Mark for War: All for None
Since Mr. T’s presence at Wrestlemania I, the WWE has often had legit fighters participate in scripted competition for special events like ‘Mania. In thinking about my favorite such moments, I couldn’t help but reminisce about a time when the WWE had the ingenious idea to turn the tables and have their scripted wrestlers participate in unscripted combat: the one, the only, BRAWL FOR ALL (1998).
The Brawl for All was a tournament invented by arguably the most controversial booker in wrestling history, Vince Russo. The concept was basic enough: two WWE superstars boxing in a “Tough Man” style-boxing format. Unlike everything that takes place in a wrestling ring, however, the Brawl for All would be a “shoot” (real). Backstage there was a sign up sheet for all the WWE Superstars. Whoever wanted to participate signed up. If they won their match, they’d get purse money and advance to the next round.
The top superstars at the time (Austin, Taker) or even legit mid-carders (HHH, Mankind, Rock) obviously refrained from signing up (Why would they?). The entire tournament consistent of low card guys, whose desire to participate was more than likely two-pronged: the purse money, and them getting over with the crowd, allowing them to secure their spot with the company.
The Brawl For All participants were a “Who’s Who” of “Who the Fuck is That?” Guys like 8-Ball, Mark Canterbury, and Quebecker Pierre were in the B4A. The most notable guy in the tourney was Bradshaw, pre-JBL gimmick, who actually made it to the finals.
Don’t kid yourself, though. Amidst these jobbers, WWE management did in fact have a main event horse in the race: Dr. Death, Steve Williams. For those of you who don’t know who Steve Williams is, allow me to shed some light: Steve Williams was a proven beast of a wrestler. He was an ex-Oklahoma Sooner football player. As you could imagine, he was a JR guy. Williams made his name in Japan in the late 80s. He remained unbeaten there for almost a decade. I find that American wrestlers who cut their teeth in Japan before heading to the US for a run often have a modified wrestling style that makes their US work look and feel unique. Take a guy like Vader, for example. Arguably up to that point he was the quickest legit big man we had seen in the ring ever. I attribute a lot of this to his time in Japan.
In the late 90s, Williams headed back to the US, had a cup of coffee in ECW, and was set for a WWE run. 1998 was a transitional period for WWE. They we’re in the process of losing and/or parting with two of their cornerstone talents (Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels). Steve Austin had been given the ball. But who would oppose him? Luckily, everyone eventually came up millhouse for the WWE’s bullchip prospects like The Rock, HHH, and Mick Foley, giving Austin a plethora of talent to work off of. But in 1998, with the jury still out on these guys, it made sense for Williams to get a legit push to oppose Austin upon his arrival. Austin was a badass. But Steve Williams wasn’t chopped liver in the badass department, either.
Williams’ needed a push upon arrival, which is where the B4A came into play. Steve Williams was a ringer if there ever was one. He had Tough Man competition experience, was an ex-All American wrestler, and was the apex bar room brawler of the wrestling world (according to wrestling folklore).
The rough plan for Williams, as noted by various WWE bookers, was to have Williams destroy the competition in the Brawl for All, leading to a feud with Austin around Summerslam. The WWE, however, wasn’t counting on Bart Gunn, a then-journeyman with the company saddled with a bunch of lame gimmicks, taking to the B4A format like a fish to water. He knocked out Williams in the second round of the tournament. A MASSIVE upset in every sense of the word. Gunn ended up winning the tournament, which I’ll get to in a bit. Adding insult to injury (or injury to insult, such as it was), Williams actually hurt his Achilles heal tendon in his match with Gunn, sidelining him for months. His momentum was killed, and his badass rep was shattered. Time rolled on, new stars were born, and Dr. Death never made a dent in WWE.
This is ultimately the biggest shame that came from the Brawl for All. I think it’s pretty safe to say that we missed out on a great Steve Williams run in the WWE that would have led to great feuds with Austin, The Undertaker, Mick Foley, you name it.
Steve Williams passed away in 2009. RIP, Steve.
Check out some Steve Williams highlights below. If you want to see William’s influence in a current wrestler, check out the work of Takeshi Morishima, a Japanese wrestler undoubtably influenced by Williams’ decade in that country.
Ironically, even the winner of the B4A ended up getting buried in the process. Gunn, who looked like a total badass through the entire competition, was booked to face legit tough man Butter Bean at Wrestlemania XV. You might remember Butter Bean from the Jackass movie, when he knocked out Johnny Knoxville in a mall. Bean knocked out Bart Gunn within a minute. And that was that.
I’ll never forget something Bret Hart once said about fellow Hall of Famer Ric Flair. He said he hated Flair’s signature chops. He said he could never understand the concept of chops in pro wrestling because chops hurt, and pro wrestling is only supposed to look like it hurts. The Brawl for All hurt everyone in came in contact with. Except Butter Bean, of course.
Match of the Week: Butter Bean vs. Bart Gunn, Wrestlemania XV, March 29, 1999, Philly, PA
Looking to kill two minutes of time while waiting for your coffee to brew? Check out this Wrestlemania classic.