Several months back, Great-ing Gimmicks of the Past took a look at Tough Enough. Following that column, we were able to get in touch with former contestant Chris Nifong, who agreed to talk with us and share his thoughts about the experience.
IP: Tell us about when you first found out about Tough Enough and what you were thinking.
Chris: I was in college when I was watching Raw the night the TE commercial aired. As soon as they got into it I jumped off my bed and ran into one of my other roommate’s rooms and told them about it. It was the exact opportunity I had been looking for. My roommates actually gave me support about it too. They knew I wanted to get into wrestling for a while, but I wasn’t sure how serious they took me on it.
IP: Had you always wanted to be a pro wrestler?
Chris: I had wanted to be a wrestler since I was 6 years old. I’m an 80′s kid. When Saturday cartoons would go off I would see this big fold WWF logo come up on the screen and then hear Mean Gene say “The WWF, what the world is watching.” The intro got me. I’d go outside and wrestle with pillows on my trampoline and most nights my dad and I would wrestle around.
IP: What were your thoughts when you met the other eleven contestants? Were you able to peg certain people as more likely to win than others?
Chris: When I met the other eleven people on TE I never really thought about who looked like more of a winner. I was thinking I would be the winner and everybody else was just there. My passion for wrestling was so strong I could only see myself there.
IP: When the show started, it showed that you and Nidia were fairly close. Did you bond with the other contestants as well?
Chris: Nidia and I met during the auditions in New York. I believe we were sitting at the same table in the back while we waited for our call. I liked the energy she had. She was easy to talk to. Nidia is just full of life. I feel I bonded with Shadrick, Paulina, and Taylor the most.
IP: As the show went on, did you see a lot of relationships in the house changing?
Chris: As the show went on there were a few minor relationship changes. Paulina became a kind of mother figure to me. I was always really stressed and she made me feel so much better. However she had a hurt knee and had her own stresses. I didn’t really talk to Taylor for the first few weeks, but when Shadrick got cut I moved into her room. Taylor let me say what I was feeling and that helped me a lot. In a way we all had each other, but we were all on our own. Nidia kind of moved away from me and I felt gravitated toward Chris Nowinski. I never saw any friendship turn to hatred or enemies become friends.
IP: What were your feelings about the trainers?
Chris: I absolutely loved the trainers. Al and Jackie were the easiest to get close to. They made you feel like family. Tori was nice too but she was quiet and really straight faced. Tazz scared the crap out of me. I had never really known fear until I met Tazz. As time went on I started to understand where he was coming from so I was able to relax a little bit. His first day there with us was so bad for me I couldn’t function right. I was scared so bad I forgot what a hammerlock was and he stretched me. During our break that day he sat down with us and told us he was not there to hurt us and that he was a prick but he was fair. That helped. However, every Thursday our hearts sank when he came through the door.
IP: During the training, several WWF wrestlers like Triple H, the Hardys, and Kurt Angle dropped by to talk with all of you. Which wrestler’s talk had the most effect on you?
Chris: The Hardys talk had the most effect on me. They were the guys that made me feel I could get into wrestling. They are my size, from my state, and my age. Matt called me “Carolina blood” that day too. I’m able to relate to them. They kept it fun too. They didn’t talk at us, they talked to us. Their story is consistent and easy. If you have the talent and do the work you WILL get a job. That is inspiring.
IP: As the show drew toward the end, was there a feeling in the house that people “knew” who would be winning?
Chris: There was a feeling of we “knew” who would get cut each week rather than who would be winning. We always wondered what they were looking for and you can give a lot of answers for that. If you look at the final five you have five different people with five different things to bring to the table. It wasn’t that clear cut.
IP: Who did you feel had the best shots at coming out winners?
Chris: My picks for the winners were Nidia and Chris Nowinski. Nidia has a big personality and Nowinski had the size that the WWF gives contracts too.
IP: During the final episode you were on, it showed that you were having some problems with some of the moves they were teaching, and you decided to leave because you didn’t think you were ready for a WWF career. What were some of the factors that went into your decision?
Chris: As I mentioned earlier I was stressed a lot. One of my biggest problems back then was that I was a perfectionist. I hated to make mistakes. When I’d mess up I’d get down on myself, therefore I was my worst enemy. I felt like an idiot getting called out by Al in front of everybody. I got the nick name CK, “Career Killer” because I did something stupid on a hip toss and hurt Tori. I didn’t know how to take being called CK. Are they burying me, or are they just joking? Am I a part of this group or am I an outcast? I really needed somebody to unload my issues on but I never did. TE was much more mentally challenging for me than physically. I know I could have lasted longer had I had a shoulder to lean on. We all need relationships in life and I was treating the situation as if I didn’t so I became kind of reclusive. We would get in the ring at 8am till 4pm, then go to the gym from like 5pm till 9pm. All I wanted to do was sleep which took me out of the group. I began acting like a dick to some people because I knew I was starting to lose it. At one point I told Maven I was going to spit on him after something he said. I had no intentions of doing that though.
IP: Did WWF representatives like Big try to talk you out of your decision off-camera?
Chris: Big did try to give me some words of advice. On weekends we would do interviews with the MTV guys and I let it out I wasn’t feeling right about the whole situation. He sat down with me and told me that whatever decision I make describes the kind of person I am. I knew I was going to be cut next. I didn’t want to be cut in something I had such love for and wanted to do so badly. For some reason that was my thought process.
IP: Do you regret walking away?
Chris: For me that is a tough question. I DO regret not making any closer friendship and not finding a way to deal with my stress. That would have helped me. If anybody reading this has ever had to face their breaking point they’ll understand that when you are hanging on your very last thread it is almost impossible to see anything positive. That is exactly where I was. All I wanted was to run away but at the same time all I wanted was a friend to make me stop feeling that way. It’s not a regret, but I did make the wrong decision.
IP: What did you think about the show when you were able to see it air?
Chris: I thought the show was a decent representation of what went on.
IP: Do you think that the show was fair with the way that the contestants were shown?
Chris: I feel they were fair. They only have so much time to build a story so you didn’t see EVERYTHING. Take me for instance. I read on your website that I quit because I didn’t feel wrestling was right for me. Thats what TV told you. If you consider what I just told you about why I left it isn’t as black or white as that. As stupid as some reality TV is. I feel I learned a lot about myself from this one. So I think we all got something more than a shot at a contract. On a side note, I don’t think anybody knows what Darryl’s problem was.
IP: What were your thoughts when you heard interviews with the trainers discussing your performance? Were you surprised?
Chris: I think the interviews were as they should be. Al would progressively change his attitude with your performance. He’ll give you a few breaks then he sharpens his voice. He’d take you aside and talk to you so you wouldn’t constantly be berated in front of your peers. So if you were doing well or if you were doing worse, the trainer interviews accentuated the facts.
IP: What was it like for you after the show when you headed back home?
Chris: When I came back home nobody really know what to say. “Why” is the biggest question I would be asked. I didn’t know why yet. I just wanted to finish college, have that fall back plan because I knew I was not quitting wrestling because of Tough Enough. The show aired in the summer and when I got back to college I was “That MTV guy.” I would be walking to class and hear people say “thats the guy on MTV.” I admit, that was enjoyable having the recognition. I was able to regenerate and recuperate. I got even more serious in the gym and I think my desire to wrestle grew.
IP: Did you decide to try wrestling on the independent scene?
Chris: I sure did. It was hard though. Going from WWE trainers to indy trainers is not easy. The first place I went was a total dump. I learned a little but they taught things that Al was wrong. I hopped around from place to place but I couldn’t just settle for sub par training. We had a reunion show at the end of the TE season 2 finals and I asked Big where I should go for some serious training. He told me I need to call Danny Davis at OVW. The first thing I did when I got back from New York that week was look for the OVW website. They were having a tryout 5 months from then and I got the same chills I got when I saw the TE commercials. I was going, no doubt about it.
