I wanted to do a piece on a guy who I loved, but time and wrestling history have often overlooked, yet he was one of the true rebels in the business; Brian Pillman.
Pillman was always a rebel of sorts. As a college American Football player, he was a stand-out for his position, despite being shorter and lighter than almost all his peers. Relying on speed and technique to get by, he ended up on the second team All American line-up – amongst his counterparts, one William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Despite playing to such a high college standard, he went undrafted to the NFL.
He did briefly make it to the NFL, however, with his hometown Cincinnati Bengals, but his career petered out. He had a failed attempt to extend it with the Buffalo Bills and eventually ended up playing in the Canadian Football League for the Calgary Stampeders, a fateful destination, as he would meet Owen Hart and eventually end up training in the legendary Stu Hart dungeon.
Making his debut as a wrestler for the Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling promotion in 1986, he quickly built a reputation as a high flier. By 1989, he’d returned to America and began working with WCW, where he established a reputation for being a quality high-flier, incorporating Mexican-style lucha moves into his arsenal. Pillman’s matches with Jushin Liger and Barry Windham during this time were especially noteworthy.
In 1992, Pillman tagged up with a then “Stunning” Steve Austin to form the Hollywood Blondes and became arguably the best tag team in North America, even headlining a Clash of the Champions against The Four Horsemen, who Pillman would later become a member of in 1995.
Up until now, Pillman’s story has been pretty much standard; ex-NFL star takes up wrestling to make ends meet, becomes quite good, finds his spot in the mid-card. Right? Wrong. The mid 90s is where Pillman comes into his own. It’s where “Flyin’ Brian” dies and “The Loose Cannon” is born.
Superbrawl 6. Eleventh February, 1996. Brian Pillman vs. Kevin Sullivan in an “I Respect You” strap match; the loser would be the man who said “I respect you” to the other. Sullivan and Pillman start fighting, for maybe less than a minute… then Pillman grabs the mic and utters those four words “I respect you, bookerman” and walks away. Kevin Sullivan was not just his opponent that day, but was the booker for WCW at that point.
Remember, this is in the fledgling days of the internet and ‘smart marks’ were few and far between. Bookerman was such an inside term that practically nobody would have understood it back then. Pillman had come up with this idea for him to be a loose cannon – to portray this insane, over the top lunatic. What made it unique was that Pillman wanted to base his character in reality – to work not only the people watching, but the guys in the company too.
Wrestling lore has it that only Pillman, Sullivan and WCW boss Eric Bischoff were in on it. Pillman would bemuse his peers and fans alike with his bizarre behaviour, leading up to his firing in 1996. The plan was supposedly for Pillman to be “fired” go to ECW and build up some legit heat and return to WCW in a blaze of glory.
Well, the plan was slightly different in Pillman’s mind. He’d decided that his career was nearly over and he needed one last big pay day. What better way to get that than to make himself the biggest talking point in wrestling, and then become a free agent, able to basically name his price? By working Bischoff and WCW to the point that they actually legally fired him (Bischoff under the impression that he and Pillman were working the whole angle together) Pillman became a free agent.
He did go to ECW. Not for Brian Pillman a quiet, understated entrance, doing the all conquering hero act… no, he “invaded”, insulted and actually threatened to piss in the ring, even having a planted fan to beat up just so the notoriously smart ECW fan base would boo him out of the building. They did, and he duly worked a few dates and built a name for himself, much like former tag partner Steve Austin.
Pillman’s days in ECW were numbered as he was never going to stay out of the limelight that the Big Two at the time offered – everybody knew it – but before he could leave, he was involved in a major car accident that would eventually lead to his ankle being surgically fused, putting a halt to his high flying and forcing him to adapt his style. He would return to the ECW airwaves in a wheelchair, still antagonising the ECW faithful, then signed a guaranteed deal with the WWF – one of the first to get such a deal.
Pillman debuted and carried on his loose cannon ways, but would need more ankle surgery before his WWF in ring career could properly begin – Steve Austin would shoulder the on screen blame for the ankle injury – targeting Brian’s ankle with a steel chair in a move that was christened ’Pillmanising’, but even before Pillman was fit to return to the ring, he would participate in a memorable angle with Steve Austin, where Pillman would defend his home during a ‘live’ interview and threaten Austin with a gun, featuring one of my favourite ever wrestling moments:
“Steve is a dead man walking, because when Austin 3:16 meets Pillman 9mm, I’m gonna blow his sorry ass straight to Hell!”
Brian would become an adopted member of the Hart Foundation, some said even of the Hart family, and feud with Austin some more, then move onto Goldust and Marlena – again blurring the lines between fact and fiction by referencing the fact that Pillman and Marlena (Goldust’s real life wife, Terri) had dated in the past. Pillman’s feud with Goldust was due to come to a head and he was scheduled to face him at the In Your House 18: Badd Blood show. Brian never made it to that match as he was found dead in his hotel room the day before the show.
In my own humble opinion, Pillman was one of wrestling’s greatest talents, vastly underrated in the ring and out of it by fans. People including Steve Austin, Eric Bischoff, William Regal, Paul Heyman, Jim Ross and many, many more cited him as a genius.
Pillman’s promos and delivery were way ahead of his time. His Loose Cannon character was the first to intentionally break kayfabe on TV and ushered in a new, darker direction for wrestling. The Attitude Era was foreshadowed by Brian Pillman. Even in the ring, in his injury free days in WCW, he was a true innovator, blending the American style with fresh foreign moves and wowing the crowd.
Pillman was one of wrestling’s greatest ever rebels, but unlike so many, he could back up his rebellion with sheer unadulterated talent in a way that nobody before did, or has since. If you get a chance, check out the Brian Pillman: Loose Cannon DVD as a fitting tribute to a huge character, a great wrestler and a ground breaking innovator.