Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is boxing Conor McGregor this weekend, and the whole thing is completely awesome. While the traditionalist fight press sees this simply as a capitalist exercise with an inevitable result and no titles on the line, that’s not exactly the case—at least not officially, that is.
Back in 1998, what was then known as the World Wrestling Federation embarked on an adventure called Brawl For All. As originally envisioned, this would be a tournament featuring pro wrestlers taking part in legitimate no-holds-barred fighting, or at least something resembling what MMA was at the time. That idea went out the window when martial artist and pro wrestler Steve Blackman asked if kicks to the knee would be legal; instead, the rules were changed so that the tournament would feature pro wrestlers in (still legitimate) Toughman-style contests that also featured takedowns and an esoteric scoring system. The tournament’s eventual winner was journeyman tag-team wrestler Bart Gunn, who had Toughman experience and a powerful left hand; he dropped his next fight to Butterbean, the gimmick super-heavyweight boxer who made a name as a toughman competitor himself.
Butterbean soon ventured into MMA, losing to grappling wizard and general oddball Genki Sudo. And if you track who beat who from there, the lineal Brawl For All title ends up in the hands of ... Conor McGregor, who defeated Dustin Poirier for it before losing it to Nate Diaz and then regaining it in their rematch. There are no stakes more perfect for this momentous exhibition of sweet science than these.
Brawl For All was dropped on unsuspecting fans attending a live episode of Monday Night Raw on June 29, 1998 at Cleveland’s Gund Arena. The tournament opened with what was, on paper, one of its most intriguing fights: “Marvelous” Marc Mero vs. “The Lethal Weapon” Steve Blackman. Mero had been a Golden Gloves boxer of some kind in his youth, and as such carried something of a reputation with him. Blackman was a vaguely-defined martial artist with a vaguely-defined martial artist gimmick who had disappeared from pro wrestling for almost a decade of his prime before a 1997 return. He was considered one of the toughest men in the locker room, but given the weird ruleset, it seemed as if he would probably get eaten up standing.
Instead, Blackman calmly took down a helpless Mero over and over for three rounds, occasionally feinting and then hitting an overhand right, en route to scoring a “referee’s decision.” That referee was Danny Hodge, the legendary Olympic wrestler turned pro who could also box well and crush apples with his bare hands. He was soon moved to ringside as scorekeeper while regular WWF official Jack Doan took over the in-ring officiating. Doan had wrestled in school, making him the right man for the job, at least on paper, to address any concerns about how takedowns would be scored.
(In 2017, Conor McGregor’s camp has had similar concerns, with his head coach, Jon Kavanagh, telling ESPN that he felt an MMA referee was needed for the Mayweather fight so that clinches and other forms of inside fighting were not broken up prematurely. They didn’t get their wish, though the assigned referee, Robert Byrd, is likely the next best thing in the eyes of the Nevada State Athletic Commission because his wife, Adelaide, is an MMA judge.)
At least in theory, any fight where one side had legitimate offensive wrestling skills would go similarly to the Mero vs. Blackman battle, and most others would be flailing contests. (Blackman, unfortunately, was eliminated from the field by a training injury.) Unfortunately, though, the officials’ lack of experience calling a legitimate striking sport meant that the worst beatings were stopped late. Most famously, Steve “Dr. Death” Williams—the theoretical ringer in the bracket, an amateur wrestler good enough to have been four-time All-American at Oklahoma even while starting on Barry Switzer’s offensive line—was allowed to batter Pierre Carl Ouellet of the Quebecers tag team for far too long, even after Ouellet repeatedly turned his back to the fight.
(Ouellet, who was legitimately blind in one eye and wearing a pirate-style patch on that side, was lauded for his heart, just as one-eyed UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping has been recently. While WWE has long come under intense criticism for putting a man with one eye in a largely unregulated fight, Bisping was sanctioned to fight as recently as 14 months ago by the well-regarded California State Athletic Commission, an example to place alongside the sanctioning of the Mayweather vs. McGregor bout of state commissions’ boundless concern for the well-being of fighters.)
