Throughout 1998, the WWF experienced a growth in roster size but due to limited amount of TV time a number of their more genuine “tough guys” were left without much to do. As a result, the idea for a legit tough guy tournament was bandied about as a way to both utilize some of these men and capitalize on the recent interest in Toughman Contests around the country.
According to John Bradshaw Layfield, Vince Russo came up with the idea when Layfield wanted to create a hardcore wrestling division in the WWF. When asked about it, Bruce Pritchard stated, “we’re going to put you in gloves, and it’s going to be a legit fight.” Participation in the tournament was strictly voluntary.
Each match consisted of three one-minute rounds. Whichever wrestler connected with the most punches per round scored 5 points. In addition, a “clean” takedown scored 5 points and a knockdown was worth 10. If a wrestler was knocked out (decided by an eight-count rather than a ten-count), the match ended. The matches were scored by ringside judges including Gorilla Monsoon.
Fans in attendance instantly voiced their disapproval of the tournament. Chants of “Boring!” and “We want wrestling!” were audible during the segments.
The tournament resulted in a number of legitimate injuries — Steve Blackman and Road Warrior Hawk were unable to work in usual WWF capacities for a while after. Savio Vega aggravated an old arm injury and would never work for WWF again.
Jim Cornette has described the tournament as “the stupidest thing that the WWF has ever done”. He argues that the WWF misjudged the appeal that legitimate fighting would have to their audience, considering that the WWF had aggressively promoted the idea that their matches were “sports entertainment” with scripted finishes. Furthermore, because the fighters were trained to work professional wrestling matches and not to fight, they risked both injury and the possibility that a defeat would hurt their marketability. Cornette also criticized the WWF for failing to use the tournament to promote Bart Gunn as a new star wrestler.
In the WWE documentary The Attitude Era, Jim Ross stated that it was one of those ideas that looked really cool on paper, but Layfield added that the execution was “a bad idea. Layfield also stated, “nobody knew Bart Gunn was that good.
Bob Holly claims that the WWE had already paid “Dr. Death” Steve Williams the $100,000 prize money before his second round loss to Bart Gunn. He also claims that Bart Gunn’s match with Butterbean was punishment for defeating Steve Williams.