20 years of Survivor and the anniversary celebration continues with another celebratory ranking.
After ranking all the seasons, it’s time to do the next obvious list: ranking the winners.
There have been a total of 38 different winners across 39 different seasons, and we of course are about to see 20 of those winners return for the ultimate season in Winners at War.
As was the case in ranking the seasons, it has been a while since I’ve done this. Five years to be precise. That’s nearly ten new winners to add along the way.
So how will this list turn out? Who will end up high and who will end up low? And will any of these make anymore sense than my season rankings? It’s time to find out.
38. Chris Underwood
An easy pick for last. Chris didn’t play the full game, so therefore can’t be considered any higher. And that’s absolutely nothing against Chris. He played the game that was presented to him and simply followed the format and rules that were available. Which isn’t his fault at all. But when it comes to ranking all the winners, I just can’t put him higher based on his unfortunate circumstances. It’s a shame we won’t see him get a chance at redemption on season 40 because I would genuinely like to see him shake the reputation that will always stain his victory. But sadly we won’t get to see that, and for now he must bring up the rear on this list.
37. Sophie Clarke
How did she win? Seriously. How? I’ve been on the anti-Sophie train for a very long time, but I just can’t seem to get off it. She is the one winner that I can sit down and watch closely throughout her season and never understand or grasp how the hell she won. And that hasn’t changed since the first time I saw South Pacific. I actually am really hoping she comes out and plays a kick ass game in Winners at War so I can finally see what type of player she is and why she deserves to be a winner. Until then though, I’m sorry but 37th is the spot for her.
36. Natalie White
I’ve definitely changed my opinions over the years on what the key aspect to winning Survivor is and for a long time I fell into that ‘strategy’ camp of that’s how a win should come. And for so long I definitely believed Natalie did nothing and Russell was robbed. However I have since been able to fully reflect on Natalie’s game and appreciate her slightly for actually just doing everything she could to get to the end and then be with two people next to her that just weren’t likeable enough to receive the majority of jury votes. Sure, she skated through a large portion of the game without ever being perceived as a threat. But that’s just one of the many ways you can go about getting to the end and then giving it your all to win the million dollars. And that’s what she did, and that’s why we’re sitting here today with her appearing on this list.
35. John Cochran
During South Pacific I was a mad Cochran fan. I loved him. And I was actually pretty excited to see him return during Caramoan. What changed for me however was seeing just how overblown his win became, and the amount of credit he gets for what essentially was an equal pairing with Dawn just baffles me. Cocky Cochran is hard to watch, and although I usually love a good cocky player, Cochran just can’t pull it off and also seemingly blindsides viewers into believing that what he is saying was true and that his win was actually worthy of a higher position on this list. Sorry Cochran, I’m not buying it, and I can’t place you any higher on this list.
34. Michelle Fitzgerald
I have to say Michelle is easily one of the more forgettable winners in Survivor and I put that mainly down to being from a fairly forgettable season. I don’t dislike Michelle at all, I just really don’t know what to say about her win. She went a very long time without going to tribal and then had a few lucky breaks that helped her stay in the game longer. Add that to being up against two players at the end who were never going to get the votes they needed and that all adds up to making Michelle a millionaire. However she was strong in challenges and incredibly well liked which helps her sneak up a few spots from the bottom. Hoping to see something great from her in season 40.
33. Bob Crowley
One of the most likeable winners in the history of Survivor, Bob just happens to not have anything major to put him above many winners on this list. The fake idol he made will go down in history as one of the best we’ve ever seen, and his ability to avoid all the drama going around him was very well handled. He did nearly bin it at final tribal and only won by a vote, but Bob did enough to secure the win on a shambolic yet entertaining season.
31. Tommy Sheehan
The thing about Tommy’s win is he didn’t really do anything wrong or right and it’ll always be overshadowed by coming from such a bad season. And really, that’s all you can say about his win right? He was a very sociable and likeable player the entire game and was able to do what he needed to do in order to get far. Several bigger players and personalities were bigger targets and he was able to navigate his way through them and keep enough of them on side to secure the votes at the end. He also sat next to two big goats at final tribal and really was the only person who was going to walk away a millionaire out of the three of them. I mean, his win wasn’t terrible and he deserved it, but also it was just fairly bleh.