Ultimately, the tournament was defined by its surprises. In hindsight, The Godfather (known to the government as Charles Wright), who came out of Brawl For All relatively unheralded, is the biggest revelation. Previously known as Kama The Supreme Fighting Machine when doing an MMA-fighter gimmick inspired by Kimo Leopoldo, he was never thought of as a legitimate fighter. But in the tournament, the former bouncer did show rudimentary but effective boxing technique, pumping a jab throughout, as well as legitimately shocking defensive wrestling. In his loss to Dan Severn, The Godfather successfully defended every single one of the legendary combat athlete’s initial takedown shots, only falling to the mat when the former UFC heavyweight champion chain-wrestled. (Severn withdrew from the tournament after his win, and The Godfather moved on in his place.) But that’s not the surprise everyone remembers.
Bart Gunn won a tepid decision over then-tag team partner Bob Holly in the first round of the tournament en route to having a post-match scuffle that broke up their team. It was the only fight where the legitimacy was questioned, with noticeably pulled punches throughout, so nobody knew what to expect from Gunn in his next fight, where he drew Dr. Death. After tearing up the favorite’s leg with a surprise takedown, Gunn scored a brutal knockout in a huge upset, setting the tone for a tournament victory, which he won by taking out Godfather and John Bradshaw Layfield in subsequent bouts. Like Conor McGregor, Gunn not only ran through the competition by knocking them out with brutal left hands, but also sought a new challenge after demolishing his peers. Enter Butterbean.
Butterbean had a two-match WWF deal that was half-over after an obviously predetermined boxing match with Mero in December 1998. So he became the Floyd Mayweather, Jr. to Gunn’s Conor McGregor. Gunn vanished from television, training boxing and even getting a crewcut to properly prepare himself for a Brawl For All bout with his fellow former toughman competitor at WrestleMania XV. Like Ronda Rousey did in her title loss to former boxer Holly Holm, he abandoned what should have been a simple, takedown-oriented approach to box a far superior, classically-trained striker. And like Rousey, he suffered a brutal knockout, one of the most memorable in combat sports history, having his head spun around like a top before he hit the mat.
Unlike the Rousey fight, Gunn being separated from his consciousness in memorably violent fashion was quickly followed by a comedic interlude in which the San Diego Chicken was knocked out by special referee Vinny Pazienza.
Butterbean stayed away from the intrigue and complications of mixed-rules fighting for over four years after defeating Gunn, but eventually made his MMA debut proper. It was there that Genki Sudo, outweighed by over 200 pounds, wrested the lineal Brawl For All championship away and moved it to MMA’s lighter weight classes.
Since then, it has been held by one more pro wrestler, Bellator MMA mainstay Joe Warren, who had a stint in the Real Pro Wrestling promotion. Mayweather, the challenger this Saturday night, would be just the third professional wrestler to hold the prestigious lineal title that originated with a professional wrestling promotion.
In 2008, Mayweather was a featured attraction at WrestleMania 24, participating in a mixed-rules bout with The Big Show which was, realistically, the biggest attraction on the card, even if Edge vs. The Undertaker was the nominal main event. Held under yet another mixed ruleset, the size difference clashing with the vast chasm in boxing skill allowed for a surprisingly competitive bout. While Big Show had, in fact, recently trained for a career in boxing and sparred with an array of legitimate heavyweights, he quit after being knocked out by former Olympian T.J. Wilson. The speed and technique of Mayweather was too much for the decorated pro wrestling champion, who lost by knockout after “Money” knocked out the giant with an assist from a pair of decorative brass knuckles that had been conveniently placed at ringside. (This was not even Big Show’s first failed attempt at mixing the martial arts at WrestleMania, as he lost a sumo match to former grand champion Akebono at WrestleMania 21 in 2005.)
On Saturday, barring some sort of well-played con, Mayweather will win, taking one of McGregor’s two prestigious lineal titles. (McGregor is also the lineal lightweight MMA champion, at least as tracked by Fight Matrix). That this of all fights happens to have this half-real, half-imaginary title on the line is incredibly appropriate … especially since Mauro Ranallo, the voice of Showtime boxing who’s also a WWE announcer, will be calling the action.
And on top of all that? At Wednesday’s press conference for Mayweather-McGregor, the World Boxing Council introduced a new “WBC Money Belt” to be awarded to the winner. Made with 300 emeralds, 600 sapphires, and 3,360 diamonds laid in 1.5 kilograms of 24-karat gold on an alligator skin strap, it’s hard to see it and not think of “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Championship belt from the WWF. The one other thing that could make this spectacle more perfect, more of a spectacle, and more pro wrestling-like has actually happened.
Too bad it’s only the second most prestigious title at stake.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.