Brian Pillman passed away today in 1997.
It seems like a million years ago but if there was a legacy of his work, it will be that he will perhaps be best remembered as the originator of the shooting work angle, as he was the first person to do one nationally, at the right time, with the right timing while working for World Championship Wrestling. At that moment in time, Pillman was the most talked about character and performer in all of professional wrestling. The closest equivalent I can come up with is CM Punk this past summer following Money in the Bank. Of course, the difference there is Punk actually drew money for himself and WWE coming in and out of that moment.
A former Cincinnati Bengal, Pillman had been a mid-card performer for WCW with the same start/stop pushes that most of the undercard talent (including Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and Steven "William" Regal) received during the early to mid 1990s. One month, Pillman was pushed as part of a hot tag team with Steve Austin or as the Light heavyweight champion, the next he was looking at the lights to the latest muscle-bound cartoon character WCW had imported in an attempt to clone the more popular World Wrestling Federation.
There was no rhyme or reason, just politics and the ever-changing landscape of who was in charge this week. How close you were to that person when they were on top of the mountain pretty much dictated your push, your pay, indeed, even your employment.
Pillman finally broke free of those political shackles during a feud with Kevin Sullivan in the Nitro era of late 1995/early 1996. It always helps to be in a feud with the booker when it comes to getting a push (unless the booker hates you, at which point, your long-term employment prospects might not be so bright), but Pillman truly broke through and reinvented himself.
Taking on the nickname "The Loose Cannon", Pillman began acting erratic on camera and off to get over the idea that he had seemingly lost his mind and couldn't be trusted. Pillman, at this point a member of the Four Horsemen, would get into confrontations with then-WCW Vice President Eric Bischoff on camera with Bischoff threatening to fire Pillman.
In the ring, Pillman and Sullivan would work extremely rough and stiff, fooling others, including those in the same matches they were involved in, that they were "shooting" on the other. To make sure everyone believed the character, Pillman went as far as grabbing Bobby Heenan during a live Clash of the Champions special on TBS during a match with Eddy Guerrero, causing the shocked Heenan to mutter the "F" word on live television and run for cover to protect his long ailing neck.
Pillman's acting ability was so great that he was able to convincingly portray an absolute psycho at all times, whether he was in the arena, the airport, or the hotel. He never dropped character in public, not even while appearing on local Cincinnati radio shows. Brian Pillman the man had disappeared completely into Brian Pillman the worker for as much of the day as possible.
At the WCW Superbrawl PPV in February 1996, Pillman was booked to face Kevin Sullivan in a Respect Strap match. After several minutes of action that didn't seem like they were working together in the least, Pillman grabbed the ring mic and said the infamous line, "I respect you, bookerman." Pillman then stormed out of the building. Sullivan at the time was Bischoff's booker for the company and Pillman had seemingly broken total and complete kayfabe months before the more celebrated Kliq Curtain Call that is still referenced today. It was an Andy Kaufman act brought to life in a new environment and everyone bought it, hook, line and sinker. Brian was the hottest man in wrestling.
It was announced Pillman had been fired by WCW the next night on Nitro. The Sullivan match concluded with a convoluted ending where Arn Anderson briefly substituted for Pillman and Ric Flair arrived to "make peace" between the parties. At the time, Disco Inferno was the only person on the WCW roster who believed the entire scenario was a work. When he started to tell everyone his theory, Diamond Dallas Page (possibly one of the few clued in due to his friendship with Bischoff) told Disco, "If it is, shut up."
Of course, Bischoff and Sullivan were in on the whole thing, and had worked the wrestlers as well as the fans. Pillman persuaded them to fax him an actual release from WCW to cement the angle was legitimate to smart fans. In doing so, he had actually accomplished the impossible. Not only was he able to create the most intriguing character of the time, but he was now a completely free agent during the height of the Monday Night Wars.
After all those years of being mired in the middle of the card flailing despite being far more talented than those making seven figure deals, Pillman not only had the golden Willie Wonka ticket, but he could write it for himself.
The original plan was for Pillman to eventually return to WCW. To fuel the fire of the story, Pillman launched his own 900 line and made several appearances in ECW, the rebel promotion that "hated" WCW. It was a marriage made in heaven for all parties and truth be told, if you've never seen Pillman's ECW antics, you truly missed out. All of his appearances were absolutely classic. He gave the promo of his life at ECW's Cyberslam '96 tearing apart Bischoff and the fans alike, before attempting to pull out his penis and urinate in the ring. Despite ripping on the fans and Philadelphia, the promo was so tremendously entertaining, the ECW Arena denizens chanted, "Let him p**s."
The idea was Pillman would eventually face off with former WCW foe turned ECW Franchise Shane Douglas, who himself was being pushed as a Loose Cannon, although that never really clicked). The match never came to fruition but led to several entertaining angles. Pillman showed up in the front row at an ECW event in Queens, NY and when Douglas went to hit him, Pillman pulled a child (on camera, Pillman claimed it was his baby cousin, although it was actually a child actor and his mother) in his way to prevent Douglas from connecting. Although not every fan believed the Pillman firing was legitimate, it was still something fresh that had everyone talking.
During the ECW run, I witnessed my all time Pillman moment. It didn’t even happen at a live event. At the time, ECW stayed at the infamous Travelodge Hotel where you would often check in to find the maid going through your bags when you came out of the bathroom or you’d return to find someone drowned in the pool while you were at the ECW Arena. It was an awful place but ECW being ECW, it’s where they stayed and a lot of awesome promos were filmed on the top floor at 4 AM in the morning.
On this day in 1996, however, there were no cameras, no cell phones, no camcorders to document the moment. Pillman was returning from his debut, Stevie Richards in tow. Waiting for an elevator, he was in full-on Pillman insanity mode, cursing at everyone and completely wired. Sabu walked in, completely out of character and Pillman sets eyes on him. He lunges, screaming that Sabu was ducking him in WCW and now Brian was going to kill him. Sabu, not knowing what the hell is going on, quietly responded, “What the f*** is your problem?” Pillman is grabbed by Sandman and dragged into an elevator, which closes. Sabu shrugs.
The elevator suddenly opens and Pillman, all calm and smiles inside of it, now realizes the entire lobby can see him. He immediately leaps out of the elevator, screaming and clawing the air to try and get to Sabu while Sandman wraps his arms around him and pulls him back in. It was something to watch the master work, even though he was only working the 10-15 fans that were there and a befuddled Sabu.
During the same time period that he was shining in ECW, Pillman continued to make
"unscheduled" appearances in the crowd in WCW, mostly holding signs for the 900 line he owned, often before being tossed out of the building as Eric Bischoff went off on him via commentary.
What has either been forgotten over time, possibly because Pillman kept some plans to himself, was that he actually intended to take the Loose Cannon character even farther then he actually had. He had talked of hoping onto the field at the Super Bowl and handcuffing himself to the end zone in order to get huge publicity for himself with the idea only dying when he realized doing so would cause his connection into the event massive problems.
At one point, Pillman also intended at one point to sit ringside at a 1996 WWF house show in Madison Square Garden under a Lucha mask, then unmask and try and hop the rail when Shawn Michaels was wrestling. Pillman would try and get into the ring to challenge Michaels to a fight, with the idea that he'd create a huge buzz for himself and if Michaels actually decided to go at him, Brian knew he could take him. If Pillman ended up arrested, all the better because he would have kept the fans wondering what the reality was. A fired WCW guy hopping the rail at a WWF show in 1996 would have been insanely huge news during that time period. A family situation ended up preventing Pillman from pulling the WWF stunt.
Another element that Pillman had working in his favor was his timing. With WCW's Monday Nitro show gaining steam in the ratings and the the Internet exploding as a tool for marketing and promotion within the wrestling business, Pillman was in the right place at the right time.
Years before the term “social media” would become one with marketing, Pillman would often use a message board devoted to him on America Online to attack WCW, Bischoff, fans, and even those running the wrestling area's forum. When a throat surgery (which some thought was convenient timing as the plan was for Pillman to have been pinned by Hulk Hogan in the match) kept him off a WCW Uncensored PPV, Pillman went online hours before the PPV and blasted WCW for false advertising him.
Pillman would also arrive in scheduled wrestling chats and promptly find himself ejected for cursing out AOL staff. In the end, Pillman was banned from the AOL service a number of times for breaking their Terms of Service during a time period where such a thing was actually enforced. One can only imagine his wife trying to explain to customer service that her husband was a pro wrestler playing a role to get the account reinstated.
Pillman was also WAY ahead of the curve when it came to using online feedback and response to gauge what fans were thinking, often using a small group of fans he befriended on AOL to get feedback on what they thought, assembling them in a chatroom. Within an hour of the Pillman gun angle airing on Raw, he and his wife, Melanie, were online, getting feedback and asking what the response was like. During the entire Loose Cannon rise in WCW, he would often ask his assembled "Cannoncult" to speak out on his behalf or just ask them what they'd like to see him do next to piss off WCW.
Pillman had navigated the waters of the Internet (via AOL, the top online service of the era) and of blurring the lines nationally. ECW had done it in Philadelphia, but pulling it off at a huge scale, well, Pillman was the right person for the angle, doing it at the right time. Had things turned out differently for him personally, he may have been one of the major players of boom period of the late 90s, right alongside Steve Austin, who credits Pillman to this day for helping him become a better interview. In fact, many of the things that Austin did to initially get his Stone Cold persona over were derivative of many of the things Pillman did in WCW as an anti-establishment figure.
