Butterbean was a 32-year-old boxer who got into the sport through Toughman competitions himself. He was more than just a toughman Champion by the time WrestleMania 15 rolled around, however-- he was the IBA World Super Heavyweight Champion with a record of 42-1-1. In a true sign of how seriously he took the matchup at WrestleMania, he fought and won a title bout six weeks before facing Gunn. He'd also fight just five days after.
"I was his punishment. That was all kind of under the table, but that was pretty much what happened. I don't think they were happy he beat Dr. Death," Esch told me. Saying he'd even heard rumblings that Gunn rejected an offer to throw the fight.
It definitely ended up being a punishment, either directly or indirectly. Gunn looked different in the opening seconds of the bout than he did in his successful Brawl For All fights. Early on, Butterbean dropped Gunn with a combination, after working the open body of Gunn. A likely already concussed Gunn got to his feet, only to be immediately KO'd by a brutal overhand right. Gunn's fall to the mat was disgusting, as he went limp and tumbled into the ropes.
Esch, who I was told was also very well liked backstage, said that he was concerned for Gunn after the fight, and that he holds no ill will for his opponent.
"After the fight I was concerned, he took a pretty bad punch. His head turned all the way around. I'd never seen that. It concerns you. We've run into each other a couple of times. No hard feelings, it was just a sport," Esch explained.
There has long been speculation that Gunn's shocking knockout win over Williams put him in the dog house with many in WWF management at the time, as Gunn feared it would. Despite Esch saying he was led to believe he was Gunn's 'punishment,' Jim Ross vehemently denied those claims to me. According to Vince Russo, the higher-ups had actually been banking on Gunn beating the boxing veteran, and could have had plans for Gunn afterwards had he won.
"I think the thing that really set it back was the performance against Butterbean. With the presentation he put on in the Brawl For All, we really thought he could have beat Butterbean, or else we wouldn't have put the guy in the ring. Bart Gunn started working with Marc Mero's boxing coach Ray Rinaldi and changed his whole style. He started training to beat a boxer, and that's not how he won the Brawl for All."
Butterbean, who had an extensive toughman career as well, agreed with Russo.
"His biggest mistake was going to a boxing trainer and trying to box. When you're fighting three one-minute rounds, you need to go out there and brawl. Go mad. You can't try to jab and set it up, you just go at it. Having 60-something toughman wins, I had all that experience that he didn't have," said Esch.
The knockout that Bart Gunn suffered on the 'grandest stage of them all' did irreparable damage to his American wrestling career, which wasn't too hot to begin with. The Brawl For All champion was effectively killed off of WWE television. Gunn wouldn't wrestle for the company again until a one-shot deal in 2007 in a battle royal. The Brawl For All had become a brawl for naught.
Esch said that he think's Gunn's long term plans weren't even in the WWE anyway.
"I heard from other people that he knew his wrestling career was over and he wanted to become a professional boxer. There was a lot of threat there. He had a lot of power. I was counting on him getting up twice. It wasn't really a boxing match. He just fought the fight wrong," said Esch.
In the years that followed, Butterbean gained a degree of fame, appearing on MTV's Jackass. He also made something of a hobby of savagely beating pro wrestlers in shoot fights. Former WWE Superstars Sean O'Haire and Aaron Aguilera (Carlito's WWE bodyguard), as well as ZERO-ONE mainstay Tom Howard (twice) all fell to Butterbean in MMA fights.
Even though the Brawl for All may have killed Bart Gunn's career, it helped open doors elsewhere.
"Unfortunately WrestleMania 15 would outshine Bart's other WWF accomplishments," said Prichard. "The bright spot that came out of it was that the knockout of Doc, it made him a big name in Japan. When Bart finished up with us, he was able to get a few runs out of that notoriety."
Gunn would find success in Japan, where his KO over Steve Williams helped gain notoriety. He had a good run in All Japan Pro Wrestling and later New Japan Pro Wrestling, with a short stint in TNA thrown in between. He also tried his hand at MMA, headlining a 2006 show by defeating Wesley "Cabbage" Correira, whom Butterbean had defeated earlier that year. Both Butterbean and Gunn would ironically lose their bouts against Ikushi Minowa. Gunn would give up wrestling and fighting soon after.
Today, Bart Gunn, real name Mike Polchlopek, is largely out of the pro wrestling spotlight. He doesn't make a lot of public wrestling related appearances. Not that he couldn't-- he's more impressive physically than in the 90s. He's married and appears to have moved on from the business, and the unfortunate memory that overshadows his previous accomplishments. In a 2013 WWE. com article, Gunn said that he's working as an electrician, while dabbling in construction.
