By Keith Elliot Greenberg
Over the last generation, pro wrestling has been re-branded “sports entertainment.” Which is great. Except some fans naively dwell on the entertainment portion of this label, and forget they’re watching some of the most capable athletes on the planet.
What “Tough Enough” does is remind people of the physical fortitude required to compete in WWE. Storylines notwithstanding, every WWE Superstar and Diva knows that if you slip once, your friend – the guy standing right next to you backstage, smiling with a coffee cup in hand – is ready to trample over your carcass and take your spot. If you’re hypersensitive or weak-willed, others will sense it and use it against you.
And if you want to sleep in because your back hurts and your knees ache, you’re in the wrong business.
In total, thousands of potential Superstars sent video submissions to “Tough Enough.” WWE narrowed the list down to 13. Only one Superstar and one Diva will survive.
The show is hosted by Chris Jericho, the first Superstar to unify the WWE and WCW titles. The judges include Daniel Bryan and Paige, the youngest woman to ever win the WWE Divas Championship.
Each mention the qualifications they seek. Not surprisingly, Bryan, leader of the “Yes Movement” and a perennial underdog, says “heart.” Paige mentions personality.
Each of the competitors explains their motivations. Patrick Clark, Jr, a wrestling coach from Washington, DC, tells the most touching story. When his father died, WWE helped get him through the tragedy.
The competitions began with a grueling strength and stamina test, sprinting across a football field, lugging a parachute, then running in the opposite direction holding a bag with each contestant’s weight in sand. From there, they continue to the top of the grandstand.
Tanner Saraceno, an MMA fighter from Boiling Springs, SC, is the first to finish.
ZZ Loupe, an alligator wrestler from Bayou Boeuf, LA, is last, egged on by the other contestants.
“Do it for the bayou!” someone yells.
The group is then shown their Spartan accommodations. After a difficult afternoon, someone suggests going to a bar. Once again, ZZ is left behind. At age 18, he can’t gain admission. He and Patrick hang out in the Jacuzzi. It’s ZZ’s first time. “And I get to eat all the cookies,” he points out.
Out at the club, the atmosphere gets charged, as some of the aspiring Divas try the stripper pole. Dianna mentions her fiancée.
The next morning, the group is woken early for a regimen of pushups, with Billy Gunn playing the role of taskmaster. He leads everyone outside for a run. Again, ZZ comes in last.
Now, it’s time to run ropes, the first lesson every potential Superstar must learn. They bodyslam a heavy bag, learning not to drop an adversary on their head.
Each competitor runs the ropes, drops down and slams the bag. Each time, the bag gets heavier and heavier.
Thus far, Tanner has been overshadowing everyone. Now, he vows to go through the drill 15 times. Showing the makings of a good wrestling villain, he knows the crowd’s rooting against him, but he meets his goal, nearly doubling his nearest competitor.
Notes Booker, “You can feel however you feel about it. But Tanner, he’s kicking everybody’s ass.”
Almost since the beginning of the program, Dianna Dahlgren, a fitness model from Spokane, WA, has been talking about her fiancée. At the midway point of the show, she slips out to meet him in the parking lot. It should be a touching moment. But seasoned wrestling observers realize that the WWE fraternity needs to become your family at this point. If you pine for home too much, maybe you belong there.
Inside, she's confronted by Brazilan born jiu-jitsu competitor, surfer and snowboarder Gabi Castrovinci, who questions the blonde Washingtonian’s dedication. Dianna counters that she injured herself earlier in the day, but she’s stuck with the competition, proving she’s indeed “tough enough.”
Plus, she notes, Gabi tends to be a bit anti-social. Gabi: “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to win.”
We’ve seen this type of exchange previously on reality TV. But in this case, the altercation very much reflects the types of suspicions that form among a group of athletes who all want the same prize.
As much as they dislike each other, they both seem able to weather the tensions of the WWE locker room.
With 15 minutes left, the judges grill the competitors.
Dianna reaffirms her commitment. But she lights up when her fiancée is mentioned.
Paige takes exception to Hank Avery, Jr. comparing Tanner to the women. Daniel Bryan asks the “Jersey Devil” Daria Berenato if she’s committed to taking risks. As an MMA fighter, she counters, taking risks has been “the story of my life.”
The program ends with the judges selecting the “bottom three.” Bryan says he’s unimpressed with Tanner, while Paige notes she hasn’t noticed Josh Bredl, a powerful NFL free agent, at all.
As the voting commences, each contestant is allowed to give a final plea. Josh says he’s “best for business.” Hank says he’s a “regular, average Joe” who represents the audience. ZZ invokes his “fun…Cajun flavor….That’s what this is business is about, making people happy.”
Each season, the judges are permitted one save. On the first episode, though, each declines to exercise that option.
In the end, the fans choose to eliminate Hank. But ZZ offers a consolation prize.
Whenever Hank is in Louisiana, he’s welcome at the Loupe residence.
One down, twelve remain. Tune in next week to see who’s Tough Enough!
Keith Elliot Greenberg was a contributor to WWE's magazines for 22 years, and is co-author of the autobiographies of Ric Flair, Freddie Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham.