BRAWL FOR ALL – The WWE WrestleMania 15 Failure

Brawl for All was a 1998 tournament held in the WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation) that featured wrestlers legitimately shootfighting. The brainchild of former WWF writer Vince Russo, Brawl for All resulted in a number of legitimate injuries for performers. It was negatively panned by wrestlers and critics alike. Here is how it all fell apart in the end, particularly for one ex-Smoking Gunn.

Things did not end well for ex-Smoking Gunn Bart Gunn when professional boxer Butterbean stepped in at WrestleMania 15's WWE Brawl For All tournament in 1998.
Things did not end well for ex-Smoking Gunn Bart Gunn when professional boxer Butterbean stepped in at WrestleMania 15’s WWE Brawl For All tournament in 1998. [Photo: WWE.com]

“Everybody’s jaw was on the floor backstage. It was un-fucking-believable. I thought Bart was dead.” – Bob Holly

One of our favorite wrestling autobiographies is Bob Holly’s, ‘The Hardcore Truth’. One particular story from his book that sticks out for us was his discussion on the then-WWF’s idea to introduce shootfighting into the squared circle. With some wrestlers in the tournament with a martial arts background, this was quite the gamble!

Holly has been given criticism over the years for being a tough, stiff, brash and not afraid to say it how it is kind of SOB. In his book, he showed a different side of himself. While never afraid to shoot from the hip and cut to the chase on issues from his time in the professional wrestling business, Holly’s literary debut showed that he can stand alongside Jericho, Hart, and Foley with one of the best wrestling autobiographies out there.

The key players behind booking WWE Brawl For All

Who did WWF have planned to win the Brawl For All and how did it all fall apart in the end for one particular ex-Smoking Gunn? Bob Holly explains:

“As usual, time was passing, I wasn’t making any real money, and I wasn’t going anywhere. Austin was taking off and a few of the other guys at the top of the card were doing well, but there was a load of the mid-card guys floating around doing nothing. Then somebody had an idea about a shootfighting competition, which ended up becoming the Brawl for All.

Our ratings were getting better and we had drawn level with WCW again, but Vince was always looking for ways to stay ahead in the ongoing Monday Night War. They decided to take 16 of the guys who weren’t doing anything and put them in a tough-man tournament. They were going to have us go out there, on a live-TV wrestling show, and fight for real in an attempt to get some ratings. It was also an attempt to get a wrestler by the name of ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams over. Jim Ross, who was in charge of talent, had been lobbying to bring his buddy Steve in for a long time but Creative didn’t know how to do it. Steve had wrestled in Japan for the majority of his career and had a reputation as a genuine badass, so they figured they would introduce him in the Brawl for All, he’d walk through everybody, and boom, they’d have a credible guy they could leapfrog over everybody else to put up against Austin in the main events. Everybody backstage thought it was a bunch of bullshit. J.R. was shoving Steve down everybody’s throats, saying he was going to destroy everybody. Nobody had a problem with Steve before, but J.R. was putting him over so often that the boys resented him and hoped he’d get knocked out.

They got together their group of 16 mid-card wrestlers who they figured were the tough guys. They put Bart in the tournament but I wasn’t included. They didn’t think that Sparky Plugg could fight. That pissed me off. Obviously, they didn’t know that Ol’ Sparky was a tough motherfucker!

Most of the people they had in there were pretty tough. Some of them talked a good fight but couldn’t back it up. Tiger Ali Singh had been bragging that he was a shoot fighter and a bare-knuckle champion and could do this and that, but when it came to it, he chickened out and said he wouldn’t do it. They needed a replacement and Bradshaw told Bruce Prichard, who was one of the guys in charge of organizing the whole thing, “Bob may not look like anything much but he’ll surprise you. . . .” Bruce gave me a call to ask if I wanted in. I said, “Hell yeah, I don’t know why you didn’t ask me in the first place!” I was pretty excited because I figured I could make some decent money and I’d have a chance to show them how tough I actually was.

Bart Gunn lays into The Godfather during the WWE Brawl For All tournament in 1998.
Bart Gunn lays into The Godfather during the WWE Brawl For All tournament in 1998. [Photo: WWE]

They explained the rules to us. Three rounds, one minute a round. We would get points for takedowns and knockdowns. A knockout would end it. We were told the winner would get $100,000 and that each time we fought, we would get five grand whether we won or lost. Sure, I thought they’re not going to pay us $5,000 each match for doing this! But they genuinely did.

As soon as Steve Blackman found out he was in Brawl For All, he started training. He was dead serious about hurting people, planning to take people’s knees out to win that hundred grand!”

Purchase this 'Wrestling is Fake?!' shirt featuring Harley Race, Meng / Haku, and Steve Blackman on PWSTees.com today!
Purchase this “Wrestling is Fake?!” shirt featuring Steve Blackman on PWSTees.com today!

“As soon as Steve Blackman found out he was in Brawl For All, he started training. He was dead serious about hurting people, planning to take people’s knees out to win that hundred grand!”

Bob Holly recounts:

“In the meeting when the rules were explained, they told us that it was anything goes. Steve said, “So that means that if I want to take somebody’s knee out with a kick, I can do it, right?” Right about then they decided they needed to make some rules. I think they got worried that Steve might kill people and you know what? He probably could have. There is nobody more dangerous than Steve Blackman, period. He knows every element of the fighting game; he’s strong, he’s smart, he’s lightning-quick — he’s a well-rounded fighter. Unfortunately for him but fortunately for the rest of us, Steve hurt himself training against a 300-pound guy who rolled on Steve’s leg and blew out his knee. If that hadn’t happened, Steve would have won the whole thing, hands down.

Steve Blackman and Marc Mero exchange blows during the WWE Brawl For All shootfighting tournament in 1998.
Steve Blackman and Marc Mero exchange blows during the WWE Brawl For All shootfighting tournament in 1998. [Photo: WWE.com]

My first match turned out to be against my tag partner, Bart Gunn. Because Bart and I were riding together, we had a chance to talk before the fight. We agreed that whatever happened, happened. I knew that Bart used to do tough man contests too, so I had my work cut out for me. Even though he’d never wrestled a bear, he was 6’5″ and 260 pounds and I was 6’1″ and about 220. That’s a heck of a size difference but I wasn’t about to back down from anybody. We went out there and laid into each other. It was brutal. He hit me so fucking hard, I ended up on the other side of the ring. I have no idea how I got there but he didn’t knock me out. We went all three rounds and the judges gave the points win to Bart. It turned out to be one of the best fights in the tournament. We were still friends afterward — we’d cleaned each other’s clocks pretty good but neither of us was mad at the other. He told me, “I hit you with some good shots — it shocked me when you didn’t go down.” I had a black eye for a solid week after that fight but he never knocked me out. I got my five grand and I opened a lot of eyes in the back by showing that I was tougher than anybody had given me credit for.

Someone who wasn’t as tough as they thought was J.R.’s boy, Steve Williams. I saw him fighting Pierre Ouellette in his first-round match and he didn’t look good. They were just swinging at each other and Steve barely survived. He didn’t knock out Pierre, so it went to points and it was so clear they had gimmicked the score so it looked like Steve had dominated. I thought, “They’re going to fix the whole thing and make it a work.” I knew that if they didn’t, Steve wasn’t going to win.

Even so, Steve was up against Bart in the second round and I knew for sure Bart was going to knock him out. I’d just fought the guy and felt his punches. Steve was in trouble and he didn’t know it. Earlier, when Bart and I were driving to a show, I told him, “You know they want Steve to win — you’re fixing to throw a wrench in their whole plan.” Bart said, “Yep, I’m going to knock him out.” Later during the same journey, Bart decided to call Bruce Prichard to say, “Get ready to make that check out to me because I’m going to knock J.R.’s boy out.” Bruce said, “That’s great, man — if you do, you do.” Bart knew Bruce wasn’t taking him seriously. He said, “You think I’m kidding? I promise you, I’m going to knock him out . . .

The night of the Brawl For All fight came. We were in Anaheim at the Arrowhead Pond and the TV monitor backstage was sold out. You could not get near that monitor; there was no room to move. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Steve and Bart started fighting — it was pretty even, punch for punch. I was counting the takedowns and it became clear that they weren’t going to do it legit. Steve and Bart were even but the scoring onscreen had Steve with more takedowns. In the second round, Steve started gassing. Bart was out-punching him, staying on him and taking him down. Bart owned Steve in the second round but the scorecards came up and they still had Steve ahead. All the boys in the back were getting pissed. The third round was just like the second — Bart was kicking Steve’s ass but we all knew that he was going to lose unless he knocked Steve out. With the fight nearly over, Steve was still in there and then, out of nowhere, Bart nailed him with a left hand and Steve just fucking dropped. Everybody in the back popped huge. The 60 or so people watching the monitor blew the roof off that place.

Terry Funk actually got upset with that because he felt the boys were disrespecting Steve, who is considered a god in wrestling, especially in Japan, but nobody popped because they hated Steve or wanted to see him hurt. They popped because they knew the judges had been fucking with the scorecards and the wrong man would have won. The feeling was, “Fuck you, you’re not going to screw Bart out of this.” There was no disrespect meant to Steve, just hostility towards the office for sending us all out there, telling us the whole thing was a shoot, and then trying to fix the outcome to suit their plans.

If I ever wanted any proof that I was right on this one, I got it that night. I was getting changed near the trainers’ area. They had dragged Steve from the ring to the back and were checking him over. Steve’s jaw was dislocated and his hamstring was torn. I heard Steve say to the guys who were working on him, “I don’t know what they’re going to do now . . . they already paid me the money to win this thing.” Jim Ross was absolutely furious. For weeks, he’d been telling everybody that Steve was going to walk all over the competition, and now I had found out they’d paid him the prize money before he’d even won the tournament. I couldn’t believe it.

Bart Gunn faces off against 'Dr. Death' Steve Wiliams, the projected winner of the WWE shootfighting tournament that took place in 1998.
Bart Gunn faces off against ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Wiliams, the projected winner of the WWE shootfighting tournament that took place in 1998. [Photo: WWE.com]

Bart was up against the Godfather next. Godfather was a big, tough motherfucker but I knew Bart would take him. I was watching the fight backstage and ’Taker was there, sitting in a chair in front of the monitor. A lot of people were watching again and I said out loud, “This is gonna be interesting.” ’Taker turned around, looked at me, and said, “That’s your boy, isn’t it?”I said, “You’re damn right it is.”He said, “Fifty bucks?”We shook on it.’Taker thought Godfather would take Bart out no problem. Bart ended up knocking his ass out in the third round. ’Taker didn’t say a word; he just got up and walked off. I thought he was pissed but he came back later that day and handed me a fifty. Easy money. Bart went on to the final against Bradshaw and knocked him out colder than a well digger’s ass. There were rumors that, after Bart knocked out Steve Williams, they told Godfather and Bradshaw to take a dive. Why would anybody drop their hands to get knocked out, especially when there’s a lot of money on the line? Bart just knocks motherfuckers out; end of story.

In the office, they wanted Bart to get his ass kicked. J.R. was being vindictive because Bart fucked their plan up and fucked his buddy up. They paid Bart the prize money, they’d already paid the same amount to Steve Williams, and they had to pay everyone else for their matches, so the whole thing must have cost them $350,000 in payouts, without giving them the result they wanted. Steve couldn’t work with Austin now and they couldn’t put Bart in his place. Bart had been around for six years as an underneath guy that nobody was going to buy against Austin no matter what management did. Even though J.R. was wrong about just “knowing” that Steve would walk through everybody, he didn’t get any heat for it; Bart did. J.R. said he didn’t have hard feelings towards Bart but he did for damn sure. The next thing you know, they’d talked Bart into fighting Butterbean at WrestleMania.”

