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By Ciaran-James @TheCiaranJames
Brian Pillman had the potential to be a wrestling megastar, unfortunately on October 5th 1997 he suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away. At the time of his death Pillman was 35 years old, what made it worse is that he had only recently recovered from a devastating car wreck to return to the ring. The industry had once again lost a gifted competitor years before his time.
Like many a wrestler who wanted to make it to the bright lights of the WWF & NWA, Brian Pillman started his career off in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling Promotion. Coming from a football background Brian quickly adapted to life inside the ring and made his debut in 1986. He soon formed a tag team called ‘Bad Company’ with Bruce Hart, in April 1987 they captured the Stampede Wrestling International Tag Team Titles. Pillman performed well and seemed a natural in the ring, he continued to feud with various members of the roster in singles and tag matches. He captured the tag titles once more before leaving the promotion for Memphis in 1988.
In 1989 Pillman signed with Jim Crockett Promotions, who in the coming years merged into World Championship Wrestling. Due to his athletic ability, aerial manoeuvers and incorporation of Lucha Libre he became known as “Flyin” Brian, this made him an ideal candidate for WCW’s Light Heavyweight division. Although Brian was in a different promotion he once more captured a tag team title with Tom Zenk, they held the NWA United States Tag titles in spring 1990. He eventually won the Light Heavyweight title in October 1991 and had memorable feuds with Ricky Morton, Scotty Flamingo and Jushin Liger. It was in the early stages of his JCP/WCW career that Pillman showed the range of skill that would make him a wanted talent years later.
WCW had the talent to make the light heavyweight division a highlight of their programming, however in September 1992 Brian’s reign as champion ended when he vacated the title. Shortly after he turned heel and joined forces with Barry Windham, they set their sights on NWA/WCW tag champs Ricky Steamboat & Shane Douglas. As a team their one and only shot at the titles came at Starrcade in December 1992, they lost and split as a team. With Brian still intent on winning the titles he formed a team with “Stunning” Steve Austin, collectively they became known as the Hollywood Blondes. Due to their attractive ring-style, attitudes and acclaimed performances the duo found fame with the WCW fans. 1993 was their year, on an episode of WCW television they defeated Steamboat & Douglas to capture the belts. In the early 1990’s Pillman & Austin were exactly the sort of young, talented team WCW needed, unfortunately not everyone at WCW saw their potential.
With their popularity growing, the Blondes found themselves in a conflict with the Four Horseman. They frequently mocked the ages of the Horseman and would do a parody of Ric Flair’s talk show “Flair for the Gold” entitled “Flair for the Old”. Brian and Steve’s impersonation of Flair and Arn are still applauded today for their acting and promo skills. They would eventually lose their titles to Arn Anderson and Paul Roma at Clash of Champions in January 1993, Pillman however didn’t compete on the PPV, and William Regal stood in for the injured Brian. WCW once more wasted young talent by having them split, in October 1993 the Blondes went their separate ways. Even though as a team they had further to go and more to achieve a feud between the two would surely yield some excellent matches. Unfortunately that wouldn’t be the case, their break up and subsequent feud never really received much attention, and was more or less played for laughs. In the spring of 1994 Brian would begin feuding with William Regal over the WCW TV title, his only opportunity came at Spring Stampede in April 1994. He wrestled to a draw with Regal.
Shockingly WCW and ECW had a talent exchange in mid-1994 and Brian was picked to venture into ECW to compete. After a handful of matches he returned to WCW in January 1995 as California Brian, the name and new character was scrapped within a week. In the autumn of 95′ Pillman forged an alliance with former nemesis Arn Anderson, as a duo they began feuding with Ric Flair. Around the same time Brian was chosen to perform on the premiere episode of Monday Nitro, he wrestled the great Jushin Liger in a winning effort. As hostilities continued with Flair a tag match was set for Halloween Havoc, for his battle against Pillman and Anderson, Flair recruited Sting. Things however were not as they seemed, at the PPV Flair turned on Sting during the tag match and sided with Arn and Brian. The events at Halloween Havoc led the reformation of the Four Horseman, this time round Flair & Arn were joined by Pillman and later the deceased Chris Benoit to complete the group.
The latest incarnation of the Horseman wasn’t as successful as the original, therefore the group never really got off the ground in WCW. Brian meanwhile was still improving as a competitor, he was an intriguing character in general. His next move would make him the most talked about superstar ever and would trigger a bidding war between WCW and the then WWF. In late 1995 Brian started to make slight alterations to his character, he threw out his clean cut, athletic build for an erratic, edgy character. He became unpredictable and out of control, his fellow Horseman attempted to calm him but nothing seemed to work. Pillman’s whole appearance changed, his promos often drifted between scripted and reality, in a now infamous segment he made the great Bobby Heenan shout out “What the F**k are you doing” live on TV.
His behaviour continued into 1996, in February he began feuding with then WCW booker Kevin Sullivan. They were scheduled to clash at the SuperBrawll PPV, during the contest Pillman grabbed the house microphone and blurted out “I respect you, Booker man” Brian then proceeded to walk out of the arena. To all who watched WCW in 1996 these events were ground breaking, never had anyone acted like this in any other promotion. Later in the month Eric Bischoff fired Pillman live on Nitro, this was at the time all legit, and Brian Pillman really had been fired by WCW.
