Historically Significant Disasters of Wrestling #92: The Brawl for All

We're through the looking glass here people...

Y'know, I have spent the last 15 minutes grappling with this intro. And I'd like to think that I have a fairly good sense of the whole writing craft- I mean I have written 91 of these things as well as academic journal articles. The thing is that out of all the articles I have dissected on this site, this is the most batshit insane idea I have ever approached. The notion that nobody at any point thought to pull the plug is truly a testament to madness.

Of all the years in the Monday Night Wars, 1998 was probably the pivotal one. Late 1997 had Montreal and the Schmozzle that was Sting's 'coronation', but they provided both companies with opportunities and non-fatal problems. What 1998 was the year where both companies had figured out what they thought their trump cards were and tried to beat the other with it. In other words, this was the year that neither company had any real excuse for putting out bad wrestling.

With two caveats.

Y'see, both shows were still locked in a bitter ratings battle and although in reality (since the WWE had now hit its stride with Austin as champ) there was probably room for two wrestling shows doing well on Monday nights (cause they were in 1998), the egos of the men at the top meant that it was always going to be who won (despite what revisionist WWE history would have you believe).

Another thing to actually consider is that this week-to-week appendage measuring is actually not really conducive for pushing new home-grown stars. While WWE was better at this than the competition, it does have to be remembered that the guys who became champions before WCW went out of business during this period weren't really 'pushed' as much as 'always-going-to-get-there'. Put simply, WWE creative (and particularly one guy) would see guys like Kane and Kurt Angle and think 'world champ material' and see guys like the Godfather or Bart Gunn and think 'funny gimmick'. And that's not bad per se but it does mean that if you are placed in a box like that you are going to look for any light at the end of the tunnel to get a better place on the card.

Unfortunately, thanks to Vince Russo, the tunnel was actually on fire.

Russo says on the excellent Dark Side of the Ring episode that his initial inspiration for the Brawl for All came from listening to John Bradshaw Layfield say that he could beat anyone in the locker room down for real. Russo, apparently incensed that a man would be so braggadocious in a men's sporting locker room (imagine!) marched straight to Vince and told him of the idea of some sort of non-kayfabe tough-guy contest.

I'd like to point out a couple of interesting logical conclusions that one can come to with this:

  1. Vince Russo was willing to risk the livelihoods of other workers for his own personal vindication against JBL? Does he think he's Mr Glass?
  2. He thought the best way to 'cleanse' this bullying culture...was to have the workers beat the piss out of each other for real?!
  3. That Russo seemed to think that wrestlers such as Steve Blackman, Ken Shamrock, Savio Vega and Dan Severn lacked initiative and needed a reason to straighten out Bradshaw.

And I'm not saying that JBL isn't a toxic blight on the WWE locker room (see Meanie, Blue), but surely the best way to deal with it would be with a scalpel rather than a carpet bombing raid.

Perhaps Russo's real inspiration was the fact that UFC was beginning to become an underground fad, enhanced by the fact that Congressmen such as John McCain had likened it to "human cockfighting". The idea of attempting to ape a controversial craze must have been very appealing to Russo, who probably saw it as another way that Raw could be the place where "anything can happen".

The thing is though, that this sort of competition had...oodles of issues in theory, which I want to list in a calm and rational manner before going on to the actual thing in practice.

Firstly, and this is something that Russo has never seemed to got through his skull, is that wrestling is at its heart a simple thing. Almost all of the good special stipulations still go back to the idea of pinfalls and submissions being the way to win and those which don't (Ladder, Royal Rumble) understand that you need a clear goal so that the crowd can get behind it. I have said before that if you can't explain the rules of a stip in a sentence it's not going to work and the Brawl for All required a theatre programme.

Secondly good stipulations understand the value of the false finish by allowing moments where you think the guy is going to win only to have them be cut off or their opponent kick out. Everything about wrestling adheres to this idea. Companies film for it, agent for it, ref for it and even condition the crowd for it. Crowds count for pinfalls and cheer for faces when they are in the clutches of the heel's submission holds because it's almost Pavlovian. How does a company that has been filmed professional wrestling matches, which are agented to aid television coverage suddenly do an about face so that they are able to film an unpredictable contest where bouts could be won in a moment with a knockout?

Thirdly, with a 1st place of $75 000 on offer as well as an (apparently) program with Steve Austin on the table and $25 000 for second place, there was an obvious incentive for people that had (up to this point) be co-operating in simulated fights, to suddenly knock the fuck out of each other for real and I don't care how friendly you are, if a colleague of yours knocks you out, you are going to have second thoughts about them. The fact that neither Russo or McMahon saw this as a big concern is frankly idiotic (McMahon, as a figure straight from an Ayn Rand novel, probably saw it as a triumph of Darwinism or something...).

Fourthly, how does one create a contest that is accommodating to a MMA veteran, a former line backer with a rep in Japanese pro wrestling, a former bouncer who did boxing training and more? While still creating compelling TV? While still emphasising visually that this is different from your normal wrestling? Because that is a mire of contradictions that will make this tournament more and more difficult to watch and understand.

