In 2002, I attended my first Survivor finale when I was in Central Park to see Vecepia Towery get crowned the winner of Survivor Marquesas. Truth be told, while I got to meet many Survivor legends that evening, I was only there to catch a glimpse of who I thought was the best player of the season. Boston Rob Mariano.
I remember that my opinion was just as controversial back then as it is nine years later.
“Murtz, how can he be the best if he didn’t even make it to the jury?”
“He screwed it up for the entire Maraamu tribe when he got rid Hunter, their strongest player…”
“He is too abrasive. He will never make it to the end.”
The fact of the matter is that I never resisted or backed down as I attempted to single-handedly answer all the critics. I responded to the above by saying:
“He didn’t make it to the jury because he was playing to win. Don’t forget that the only reason he was eliminated is because there was a twist and he was in the minority without any time to even attempt to pull something else off and he still tried to.”
“By getting rid of Hunter, Rob changed the rules of the game. It’s similar to what Richard Hatch did. By getting rid of their leader, Rob assumed complete control. It was brilliant. As Russell Hantz proved later, number don’t matter. Complete control does and Rob initiated the philosophy.”
“Don’t even have to respond to this. Because he will.”
I had the opportunity to meet Rob at the Survivor Thailand finale the following year. It was at that time that I told him that I believed that he was the greatest ever and without even knowing who I was, he bought me a round. It was at that time that he also promised that he would help me in whatever way I needed in my career.
When Rob played again in Survivor All-Stars, he proved exactly what I had been saying. He took the game’s greats to school. This is an unmitigated fact and anyone who says differently does not know the show. Rob was against Survivor legends like Richard Hatch, Rob Cesternino, Colby Donaldson, Big Tom Buchanan and effectively steered his way to the end, losing only because of a bitter jury. Many blamed his cutthroat attitude and only a marginal performance in front of the jury but ultimately it was his absolutely overt deception that led to him losing by a single vote to his future-wife, Amber. This is basically where I started to appreciate new aspects of his game, and most specifically, his ability to win when he had to. The hardest time to win immunity is under pressure and when you need it the most and Rob honestly made it look easy. What was the most shocking about this was that he would be the first to admit that he was never the best athlete on any season. He was just the hungriest. Still though, while he displayed new aspects of his game, the season highlighted to me the fundamental problem of the show. The jury. While many argue that losers in a game who get to decide the ultimate winner as being the most beautiful aspect of the game, placing social skills on the highest pedestal, it bothered me that the best competitor was getting screwed simply because people he played like puppets couldn’t get past their own hurt feelings.
As a result, I was quite curious to see how Rob would fare when he came back for a third time on the Heroes vs. Villains edition of the show and once again, the Robfather didn’t disappoint. Learning from his past mistakes, Rob played a much cleaner social game. This time, however, it was new twists that eventually nailed him. Most notably it was the hidden immunity idol which wasn’t in play when Rob had previously competed. With that being said, Rob still managed to figure out how to combat it but due to Tyson’s absolutely horrendous move of not listening to instructions, he was eliminated.
Each time, Rob got better. And therein lies the problem for most Survivor pundits. That he got to learn from past mistakes. That heading into Redemption Island, Rob had a whole notebook filled with experiences and strategic notes to use against people that were playing for the first time. It is a fair argument. But it is also fair to say that Rob was the best player to never win. If we are calling a spade a spade, then one could argue that Rob should have won Season 8 but the jury cost him. It was the same reason Russell Hantz also got multiple chances to try again. The true point is that Rob was television gold and while you can deny and protest it to your heart’s content, he made the show better and was guaranteed to make Survivor more watchable. While applicants and even former players can cry about not getting their chance, Rob was bankable. I would cast him in a heartbeat over potentially risking a lame, under-the-radar and bland contestant.
Let’s get to the coronation of the king. Season 22. Redemption Island. Rob’s revenge. Rob’s redemption. Critics need to get over it. Mariano picked the orange buff and as a result got to play on Ometepe. Would he have fared as well as he did if he had been on Zapatera? While I maintain he would have simply because of his charisma and ability to bond with people, many disagree. And that’s fine because in all honesty, it doesn’t matter. The could-have, would-have, should-have game of sematics is unnecessary because it didn’t happen. So let’s just deal with what did. Rob started with Ometepe.
I have heard all of the arguments. He was on a tribe of followers. He was playing with people that were inexperienced. He had an advantage. What most people are not considering is that each player on the show had a brain. They were just played and manipulated effectively. Was that because Rob had done it before? Perhaps but if anything, he had the biggest target on his back. He played four times! And he still managed to convince his tribe to keep him around and to let him lead them to victory. And he did. The most telling aspect of the past season was how Rob reigned and enforced his rule. Whatever he wanted, happened. Everytime. He was never in jeopardy and always in control. Even if he wasn’t, he just won immunity to ensure that he was. How anyone can argue against that and claim that it isn’t personal is beyond me.
While I initially disagreed with the decision to eliminate Matt so early because I thought he could be a physical powerhouse in the team challenges, Rob proved me wrong showcasing his preference of valuing loyalty over potential strength. When Rob chose to eliminate Grant instead of Natalie, I thought it was a bad move since I thought that Grant would remain more loyal to the boys and I was completely ignorant of the fact that Grant would have probably destroyed the Final Four immunity challenge. Once again, Rob was right.
The fact that Rob picked out who his dream opponents would be in the end so early in the game and then effortlessly made it happen is the single most remarkable thing I have ever seen in the game of Survivor.
I have gone on the record as saying that this is the best season of Survivor ever and many have disagreed with me and even ridiculed the opinion. But I believe it because we got to the best single performance by a contestant ever. From the opening helicopter drop-off, to finding the hidden immunity idol that was a previous Achilles heel to winning the critical final four immunity challenge to offering the best argument in front of the jury and winning a nearly unanimous vote. It was the perfect game. To me, the best seasons of Survivor are the ones which reward the best players. That’s why I love Thailand, Palau and Redemption Island so much. Because isn’t that the reason we watch the show? To see the best prevail under any circumstance? And if that is the case, I think it is impossible to argue against Season 23 being the best because the right guy won.
Another point to note here is the phenomenal performance by the Redemption Island jury. I did not think that they would be able to get past their hard feelings but they proved me wrong and in the process, erased any doubt that they are the best jury of all-time.
So if we are counting, we had the best player, the best jury and one of the best twists around. Best season? Mmm hmm.
Am I biased? Yes. Do I lack objectivity? Definitely. But are all the points above undeniable. Absolutely.
Boston Rob is not the same guy outside of the game than he is in it. Believe it or not, he is actually even greater. If you did not stand up and applaud when Jeff Probst read the votes on Sunday and finally awarded the title of Sole Survivor to the guy that deserves it more than anyone else, you are not a fan of the game. Even one of Rob’s biggest detractors, Russell Hantz had to stand up and shake his hand, and that was the most telling sign to me from Sunday night.
We are truly fortunate that Rob was given another chance to play. It was like seeing Muhammed Ali lace up the gloves one more time, Wayne Gretzky score another goal or Michael Jordan hit another basket.. I was just happy to witness it.
Congrats Rob. And thank you.
If you are interested, here’s a link to a previous article I wrote prior to Redemption Island where I also argued why Rob Mariano is the game’s greatest player.
Tags: Boston Rob, murtz, Survivor: Redemption Island