutthroat episode 9)
In this episode, we see a fan favorite challenge: Riot Act. The competition is a test of strength and endurance, but when the red team loses we get some Paula and Dunbar drama. Who doesn’t love that? Of course, the highlight of the episode comes right at the start. Episode 8 watches the Heavy Hitters enter the Gulag. Episode 9 watches them compete against players from the red and blue teams. The CT/ Bananas backpack is a moment etched in Challenge history. I don’t think it’s possible to watch the show and not know about it.
11. Sergeant Says (Battle of the Sexes episode 1/2)
The Battle of the Sexes season opener contains two of the biggest moments in Challenge history. We open with Melissa confronting Julie. The New Orleans roommates had lost a friendship over some shady business deals. While the confrontation is tense, it pales in comparison to the Puck and David drama. The two bring some heavily personal tensions into the game, and when David accuses Puck of beating his wife, Puck spits in David’s face. This episode saw Jonathan Murray come on screen, a super rarity, then the cast bands together to reverse his decision to send Puck home.
10. Hellraiser (War of the Worlds episode 2)
Final Reckoning lasted 20 episodes. All of the lingering drama seemed to explode in one episode of War of the Worlds. Firstly, this episode has a pretty cool challenge with Arms-A-Geddon-Tired. It’s a fun play on tug-of-war, but it also introduced us to the theatric challenges when TJ ran over a series of junk cars in a monster truck just to stop the timer. Then, Amanda goes wild in the house to defend Hunter and ends up stirring the pot more than anticipated. Jenna gets annoyed by her, so Amanda drops a bomb to cause a riff in her relationship with Zach. Perhaps the headlining moment comes at the end during the Drone Ball Drop elimination. Ashley has to face Hunter after taking Hunter’s money last season. This time, Hunter emerges victorious.
9. The Storm Before the Storm (Rivals episode 9)
The end of Rivals sees some major twists and serious drama. In episode 8, the entire house fought, the rookies saved themselves, then Johnny & Tyler got blindsided when they were voted into elimination. Now, Tyler is angry and feels betrayed. Nobody wants to be in the final elimination, and the Key West rivals are facing CT & Adam. This episode featured the debut of a fan-favorite game: T-Bone. When Adam makes a mistake in the beginning, CT does the only thing he can: tackle the other team. The elimination comes to a nail biter ending, but Tyler outruns Adam and secures his spot in the final. CT and Adam have built somewhat of a friendship, but won’t be making money. Afterwards, we start the first overnight final in Challenge history.
8. Pride Before The Wall (Free Agents episode 7)
If we were only looking at the challenges, this might be one of the silliest episodes. The Sausage Fest challenge is fun to watch, but doesn’t offer a lot in terms of competition. Then, the social and political game comes into play and the episode is fully redeemed. Jordan is determined to prove his worth in the game, and he wants to take out Johnny Bananas. A vindictive group of rookies vote Bananas into elimination, and Jordan promises to flip all of the cards at The Draw. Laurel gasses him up, he flips all the cards, and he gets the face-off he wanted. The bad news: it’s Wrecking Wall and he can’t excel with one hand. Bananas wins and “earns his stripes.”
7. Balcony Swing (The Inferno episode 12)
Two of the most epic Challenge rivalries emerged on The Inferno: Coral vs. Julie and Katie vs. Veronica. In episode 11, Julie challenged Coral to a wrestling match. Coral insisted she could kick Julie’s ass with one boob, but the fight never happened. Meanwhile, Veronica had just been nominated into The Inferno. As a result, episode 12 saw the opportunity to flip the script. Veronica had the entire Road Rules team throw the Balcony Swing mission to ensure Katie’s spot in the Inferno. This bold move humiliated Katie, and sent her into an elimination against Julie. Fortunately, the underdog emerged victorious. Katie defeated Julie in the Scratchathon Inferno. One rivalry came to a close, but another was brewing out of control. This episode was a pivotal moment before the Katie vs. Veronica fight later in the season.
