VICE was back with its latest episode of the Dark Side of the Ring series, this week concentrating on the ill-fated Brawl for All (BFA) tournament from 1998.
“I think the Brawl For All should be remembered for what it was, a cluster. It sucked. There is no reason to embrace it. It was simply a bad idea that featured a lot of guys to give them a rub in a new event, that’s what it was developed to do: create some new stars, new rubs, new opportunities. And it just didn’t do it.”Jim Ross
Originating in June, the BFA was a 16 man, single-elimination, legitimate prizefighting tournament consisting of current members of the WWF roster. We were told that the names were drawn at random, indicating the pairings were organic and unplanned (something Bart Gunn would later question) and over two months superstars fought each other with boxing gloves for 3×5 minute rounds with the golden carrot of a $75,000 cash prize for the tournament winner dangling in front of them. Points could be scored for each punch they landed or takedown they completed.
As in boxing and MMA, a straight knockout would also win you the bout. The unlikely tournament winner Bart Gunn provided his thoughts and stories throughout the episode, along with former WWF officials from that time: Vince Russo, Jim Cornette and Jim Ross, fellow competitors the Godfather and Droz, with cameos from Butterbean and D’Lo Brown thrown in too.
VICE dove into this dark chapter of the WWF’s history by talking through the tournament’s conception, how it was organised, each fight as we wove our way through the brackets, and eventually the fallout and legacy it leaves behind. We heard how the tournament came about, emerging from Vince Russo’s imagination after overhearing a pre-Acolyte JBL bragging backstage that “if this was real, I would beat everybody’s ass in the locker room”.
We heard the locker room’s early reaction to the concept. Top-level stars had nothing to gain risking their reputation and position in an unpredictable fight, so the challenge was the find enough competitors who had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Here was the first sour note that hit me. When they named all the 16 competitors, all of them were midcarders nowhere near the top of the card and all looking for something to grasp onto to help elevate them. Was it the allure of the prize money? The chance at the main event level feuds? Whatever it was, it was enough for most to go in the ring and legitimately punch their fellow performers, friends and colleagues in the face in order to step over them on the way to the top.
The episode covered various interesting developments from a time where the Monday Night Wars and Attitude Era were in full swing, but none more so than the perception that the tournament was originally designed for Dr Death Steve Williams to win the whole thing to set him up for a feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin.
We see an inclination to this rumour as we are shown Dr Death fighting Pierre Oulette (aka PCO who legitimately only has one working eye) in the first round, then suddenly the brackets changed and Bart Gunn was slotted in to fight Dr Death in the second round (something Gunn thought showed there was nothing unplanned and random about the brackets in the first place). Gunn was still a huge underdog at that point after winning a decision victory over then tag team partner Bob Holly in his own first-round match. Backstage Gunn asked if he will have any heat when he beats Williams but was both reassured of his position and mocked at the same time. “Nothing at all” he was told, but we saw Gunn’s frustration as he felt no-one had any faith in him. Pat Patterson mocked him, everyone mocked him. All because of his comments that “he will knock out Dr Death”.
Williams was the overwhelming favourite, not only in his fight with Bart Gunn but for the tournament overall. But Gunn now had tunnel vision and was determined to win to prove everyone wrong. Both took each other down early but Williams tore him hamstring moments later making him immobile and leaving him vulnerable. Gunn caught him with some right hands and knocked him out.
In his book Slobberknocker: My life in wrestling, Jim Ross talked about his friend William’s run in the BFA, his injury in the Gunn fight but not much else. However, the documentary alludes to him being “Jim Ross’ boy” and the reason he was brought in was to win the tournament and have a program with Austin. We hear Tom Pritchard say that he talked to Dr Death on the phone and told him the tournament is designed for him (Williams) to win, but when he was knocked out Cornette said his heart sank and he had a bad feeling in his stomach, “there goes Dr Death’s career” he said, and he was right. Any credibility William’s had was gone, any investment the company made in him was gone. William’s was beaten, broken, injured, and would be out of the WWF in less than a year.
Following Gunn’s victory, Cornette confronted Russo backstage and we see their real-life rivalry coming to life when Cornette says he “just cost the company 5 million dollars”. Russo seemed dumbfounded and thought that Bart could now be the star. But we would soon find out that even winning the tournament would not be enough to get the push Gunn thought he duly deserved.
Gunn’s journey through the episode began as he talked about fighting his tag partner and friend Bob Holly. It was here Gunn again speculated about the legitimacy of the brackets being drawn out. Out of 16 wrestlers, the one tag team just happened to be drawn together randomly out of a hat in the first round? He didn’t buy it. But either way, he was victorious, and after knocking out the favourite Steve “Dr Death” Williams and then the Godfather in the semi-final, Gunn was scheduled to face Bradshaw in the finals. Gunn knocked him out too and here we saw some insight into Vince Russo’s hatred of John Bradshaw Layfield. Russo said it made him happy seeing JBL being knocked out because of his arrogance leading into the tournament.
After his huge victory, Bart Gunn thought he would be getting a great push. One of the main reasons he agreed to be in the tournament was the golden carrot dangling in front of he and all the midcarders who entered, a main event program with top-level stars, and of course the main event money that goes along with it. But it was clear that no-one expected Gunn to win and he was carrying some heat for taking out Williams. So what do they do with a wrestler that they didn’t expect to win?
