If you've been a fan since the Attitude Era, you're likely familiar with the WWF Brawl For All, a legitimate tournament held on WWE programming. I tracked down several people associated with the tournament, ranging from Ken Shamrock to Jim Ross to Butterbean, to learn more about the infamous idea. I learned that even when workers are talking about a shoot, often times they'll still try to work you.
You can check out part one of the long-form feature below. If you haven't already, check out the first long-form feature we published in January, Finding Muhammad Hassan: Reconnecting With One Of The Most Controversial WWE Stars Of A Generation.
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Professional wrestling, boxing and mixed martial arts have long been married concepts. Much to the dismay of the WWE in recent years, MMA and the UFC have applied a stranglehold on the once-lucrative pay-per-view market that WWE dominated a share of for decades.
Prior to the UFC's PPV explosion, there were conversations of potential buyouts of the UFC, PRIDE and Strikeforce by the WWE, but that never ended up happening. Instead, the lasting memory of mixed-martial-arts and WWE is the 1998 Brawl For All tournament.
A true sideshow, the Brawl For All was more like a toughman contest that you'd see at a local high school gym on a Saturday night than the UFC of today. One minute rounds, huge 16-ounce gloves, no submissions. WWE, then the WWF, also threw in a twist – takedowns. Points were awarded, with 5 going to the fighter with the most punches landed in each round, another 5 for each clean takedown, and 10 for a knockdown. In the event of a knockout, the fight was mercifully called off. The bouts were scored by ringside judges, supposedly free of bias.
The conversation was always there, both among fans and the talent themselves - who's really the toughest professional wrestler? The Brawl For All didn't answer that question, but it eliminated a few names from the running.
Pro wrestlers long had the reputation of being tough guys, but the tournament looked to determine who was truly the toughest of the tough. Current WWE color commentator John Bradshaw Layfield, then known as Blackjack Bradshaw, may have inadvertently caused the entire tournament to take place.
"I wasn't a big fan of JBL because I thought he was a bully," said former WWE creative writer Vince Russo. "I always knew he didn't like me, too. We're there one day at TV shootin' the crap and JBL makes the comment that if the WWE was like one big bar fight, he would whip everybody's ass in the back. Those words came directly out of his mouth. I'm not crazy about the guy to begin with, and I know there are some pretty tough guys in the locker room, so I let those words sink into my head for a few days. The next creative meeting I pitched the Brawl for All to Vince McMahon."
WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, who and previously dabble in bodybuilding and later in professional football and movies, took to the idea very well. The same man would challenge UFC President Dana White to a shoot fight at WrestleMania years later. Russo said that the idea of a shoot tournament amped the WWE owner up.
"He loved it. Vince loves that stuff. Two guys fighting in a shoot. Real competitive nature, bragging rights that tapped into his masculinity something fierce. I didn't have to sell him on it; I didn't have to talk him into it. It was just like 'how to we do this?'" said Russo.
Not everyone shared Russo and McMahon's enthusiasm for the tournament. Most notably, Jim Ross, who called the action on WWE's flagship Monday Night Raw and worked in talent relations, saw the idea as a nightmare.
"I didn't like it. You're mixing metaphors," Ross told me when talking about running a shoot-fighting tournament during a predetermined wrestling show.
The WWE had an incredibly top-heavy roster at the time with several huge stars, but it was clear to management those stars were off limits for the tourney. The task of recruiting the field was assigned to longtime WWF employee and part-time on screen character Bruce Prichard.
"Obviously, Steve Austin's not going in it, Rock's not going in it, Undertaker's not going in it, Mankind's not going in it, Hunter's not going in it. I asked pretty much everyone if they wanted to be in it. Some declined and some jumped at the opportunity," said Prichard, after making it clear he vocally expressed his disdain of the tournament backstage.