6. The People vs. Johnny Bananas (Final Reckoning episode 13)
Final Reckoning is a season full of great moments, but it’s also a season plagued with bad episodes due to the endless cliffhangers. Episode 13 didn’t suffer from this format, as it told a cohesive story of a tied vote and the ultimate sacrifice. The Lavender Ladies want to send Bananas & Tony into elimination, Zach wants to send in Hunter & Ashley. Due to their inability to break this tie, Zach & Amanda go into elimination only to lose to mercenaries in a sketchy elimination game.
5. What Goes Around, Comes Around (The Duel episode 8)
The Duel may have been Beth’s greatest season, and this episode demonstrates just how feared she was in the game. We begin with Beth and Brad arguing, a fight that may have driven a wedge between her alliance with Svetlana. Then, she nearly wins the Rafty Race mission, a game that gradually eliminates people and is fun throughout. This episode features an elimination that’s still heavily debated among fans fifteen years later. We see the first Push Me Duel of the season. While Beth displayed more strength, Svetlana wins on a technicality. It’s hard to imagine The Duel without Svetlana’s storyline, but I’m gonna say it. Beth should have won.
4. Vertical Limit (The Gauntlet episode 13)
Everyone loves a good underdog story, and no one has a better story than Sarah Greyson. While we all know she won The Gauntlet, her highlight probably comes in episode 13. In the Vertical Sweep mission, Sarah struggles and hits her back multiple times. She’s beaten up, both mentally and physically, then her team decides it’s time for her to compete in her fifth Gauntlet of the season. The result is a 45-minute long endurance game of Dead Man’s Drop against Irulan. This rises tensions between Real World and Road Rules, and the obnoxious yelling after Sarah’s victory amplifies tensions more. Now, two teams are at each other’s throats and Sarah has won her record-setting fifth Gauntlet.
3. Benedict Laurel (War of the Worlds 2 episode 4)
There have been relatively few large team Challenges over recent years, and War of the Worlds 2 was the most recent attempt. The formatting was a bit wacky, but when it worked, it was amazing. The chaos on Team USA erupted after a challenge was thrown. The drama from this resulted in a few minor arguments, like the time Paulie almost fought Nany, but the main show was Laurel trying to destroy Cara Maria’s alliance. The Tribunal featured an epic argument, Laurel successfully got Ninja thrown into elimination, then Team UK sent Laurel in to face Ninja. In the end, we saw one of the most controversial elimination calls ever. The season went downhill once Laurel left, but the events leading to her departure were pure entertainment.
2. X Marks the Spot (The Inferno 2 episode 3)
Perhaps the most memorable fight in Challenge history, Tonya came into Mexico discussing her relationship with Mark Long. The problem? Robin was also in a relationship with Mark. Beth finds out Tonya had a relationship with Mark, tells Robin, then Robin confronts Tonya. After Tonya is called a slut and a whore, she gets upset because she’s made to look like a liar. When Beth refuses to get out of bed and confront Tonya the situation escalates. Tonya throws all of Beth’s clothing into the pool and forces her to pay attention. Now an angry Beth wants to throw the game and make the Bad Asses lose. Despite the chaos, the Bad Asses win the X Marks the Spot mission and set up a Tina and Robin Inferno. All of this happened in a 30 minute episode.
1. The Booby Trap (The Ruins episode 2)
Tuning into The Ruins held a sense of excitement in 2009 that can’t be replicated on a rewatch. This is mostly due to the Champion team and the deep-rooted history they had with each other. Episode 1 laid the groundwork for Wes’s sneaky gameplay, but episode 2 saw the consequences. In this episode, a plan was concocted to break Wes: not get him out of the game. Casey was going to throw the challenge, Katie and Susie would vote Evelyn into The Ruins, and Kellyanne would be her opponent. The plan worked, but in an episode of twist and turns, nobody got off scot-free. Wes was super mad at his team, Evelyn is sobbing, and in elimination she refuses to become a villain. She deliberately loses, allowing Kellyanne to stay in the game. Meanwhile, Wes wins and returns to the game madder than ever. He threatens to throw the rest of the challenges until Johanna hits him with a curveball. The title of his house is in her name. If he messes with her money, she sells the house.
This episode wins big because Shadow Boxer is a cool concept for an elimination. Swing on By might not be the best challenge, but it did give us an amazing moment. When Shauvon falls into the water she fears she busted in implant. She didn’t, but she then proceeds to tell the house of her bruised booby and remove herself from the game.