31. Amber Brkich
I’ve definitely been on the ‘Amber is a terrible winner of Survivor‘ bandwagon and still rank her in the bottom part of the winners. However I have grown a slight appreciation for her win over the years in what to me is the best season the show has ever produced. The argument can easily be made that Rob played a better overall game and deserved it more. But Amber wasn’t exactly stupid, nor was she ever a goat. Several players picked her as a winner along the journey and could easily see her as the main threat, and the more and more Rob pissed people off, she remained level headed and took all that with one hell of a final tribal performance to help secure enough votes to win. That doesn’t come lightly, and I think it’s something that needs to be given a tad more respect.
30. Tyson Apostol
It still seems incredibly odd to me to think of Tyson as a winner of Survivor, and even more odd to me that he gets high levels of praise for what I feel was a very standard and somewhat lucky win. Being on Blood vs Water was his first real slice of luck. Having the emotional element of returning players mixed with their loved ones made for an incredibly different style of game that worked into his favour. He also rode the wave of luck off Ciera making a very ill-timed late move that she should’ve realistically made a vote sooner, as well as risking everything on the draw of a rock. A fun character who is entertaining, but his win was nothing spectacular. It also took him three goes to win, and that has to take points off as well. Which will transition well into the next winner on this list…
29. Rob Mariano
If taking three seasons to win loses you points, then taking four times loses even more points. Particularly when you win a season that essentially was filled with goats that had no chance against somebody of Boston Rob’s ability. I’ve actually placed Rob’s win a lot higher than I thought I would, and that comes down to me having to slightly defend my usual approach of having a dominant winner on a season gain more respect and not just being perceived as being dominant because the players around them weren’t seen as being on the same level. It is tricky though with Rob, because the players around him really weren’t on his level. To me it was like watching Michael Jordan take on a bunch of children in a game of basketball. You know MJ would shit it in. And this was Redemption Island. But Rob is a savvy player. He is incredibly smart, incredibly likeable, strong in challenges and knows the game pretty much better than anyone else. And similar to Chris Underwood, he played with what he was presented with and took advantage of it. Had he won All Stars, he would be a top 10 winner. Hell, maybe even top 5. But he didn’t, so this is where he ends up.
28. Mike Holloway
Easily one of the biggest characters of all the winners, Mike’s win is of course best remembered for his immunity streak at the end which took him right to the final tribal council. I’m a person who doesn’t see that as a negative, as that is clearly one way any player can get themselves to the end. Relying on that though can be tricky, and for Mike that’s seemingly what he had to do after making some pretty bad moves throughout the game that just turned him against everyone. Still, he made for great TV, and it’s a shame we won’t see that again on season 40.
27. Ben Driebergen
I think it’s unfair to claim Ben only won because of the final fire making twist. To me that’s the same as saying Parvati only won because they decided to make Micronesia a final two instead of a final three. Take winning that challenge away from his victory and actually see what he did and you’ll see a fairly solid player with a decent win. He was incredibly well liked for the majority of the game, surviving multiple swaps and able to break into numerous alliances. Yes, he got slightly cocky and went too far in the idol hunting side of things to put a target on his back, but those early moments in the game did enough to help towards getting the votes at the end. And when playing Survivor, that’s sometimes all it takes to walk away a millionaire.
26. Adam Klein
Adam to me is one of those solid newer players who was capable of making moves without being too big and brash about it. He had enough know how to keep social along the way and didn’t go into the endgame thinking that taking out bigger players in blindsides was the only way to win. He also was completely genuine the whole time and just left a good feeling with you in seeing him walk away as the winner. 26th I feel is a very solid spot for him.
