It was the summer of 1998 and the WCW and WWF were entrenched in a ratings war. Both companies were throwing anything and absolutely everything against the wall, hoping it would stick.
There are tales of scripts being changed throughout live shows. Gimmicks and storylines thrown away at the drop of a hat if their particular segment didn’t do well. Among all of the crazy things that were pitched at that time, one that stands out (for better or worse) was the WWE’s shoot tournament, called Brawl for All.
The Brawl for All was an elimination style tournament where volunteers from the active WWE roster were legitimately fighting each other in boxing meets wrestling-style matches, to see who the toughest man on the roster was.
Not surprisingly, most of the participants in the Brawl for All were lower card guys, having less to lose in terms of reputation and star power.
Looking back at some of the matches now, it’s hard to not be entertained at the very least. With the popularity that UFC is now experiencing, it’s a little surprising that this concept didn’t catch on more with the fans. The tournament itself, though, outside of some genuinely intriguing moments, was pretty much universally panned.
Vince Russo’s plan for Bradshaw
The story goes that the idea for the Brawl for All came together after a discussion between JBL (going by Bradshaw at the time) and head WWE writer Vince Russo.
JBL wanted to create a hardcore division and was telling Russo that he could beat any man on the roster in a bar fight. Russo, admittedly, was not a fan of Bradshaw. But Russo played along with Bradshaw’s idea, seeing it as a chance to witness Bradshaw getting his clock cleaned. This story has been confirmed by several men including Bob Holly (who was a participant) and Jim Cornette.
Dr. Death Steve Williams
At the time “Dr. Death” Steve Williams was a recent acquisition by WWE. He was renowned across the globe for being one the toughest men in the business.
Williams was brought in mainly due to the encouragement of Jim Ross, who championed him before the tournament even started, telling anyone that would listen that his “boy”, an Oklahoma University alum, was going to run through everyone.
The rumor was always that WWE front office saw Steve Williams as a clear favorite to win this tournament – which would make him look like a superstar and hopefully help legitimize him as a main eventer. Well, what they found out, is that things don’t always go as planned when you go unscripted.
Steve Williams was dominant in the first round against Quebecer Pierre – the match stopped by referee’s decision with 8 seconds left. It would only delay the inevitable, however, as journeyman Bart Gunn would knock out Williams in the very next round, a match that would also see Williams tear his hamstring.
Steve Williams was out for months nursing the injury, and the illusion of him being a legitimate bad ass was long gone.
Steve Williams wasn’t the only person that was affected by the tournament.
The Godfather (who was also KO’d by Bart Gunn) sustained injuries that kept him out of action for months.
Savio Vega aggravated an old arm injury during his match and was never seen on WWE television again.
Brakkus had to retire from professional wrestling as a result of the injuries that he sustained in the tournament.
An Unlikely Winner, Lack of Pay Off
Bart Gunn, by no means a favorite, ended up winning the tournament in impressive fashion, knocking out Bradshaw in the final round.
With the WWE promoting the Brawl for All for the entire Summer of 1998, one would assume that the winner would get a healthy push – especially for enduring such great physical risks. That wouldn’t be the case.
So what was Gunn’s pay off instead? Sure, he got a nice little cash bonus, but what about a push from the company? No, instead, the WWE threw him into a WrestleMania match against a legitimate fighter in Butterbean. How anyone thought this could possibly end well for Bart Gunn, or the WWE in general is beyond comprehension.
Gunn was knocked out in 15 seconds by Butterbean, killing any momentum he had built up from the Brawl for All, and effectively making wrestlers in general appear weak in comparison to shoot fighters.
To add insult to injury, Bart Gunn was released from his WWE contract shortly after the TKO at ‘Mania.
Brawl for All Results
Brawl for All Reception
Nearly everyone involved with the Brawl for All has come out and said it was a terrible idea.
Jim Cornette himself has gone on record and said “it was the stupidest thing WWE has ever done”, continuing that wrestlers are trained to entertain, not to physically compete in real fights.
Cornette’s point was certainly made valid by the litany of injuries that were sustained as a result of the Brawl for All, not to mention a few careers that were legitimately altered or even ended as a result.
Could the Brawl for All work now?
In 1998, it seemed the WWE fans had trouble distinguishing professional wrestling from this “shoot” style of fighting and perceived the tournament to be a work. Audible jeers could be heard throughout the tournament.
The WWE was also in an era where fans were being beaten over the head with the fact that this is all just “sports entertainment”. I believe the whole concept was too new for the audience.
In my opinion, if nothing else, it was a novel and enthusiastic idea that was ill prepared and poorly executed.
I am curious, though, with how “smarky” fans are now, and with the popularity of MMA, could an idea of this nature exist in modern day wrestling, or would it be impossible with todays PG WWE? Of course the wrestlers would have to be more adequately trained, but now that fans would be more aware of the concept, could this be a way of getting unsuspecting talent over or is it simply too dangerous?
For a very in depth account of the Brawl for All from someone who was actually working for WWE when it all went down, check out this Something to Wrestle podcast episode with Bruce Prichard below: