In an attempt to capitalize on the fledgling Ultimate Fighting movement—and to appease several underutilized lower-card wrestlers—the WWE set up a pseudo-mixed martial arts tournament in the spring of 1998.
Called the Brawl for all, this odd combination of boxing—kicks, elbows and headbutts were illegal—and amateur wrestling—but no ground attacks—didn’t exactly take professional wrestling by storm. In fact, it injured several competitors and ruined the reputation of yet more, including the highly touted Dr. Death, Steve Williams.
The eventual winner Bart Gunn, who finished three of his four opponents on the way to winning the tournament, was rewarded with a cheque for $75,000 and a match at SummerSlam against cult sensation Eric “Butterbean” Esch. Gunn was subsequently knocked out in 35 seconds and the whole experiment was quietly forgotten.
Both the WWE and the world of mixed martial arts are unrecognizable from their forms back then, but the question of who would win such a tournament now is still intriguing to fans.
The tournament would certainly be of a higher standard today, as many of the WWE’s wrestlers train in MMA to improve their wrestling ability and some have even competed in actual mixed-martial-arts matches.
The general public’s better understanding of mixed martial arts would likely see a second reincarnation of Brawl for All follow the unified rules of MMA, which is the standard rule-set observed across North America.
It still wouldn’t be a good idea to actually run the tournament, as injuries and the potential for embarrassment that arose in the inaugural contest would surely be repeated. Yet these practical issues cannot stop the questions over who would win such a tournament now.
Here are the 10 most likely candidates to win a Brawl for All if it did happen.
Big E. Langston
This newcomer to WWE’s mainstream programming was a Florida state champion in high school before turning his attention to weight-lifting. These skills would certainly allow the huge man to hold down some of the smaller members of the roster, and possibly secure the decision victory.
However, the big man is lacking in the other essential areas of MMA—striking and ground work—and has become over-muscular to the point where it would be restrictive in an actual fighting contest.
The giant Big Show has unimaginable power due to his size and has experimented in several disciplines of fighting, including boxing and sumo.
His size is a double-edged sword, though, as Show’s huge weight affects his mobility—as does the culmination of numerous knee injuries throughout his pro-wrestling career—and this would likely leave him vulnerable to much smaller, but better trained individuals.
Another one of the WWE’s behemoths, Kane has stated that he has trained in MMA, which would put him in good stead for a Brawl-for-All tournament. Having began his career as a shoot-fighter would also give the Big Red Monster an added competitive advantage.
Kane only just misses out on the top 10 through his lack of amateur wrestling experience, which could be his downfall against a roster full of experienced amateur and shoot wrestlers.
Possibly an unexpected pick for the No. 10 slot, William Regal learned his trade in the submission wrestling schools of the north of England.
Those institutions taught him a style of shoot wrestling that could be applied equally to real fighting or professional wrestling. In fact, Regal started his career in England as an act who took members of the audience into the ring and forced them to submit.
Fundamentals like these would give Regal a chance to win a real fight, and his lack of obvious qualifications could lead to some opponents underestimating him.
Age and fitness is an obvious drawback for the 44-year-old semi-retired Superstar. But he is exactly the sort of person who would make an excellent outside pick if Brawl for All were to return.
The second Englishman in short succession, Wade Barrett’s past as a bare-knuckle boxer makes him one of the scariest strikers in the WWE at the moment.
At 6'7", Barrett’s reach would be a real issue for most of his competitors, who would find it difficult to engage with him on their terms. His innate ability to string together combinations is also likely to overwhelm opponents when both men are standing in the pocket.
However, his lack of amateur wrestling experience would leave Barrett vulnerable to the takedown. Considering the array of champion amateur wrestlers in any potential field, Barrett’s chances of winning drop dramatically.
Barrett would be the favorite if the the original Brawl-for-All rules were in place as his hands should dominate, and he could not be held down like he would be under the unified rules.
These changes have been seen in his in-ring work, with the incorporation of the Hell’s gate submission finisher—a gogoplata—and the addition of MMA-style gloves to his look. A highly publicized run-in with Brock Lesnar at UFC 141 also confirmed The Deadman’s interest in the sport.
The only reason that Undertaker is not higher up this list is age and physical deterioration. His appearances on WWE television have become increasingly rare, and he clearly is not in the shape he once was.
Even with this in mind, it is difficult to completely dismiss the chances of a man who is so big and well-trained.
Daniel Bryan’s submission-master gimmick is based on the man’s real-world abilities as a highly skilled jiu-jitsu stylist.
Bryan trains his MMA game at Xtreme Couture—the gym set up by five-time UFC champion Randy “The Natural” Couture—which means he will have spent plenty of time on his back against the plethora of top-class wrestlers at that gym.
These ground skills could potentially put him in good stead against the bigger, more powerful wrestlers in the tournament who would likely put him on his back quickly in a real fight.
Yet Bryan’s diminutive size will always make him an underdog for these types of tournaments. The chance of one big strike landing or someone being just too big for him to counter prevents Bryan from being positioned any higher on this list.
Another Superstar who might not immediately come to mind when talking about a potential winner for a Brawl for All-type tournament is Cody Rhodes, who has a solid amateur wrestling background and is one of the more naturally athletic members of the WWE’s roster.
Rhodes is famous for having been one of the youngest members of the WWE roster when he was promoted to the main show at just 22. But his road to the top could have been very different.
He was a two-time state wrestling champion in Georgia and had several offers to wrestle in college, where he was tipped to be a contender. But he chose to go into the family business of professional wrestling straight away.
This primary skill should allow Rhodes to choose where any fight happens most of the time, and his athleticism should make him quicker than many of his theoretical opponents.
A lack of formal training in striking would be Rhodes’ biggest hurdle, especially as there are several members of the WWE Universe who are more well-rounded. Still, the second generation superstar would have a chance.
After being a three-time wrestling champion in the Mid-American Conference, Dolph Ziggler looks destined to be a huge star in WWE.
This makes The Showoff a very accomplished wrestler with natural athleticism and great speed. This combination—even with a lack of technical MMA training—has proven to be a great success.
If the tournament happened, he could be vulnerable against more experienced opponents. But top wrestlers always have a chance in MMA.
Maybe the wrestler whose style is most influenced by mixed martial arts, CM Punk would be the most obvious pick for a potential Brawl for All winner.
Punk displays his varied arsenal of strikes—including knees and elbows which many of the WWE roster do not possess—every week on WWE television. Such diversity would give the Straight-Edged Superstar a significant advantage over many of the other wrestlers in any potential fight.
The Second City Saint is also versed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu—he trains with Rener Gracie—which makes him equally dangerous on the floor.
What holds Punk back on this list is his size compared to the other men above him.
The early UFC events may have shown that a great small guy can beat a average big one. But when the skills are equal, size is often the defining element.
The All-American wrestler from the University of Oklahoma is a true heavyweight with long arms and surprising speed. These factors automatically make Jack Swagger one of the most likely winners of any potential Brawl for All tournament.
His lack of striking would be tempered by his reach, and his top control should theoretically negate most of his disadvantages against ground artists.
The only time he would struggle would be against an equally big opponent with more experience, which leads to the final two on the list.
It is hard to believe that a man who is a Pan-American medalist and a three-time Central American and Caribbean Games divisional champion in Greco-Roman wrestling is not on top of this list of potential victors of a Brawl for All tournament.
This disbelief becomes even more extreme when factoring in Del Rio’s 9-5 mixed-martial-arts record, which includes a losing bout against legendary MMA practitioner Mirko Crocop.
Alberto Del Rio only makes second on this list, but he would certainly be a clear second favorite as he is highly skilled in all aspects of the sport and has the experience to adapt to unforeseen situations.
A true heavyweight as well, Del Rio would be a truly dangerous competitor if the WWE were to run another tournament.
Probably the least surprising pick on this list, the former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar is definitely the most likely WWE Superstar to win a Brawl for All tournament if such a competition was run again.
A huge wrestler with powerful takedowns, destructive ground and pound and an underrated ground game, Lesnar has the potential to blast through anyone in the WWE.
What might be more interesting is a fight between Lesnar and TNA standout Kurt Angle. But like this tournament, that is another fantasy match that would almost certainly never happen.