By Keith Elliot Greenberg
At the top of Week 9, only two women – Amanda and Sara Lee – remained on “Tough Enough”, compared to a men’s field consisting of Josh, Tanner and ZZ.
This week’s show began with every contestant aware that they were down to their final challenges. The competitors all felt like they were engaged in their own, very personal version on the Survivor Series.
Observed judge Daniel Bryan, “The suspense is building.”
At the barracks, Amanda reminded Sara Lee about the number of times she’d been in the Final Three. The shapely blonde was not being catty for the sake of it. Her strategy, she later explained, was planting the seeds of doubt in Sara’s head.
Despite the fact that a $250,000 contract was waiting for the next WWE Superstar and Diva, no performer gains respect without paying his or her dues. Because of this, the candidates were taken to the WWE Performance Center, and ordered to put up the ring for the crew from NXT.
At another time, virtually every champion could recall having the same experience, sometimes even sleeping in the ring truck on the side of the highway.
Having engaged in drills regarding promos, character development and working with a foe in the ring during the prior weeks, each “Tough Enough” competitor was now told to come up with a finish.
After some hesitation, Sara practiced a Ronda Rousey style armbar, mastering it after several tries. Her goal, she said, was applying it to Amanda in the very near future.
Because, he argued, he was the most athletic man in the competition, Tanner dove from the top rope, attempting a variation of a flying body press. But as trainer Billy Gunn suggested, the candidate needed to create a menacing facial expression – something he was only able to achieve by screaming as he launched himself from the turnbuckles.
For Tanner, it was a cathartic moment. He’d been raised stoically, and realized that if he couldn’t project emotion for an audience, he’d be sent home.
But Josh had been improving in recent weeks, to the point where Gunn told the newcomer that he was “getting into Superstar mode.” Nonetheless, when Josh suggested a powerbomb, the coaches were concerned about the inexperienced wrestler injuring his opponent.
Instead, Josh was challenged to hurl his adversary into the ropes and punctuate the sequence with a “Yeti yell.”
Amanda was reminded by the judges that most of the fans had been favoring Sara Lee. To compensate, she came up with a finisher that “popped:” grasping an opponent, and then kicking backwards off the ropes and planting the victim into the mat.
ZZ surprised everyone by creating his own finisher – a “Gator grip,” involving digging his fingers into a rival’s neck after a flap jack in the center of the ring.
Commented Booker T, “That was ‘gator. That was ‘gator.”
ZZ cut a promo on the spot: “Don’t get bit by the Gator Grip.”
Like Amanda, Tanner and Josh realized that they were fighting the fans as much as their mutual opponent. Because of his witticisms and down-home demeanor, ZZ had become as popular with the WWE Universe as Sara Lee.
But how long would it last?
“In order to make it as a WWE Superstar, you have to think on your feet,” “Tough Enough” host Chris Jericho said before the judges fired a series of questions at the candidates.
ZZ admitted exaggerating about his chances to the other competitors. Tanner honestly addressed his problems regarding his lack of facial expressions, but insisted that the deficiency did not reflect a lack of charisma. Amanda boasted of having both the athletic skills and the “It Factor,” in comparison to Sara.
Josh sincerely spoke about his dedication to his daughter, and admitted that he’d never allow ZZ to babysit his kid.
From the moment that the evening began, all three male competitors knew that they’d be in the Bottom Three in order for Week Ten to begin with only two men and two women remaining. When asked to make a final plea, ZZ emphasized that everything that he displayed to the fans came “from the heart.” Tanner stressed that his entire life was now devoted to a “Tough Enough” win. Josh attempted to entertain by pulling out a lollipop and speaking into it like a microphone.
The judges were certainly humored by the stunt. But at this stage, all that seemed to matter was the sentiment of the fans – especially after judge Daniel Bryan opted not to use his save option to rescue one of the competitors.
Ultimately, the fans voted to send Tanner home.
He vowed to continue training at a wrestling gym near his home and work on his acting.
But while Tanner might go and spend some time this week catching up with friends and relatives, the concentration of Josh, ZZ, Amanda and Sara will remain on “Tough Enough.” With one critical week left, the stakes have never been higher.
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.