I went back home for summer break a few weeks later and was in the gym I was a member of while staying at home. It was just another day working out and then I heard it. That special sound of somebody taking a bump in a ring. I put the weights down and looked in the direction it came from and I saw just a sliver of an apron that looked like the Smackdown! logo. I walked over to the window and there was Crash Holly training some guys. Can life get any more perfect? I finished my workout and waited him to finish up. I went up to him, shook his hand and introduced myself and told him my situation. I had been on TE and was looking to train for an OVW tryout. We worked out a deal and I worked out with Crash for the next 4 months. I had such an awesome time at his school. Mike was always encouraging. He made it fun and serious. I responded to his teaching style really well. He got a call to come up to the tryout at OVW a week before I left so he really got down to business with me to get me ready. When we were up in Louisville he took me to one of the gyms they use when the boys are in town. He went up to the desk to tell them he was with WWE the people kind of marked out and they asked who I was and I just laughed and said “nobody yet” and Mike says “he will be though.” That really stuck with me. Crash cared. I miss that guy. He came to class really screwed up on some pills one day and I felt like I should have asked what was up but I didn’t.
I did the OVW tryout and a week later I got a call from Cornette. I always laugh at that moment. Never would have I expected Jim Cornette to me calling my number. As soon as he asked for me I knew it was him. It was surreal. Long story short I was in OVW for a little over a year. I met so many people. Cena, Nova, Conway, Dinsmore, Sgt Slaughter, Jericho, Gail Kim, Dean Malenko, Nathan Jones… and tons more. Learning in OVW was awesome. I started to get burned out though. I still had to have a job to support myself and got a job at Best Buy. Wrestling is a lifestyle and I started feeling better when I was at Best Buy than doing the traveling and living in that circus kind of environment. I just wanted a normal life. I started talking about hanging up my boots to some people. They always told me when you stop loving it you need to get out. I learned from my TE mistakes and made some good friends in OVW. One of them came to see me one day at work and said “If they would offer you a contract would you stay?” I didn’t even have to think about it, “No” I said.
IP: Do you still keep in touch with any of the other contestants from your show?
Chris: Taylor and I used to email each other here and there but as time went on it slowed to a stop. I’ve got a few people on my Myspace friends but we do not talk on a regular basis.
IP: Did you watch any of the other Tough Enough seasons? What were your thoughts on them?
Chris: I watched all the TE seasons. I just liked the series. I would have loved to learn from Chavo.
IP: What are you doing these days?
Chris: These days I’m a graphic designer and screen printer. Wrestling has really affected my life. It’s been hard to start with a dream in a business that is so huge and then have something you love so much turn out to be something you don’t want to do. It really is an addiction.
IP: Do you still watch wrestling today? Which companies do you watch? What are your thoughts about what they’re doing?
Chris: I watch wrestling some. It will never leave me. Of what’s on TV now I like TNA the best. It’s fresh. They say wrestling itself has changed. I disagree. The WWE has changed and other people are coming up with better ideas. The business is just trying to renew itself. Wrestling psychology will always be the same. That is the heart of wrestling. That is why we all love it. The WWE just doesn’t have the names it used to. I believe the writers are a little bit responsible, but in the end Vince makes the call of what he thinks we want to see. I have a problem with the majority of the new school Divas. They look like they don’t understand wrestling.
IP: If you got a call tomorrow from the WWE offering you a developmental deal, would you take it?
Chris: I would think about it. I’d like to see what they are doing in Florida. Each territory has different trainers and teaching styles. I think the old territory system is a great way to learn wrestling. You can’t help but to learn from different people because you move around a lot. I’ve enjoyed having a number of trainers during my time in the ring. Trainers all have different ideas of what they like. Some people would call tripping sloppy, but Deal Malenko told us that some of that makes sense. In a real fight nothing is perfect, you slip and slide trying to gain the upper hand. Rico Constantino was in his late 30′s, early 40′s when he got in. There is still a window for me.
IP: Anything else you’d like to say to the fans who watched the show and supported you?
Chris: I do thank you for any support I have had. Tough Enough was a great learning experience and it made me a better me. If opportunity knocks take it whether you are ready for it or not. If anybody wants to talk, pick my brain further, or feels like they are going through their own breaking point add me to your MySpace friends. I’d love to hear from you. www.myspace.com/ckwillneverfade.