25. Wendell Holland
It’s hard for me to fully embrace modern winners who rely so heavily on over complicated moves and blindsides that just add an extra 1000x layers to a game which at the core is relatively simply: be liked enough at the end to get the majority of votes. There isn’t anything more to it. Sure, getting to the end is a challenge, but please. This whole ‘Survivor resume’ nonsense is ridiculous. Anyway, my point here being that Wendall had a lot of things going for him along the way. He worked well with Dom and the two of them had a great pairing to take them to the end. And I love that about his win. I love seeing a loyal player who can keep a strong alliance and battle it out at the end, and to me his alliance with Dom was the only enjoyable aspect of Ghost Island. So for that I sneak up into towards the top half of winners and give him a pretty solid spot on this list.
24. Fabio Birza
I can’t fault Fabio for winning his season because ultimately Nicaragua was such a shit show that it seemed fitting somebody like him would win. And why should anyone take away from that? He remained incredibly likeable, was a social beast and won four immunity challenges. He also declared in the very first episode he was going to win, showing that he went into the game with his own strategy and desire to walk away with the title. That to me gets overlooked with Fabio’s win, and he is up there with one of the most unique winners the show has ever seen.
23. Nick Wilson
The thing I appreciate most about Nick’s win is his ability to go from a certain first boot to somehow working his way into the game so quickly. He was also pretty darn entertaining to watch on a season that I find to be so overrated and bland for the most part. Being the most recent winner on season 40, it’ll be interesting to see whether that will work to his favour or work against him. But at the end of the day he is a winner, and so is everybody else. A solid spot for Nick in a group of winners that really could all just alternate positions and still end up making me feel the same overall with this list.
22. Natalie Anderson
I’ve warmed more to Natalie’s win over the years but still think she turned it on late to sneak through for the win. Lots of threats took each other out, meaning she really was able to take advantage when it counted most. One of the best characters that has ever won, Natalie is television gold and will make for a great inclusion on Winners at War. But in terms of the winners, she is a solid middle winner that isn’t brilliant but isn’t terrible either.
21. Yul Kwon
Yul is a super nice and likeable guy who rode on that strategy to help get him the votes at the end to walk away a millionaire. He also had that whole super idol thing in his back pocket which pretty much made him invincible for most of the game. Outside of that, I mean, sure. Yul winning is a good thing. I’ve just never really had an overall opinion on his game. It was fine I guess, and so much better than seeing Ozzy win. But I just don’t like Cook Islands, and I think that there is nothing interesting about Yul’s win that can put him any higher than the middle of this list.
20. Ethan Zohn
Ethan’s win is definitely suited to his period of Survivor, and I doubt he could ever win in the modern format playing the same way. And that’s why I think it’s important to give him credit for his win and take it in the context it deserves to be. Ethan was just so damn likeable, and never seemingly was a target at any point in the game. Through that he was able to work alongside some pretty big threats and never get any heat for what they did, meaning come the final tribal he was squeaky clean and able to use that to his advantage. Just as Africa often gets passed over as bad, I feel Ethan often does too. But just watch him on All Stars to see how capable he is at adapting to really give you some added appreciation to how he was able to adapt to the circumstances presented to him on season 3. It’ll easily make you appreciate Ethan the winner even more.
19. Tom Westman
Tom is a winner who I grow more and more respect for over the years. The first real winner to win after being deemed the favourite before the season, Tom ticked all the boxes when it comes to making a Survivor player and was unlucky not to have been the first unanimous winner the show had ever seen. The guy also killed a shark. A friggin’ shark! The guy was a beast, and it was great to see some flashes of his game return on Heroes vs Villains, a season that he ultimately was going to struggle to repeat what he did first time around. Another winner that we’re robbed of seeing again return for season 40, and a winner that I definitely see making it higher on this list in the future.
18. Parvati Shallow
Parvati is an amazing player who learnt from her first time around and perfected it on both times she came back. Even the few people who don’t like Parvati can see what a strong player she is, and she is the type of player who always can go deep on any season she plays. However when I come to ranking the winners, I just can’t have her any higher than 18th. To me there are 17 other better winners. It really is that simple. I respect her win and believe she played a great game. She formed maybe the greatest alliance we have ever seen on Survivor and did everything possible along the way to win. But you also have to say she had some luck. Yes, I know all winners had some form of luck, but she definitely had more than anybody really mentions. There is no way she would’ve won had there been a final 3, and if Amanda had learnt from her mistakes in China and improved on her final tribal, she also wouldn’t have won. And I think that’s important to note when really looking closely at her win. Sorry Parvati fans, but the truth needs to be spoken sometimes.