Purchase this NES-inspired Brawl For All shirt featuring Butterbean and Bart Gunn on PWSTees.com today!
Purchase this NES-inspired Brawl For All shirt featuring Butterbean and Bart Gunn on PWSTees.com today!

How it did not end well for Bart Gunn after facing Butterbean in the final of WWE Brawl For All at WrestleMania 15

Bob Holly continues:

“Butterbean was this huge, fat boxer who threw too strong a punch for anyone in the WWF to go toe to toe with (except Blackman — Blackman would have killed him). This guy was a pro boxer. I don’t care who you are, you don’t play someone else’s game. None of us should have tried to box him but they got into Bart’s head and brainwashed him into thinking that he could beat Butterbean in a straight-up boxing match. Bart bought into the hype. He didn’t change as a person but he did start overestimating himself. If Bart had gone into it like a regular street fight, he would have shot in there and taken him down because Bart’s a good amateur wrestler. If he was going to stand there and box the guy, he had no chance. Boxing is about angles. Fighting has no rules. Butterbean said that he didn’t want fighting — just boxing. That was the deal for him to come in. The WWF still promoted the match as under Brawl for All rules but Bart was told it had to be a straight-up boxing match. They sent him off for 10 weeks to train with Danny Hodge in New York. Bart lost weight and got into awesome shape, but I don’t care who you are, 10 weeks of training won’t prepare you to beat a professional boxer. The whole deal was set up purely to humiliate Bart because he had humiliated Jim Ross’s boy ‘Dr Death.’ The office knew he didn’t have a chance. Even if Bart had beaten Butterbean, they would have found another way to screw with him.

Bart Gunn and boxer Butterbean are seen here in a WrestleMania 15 promotional photo. WWF Brawl For All- an idea that did not go to plan.
Bart Gunn and boxer Butterbean are seen here in a WrestleMania 15 promotional photo. WWF Brawl For All- an idea that did not go to plan.

When the Brawl for All fight rolled around at WrestleMania XV, everybody was watching the monitor backstage. The match only lasted 35 seconds and Butterbean nearly took Bart’s head off. It looked like he broke his neck. Everybody’s jaw was on the floor backstage. It was un-fucking-believable. I thought Bart was dead, Butterbean hit him that hard. The trainers brought him back around when he was in the ring. When they walked him to the back, nobody said a word. You could hear a pin drop.

That was basically the end of Bart’s WWF career on TV. In reality, his career with the WWF had ended the moment he had knocked Steve Williams out. He didn’t know the repercussions would be that big, and neither did I. We knew they thought Steve was going to win but we didn’t know they’d planned a whole storyline based on his win, we didn’t know they had paid him off already — nobody told anybody what the plan was. If they had sat us all down and said, “We need to make this a work but we want it to look like a shoot,” that would have been fine. But because J.R. was so convinced that nobody could beat Steve Williams, he had everybody else in the office thinking it was a done deal too. The whole Brawl for All idea was a bad way to get a wrestler over. Wrestling is a work. If you want someone to get over in order to put him against the top guy, you better make sure everything is a work before he gets to that top guy. If you’re going to make it a real shoot, you’ve got to be prepared to go with what happens. You can’t guarantee a result from a shoot.

Steve Williams had no idea what he was letting himself in for; he didn’t know Bart. I spoke to Steve about it later in the year and even he said it was a really bad way to do business. If the boys are told that they are going to go out there and fight for money for real, they’re going to do what it takes to win. If management wanted a specific result, they should have told us what they wanted. Instead, they basically wasted nearly half a million dollars and ended the careers of both Bart and Steve Williams. A lot of the other guys got injured during the Brawl for All too, and it really didn’t do anything for ratings. It just wasn’t worth it. Everybody thought the whole thing was a very bad idea. The WWF learned from that and never tried it again.”

WATCH: Butterbean vs Bart Gunn in the Brawl For All finals at WrestleMania 15 on March 29, 1999

An additional bonus: Listen to Hardcore Bob Holly talk about Brawl For All with Jim Ross on The Ross Report, ep 42.

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