And finally, if this is a real tough guy contest...why is Stone Cold not in it? Or Undertaker? Or Mankind? Could it be because they all don't want to risk injury on some pissing contest? Or could it be that they are so appalled by the idea of seeing their main events being undermined by some tough-guy contest when they are busting their buns in the main event? Or both?

In any case, Jim Ross attempted to find a silver lining in this particularly noxious cloud by placing (or at least not discouraging) one 'Dr Death' Steve Williams in the tournament as a way to generate a push for him to line up against Austin- an idea that creative had for Steve Williams down the line. Ross thought that if the WWE crowd could be educated on the toughness and bad-assery of Williams, then he would be perfectly situated to be a contender to Austin's title.

Now defenders of JR here will say that he (truly) did not know the screwy rules and how idiotic the tournament would be. They will also say that Steve Williams was hands down the toughest SOB in the business. However, it does seem a little weird that Ross was willing to use this as the avenue to push a guy that creative was so certain will make money with Austin when you can just as easily come up with another option (like, just do a kayfabe injury angle on a jobber, or have him win a #1 Contender's tournament, or just have him blindside and beat the piss out of Austin!!!). Because the downside of this fucking up is actually way, way worse than the upside of it going right, as we were soon to see...

Not only that, but investing so much in Williams, the WWE powers-that-be damaged the idea that this was a genuine shoot tournament with wrestlers (a paranoid bunch at the best of times) and that they were essentially 'rigging' the tournament for Williams. Tthis was not helped by the fact that Williams faced in his first round Carl Oullet- a man with ONE FREAKIN' EYE. Just let that sink in for a moment. A man with one eye was allowed in a shoot fight and Vince could not see an issue.

The issues with the tournament became clear almost immediately. To try and appease everyone, the competitors had to wear boxing gloves, but could take down their opponents for points. However, they couldn't make opponents submit (?!)- none of that, um wrestling, on the f*$king WORLD WRESTLING FEDERATION!!!!

I'm sorry.

The rules became a joke during the Severn/Godfather match, where Severn- a MMA champion no less- couldn't make the Godfather submit so had to just take Godfather down and let him back up!!! So, essentially you had a shoot fight where Severn had to be less vicious than he was during his kayfabe matches!!! Severn, despite having won the match, realised immediately that the chances of him being tagged by a lucky punch were greatly increased because he couldn't, y'know, wrestle the opponent and dropped out of the tournament.

Injuries also began to pile up as wrestlers who were used to wrestling choreographed matches now found themselves over extended by shoot boxing/MMA/what-ever-the-f*&k-this-was matches.

But never mind because Dr Death is moving through the tournament like a knife through butter and-

Oh wait, he was knocked out in the second round by Bart Gunn after tearing his hamstring. Williams' injuries would keep him out of wrestling for six months and essentially scupper any sort of main event push that Creative had in mind for him. To paraphrase Cornette, the Brawl for All cost WWE millions of dollars that the potential Austin/Williams feud would have drawn.

In the end, after a litany of injuries to many of its participants, Bart Gunn would stand on top of the mountain after knocking out Bradshaw in the final in a frightening display (truly, the footage shows Bradshaw having some sort of concussion induced seizure), which Russo has confided that he found gladdening. However, the question then became...what do you do with Bart Gunn? Could a mid-carder suddenly become a #1 contender for beating up...a whole bunch of midcarders in a tournament that the fans neither liked nor totally understood?

To the WWE, the answer was 'no'- leading once again to the idea that the tournament was built for Williams and WIlliams alone. And to be fair to Bart Gunn, who could blame him for thinking otherwise when after winning the tournament they literally gave him sweet FA to do apart from a couple of gold novelty gloves?

But never fear, Vinny Mac had the answer. Bart Gunn would face Butterbean, an overweight boxer who was known as the 'King of the 4 Rounders' (because he couldn't go further) at Wrestlemania 15. So the winner of the supposed legit tournament had now been relegated to novelty act on the grandest stage of them all. That in itself tells you all you need to know about what the Brawl for All did for its participants. Oh, and Gunn got knocked out in 35 secs at Mania.

I have said before about my antipathy for the Ghastly Match and Stardom's handling of the situation. Looking at some ways I actually think it is worse. I realise that in 1998 not everything was known about concussions but Vince Russo and Vince McMahon were actually asking the people in the locker room to go out and hurt each other for no other reason than to provide a couple of weeks' entertainment. Those who lost were often injured and put on the shelf for a while, and the man who won was essentially cast adrift because they realised what they had done was create something that they would rather forget about instead of capitalise on- and if that meant treating the winner as nothing more than a sideshow, so be it. It is the best example in the WWE of talent being treated like pawns rather than people, with little regard for their welfare.

Oh, and the only guy who went on to win a World Title? Bradshaw. The guy Russo was apparently trying to bring down a peg or two. Which by all accounts did not succeed in the slightest.

And that's article 92! Next time we look at a reign that should have been a slam dunk but in fact was anything but. Catch you soon!