17. Vecepia Towery
I’ve become a huge Vecepia fan over the subsequent years I’ve re-watched her season and also with thanks to listening to Mario Lanza explain so well exactly how she helped shape an unconventional win that never gets fully appreciated. She is one of those winners that many people call ‘forgettable’, but in an unfair manner because if you actually analyse just what she did to remain social and well liked, while navigating different alliances along the way, you can see just how good she actually was. And this coming from only season four. A winner ahead of her time, and an absolutely travesty that she is missing from Winners at War.
16. Jenna Morasca
I’ll be honest and say I’ve never been a huge Jenna fan and I’m also not a huge fan of Amazon. But I have long been a defender of her game. She easily fits into that social category of a winner who was so capable of forming strong relationships to help her ultimately receive the majority of votes to win the million. She also wasn’t terrible at strategy, was brilliant at challenges and was able to make it to the end and then realise that going up against the goofy guy who liked knives too much would help her take the win. To me played very similar to Parvati ten seasons later but sadly she never seems to get the credit for it she deserves. Always thought of her as a top 20 winner, and here is clear proof of that.
15. Aras Baskauskas
Aras gets overlooked so much as a strong winner of Survivor and it baffles me. He won a season featuring the likes of Cirie and Terry, two players who were at the top of their game in the strategic and physical aspects of the game. He was able to compete strongly in both sides of those categories and then walk away at the end facing off against Danielle and then taking home the cheque. His subsequent return on Blood vs Water showed just how savvy he was, and I think there were definitely elements of that we didn’t get to see in Panama on a season that was always going to show focus on the bigger characters around him. Survivor fans often talk down dominant winners because they beat ‘weaker players’, so on the flip side it’s weird to me that a winner who beat some pretty darn strong players isn’t given more credit. That to me has always summed up Aras and he has always been a winner I have appreciated immensely.
14. Jeremy Collins
To me there have only been two great winners in the last ten seasons and Jeremy is one of them. I was a mad fan of his during San Juan Del Sur and was devastated that what was looking like a certain win didn’t happen. On the very entertaining Cambodia, Jeremy worked his magic and kept such a strong, likeable game flowing while also being incredibly strategic and physically strong. What makes his win even more impressive is that he had the unique distinction of winning a returning player season where the strong players actually made it to the end, adding extra weight to his victory. And of course who could forget the meat shield strategy too? An incredibly solid and strong winner.
13. Chris Daugherty
Potentially the greatest story ever from a winner, Chris winning Vanuatu was just incredible to watch. He was so nearly the first boot, but somehow turned it around to get to the merge and was then faced with near certain elimination once again. But he worked his way into the dominant all-women alliance, made enough connections to keep him further, backstabbed those who fell into his trap and then swayed them back into voting for him at the end with an amazing final tribal performance. Absolutely amazing. I know I sound like a broken down record by claiming nearly everybody on this list not on Winners at War was robbed, but when it comes to Chris I think it’s appropriate to say that once again.
12. Sarah Lacina
I can’t think of a bigger turn around from a player than we saw from Sarah Lacina. This was a player who played a woeful game first time around and was an extremely questionable choice to return, especially on a season dubbed ‘Game Changers’. But damn did she deliver and damn did she show why she is a complete badass. She was so good at being able to keep people on her side while destroying them behind the scenes and also manipulate some of the smartest minds to have ever played Survivor. And she did it in such an incredibly entertaining way that made it such compelling viewing. Also the fact that she could take a lot of her strategy from the winner of her original season and show that she had exactly what it takes to do what he did shows how smart and perceptive she is. I absolutely love Sarah and I absolutely love her as a winner. I’m just a little sad I couldn’t sneak her into my top ten.
