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.
Note: This is an article I published during my time at Wrestling Inc., but retained the rights to. I thought considering the recent video by Wrestling With Wregret (seen above) and Bruce Prichard's latest podcast both referenced the story, it was worth re-publishing here. I hope you all enjoy it.
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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.
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