#1 Owen Hart vs Stone Cold @ SummerSlam '97
#2 December to Dismember 2006
#3 The Fingerpoke of Doom
#4 The Scott Steiner vs HHH Feud
#5 Ryback vs Mark Henry @ WrestleMania XXIX
#6 Bret Hart vs Vince McMahon @ WrestleMania XXVI
#7 The Jerry Lawler/Michael Cole Feud
#8 The Curtain Call
#9 Bash at the Beach 2000
#10 Royal Rumble 2014
#11 Warrior/Hogan II @ Halloween Havoc
#12 The Cena/Laurinatis Feud
#13 The Firing of Ric Flair From WCW
#14 The Brogue Kick of Doom
#15 Lesnar vs Goldberg @ WrestleMania XX
#16 Immortal Revealed @ Bound for Glory 2010
#17 Sting vs Hogan @ Starrcade 1997
#18 Triple H vs Booker T @ WrestleMania 19
#19 The Corre
#20 The Undertaker vs Big Boss Man @ WrestleMania 15
#21 Jeff Hardy vs Sting @ Victory Road 2011
#22 Road Wild 1999
#23 The John Cena/Kane Feud of 2012
#24 Hulk Hogan's Mancow Interview of 1999
#25 CM Punk vs the Rock @ Elimination Chamber 2013
#26 The Reign of Bill Watts in WCW
#27 The Claire Lynch Affair Part One And Two
#28 Triple H vs Kevin Nash @ TLC 2011
#29 The Cactus Jack Amnesia Angle
#30 Hulk Hogan Leaving TNA
#31 HBK vs Hulk Hogan @ SummerSlam 2005
#32 David Arquette: WCW Champion
#33 Katie Vick
#34 nWo Souled Out 1997
#35 The Vampiro/Sting Feud of 2000
#36 Once in a Lifetime, Episode II
#37 The Angle/Jarrett Feud of 2010/11
#38 The McMahon/Lashley Feud
#39 The Shockmaster
#40 CM Punk vs Ryback @ Hell in a Cell 2012
#41 Hulk Hogan vs Roddy Piper @ Starrcade 1996
#42 The WWE Championship Reign of Diesel
#43 Cena vs the Wyatts
#44 The Main Roster Run of Emma
#45 The WCW Run of Bret Hart
#46 John Cena vs the Miz @ WrestleMania 27
#47 The Lone Wolf AJ Styles
#48 Alberto Del Rio vs Jack Swagger @ WrestleMania 29
#49 The Transition of Mike Awesome from ECW to WCW
#50 The Dolph Ziggler Conundrum Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five
#51 The Rise and Fall of Damien Sandow/Mizdow Part One and Part Two
#52 DDP & Jay Leno vs Hollywood Hogan & Eric Bischoff @ Road Wild 1998
#53 Triple H vs Randy Orton @ WrestleMania 25
#54 Lord Tensai
#55 LOD 2000
#56 Sid Vicious vs Scott Steiner @ Starrcade 2000
#57 Bret Hart vs Yokuzuna (feat. Hulk Hogan) @ WrestleMania 9
#58 Royal Rumble 2015
#59 The Crucifixion of the Sandman
#60 Brock Lesnar's First Year Back in WWE
#61 Bo Dallas' Main Roster Run
#62 Vince Russo vs Booker T for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship
#63 Randy Orton vs the Big Show @ Survivor Series 2013
#64 AJ Styles vs Abyss @ Destination X 2010
#65 EV 2.0
#66 The Summer of Punk Part 1; Part 2; Part 3
#67 The Lex Express
#68 Goldberg's first WWE Run
#69 Paige's Main Roster Run 2014-2016
#70 Seth Rollins' First World Title Run
#71 Hulk Hogan vs Sgt Slaughter @ WrestleMania VII
#72 Sting vs Abyss in a Last Rites Match
#73 The Undertaker vs Big Show in the Punjabi Prison
#74 Ric Flair vs Hollywood Hogan @ Uncensored 1999
#75 Roman Reigns' Road to WrestleMania 32 Part One, Part Two. Part Three
#76 Hulk Hogan vs Sid Justice @ WrestleMania VIII
#77 Muhammad Hassan
#78 Sheamus' World Heavyweight Title Reign
#79 The Ghastly Match
#80 Bray Wyatt vs Randy Orton @ Wrestlemania 33
#81 Goldberg vs Steiner vs Nash @ New Blood Rising'
#82 The Lesnar/Angle/Big Show feud of 2002
#83 Aces and Eights
#84 Dean Ambrose vs Brock Lesnar @ WrestleMania 32
#85 Jinder Mahal: WWE Champion Part One, Part Two, Part Three.
#86 DDP & Karl Malone vs Hollywood Hogan & Dennis Rodman.
#87 Triple H vs Sting
#88 The 1992 Run of the Ultimate Warrior
#89 Jenna Morasca vs Sharmell
#90 The Lesnar/Reigns Feud of 2018 Part One, Part Two, Part Three

#91 The Higher Power Revealed

The InVasion Saga

Article One: Shane has a surprise for Daddy
Article Two: Booker T vs Buff Bagwell and the Temple of Boos
Article Three: Daddy's little Girl Gets in on the Action

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