11. Tina Wesson
If you ever want to understand just how much of a badass Tina Wesson is, read Mario Lanza’s book. It explains in so much detail just how incredible her win was. The fact she was able to make her seem like the sweet southern motherly type while backstabbing those closest to her along the way is incredible to watch. The fact she was able to also kick ass in challenges and single handily save her tribe from not starving to death is also incredible. And her return on Blood vs Water showed just how incredible she is as a player. Her ability to also have such a bond with Colby to make him so loyal to her that he took her to the end instead of Keith is also, you guessed it, incredible. So what word sums up Tina Wesson as a winner? Incredible.
10. Denise Stapley
What an incredible person Denise is. And what an incredible player too. She literally went to every single tribal, was on one of the worst tribes in the history of Survivor and never really had a solid enough foothold at any point that you would think she was capable of winning. But somehow she did it. And that makes her amazing. A great winner from a great season too. There is nothing not to like about that. And there is absolutely nothing not to like about Denise.
9. Sandra Diaz-Twine
As the only two-time winner in the history of Survivor (at the time of this article going up of course), there is never going to be any denial of how amazing Sandra is as a player. And for many (me included), watching her on Game Changers actually showed how great she is. However I’ve always been one of those people who says if you look at each of her wins separately she wouldn’t rank anywhere near the top half. But at the end of the day, this list is ranking winners, not their winning seasons. And for that Sandra has to be in the top ten. Watching Sandra as a character is amazing, and she is easily a top 20 character in the history of Survivor. And it’s that great side of her that helps her be such a social beast in Survivor. People just like her, even when she is being incredibly unlikeable. How is that possible? She can do terrible things like dumping a bucket of fish out and burning a hat, and somehow that doesn’t piss people off enough to get rid of her. Amazing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to looking at how she plays the game. She is a Survivor enigma and the game is better for having seen her play.
8. Richard Hatch
Richard will forever be a top 10 winner. There is no doubting that. Anybody who essentially sets the blueprint for the basic model on how Survivor should be played is always going to be one of the greats. And what is even more impressive about his win is that when you watch it from a modern perspective, he is just so entertaining and incredible to watch and so ahead of his time. Richard was the perfect winner for the first season, and the show can basically claim all of the success it had on a large part of the back of Mr Hatch. Oh, and of course, season 40 and not being on it. Yeah. Travesty. And let’s be honest, the biggest travesty of them all. How there is an all-winners season without the original winner is just a crime. Hopefully it won’t suffer as a result of it and one day he’ll get a chance to come back again and be shown the respect he deserves.
7. JT Thomas
Similar to what I said about Tom earlier, J.T is a winner who I gain more and more appreciation for the more the years pass. The difference being though is that my appreciation has seemingly grown stronger for J.T, so much so that there is no way he doesn’t ever leave my top 10 winners. The guy basically created the ‘cult of J.T’ in Tocantins, and somehow made it so that no matter what happened, he would win the game and everybody was happy to have that happen. How on earth in a game like Survivor is that possible?! And on a season so meh as Tocantins, it’s incredible to watch him at work. I for one too think that his subsequent two times playing again have only solidified him as a great player. Yes, I know both his moves that saw him eventually get voted out on Heroes vs Villains and Game Changers aren’t perceived as all that smart, but they are true 50/50 plays that if they had of gone the other way he would’ve been perceived as a genius. He risked it to get the biscuit on both occasions and sadly all he was left with was crumbs. Lucky enough for J.T he has his amazing win in Tocantins to fall back on.
6. Danni Boatwright
Easily the most underrated winner in the history of Survivor, it’s time Danni gets more love for her incredible performance on Guatemala. Let’s establish that she literally exploited the production of the show in order to win the game. That is absolute genius. I mean, she is on a TV show, why wouldn’t you use that to your advantage to help win? Understanding production elements and realising that detailing her strategy would then help influence how producers talked to other players was something that had to be done eventually, and luckily for Danni it was her who did it first. But it wasn’t simply her smarts in hiding her game from the people who could influence it. Her social skills in helping keep people close who would then help her take out the same people they thought they were working with was great to see, as was her challenge prowess and charming personality. I’ve said for years she could easily win Survivor again if she was to return on an all-winners season, and hopefully we’re about to see just how right I am for saying that.
