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‘Dark Side of the Ring’ takes on WWE’s Brawl for All, the pro wrestling company’s legit fighting tournament from 1998

WWE was more popular than ever in 1998, but also came up with one of its worst ideas: a legitimate fighting tournament featuring its pro wrestlers.

It’s known as one of the worst ideas in professional wrestling history.

In 1998, the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) had a glut of talent on its roster and very little to do with plenty of them. Though the company was reaching new heights in popularity as the famed “Attitude Era” — featuring edgier, more adult (or at least horny teenage)-themed content — took off behind top stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin and the man we now know as global movie superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

While serious, real fight fans may laugh at the notion on instinct, pro wrestling has always had its share of legitimate tough guys; not in a trained fighter sense, necessarily, but guys you definitely wouldn’t want to cross in a barroom brawl.

In 1998, then-WWF writer Vince Russo came up with the “Brawl for All,” a 16-man tournament that aired throughout the summer on Monday Night RAW, featuring legitimate fights between largely second- or third-tier stars on the company’s roster at the time.

Next Tuesday, April 7 at 10 pm ET, VICE TV’s increasingly acclaimed “Dark Side of the Ring” series will take an inside look at the infamous tournament, speaking with some of its key players and those who were there. The series has recently started its second season, with strong reviews for a two-part episode on Chris Benoit, and this week’s episode on Jerome “New Jack” Young.

It was a crude concept in every way. The fights consisted of three rounds, lasting one minute each. Whomever landed with the most punches in a round got five points. A clean takedown was also worth five points, which seemed to greatly favor someone like Dan “The Beast” Severn, a legitimate All-American amateur wrestler with additional judo training, and a former UFC champion. Since what they really wanted was guys punching each other in the head, knockdowns were worth 10 points. Knockouts were counted at eight, not 10, and there were judges in the unfortunate event that a fight went the distance.

Aside from Severn, the tournament featured mostly guys who had backgrounds that would befit a local toughman competition, though there was also Marc Mero, who had been a standout amateur boxer in New York in his youth, as well as Steve “Dr. Death” Williams, a legend at the University of Oklahoma as an All-American wrestler and an All-Big Eight offensive guard on Barry Switzer’s football team, but a guy who was also now in his late 30s and not in peak condition. Williams was considered the favorite to win by many going into the tournament, as he had credentials and a reputation as a bad dude.

But the tournament star wound up being Bart Gunn, real name Mike Polchlopek, a former tag team star for the WWF and now a languishing veteran act. Gunn was no trained fighter, but he could punch. His tournament victory led to an infamous legit boxing match at 1999’s WrestleMania XV in Philadelphia, where he faced Butterbean with disastrous results.

The story behind “Brawl for All” is an interesting one, and might be worth a look next week even if you have no time in general for pro wrestling.