"There have been a lot of stupid things done in professional wrestling," veteran manager Jim Cornette said in an interview with "Who's Slamming Who", "As far as an ongoing thing that did more damage to the business, more damage to the talent that didn't work and that went on for so long, 'The Brawl for All' probably would take the prize for the stupidest thing the WWF had ever done."
Long before Brock Lesnar had entered what is now called WWE, the WWF dipped their toes into the world of MMA... sort of. A hybrid of the UFC meets toughman competitions, the "Brawl for All" was created by controversial writer Vince Russo, and surprisingly approved by Vince McMahon as a way to bring in some new viewers and add more reality to his programming. In 1998, the UFC was going through some very dark days and was at the height of its controversy. With no-holds-barred fighting in the news everywhere, the WWF decided to get involved in current events and cashed in on the cage fighting world.
The rules were simple enough - it would be a single-elimination tournament with the winner of each fight earning an extra $5,000, leading them to a larger cash prize at the end of it. Each bout was contested under three one-minute rounds, with the wrestlers donning boxing gloves to bash each other in the head legitimately, earning points by connecting cleanly. A wrestler could also takedown an opponent to gain five points, or knock down his opponent to earn ten.
The surprising thing about this tournament was that the wrestlers were not selected by the bookers, but rather volunteered to compete in it (with the exception of a few particular competitors we will get to in a minute). It just happened to work out that all of the men competing were mid-carder's. Obligated to compete in this insanity was recently-signed Dan "The Beast" Severn and "Dr. Death" Steve Williams.
Severn was still quite popular with his UFC titles and had also been an NWA Heavyweight Champion, so pro wrestling was nothing new to him (cutting a promo was another story). Williams was coming over from Japan, where he was known as an extremely tough human being who could also put on some amazing matches. The hopes of Vince was to have Williams plow through the tournament to gain some serious credibility as the toughest man in the federation, and turn him into a big star.
The tournament had some interesting choices, featuring many wrestlers who felt they were legit fighters, and others who just wanted to prove how macho they were. Heels and babyfaces alike met in the 16-man tourney, which included Road Warrior Hawk, The Godfather (whose previous gimmicks included "Kama Mustafa, the Supreme Fighting Machine" and voodoo shaman "Papa Shango"), Bradshaw, karateka Steve Blackman, amateur boxer Marc Mero, Bob Holly, Bart Gunn, and Quebecer Pierre. Ken Shamrock was wise enough to stay out of the tournament, since he had just been involved in another tournament, "The King of the Ring", which he won, and was now in a feud with Owen Hart. Oddly enough, this led to the two wrestlers having similar shoot-style fights that were fixed, including the "Lion's Den match", that pit them inside a small octagonal cage with weapons hanging off the tops of them, with the only way to win being knockout or submission.
The Brawl for All tournament dragged on for a whopping nine weeks from June 29 through August 24, despite fan protest during the very first match. Everything that could have gone wrong did not just go wrong, but crashed and burned. The home audience and fans in attendance loathed the entire shoot-fighting concept, causing the WWF to add fake storylines to try and liven the thing up. Since most of the wrestlers had not done real fighting, or had not in years, they were training their bodies for the physical demands of pro wrestling and not MMA, and therefore had awful cardio and even worse striking ability. Steve Blackman and Hawk suffered injuries that took them off TV for awhile, while Savio Vega was injured so bad that he was soon forced out of the company.
Dan Severn, who dominated his opponent ("The Godfather") in the first round withdrew himself from the tournament due to frustration with the rules, evident in his match where he would take down his opponent and attempt to get position or subs on them.
The biggest problem for WWF in this was that their big toughman, Steve Williams, lost in the second round against Bart Gunn. While fighting against Gunn, Williams tore his hamstring and was unable to keep maneuvering to avoid Bart's punches. Gunn had done toughman competition before, while Williams had never boxed before, so the advantage went to Gunn, who knocked out his Williams, upsetting all of the company's big plans. Gunn managed to earn two more knockout wins, one against Droz and his next in the finals against Bradshaw, which earned Gunn a sweet $75,000.
You would think (and hope) that Vince would have learned from this giant mistake, but that would mean you do not follow pro wrestling. After winning the Brawl for All, Gunn took some time off, returning in February 1999 to challenge his old tag team partner, Bob Holly, who was also his first round opponent in the tournament. After defeating him, a new challenger emerged in the form of Eric Esch, AKA Butterbean.
Butterbean was 43-1-1 in professional boxing at the time, as well as being a five-time world Toughman heavyweight champion. It made perfect sense to book this real life pro-fighter against a pro wrestler who battered his way through some WWF jobbers. The stage was set for "Wrestlemania 15" on March 28 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was main-evented by The Rock VS "Stone Cold" Steve Austin for the WWF Championship. Ken Shamrock was also booked for this particular Mania, and was involved in a "Four Corners" elimination match for the Intercontinental title against Goldust, Road Dogg, and Val Venis.
As one can imagine, fighting Butterbean back when he was in his prime was not a great idea, but turned out to be far more exciting than the entire "Brawl for All" tournament. Esch made short work of Gunn, dominating the pro wrestler before finishing him off with an impressive first-round knockout in 47 seconds.
The WWF/ WWE has not tried to revive this format since its inception in 1998, even though they have brought in other MMA fighters and legitimate martial artists and wrestlers. The tournament not only damaged the promotion, but also left plenty of unnecessary injuries to their wrestlers who were not properly prepared to undergo such a thing. Lesson learned - leave the shoot-style pro wrestling to the Japanese (as seen below).