Through it all, Pillman ended up the first major name of the Monday Night War era to be chased hard by both companies. He tricked WCW into giving him that legitimate release on paper, which allowed him to play both sides to get the better deal. In the end, he signed with WWF because he felt he had longer security on paper, although we sadly never got the chance to see how far he could make the Loose Cannon gimmick run in that environment. Bad luck and bad choices steered him in a darker direction just as he was in a position to be potentially set for life.
Prior to signing his WWF deal, Pillman was in a car accident that eventually put his life into a downward spiral, ending with his sad death in October 1997. The reality is that the car wreck should have killed him. He was lucky he was ever able to recover, period. While he did eventually return to the ring and got over to a certain extent thanks to his great acting ability and being a part of the Hart Foundation, he was never the Loose Cannon that WCW and ECW audiences got to experience, ever again.
Now, part of that was being edited by WWF creative and a big part of that was the fact that he could never physically go in the manner that he and fans had been accustomed too. Other than the WWF Calgary Stampede PPV, the Brian that was in WWF was neutered, hurting and sad, nowhere near the vibrant cutting edge personality he was in comparison just 12-18 months prior.
The reality is that Brian Pillman was lucky to be alive and probably never should have wrestled again. Like too many other wrestlers, he ignored the warnings and the logic. The landscape wasn’t set up to protect wrestlers the way WWE has been forced to oversee and protect them today. The ankle never properly healed, was re-broken and permanently set. I don’t know that he would have passed the physicals WWE requires of its talent to wrestle today, but at that point and time, Pillman still returned to the ring, despite being in constant pain for the rest of his life...a life that didn't last much longer.
Brian Pillman was found dead in his hotel room just prior to that year's Badd Blood PPV with the death being attributed to a heart defect, although there was no doubt his own issues may have helped augment the issue. Testing showed cocaine in his system as well. In the weeks prior to his death, there were issues at home, issues at work, and issues with how Pillman was appearing in public. While certainly the man was no saint (no one, wrestler or not, is), the beginning of the end can all be traced back to that car wreck.
For all the groundbreaking Pillman was part of nationally with the Loose Cannon character, the most sad aspect is that none of it led to what his initial goal was to begin with - a big money run on top of the business. His ankle injury and the personal issues that led to his death prevented that, leaving his legacy to be something far darker - the first of far too many professional wrestling deaths for active stars of the modern era.
Sometimes life isn't fair. Sometimes things happen that are out of your control and they change the direction of your life forever. Sometimes you play Russian roulette and lose. Pillman should be remembered as one of the trendsetters of the modern era of wrestling and as someone who finally made the huge money he dreamed about to support his huge family. Instead, he ended up a statistic in wrestling deaths and sadly, not one that helped prevent the long line of deaths that followed. For a lot of fans, Pillman represented the end of the innocence for them because he was the first major star to die while under a WWF contract.
Much like Andy Kaufman, Pillman is only remembered as something of a footnote in the business. There are those who “got it” and understood his genius at the time, but now, in 2011, he’s more recognized as that guy who worked for WCW or that guy who used to team with Stone Cold before Austin was a star than he is remembered by the masses for what he accomplished.
It's sad in a way, because in my eyes, Pillman should be remembered as someone who broke so much ground creatively and as someone who's early death should have been the warning sign to change the way the wrestling industry operated.
While WWE did a solid documentary on him years later, I felt it only told parts of the story – and it’s a story that should still be told – not of drugs or shooting works but of how one’s own obsession with success and one’s own work ethic can, at times, be the same person’s biggest downfall. You can draw a correlation between Pillman and Matt Hardy in a lot of ways, although Hardy’s issues became much more publicly known than Pillman’s were at the time. Hopefully, though, we see a much better ending for Hardy.
Still, if I had my way, Brian Pillman would first and foremost be remembered as one hell of a talent and as a groundbreaker, both as a Cruiserweight performer, a tag worker, a personality (he played a hell of a psychopath) and someone who blurred the line between work and shoot first and in some ways, better than anyone on a national level.
There's no doubt in my mind that in an alternate universe somewhere, he ended up healthy and rose to fame as the Roddy Piper to Steve Austin's Hulk Hogan. I just wish that story had played out in real life because the business would have been a hell of a lot better off with Brian Pillman around.
But, that's not how the story ended for Brian Pillman. I don’t know that we’ll ever see him inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame (Austin should certainly be pushing for it though) but Brian Pillman is someone that shouldn't be forgotten as a footnote.
Instead, he should be one that is studied for not just the creativity and in-ring work he left behind, but for the lifestyle choices that ended his life. There is still a lot that those working in the industry today can learn from the good and bad of Brian Pillman. In the bad is a hell of a cautionary tale that everyone looking to take bumps for a living should take heed of. In the good, there is a lot to celebrate.
Mike Johnson can be reached at Mike@PWInsider.com.