Brian Pillman’s new character and actions at SuperBrawl made him the talk of the industry, Eric Bischoff’s firing of him made it seem all so real. However word soon leaked that it was all a work, it was revealed later by Bischoff that Pillman had been ‘Fired’ so he could only draw more heat upon his return. The supposed arrangement was agreed between Bischoff, Sullivan, and Brian. What made proceedings even more strange was Brian debuting in ECW at Cyberslam only days later. Many then assumed Paul Heyman was involved in the deal. Years later in Eric’s autobiography he also revealed that the plan was for Brian to spend some time in ECW then return to WCW sometime later, however Brian change the game and never returned to WCW.
Brian appeared at Cyberslam and cut a promo on ECW, Joey Styles and the fans, he then threatened to pull out his penis live on TV!! Pillman was then confronted by then ECW owner Tod Gordon, booker Paul Heyman and Shane Douglas, he was removed from the ring and dragged out of the arena. During his time in ECW Pillman never wrestled but made several appearances engaging in a verbal feud with Douglas. While there he cut some of the best promos ever, footage that still viewed today is original as when it was recorded. Pillman’s new ‘Loose Cannon’ character was the talk of the wrestling world, all three major US promotions were vying for his services. Rumour spread that Pillman was on his way to the WWF and that a deal was very close, his last contracted appearance for ECW was a match with Shane Douglas.
Unfortunately before his match with Douglas and expected move to the WWF, Brian was involved in a very serious car accident. On April 15th 1996 Brian fell asleep at the wheel of his Humvee and crashed into a tree, upon arriving at hospital Pillman was in a coma for a week, he also seriously shattered his ankle. To repair the ankle doctors had to fuse it together in a walking position, this resulted in Brian having to completely alter his wrestling style. He abandoned his high flying style for a more ground based style.
Brian Pillman eventually signed a contract with the WWF in June 1996, he was the first wrestler ever to sign a guaranteed contract with the WWF. Upon his signing for the WWF Pillman was still recovering from his injuries, therefore Vince McMahon positioned him at the announce table until he was medically cleared to compete. He made his return to the ring after being involved in a worked altercation with a fan on Shotgun Saturday Night. Brian and Steve Austin rekindled their friendship in the WWF, but it wouldn’t be the same as their Hollywood Blonde days. In October 1996 Brian’s friend, now known as Stone Cold Steve Austin became embroiled in a feud with Bret Hart, the WWF using Brian’s links with Stampede Wrestling had him compliment Steve’s nemesis. During an interview on Monday Night Raw Stone Cold finally snapped and brutally attacked Pillman, focusing mostly on his rebuilt ankle, they feuded over the next two months.
The feud reached its climax during an episode of Raw in November 1996, following the attack by Austin, Brian had returned home to once more recover from the injuries sustained. Austin still looking to exact further punishment on Pillman arrived at his house, broadcast live on Raw the cameras followed Stone Cold as he tried to enter the Pillman residence. As Steve and the cameras entered the property, Brian sitting on his sofa started waving a 9mm pistol, tensions boiled but before we saw anything the feed cut out. Voices could be heard shouting and screaming during the blackout, as the feed was restored before Raw finished it was revealed that no one was actually hurt. The segment was highly controversial, Pillman could also be heard swearing on camera, the WWF slammed for the incident. They eventually had to apologise.
Brian was still fairly inactive for the latter part of 1996 and into 1997, after Wrestlemania 13 he finally got back in the ring. He also aligned himself with the Anti-American heel faction the Hart Foundation and restarted his feud with Stone Cold. They feud followed on from the brutal attack Austin inflicted upon Pillman the previous October. His most infamous feud in the WWF was with Goldust & Marlena, Marlena being Goldust’s manager and real life wife at the time. This feud also gained notoriety after Pillman won the services of Marlena following their match at the Ground Zero in October 1997. His match at Ground Zero would be his last PPV appearance for the WWF.
On October 5th 1997 Brian Pillman was found dead in his motel room at 1.09pm, an autopsy later revealed that he suffered from an undetected heart condition. The condition caused Brian to suffer a heart attack. On the day of his death he was originally scheduled to perform at the Badd Blood PPV competing against Dude Love. His death came as a shock to the industry and loved ones.
Brian Pillman had all the tools to be a WWF superstar, with a great look, gifted in the ring and able to cut a promo, Brian had all the skills necessary to headline and become a draw for any promotion. His 1996/1997 ‘Loose Cannon’ character made him the talk of the wrestling world, and in the process one of its most valuable assets. As good as Brian was in the WWF, the accident he suffered in 1996 robbed him of his aerial ability and the style that made him a star. Many have commented that the Brian we saw in the WWF was not the Brian of WCW or ECW.
Pillman became one of the first superstars to break the fourth wall in wrestling, in the years following his death many followed in his footsteps from a character standpoint. Aspects of CM Punk & Dean Ambrose characters have Brian Pillman written all over them, from the erratic ring style to the promos, it shines through. Although he never really achieved what he should have, Brian will be remembered as one of the very best.