Brian Pillman was a brilliant light that burned fierce and fast, leaving a fascinating, if short, legacy behind. Unlike last week’s WOTW, Davey Boy Smith, Pillman’s promos and vignettes were just as compelling as the great matches he had in the ring. If making everything you do seem important is greatness, then Pillman was surely great.
In the year 2014, squash matches are an underappreciated venue for observing a wrestler’s skill. One on hand, they aren’t as “compelling” in that you’re at least 95% sure who’s going to win before the thing begins, but on the other, they provide an already stretched and treated canvas for the artist to paint upon. In this match against Rip Rogers from 1990, Pillman showcased the blend of high-flying and power moves that would become his signature offense throughout his WCW run:
Pillman and Jushin Liger had some of the best (if not just my favorite) matches of the early ‘90s. Facing each other many times in both Japan and WCW, the two came across as evenly-matched competitors wrestling to see who was truly the better man. It was everything wrestling is supposed to be. Their chemistry was so real and their matches were so intense that they hardly needed any angle at all to set them up. It’s no coincidence that they were chosen as the opening bout on the first ever episode of Monday Nitro. This match from Superbrawl II, however, may be the best match they had in WCW:
Thanks to the incredible success Steve Austin found after he left WCW, Brian Pillman is perhaps best remembered by casual fans as “the other guy in the Hollywood Blonds.” This reputation is unfortunate, as his in-ring style was what truly elevated the Blonds to be a cut above all the other workers in WCW’s tag team division. Austin was a good hand, but as this notable match against Rickie Steamboat and Shane Douglas from Slamboree ‘93 shows, Pillman brought all the flair to Blonds matches:
Speaking of bringing the “flair,” one of Pillman’s most lasting contributions to wrestling is his use of the worked-shoot style. Unlike today’s stars, however, whose shoots are scripted and checked off by the good folks in standards and practices, Flyin’ Brian was not scared to say what he really thought about people, and didn’t care too much how they interpreted it. This classic “Flair For The Old” segment shows Pillman airing his frustrations with Ric Flair in a way that is deeply personal, but also entertaining for fans. The segment would be imitated countless times, including the nWo’s famous reenactment of Arn Anderson’s retirement and the original DX’s mockery of the Nation of Domination.
As his character progressed, Pillman became more and more fascinated with seeing where exactly the line between fiction and reality was drawn within wrestling, and more importantly, how comfortable his colleagues were with stepping just over it. This match versus Eddie from Clash of the Champions XXXII isn’t famous as a matchup of top stars (although it should be), but rather because of what Pillman did outside the ring — grab Bobby Heenan and violently shake him. Heenan, legitimately confused and scared his well being (he had a bad neck that had forced him out of his bump-taking role), broke character, asking Pillman “what the f*ck” he thought he was doing on live TV. It was the first major on-air victory in Pillman’s war against conventional wrestling.
If you want to see a really great promo, you should probably try to find the time that any given star was really, really pissed off and Paul Heyman coached them into channeling it. In this legendary ECW promo from Cyberslam 1996, Pillman goes completely over the top, accusing Eric Bischoff of violating his Constitutional rights and threatening to micturate in the middle of the ECW ring. The promo goes over ridiculously well with the crowd, especially considering a prominent first row sign that says “Don’t Work Me.” In ECW, Brian Pillman found an audience that were both the perfect fans to adore him and the perfect group of test subjects for his bold wrestling experiment.
By the fall of 1996, Brian Pillman had found his way to the WWF and reunited with his old pal now going by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Unfortunately for Pillman, their reunion was not so warm because he made the mistake of respecting Bret Hart, an act by which Austin couldn’t abide. So, of course, just like any normal guy would do, Austin smashed Pillman’s ankle in a chair. This was, once again, a great blending of reality and fiction, as it gave Pillman’s nearly immobile ankle a mythical original rather than simply being the result of a car crash that announcers could only talk about in their “serious voices.”
While Pillman was on the mend at home, recovering from said attack, Austin decided to check in on him. Pillman, however, not one to be intimidated in his own home, famously produced a gun, and smiling a crazy smile, looked uncomfortably ready to use it. “Pillman’s Got a Gun” is the high/low water mark of the Attitude Era. Far more real than Triple H marrying Stephanie, far more disrespectful than DX’s shoot on the Nation, far more morally repugnant than the Undertaking cutting himself on national TV, “Pillman’s Got a Gun” was the ultimate bad taste late ‘90s segment… And it’s just great:
After his angle with Austin cooled off, Pillman would enjoy his final feud against Goldust throughout the summer of ‘97. I say “enjoy” because the feud was just fun in a really bad taste late ‘90s way. Pillman claimed to have slept with Goldust’s wife (which it pretty much seemed like he had), incensing the painted one. One of the most enjoyable parts of wrestling is how fundamentally crazy all the characters are, but this feud was great in that it brought together two men who were just batshit, even by the standards of wrestling. The most memorable moment of the angle came when Pillman swore that if he lost to Goldust at Summerslam, he would wear Marlena’s dress. He did so, and he did it gladly, it seemed:
Given the whitewashing of wrestling history that WWE attempts from time to time, it will be a tremendous shame if Brian Pillman is not remembered as a great contributor to their direction of the business. While he was never a true main event star, Pillman did more to create the Attitude Era than Vince McMahon or Vince Russo. Some say the Attitude Era was built on the ethos of ECW, but I would posit to you that it was built on the pathos of Pillman.