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From Loose Cannon to Legend: The Brian Pillman Story

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October 5, 1997 marked the passing of Brian Pillman, who competed the night before at a WWF house show and was scheduled to appear at that night’s pay-per-view event. The broadcast of “Bad Blood” opened with WWF owner Vince McMahon informing the viewing audience that Pillman was found dead in his hotel room at the age of 35 and a 10 bell salute followed the next night on Raw. Nearly two decades later, Brian Pillman is still remembered, specifically through a DVD release on his life in 2006 and the accessibility to classic footage through the WWE Network, but the true impact of his career might not be realized to many fans.

Fighting to survive from the start of his life, Brian Pillman underwent dozens of throat surgeries to remove cancerous polyps and as a result of the procedures, he developed his trademark raspy voice. Pillman continued to defy the odds, as he played football in college, but went undrafted so he decided to try out for his hometown team, the Cincinnati Bengals. Many thought Pillman’s statue would prevent him from landing a spot on an NFL team, but he was signed to the Bengals in 1984. While Pillman weighed only 225 LBS during most of his career, his determination allowed him to gain notoriety on the field, which prompted his teammates to vote that he receive the Ed Block Courage Award. After his time with the Bengals, Pillman played briefly for the Buffalo Bills before going to Canada to play in the CFL, which opened the door for his pro wrestling career. While in Canada, Pillman began training in the legendary Hart dungeon and debuted for Stampede Wrestling in 1986.

Within just a few years, Brian Pillman’s aerial skills got him noticed in America and he signed a contract with WCW in 1989. During his nearly seven-year run in the Turner organization, Brian Pillman was a true innovator in many different aspect of the sport. More specifically, his matches with Japanese legend, Jushin “Thunder” Liger in the early 90s put a foundation and blue print in place for the cruiser weight division that would become one of the highlights of WCW programming a few years later. Pillman was actually the first WCW Light Heavyweight champion, which was a short-lived belt, but it was essentially the predecessor to the cruiser weight title. Pillman brought a style that was rarely seen on TV in the United States and was a pioneer of the American cruiser weight style.

His career continued to evolve when the Hollywood Blondes were formed in 1993, and they had a great series of matches with Ricky Steamboat and Shane Douglas. “Stunning” Steve Austin and “Flying” Brian Pillman were poised to become the top team in WCW, but the political climate within the organization saw the conclusion of the duo less than a year after their rise within the ranks. In my opinion, if the Holly Woods Blondes had remained a team for a few more years, they would have probably been mentioned on the same tier as many of the top tag teams in history, but they just didn’t get the chance to truly establish themselves as a team.

As his WCW career progressed, Pillman resumed his classic series of matches with Jushin Liger, including the first match in the history of Monday Nitro when the show debuted in 1995. During a brief stint as a member of the four horsemen, he began to evolve his character to an unpredictable and unstable competitor. Pillman took it a step further and didn’t break character even when he was backstage, leading to speculation among insiders in the business that he might be legitimately crazy. In reality, Brian Pillman was an incredibly smart businessman, as only his closest friends in the sport knew he was just trying to make his new “loose cannon” persona as believable as possible and in the process, he became a priority for all three major companies to sign just months before his WCW deal was set to expire.

Basically, Pillman was maximizing his earning potential and his PPV bout with Kevin Sullivan enhanced it. Originally booked as a “respect match,” Pillman grabbed the mic after a brief scuffle with Sullivan in the ring and said, “I respect you, booker man!” before he exited the ring during the live show. His reference to Kevin Sullivan’s work behind the scenes as the booker of WCW became the talk of the industry and being one of the smartest minds in the industry, Sullivan knew the worked shoot would increase Pillman’s value before his deal with WCW concluded. At the time, many WCW officials were unaware of the plan that Pillman and Sullivan had prior to the match, and they thought Pillman legitimately left during the pay-per-view.

Following his departure from WCW, Brian Pillman made a surprise debut at the ECW arena that would launch of series of “shoot promos,” which continued to enhance his loose cannon character. At the time, he was expected to sign a contract with the WWF, but in April 1996 he was involved in a very serious car accident. Pillman was in a coma for a week, his ankle was shattered, and his wrestling career was in doubt. However, he showed the same tenacity he displayed his entire life when he recovered enough to return to the wrestling spotlight, even returning to ECW on crutches to continue his tirade toward WCW on the mic. Keep in mind, Pillman was cutting “shoot promos” before the business was completely exposed as entertainment and in many respects, the loose cannon persona was revolutionary.

A few month later while he was still recovering from ankle fusion surgery, Brian Pillman signed with the WWF and worked as a commentator until he returned to the ring. Sadly, Pillman was never the same after the car accident and his close friend, the legendary Jim Ross speculated on the Pillman DVD release that he died from the sadness of not being able to perform in the squared circle the way he had previously. However, when Pillman started wrestling again, he joined the Hart Foundation, using his history with the Hart family for the storyline. It’s interesting to note that Brian Pillman is the only competitor to be a member of the Four Horsemen and the Hart Foundation, two of the most legendary stables in the history of pro wrestling. He was also involved in the infamous gun angle on Raw that many viewers thought was real because of how it was portrayed and it’s a segment that’s still talked about today. Prior to his death, Pillman had a memorable feud with Goldust and it was the last major storyline of his career. Despite the initial speculation of an accidental overdose from the medication for his ankle injury, an autopsy later revealed that a diagnosed heart condition caused a heart attack.

Brian Pillman defied the odds and endured many surgeries to combat polyps during his early years. He had the determination to play pro football and won the admiration of his teammates through the Ed Block award. He started in the wrestling business when light heavyweight wrestling was rarely seen and he was offered a contact with a major organization within just a few years. His athletic and aerial style helped solidify the foundation of much of the high-flying wrestling that is seen today. Before CM Punk dropped a pipe bomb, Brain Pillman was cutting a promo on the booker man that even had those in the business guessing as to the reality of the situation and there wouldn’t be a “lunatic fringe” without the loose cannon. Pillman was ahead of his time in many aspects and sadly, he probably won’t be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame because of the circumstances of his death, but he’s undoubtedly an under rated legend.

-Jim LaMotta

@jimlamotta

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