Finding willing participants wasn't hard. Those aforementioned stars took up a lot of time on TV each week, and many who weren't given that time saw this as an opportunity to be thrust into the limelight. Many wanted to prove they were truly skilled, or just flat out tough.. Oh yeah, they were given substantial bonuses, too.
"It came down to dollars and cents," Russo explained. "You pay the guys, you give them a bonus to be in the Brawl for All. The further they got along, the more money they made. That's how we enticed them to sign on the dotted line."
Not everyone was convinced by WWE's bonuses, and a few names of the time you'd expect to jump at that chance didn't actually do that. Former UFC star Ken Shamrock, who was then known as the "World's Most Dangerous Man" didn't flinch when the WWE offered him allegedly $50,000 to participate in the tournament. Shamrock pointed to trust issues, as well as a drastic pay cut from his days in the UFC as reasons for that. Speculated payoffs for other talents ranged from $5,000 just to fight, and $100,000 to win the tournament. Prichard said that everyone was given the same amount.
"When I was asked to do that I was like 'uh, okay, $50,000?' It didn't seem right to me that I would go into this tournament style fighting thing, I was a professional, and beat these amateur guys up. That's why I didn't do it. Why are you asking me to do this? I just came into pro wrestling and I'm learning this craft, and now you want me to go in there and do a complete 360 and beat these guys up for $50,000 when I'm used to making half a million to a million. None of it made any sense to me," Shamrock said. Bob Holly has been on the record saying he was personally offered $5,000 to fight.
As it turns out, Ken Shamrock may have not been allowed in the tournament at all originally. WWE execs thought that including him and fellow UFC star Dan Severn would make for a possibly unfair competition.
"(Management came and said) The only people who weren't going to be allowed to do it are Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn, so originally I was banned," Severn said. "I didn't stick around. Whenever I found out I wasn't in it, I left and went back to the locker room. Several weeks into this Brawl For All sequence, I'm just in the back laying or something, probably using my duffle bag as a pillow. One of the road agents came up and said 'how would you like to be in the Brawl for All tonight?' I said 'against who, and how much?' They told me and I said done deal."
When Shamrock and Severn were banned from participating, the plan had been for the tournament to be done MMA style. According to Jim Ross, state athletic commissions began to step in, and the tournament rules had to be drastically changed. This opened the door to the former UFC stars to be invited back to participate. Severn accepted, Shamrock did not.
The original field looked rough. WWF newcomer and former NFL player Darren Drozdov, former WWE tag champions-turned lower card wrestlers Mark Canterbury, Bob Holly and Bart Gunn, one-eyed Pierre Ouellet. 8-Ball, Scorpio, Bradshaw – all who had indistinguishable runs with the company, and a suspiciously huge newcomer in Brakkus. According to Bob Holly in his book The Hardcore Truth, Tiger Ali Singh was originally set for the tournament after bragging about his background, but ended up backing out, leaving the spot open for Holly.
There were a few names of interest that signed up, though. Road Warrior Hawk was one half of the most intimidating tag teams of all time, and had an image to uphold. Marc Mero had a legit boxing background as a Golden Gloves champion. "Dr. Death" Steve Williams was a four time All-American wrestler. The Godfather and Steve Blackman had at least portrayed shoot fighters on TV at some point, although the general public had no idea if their accomplishments were real or not. Vince Russo thinks that the perception of these talents played a role in their choices.
"The guys who had reputations as bad asses, could you imagine if they didn't sign up for it? You have a locker room full of talent, this is a shoot. It's time to put up or shut up. If you're as bad as you want people to think you are, it's time. In a guy like Road Warrior Hawk's case, I think he really didn't have a choice," Russo said.
As mentioned, the original rules recommendations were for MMA-style bouts, before they were changed. Steve Blackman began training accordingly, planning on taking his opponents' knees out with kicks. When Blackman revealed his game plan to WWF management, they decided more strict rules should be put in place in order to protect their talents.
It didn't work.
Either way, the Brawl for All was off to the races.
