Long before a lurid promise from Edge and Lita on live television made me a wrestling fan for life, I was already years into my fandom for reality television. Specifically, the brand of reality TV that centered itself on competitions and challenges.
I have fond memories of seeing Teri and Ian race through Vietnam in the third season of The Amazing Race while eventual winner Flo had crippling breakdowns as her partner Zac tried to hold things together. It’s the kind of simple, incredibly striking drama that could appeal to a child. That’s part of what makes these shows so palatable and compelling for those who love them—it’s a game. Anybody can understand the simple human urge to win and seeing that translated into such extreme and grandiose circumstances can be addicting.
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It’s no real surprise then that I took to wrestling so easily later on. The drama of pro wrestling, at its core, is the very same primal sense of competition. However fabricated or structure the dressing is around that story, the drive to succeed and win in extraordinary circumstances is one of the most universally appealing narratives.
That’s why I always find it so fascinating when these two worlds intersect directly. There’s an almost layered approach to wrestling seeing how reality TV adapts the pro wrestling medium to frame its own competitions and drama. So here, I’m going to look into three examples of when reality TV competitions used pro wrestling as a challenge on their shows.
The Amazing Race
Everything one needs to know about The Amazing Race, they can pick up from the title. One of the most enduring and popular reality TV shows of all time, the multiple time Emmy Award-winning series sees teams of two racing each other around the world, completing required tasks along the way.
This particular task comes from the third episode of the thirteenth season. The teams find themselves at the Multifunction Hall in El Alto, Boliva. This venue is the famed home of the fighting cholitas of Bolivia—female luchadores who first came to prominence in the early 2000s that have since become cultural icons in their homeland.
The task the teams face is a Roadblock which means that it must be completed by only member of each team. The selected team member must then learn and memorize a cholita routine with six spots. The contestants must all don bright and colorful body suits clearly designed much for comedic effect than athletic comfort.
The match that itself that the contestants must perform tells a very simple comedic story. The racer (regardless of gender) must take on the much more experienced cholita. In the heat of the action, they anger the referee who turns on the racer. The cholita and the contestant then end up teaming together to give the referee a back body drop, allowing the cholita to get a pinfall that she counts for herself. A funny enough little shtick with hints of the kind of crazy referee shenanigans that are known to crop up in lucha libre.
As far as challenges on The Amazing Race go, it’s actually pretty standard stuff. There’s no limit to the amount of learn-a-performance games on the show and it was only inevitable that they’d come across a wrestling-themed version of that eventually. It’s interesting that despite the performative nature of the task, very few of the contestants make any note of it being “fake.” In fact, the verbiage used in the Roadblock clue as well as the contestants in their confessionals emphasize the task as being a “fight.”
It’s funny to see the Americans fumble about in the ring, struggling to time bumps and sells for some of the softest and safest possible offense known to man. It’s not the most thrilling task to close out an episode with though. The fact that there’s only two rings in the arena means that teams are essentially funneled into a chokepoint, waiting for their turn to wrestle.
Of course, this challenge is designed much more to make a silly spectacle of the racers than it is to highlight the abilities of the cholitas themselves. As such, no matter which cholita the racers choose to perform with, they are all expected to complete the exact same routine.
There’s a practical reason for this, of course. The racecourse must maintain a certain level of objectivity, meaning that each team must generally complete challenges of more or less equal difficulty.
To me though, this challenge speaks to a broader view of professional wrestling as fully manufactured. The rigged and performative nature of the medium creates an expectation in many people’s minds that each match is a product easily replicated. The cholitas themselves are entirely interchangeable within the context of the challenge, regardless of who one picks, it’s the same match that gets performed.
This challenge presents the extreme idea of pro wrestling as product—easily bottled and duplicated ad nauseum. Do the right moves in the right order and you’ll get what you want in the end.
Belgium’s De Mol—or as it’s known when adapted to English-speaking countries, The Mole—is undoubtedly my favorite reality TV format of all time. The premise involves a cast of strangers working together to complete challenges in order to add money to a group pot. One of the players in the cast, however, is The Mole: a saboteur looking to lose as much as money as possible while avoiding detection.
The sixth season of the Belgian iteration utilized Mexico as its location. With game designers and producers often taking inspiration from local cultures to develop their challenges, it’s no surprise then that lucha libre became the focus for one of the tasks.
This challenge comes in the fourth episode of the season. Two contestants volunteer to be “brawlers” for the day and get separated from the group. They are taken to Arena Lopez Mateos in Mexico City where they find a personalized poster advertising them as part of the main event act in a lucha libre performance that evening.
“Aren’t they the fake dudes?” one of them asks.
The two contestants clearly understand what pro wrestling is and the challenge itself doesn’t shy away from that fact. They’re both given their own luchador masks to wear during the performance then must pick five moves from a list of twenty to learn and incorporate into a tag match later that night. Whipping them into shape to learn the moves are luchadores Iron Love and Emperador Azteca.
Throughout the episode, we see bits and pieces of the contestants during their training. They test their physical abilities, even swapping out their chosen moves to match their limitations in the ring.
At one point one of the players asks about a bump, “Is it acting?”
Iron Love gives him a solid clothesline in response.
When the references to acting continue, Iron Love stretches the contestant out with a grounded full nelson for a bit. “Are you an actor?” scolds Iron Love.
The challenge culminates with the two players teaming with Iron Love and Emperador Azteca respectively to put on an exhibition tag match. Of course, Love and Azteca carry the brunt of the performing with the contestants tagging into to set up and execute their chosen moves. Their fellow players, watching in the stands, must then identify the moves being performed.
This certainly feels far more immersive than the Roadblock from The Amazing Race. Where the flying cholitas challenge got the surface level aesthetics, there’s a much more substantial experience going on here. There’s the personalization of the poster advertising the match, the contestants receiving their own special masks, even having the agency to decide which moves to perform in their match. I also appreciate that Iron Love gets so much screen time as the classic grumpy trainer stretching out the new kids. It also highlights the classic defensive nature of kayfabe with Iron Love reacting to the contestants’ talk of wrestling being fake.
As far as wrestling on reality TV competitions go, there’s few better adaptations than this.
The last challenge I want to pick apart comes from Myyrä, the Finnish version of The Mole. As an international adaptation of the Belgian show, this season recycles Arena Lopez Mateo as a filming location. Instead of directly adapting the Belgian version’s lucha libre challenge, however, they instead adapt a separate challenge from the eighteenth season of the Dutch version Wie is de Mol? (Who is The Mole?).
In this challenge for Myyrä, the final five contestants are taken to the arena and told to individually construct a house of cards. Meanwhile, a group of luchadores (most notably including Flamita) will roughhouse around them as distractions meant to make the task that much harder. Throughout the given time, the players are also given the chance to complete a variety of minitasks—serving popcorn, popping balloons—to win more money. One of those minitasks even involves the players having to wrangle envelopes of cash away from the luchadores.
Much like The Amazing Race’s cholitas, none of the luchadores are named on screen. They’re all in their signature gear and masks but they act more as a singular force of disruption than individuals. That being said, they’re still able to flex their abilities throughout the task. Much of their rabblerousing is doing spots around the contestants. There’s over the rope topes, there’s strike exchanges, and there’s good old-fashioned yelling to make a house of cards fall.
One of the more interesting aspects of this challenge doesn’t even come from the actual content in the episode, however. Rather, it’s the connection it has to the challenge it adapted. As I mentioned earlier, a version of this challenge with near identical mechanics was played in the Dutch Wie is de Mol? The only key difference was that the original challenge took place in a circus in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Intentionally or not, the Myyrä challenge pays tribute to the historical origins of professional wrestling. It’s a fun little coincidence that speaks to how, for many people in the world, there’s functionally no difference between a clown on a unicycle and a pro wrestler taking a bump. Both come from the traditions of the traveling carnival. Even now, most people consider them little more than diverting spectacles at best and canny hustlers at worst.
Most people quibble about the actual realism behind reality TV. That might be why I like the competition variety so much—most of the artifice is already built in and on full display. It’s a game, it’s structured, it has specific outcomes that need to be reached.
However, much like pro wrestling, no matter the level of artifice, there’s room for truths to reveal themselves. In this case, gamifying the production and consumption of pro wrestling allows widespread perceptions about the medium to shine through. Pro wrestling is many things to many people: a shallow distraction, a mass-produced commodity, a substantial experience.
It is all these things.
All of it, in some way or another, is real.