5. Earl Cole
Let’s get it out of the way first of all by saying it’s a travesty Earl isn’t on season 40. Yes, I know that he wasn’t able to do it due to personal commitments, but we were still robbed of having him return. Right, now to his win. Earl is just one of those amazing players that never gets credit for how amazing he is. A recruit who had never seen the game before, Earl played a perfect social game while also being strong physically, having a sound strategic mind and only ever being seen as a threat by early boot Rita. And on a thoroughly entertaining season (seriously, show Fiji more love people) with some amazing characters and underrated players, he rode that popularity right to the end to become the first ever unanimous winner. And that to me is groundbreaking. If you want to hear just how beautifully crafted his win was, track down the interview I did with him several years ago for Survivor Oz. You won’t hear a better explanation of why a winner won than in that.
4. Todd Herzog
I’m sorry for sounding like a broken down record, and this will be the last time I say this I promise, but HOW THE HELL IS TODD NOT ON SEASON 40!!! I mean, okay, yes, he has had some very public troubles in the last few years but think about what an amazing redemption story it would’ve been to see him return! Ugh. So annoying. But, let’s talk about his win. Just such an incredible win that was actually quite ahead of his time. A superfan of the show, Todd took all the best parts of the 14 previous winners before him, bottled them up and then put a new stamp on the game that has helped craft how other winners look at what is needed to be done. He maintained a strong alliance, worked into many different alliances, played to advantages and absolutely smashed the final tribal council for the greatest performance still to this day. He was also smart and savvy enough to literally get a guy with two idols voted out without playing one. Pure genius. And an absolute lock in my top 5 winners.
3. Tony Vlachos
Tony never should’ve won Survivor. I mean players like Tony NEVER win. Just ask Russell. But somehow he did. And he did it SO well. My lord, I still am amazed that he won and still am in awe. His ability to craft the most insane lies and actually have people believe them was amazing. His skill in manipulating those around him while still being liked and respected was incredible. And his overall entertainment value is just second to none. Tony is just of that unique and perfect blend of Survivor player that comes across very rarely, and seeing him walk away the winner just added something to the show that had been missing for a long time. True Survivor royalty.
2. Kim Spradlin
The greatest female player of all time and only slightly behind my number one pick, Kim Spradlin played a perfect game on the most underrated season that has ever existed of Survivor. I mean, what can you say about her that hasn’t already been said? Her ability to get everybody to love her, be charmed by her and then slit their throats and STILL have people connected with them like her afterwards. She also is a challenge beast, and is navigated her way through every situation presented to her with perfection. There is a reason why pretty much every player on Winners at War has said she will be the biggest threat out there on season 40 and that makes me scared that she isn’t going to last long. But if there is one player who can shake being an early target it’s Kim Spradlin, and I hope beyond belief she can do exactly that and solidify her title as the female GOAT of Survivor.
1. Brian Heidik
The king. The lord and master. The true GOAT of Survivor. Brian took everything Richard Hatch did and perfected it. His ‘this is a business trip’ confessional is arguably the greatest confessional in the history of the show, and him summing up how he was going to play the game in that one moment to camera tells you everything you need to know about why he is the greatest winner and greatest player to ever play the game. This is a guy who came into the show from one of the shoddiest professions around: used car salesman. He openly spoke about how he was going to win to camera and showed a level of cockiness that we had never seen before, before completely making every player around him smitten and completely open to his charms. He strategically worked his magic the entire game, won challenges and crafted what to this day remains the perfect game. So good was he at manipulating people, CBS didn’t even know he had done softcore pornography when casting him. Brian Heidik is an enigma, and my easy choice to be number one on this list.
Who are your favourite winners? How would you rank them from worst to best? Let me know in the comments below, and to hear me talk more about Survivor, head over to my podcast The Oz Network as we provide extensive coverage of Winners at War. Also, if you missed my season rankings from yesterday, you can check it out here.