This week’s episode of Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring took a look at the disaster known as “Brawl For All.”
This was a 16-man tournament that took place in WWF in 1998, pitched to Vince McMahon by Vince Russo, where the wrestlers actually had unscripted shoot fights against each other.
The documentary explains that while the top stars in the business would never risk being exposed in a legitimate fight, the concept could be sold to underutilized talents who had nothing to lose. They could be lured in by the idea that winning the tournament would lead to a program with the top star in wrestling, Stone Cold Steve Austin, as well as a $75,000 cash prize.
Vince Russo openly admits that he came up with the concept solely because he wanted to watch Bradshaw get knocked out.
“I thought he had a big mouth. I thought he was full of himself. I thought he was a bully. We were backstage at a show one day, and John Layfield made the comment that ‘if this were real, I would beat everybody’s ass in the locker room’. So now I’m sitting there and I’m saying you braggadocious, bully, bastard. I know of at least 10 guys in this locker room who [will] kick your ass. I went to Vince McMahon and I proposed the idea of a Brawl For All.”
The concept quickly proved to be a disaster. Many of the wrestlers had no idea how to fight for real, and as a result they looked clumsy and completely out of their element. The WWE referees didn’t know how to control the matches, the judges didn’t understand how to apply the rules, and the commentators had no idea how to call it. It was just no fun for anybody involved, including the fans who had to watch this trainwreck.
The wrestlers didn’t know how to properly execute the concept, so The Godfather said that they decided to just throw punches at each other. The wrestlers were put in a very dangerous situation, and it resulted in so many unnecessary injuries and knockouts.
Jim Ross elaborated on the dangers:
“Carl Oulette had sight in one eye. Should he have been in Brawl For All? Hell no. What were we thinking? He’s blind in one eye. I don’t even remember who the first injury was, but it was the first of several. It was one after the other...I dreaded having another night of Brawl For All matches. Because you never knew who’s gonna get hurt tonight. It seems to be inevitable, and enough is enough.”
The documentary covers Bart Gunn’s entire story through the Brawl For All, including the injuries that Dr. Death Steve Williams suffered in their fight. I’m going to skip just about all of the Bart Gunn details here, and instead focus more on the injuries.
The narrator explained just how bad it was for Dr. Death, after being knocked out by Gunn:
“Dr. Death’s injuries are so severe he’s forced to undergo a lengthy rehabilitation. But the damage to his reputation proves far worse. Within a year, he’d be out of the WWF entirely.”
The Godfather explained his health problems after he was knocked out in the tournament:
“I was fucked up. I couldn’t walk. I had to get in a wheelchair. My leg got infected...maybe that was the stupidest idea in wrestling, right there, because a lot of people did get hurt.”
Jim Cornette was disgusted by Russo’s motivations, and talked about JBL’s scary knockout:
“How morally and intellectually bankrupt and irresponsible do you have to be to create a situation where your stars get legitimately injured just to get even with a wrestler who was bragging about how tough he was in the locker room?”
“When Bradshaw got knocked out it was scary, because his eyes obviously weren’t there and he twitched a little bit, and you could tell he wasn’t home even a while afterwards.”
Russo was overjoyed when Bradshaw finally received the knockout that the whole tournament was designed for:
“When I saw Bradshaw get knocked out I could not hold back those emotions...this whole tournament was because of him, and his mouth, and there he was laying on the canvas unconscious.”
Russo appears more contrite now, as he explains near the end of the documentary:
“I feel bad, because I don’t want to see anybody get hit like that. Oh my god, especially now with just all the stuff we know about head trauma...Just knowing all that today, which we didn’t know back then, no way. No way would I ever propose it again.”
Even knowing full well that JBL is an insufferable bully, it’s hard not to walk away from the documentary disgusted with Russo for putting so many people at risk, solely because he had a personal vendetta against one guy. And Vince McMahon comes off poorly as well, because it was obvious from the first night that the Brawl For All concept needed to be killed, but McMahon refused to pull the plug.
You can check out the full documentary here (subscription required) to see Bart Gunn’s full journey towards winning the Brawl For All, and how it all came crashing down for him at the hands of Butterbean at WrestleMania 15.