The answer was nothing… and then they buried him for good measure too.
“nobody got over.”Jim Ross
After his tournament win, Russo the head booker at the time didn’t know what to do with Bart Gunn. The longer he sat at home the more frustrated he got. Then came WrestleMania 15 and Butterbean, the 300lbs professional prizefighter with more than 50 wins under his belt. A fight between ‘Bean and Gunn was set with BFA rules in effect. In a brief but eye-opening cameo, ‘Bean told the Godfather that they (WWF) were not professional fighters and he will beat Gunn in seconds, even saying that Vince wanted him to knock Gunn out too. During the fight, Gunn sensed something was off. He had tried to train to fight like a boxer but ‘Bean knocked him out in seconds, and just like that his career in the US was over.
Gunn showed that the loss to Butterbean still weighs heavy on his shoulders. He talked about going to Japan to fight in MMA and aimed to meet Butterbean and avenge his loss. The only offer he got at a rematch was with four days notice, that he refused. He wasn’t going to give him another easy victory without going through a full training camp this time. But as time moved on he finished up his fighting career and the rematch vs Butterbean never saw the light of day. He didn’t outright say it, but he said enough to show that he still feels the effect of his loss today.
We also found out that the Godfather smokes cannabis. A lot of cannabis. He said he often smoked all day before his matches, and the BFA was no different. He mentioned Dan Severn pulling out the competition after beating Godfather on points in the first round. Another indication that people’s reputations were being put at risk because of the chaotic set-up of the whole ordeal.
He said that no- one knew what was going on so the fighters just decided to punch and try and knock each other out to make it entertaining. With hindsight being what it is and what we know now about concussions, that statement and thought process did not age well at all. And the injuries were piling up too, Godfather told us he needed a wheelchair and surgery on his leg after his losing effort to Gunn in the semi-finals.
There were more heartbreaking moments when we saw Droz talking about his time in the tournament. Droz is wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life due to an injury he suffered from D’Lo Brown a few months later. He still has a positive attitude on life and doesn’t blame D’Lo, who himself said the incident still sticks in his brain: he picked him up for a powerbomb and “we didn’t go”. Neither could explain what happened or how it went so wrong. Droz landed awkwardly on his head and broke his neck.
“How Morally and intellectually bankrupt and irresponsible must you be, to create a situation where your stars get legitimately injured so they can get even with a wrestler who was bragging about how tough he was. He didn’t understand even then what he had done, to this day. The fucking moron doesn’t understand what he’s done. I believe he sabotaged the talent, the integrity of the business, got people legitimately hurt, and killed a future superstar and doesn’t realise he did anything wrong. There, in a nutshell, you have the skid mark on the underwear of life that is Vince Russo.”-Jim Cornette
Throughout the episode, we see and hear the real-life rivalry between Vince Russo and Jim Cornette. It seems that Cornette hates Russo more than the other way round, possibly due to Russo being given higher positions of power within WWF and WCW, probably due to the ideas and lack of foresight Russo had with certain things, but most of all Cornette’s perception of Russo’s outlook on wrestling itself. We heard how much passion that Cornette had over the BFA that he left Russo a voicemail threatening to kill him because he was so mad at him booking the tournament. Russo couldn’t understand why he was so mad over wrestling, but Cornette told us that wrestling has been the most important thing in Cornette’s life. And right there is the nucleus of the real-life feud. Russo has been to blame for too many aspects of the most important thing in Jim Cornette’s life.
We also learned of the unorganized sheer chaos that surrounded the tournament. To get 16 fighters they just went around the locker room and asked who wanted to participate. Allegedly the initial pairings were drawn out a hat in the locker room by Savio Vega (but not according to Bart Gunn), Dan Severn was quick to pick up on the mayhem and bailed after his first fight, Jerry Lawler couldn’t determine what were takedowns or not, they had referees who had never officiated a competitive fight before, judges who had never judged a competitive fight before, one fighter only had one eye, another was always stoned, according to Bob Holly’s book Hardcore Truth Steve Blackman was training to legitimately injure his opponents- but that didn’t matter as most either ended up knocked out or with torn muscles anyway. But don’t worry because Vince Russo told us he was totally entertained by all of this.
The injuries cost the company a lot of money. Superstars were put on the shelf, programmes had to be axed, and future draws were knocked off their perch and never made it back to prominence. Russo’s attitude towards it all did turn around by the end. He said he feels bad and he doesn’t want people getting hit in the ways the fighters were being knocked out. Chris Jericho narrated the episode throughout but at the start, he called the Braw for All one of the worst ideas in wrestling. And by the end of the episode, you found it hard to disagree. Jim Ross, Bart Gunn and Russo all summed up their feelings and more than likely the feelings of a lot of us who either watched at the time or had learned about it for the first time here.
“Especially now with all the stuff we know about head trauma and everything. I really should have been thinking and these guys are out of their element with what we know about concussions today, just knowing all that today which we didn’t know back then, no way I would ever propose it again. Vince McMahon could have pulled the plug on this at any time he wanted to, but he chose not to.”Vince Russo
“It didn’t take one week of TV to convince me that this thing had shit the bed. I dreaded having another night of brawl for all matches because you never knew who would get injured tonight. And enough is enough.”Jim Ross
“I think they should learn from their mistakes and probably never do it again. Just let it disappear.”Bart Gunn
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