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Dark Side of the Ring: ‘The Brawl for All’ Review: Tragedy Bordering on Comedy, Bro

“You know it’s all fake, right?”

As a fan of professional wrestling, I’ve had to sigh and answer this question for over 30 years. The answer has been the same … except during a short period in 1998, when I had to explain that “No. No, it’s not all fake.”

During that time, the WWF put together what has become almost unanimously known as “the worst idea in the history of wrestling.” Legitimate fights with legitimate results led to legitimate injuries and not much else except for a cautionary tale. That was only half the story of the Brawl for All.

Vice sits down with participants, including Charles “The Godfather” Wright, Darren Drozdov, and eventual tournament winner, Michael “Bart Gunn” Polchlopek. They talk with bookers, Jim Ross and Jim Cornette. The star of the show, however, may just be the proud creator of the burning diaper pail that was The Brawl for All, Mr. Vince Russo.

Vince Russo is one of the most polarizing figures in wrestling history. Some see him as a mixed bag that contributed to both some of the highest TV ratings and crossover exposure WWF/E has ever had as well as some of their most embarrassing moments. Others (like Jim Cornette) have created new profanities just to express their disdain for him and his “Jerry Springer” mindset.

But it wasn’t the idea of giving the audiences something new and exciting that inspired this experiment, though. It was personal spite. Well-known loudmouth and alleged backstage bully, John “Bradshaw” Layfield was not one of Russo’s favorite people and, when the big Texan was boasting that he was the toughest man in the locker room for real, Russo devised a plan to prove him wrong.

Jim Ross described it as picking “16 guys with nothing to lose” to put on boxing gloves and mouthpieces and have a sort of points-based MMA bout: Five points for most punches landed, five points per takedown, and ten points for a knockdown. A knockout ends the fight. Mid-card and lower tier wrestlers lined up for the extra cash being offered (including a $75,000 purse to the winner) and the chance to advance their place on the card.

The interviews expound upon a number of issues. Some contestants with legitimate backgrounds (like UFC Champion, Dan Severn) were injured, lost their fights, or withdrew after one round. The scoring and refereeing confused the scorers and referee as much as the audience. Plans were made for potential breakout stars like “Dr Death” Steve Williams only for disaster to strike the best laid plans of mice and McMahons.

Steve Williams’ career in the United States would never recover. Cornette and Russo have cited Brawl for All in an ongoing feud that includes death threats and restraining orders. Bart Gunn’s big career push came seven months later when he was put up against Toughman Challenge alum and professional super-heavyweight f—ing boxer, Eric “Butterbean” Esch, in a boxing match that lasted about as long as it takes to finish this sentence. Meanwhile, John Layfield would find himself holding the world championship and contributing to CNBC and Fox Business Channel on the regular in about six years time.

Dark Side does a good job in getting the most out of each puzzle piece. Bruce Pritchard isn’t interviewed but his previous comments from his Something to Wrestle podcast are featured. Butterbean admits that Gunn would have fared better if he had decided to brawl rather than box. Jim Ross addresses the rumors that the contest was being skewed in Dr. Death’s favor with Bart Gunn corroborating that he was willing to “do business” and was shot down. They even address the elephant in the room and explain for viewers why Darren Drozdov is in a wheelchair for his interview.

The Brawl for All is far from being one of the more sordid or tragic stories in wrestling. It actually borders on the humorous when one looks at the irony of what a colossal, multifaceted failure it was. That’s only if we ignore that it all came at the cost of the careers and physical well-being of real people, though.

Dark Side of the Ring Season 2 Episode 3, ‘Brawl for All’ is now on demand and can be streamed on the Viceland app or website.


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