"He had 60 or 70 fights. That was my first as a boxer," Gunn said in the interview. "I was very green. Looking back on it now, I should have done things a little bit differently. It was really different, because everything I did was wrong. When you look at the Brawl for All, I was a sloppy fighter. I look at it now and know what I did wrong"
Years later, Gunn would claim that he'd actually been offered a re-match against Butterbean, which he accepted. However, the brakes were pumped when he was told on a Monday that the fight would be just four days later.
In the grand scheme of things, the Brawl for All was largely inconsequential to the company's history. Bradshaw would go on to become a WWE Champion, The Godfather a Hall of Famer, and the level of success the rest of the field had varied greatly. It affected the WWE's ability to market some of their talents as bona-fide badasses, but it was a time before MMA had reached it's peak and people really knew any better. The tournament was as unsuccessful as it was inconsequential, averaging a net loss of .5 in the ratings, with the finale going even lower. No stars were made, a few fans were alienated, and time wasted on television. It strained relationships, bruised egos and damaged the camaraderie backstage.
"You put alpha males in an arena they're not proficient in, and they're made to look bad, and they're going to react a certain way," Ross explained. "Nobody is just going to walk away and say 'Oh well, it's another day at the office.' It's not another day at the office. You're on live, global television and you look like Ned in the First Reader. Nobody's going to react to that well. Nothing about it made sense to me."
Ross' probably also wasn't too thrilled that the medical bills associated with the tournament came out of his talent relations budget.
Yes, pro wrestling, MMA and boxing have long been married concepts, but the WWF Brawl For All may have very well divorced the three on the main stage for quite some time. The politics of a worked sport, combined with the unpredictability of a shoot, added in to the inability or unwillingness to capitalize on those who were successful was ultimately not a winning formula, but the tournament's creator has no regrets.
"It's difficult to do things different in wrestling, and we did that with the WWF Brawl For All," Vince Russo said. "We see the same angles regurgitated in wrestling. It's hard to think outside the box. I would 100 percent do it over again."
Those who worked with Russo don't agree. Bruce Prichard closed by telling me that the tournament wasted time and resources.
"It's one thing to get hurt in the ring doing what you do to draw money. This didn't draw money. It didn't draw eyeballs," Prichard said. "It just hurt people. It made people scratch their head and wonder why people aren't taking crisp bumps. It's like Superman taking his cape off mid-movie and saying 'Sorry folks, I can't really fly."
Jim Ross, who saw his friend Steve Williams suffer a career altering injuries summed up the Brawl For All when asked about it.
"We had a lot of guys raised their hands and wanted to do it, couldn't wait," Ross said, "The rules were loose and lax, we kind of figured things out as we went along. The medical bill for the injuries was ridiculous. The ongoing innuendo that we paid Dr. Death to be the winner before the match. Ridiculous wives' tale, which is crazy. I didn't like a lot of the things about the Brawl For All. I didn't like the injuries, I didn't like the lax rules, I didn't like the way it was laid out. I thought it was a knee-jerk creative decision. I wish we'd have never done it."
SRS revisits: As I go back and read this article, it's not even a debate -- the Brawl for All was a miserable idea. Vince Russo will tell you as much. A common misconception is that Russo is on record as being the person to pitch bringing in Butterbean, which I was never told. I'd tried to reach out to Bart Gunn to speak to him about the story, but he's not the easiest guy in the world to contact. I'd also attempted to contact Jim Cornette, but unfortunately our schedules couldn't match up if I remember correctly. An interesting note was Sean Waltman wanted to make sure I included his profanity so he could properly convey how bad he thought the idea of the Brawl For All was. This long-form didn't get nearly the attention Finding Muhammad Hassan did (which I'll also be re-publishing on Fightful, and I have a follow-up prepared), but speaking to several people regarding this almost unanimously despised idea was incredible amounts of fun. One of the funniest things I encountered, was after interviewing Vince Russo, I asked him who else he'd recommend. He sent me Bruce Prichard's information, knowing he'd get torn to shreds during the interview process.
I'd like to think of this story as a real precursor to Fightful -- it has aspects of boxing, wrestling and MMA. It was a poorly conceived and even more poorly executed idea, with terrible fights that really exposed a lot of talents and broke a facade.
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