The fights weren't pretty, the combatants were not skilled, and the crowd was not entertained. If anything, the live audience seemed confused. Just minutes in, the project looked like it was a complete failure.
The comparisons to toughman contests were well founded. Bradshaw vs. Mark Canterbury and Droz vs. Hawk were slop fests. Droz fought with his chin straight up in the air, throwing punches from his hips, and Hawk 's fundamental striking was laughable for someone who'd intimidated the world of wrestling for 15 years. The fighters were exhausted after only one-minute rounds. Danny Hodge, who served as a referee, looked embarrassed to be involved. By the end of the opening round of bouts, matches were being taped before Raw and shown in brief clips instead of live.
There were a couple of bright spots in the first round, too. Dan Severn looked like he had something to prove, and despite having a takedown stuffed by The Godfather, he dominated the match. Steve Blackman spammed takedowns on the former Golden Gloves boxer Marc Mero on his way to a victory. Although he wasn't technically sound, Savio Vega completely dominated Brakkus, who looked jacked to the gills.
The company also used the opening round to try to work some interesting angles and storylines. Hawk and Droz fought to a draw (Droz advanced), and had been working a bit of a rivalry on-screen prior. Bart Gunn and Bob Holly had been tag partners for a while, and The Godfather, a wrestling pimp, was flocked by hos during his entrance. The matchups at least, were just the luck of the draw.
"We did the brackets in my office, with everybody's name on a piece of paper put in a bag," Prichard said. "Savio Vega actually drew the names, and had two other witness it. We did a legit, blind draw to do brackets. They didn't want me or an agent or anyone connected with it for fear of people calling it a work."
'Dr. Death' Steve Williams won his fight, but it wasn't a work of art by any stretch. Still, he was considered an odds-on favorite to win the thing, maybe even a ringer, so it wasn't surprising. What was surprising was that his opponent Pierre Ouelett, who had one eye, was even allowed to fight.
"I couldn't even begin to tell you the rationale behind it," said Prichard of Ouellet. "He wanted to be in it. It scared the s--t out of me. And against Doc! There's not an athletic commission in the world that would allow that."
Despite that oversight (no pun intended) the WWE had Dr. Death, Steve Blackman, Dan Severn and Bradshaw among the names advancing to the second round. Not so bad if you're booking a shoot tournament full of perceived tough guys, even looking back today. Unfortunately, that didn't last.
Go ahead and mark a few names off that list. Dan Severn and Steve Blackman, gone from the running. Blackman was the first injury casualty, as he hurt himself training with an oversized opponent in preparation for his second round fight with Bradshaw, although some thought he simply dropped out because of the rule changes. Even though Marc Mero had a poor showing against Blackman in the first round, the former golden gloves boxer replaced him.
Mero's Brawl for All run was ended again after a controversial second round loss to Bradshaw. Bradshaw had attempted to intimidate Mero in their pre-fight stare down and bulled his way to a few takedowns, but Mero's crisp boxing forced a draw and an extra round, which Bradshaw won. The former boxer had been taken out twice, but he said there was more than met the eye.
Mero was furious backstage, and felt as if the move was a political hit against him, as he'd been getting grief backstage about then-wife Rena "Sable" Mero, being more over than him with crowds. Prichard said that Bradshaw asked Mero if he wanted to give it another go backstage, before cooler heads prevailed.
"Mero wanted to knock Bradshaw out so bad, he was missing," Prichard said. "We had four judges who were told how to score. It was unanimous that Bradhsaw beat him on takedowns. He was livid backstage and Bradshaw called him out on it, then nothing happened. The only one who was a sore loser was Mero."
Droz would win a fun fight over Savio Vega that saw the crowd get behind him, and The Godfather showed some promise in a victory over former WCW tag team champion Scorpio. However, after only one TKO in the first round, and three fights going to the scorecards in round two, the aura of unpredictability that was heavily promoted didn't seem to be there.
Enter Bart Gunn.
You can read the final installment of Brawl For Naught at this link!