19 years ago today, the wrestling world mourned as one of its best and brightest talents—Brian Pillman—passed away at the age of 35.
One thing I always admired and loved about Pillman was the incredible diversity of his career.
In an age where the Dolph Zigglers, Kofi Kingstons and Jack Swaggers of the world can be apart of WWE for over a decade without registering much of note, it’s amazing to think what Pillman was able to squeeze in just 11 years time.
Pillman made his debut in 1986 as part of Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling circuit between that and the day of his unfortunate passing (October 5, 1997) spans one of the most unique, diverse and fun careers in pro wrestling history.
Flyin’ Brian, Pillman’s first gimmick in WCW, was a white meat babyface, one that Jim Ross loved to remind you played professional football and was a stand out at Miami of Ohio. Brain would often come to the ring with cheerleaders donning his letterman’s jacket and ready to wow the crowd with his unique brand of high-flying. Ross would wax poetic about Pillman’s trying childhood, the multiple throat surgeries to remove polyps and his constant teasing of being too small to play high-level football. All rooted in reality, fans immediately attached to Flyin’ Brian.
One of my primary goals when I first acquired the WWE Network was to rewatch all the early 1990s WCW PPVs I missed in my youth (my video rental store only had WWF tapes!). This exercise certainly had its peaks and valleys but a constant on nearly every show, regardless of the turmoil going on in the creative/booking end, was Flyin’ Brian. I can’t tell you how many WCW PPVs I’ve watched from that time period featuring Pillman in one of the first few matches. More than that, almost all of them were good. Only a few years into his pro wrestling career and you could sense just how great this guy could be.
In both 1990 and 1991, Bryan would have ****+ epics against Ric Flair, battle the Midnight Express with his tag partner The Z-Man and kick-off a great feud with Barry Windham. At SuperBrawl II (1992), Brian faced off with the legendary Jushin Thunder Liger and produced arguably the best junior heavyweight match of the 1990s.
“If you want to see the best of Brian Pillman, the wrestler, go and get yourself some tapes of Bad Company or The Hollywood Blondes or how Flyin’ Brian fought Ric Flair to a time limit draw years ago.” -Bret Hart (SLAM! Wrestling – October 11, 1997)
Sensing that Flyin’ Brian had run its course, WCW altered Pillman’s character, turning him into a heel who initially teamed with Windham before being linked up to another youngster in the business, “Stunning” Steve Austin.
Austin and Pillman, dubbed The Hollywood Blondes, would go on to have one of the great individual tag team wrestling years in 1993, winning the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s 1993 Tag Team of the Year award and foreshadowing the future success that would come Austin’s way in a few years.
Able to stave off most WCW management shake-ups, Pillman finally met his match in 1994. As Hulk Hogan and many of his ex-WWE running matches gained traction in the company, Pillman was lost. His breakup with Austin floundered and Pillman found himself rudderless.
Then, as he had done so many times in his career and would continue until his final days — he’d reinvent and recreate himself. In 1995, Pillman joined up with the Four Horsemen and eventually evolved his character into a “Loose Cannon”, one of pro wrestling’s most innovate characters.
Toeing the line between work and shoot before it became wrought, Pillman was the talk of the wrestling world before his release from WCW in February 1996.
Once again, Pillman would reinvent himself, now as a member of ECW and taking the “Loose Cannon” gimmick beyond what was allowed in WCW. ECW creative head Paul Heyman, as he is want to do, made the most of Pillman even without him working a match. Angles involving Pillman attacking fans, calling out Eric Bischoff and building to a future feud with Shane Douglas are among my favorite in ECW history.
Things took a turn for the worse in April 1996 when Pillman fell asleep at the wheel. The ensuing accident—which saw Pillman flip his vehicle—resulted in Pillman being in a coma for a week all the while suffering a completely shattered ankle.
In an ironic twist of art imitating life, Pillman once again would have to reinvent himself, as surgery to repair his ankle had limited the former high-flyer great.
Pillman returned to wrestling just a month after his accident signing one of the first guaranteed contracts in WWE history. Initially seen as a coup for WWE after losing so much of their talent to WCW’s guaranteed contracts, Pillman never lived up to his in-ring promise in WWE.
However, that didn’t stop Pillman—now fully evolved into one of the best character wrestlers in the business—from making his mark in the company. Though known for the unfortunate Austin Gun angle, Pillman’s WWE run is filled with some of the best promo work and facials of any pro wrestling character in history. Planting seeds as a friend and former ally of the now “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Pillman eventually broke free and took the “Loose Cannon” character to new heights.
In early 1997, Pillman once again altered his career path joining with his Canadian brethren and the family that trained him, becoming a charter member of Bret Hart’s Hart Foundation stable. Feuding throughout the year, Pillman and The Hart Foundation once again raised the bar for character and promo work. In ring, Pillman was apart of what is arguably one of the greatest wrestling matches of all-time, the famed 10-Man Canadian Stampede tag match.
Just a few months later, Pillman was dead and a career, which still had so many more twists and turns, was lost.
Still, it’s remarkable to look at just how much Pillman did and how different he was at every stop in his 11 year wrestling career. A man who began his career as a white-meat, no-nonsense, ex-jock, high-flying, good looking athlete who did all his talking in the ring was 11 years later an unwashed, greasy, manipulative, psychopath who barely registered as an in-ring competitor. That’s ignoring the ebb and flows of his career in that 11-year gap.
I dare you to find me a wrestler in history with this much variety and diversity in their character work. You won’t find it. And if you do, I promise you they weren’t as good or made those things work as well as Brian Pillman did.
Each year, this sad anniversary reminds us of the hardships of a professional wrestling career and the hardships of life. Most of all, it reminds me to appreciate what you have now because it may not be there tomorrow.