#PillmanWeek: Better Know a Wrestler

The recent death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman instantly made me think of the late, great “Flyin’” Brian Pillman. Both men were consummate role players; neither was regularly given top billing, but both brought superstar gravitas to roles that might have been reduced to bit parts in the hands of less capable men. Hoffman and Pillman were both widely beloved by their peers and audiences alike. Their warts were close enough to the surface to be seen plainly, which was perhaps what made people willing to embrace such deeply flawed men and let them into their hearts to the point that the emotional reaction to their deaths was perhaps disproportional to their actual star power.

Becoming a featured performer in a big time wrestling company is an accomplishment that shows that you’ve conquered overwhelming odds. With that said, becoming a wrestling star was at least the fourth or fifth time Brian Pillman had overcome steep odds in his life. As a very young child, Pillman developed throat polyps that continued to return and challenge his ability to eat and speak in spite of dozens of surgeries. With help from doctors, Pillman conquered the condition and persevered.

The five-foot-ten-inch Pillman conquered the odds again by making the Miami of Ohio football team as a nose tackle and setting tackling records in spite of being well undersized. A solid year as a special teams star for the ’84 Cincinnati Bengals followed before Pillman found himself out of a job in the NFL and forced to head north to Canada to continue his football career.

Before his wrestling career had even begun, Pillman had achieved the dream of the All-American boy: he became a star high school and college football player in the area in which he grew up and even had a turn playing on his hometown professional team. Most people would be content to hang their jersey on the wall and take up a career selling insurance or real estate, but Pillman had a rare desire and drive to be a star. Having achieved what was an already-unreasonable dream, he set his sights on another impossible goal: becoming a professional wrestler.

Still in Calgary following his season with the Stampeders but without a clear direction, Pillman was recommended to Stu Hart by one of his former college coaches who knew both Hart’s reputation as a starmaker and Pillman’s dedication to making something of himself.

As we touched on in last week’s Better Know , the Stampede Wrestling of 1986 was not the vibrant, major league promotion of half a decade earlier. The incarnation of Stampede that Pillman broke into was built largely on the star power of Hart children not named Bret, a parade of visiting stars who had fallen out of favor in the WWF, and a small army of Toms, Dicks, and Harrys trained by Stu to fill out cards. To put it nicely, it was a place that a charismatic, talented guy was bound to stand out.

Pillman tagged with Bruce Hart (not far behind The Dynamite Kid on the list of “Insufferable People in the Wrestling Business”) to solid success in Stampede, with the two twice capturing tag gold under the name of Bad Company (also the name of a much more famous tag team which wound up being the second incarnation of The Orient Express in the WWF). During this time, though, it was clear that the athletic, charismatic Pillman was being used to prop up the boorish, mediocre Hart.

Having learned his craft at the feet of the masterful Stu Hart, Pillman journeyed back to the United States determined to make himself a star professional athlete for the second time. Upon his return to the lower forty-eight, Pillman had several desirable traits going for him: he was handsome in the late-80s/early-90s big hair sense, he had a great look buoyed by his knowledge of NFL-level workouts and the help of anabolic steroids, had been trained by a well-respected starmaker, and had legitimate athletic credentials, then the principal coin of legitimacy in wrestling.

It was these characteristics that landed Pillman in the big time, gaining a spot in World Championship Wrestling at what is often considered to be the height of their roster, talent-wise.

Picking up where he had left off in Stampede, Pillman entered WCW’s tag team division, partnering with “The Z Man” Tom Zenk. Zenk was a sandbag of a partner, whose ego had already destroyed The Cam-Am Connection in the WWF. Zenk thought himself above tag team wrestling and above working with undersized guys like Brian Pillman. The partnership wouldn’t be a starmaking vehicle for Pillman, but it was valuable time spent, as it helped him establish himself as different from other muscle-bound, good-looking stars of the era, as embodied by Zenk.

Pillman was unique among all wrestlers who ever looked like him because of his incredible athleticism. Unlike your standard NFL washout on steroids, Pillman could run and jump and fly and bump like a Lanny Poffo-sized wrestler. Pillman did overhead (“Japanese”) armdrags, soaring crossbodies, and high, flipping dropkicks that would make Randy Orton blush. At the same time, he could pick up his opponent and slam or military press them like Lex Luger or Scott Steiner would. Pillman’s work gave the American audience a taste of the then-thriving Junior Heavyweight scene in Japan. He was the perfect medium-sized wrestler: he could do all the little guy stuff and all the big guy stuff.

Trying to capitalize on the Japanese craze and the talents of in-house wrestlers like Pillman, WCW created a World Light Heavyweight Championship, which was contested in a division that included familiar American talents like Ricky Morton, up-and-comers like Scotty Flamingo (Raven), and Japanese stars of the weight class like Jushin Liger.
While the Light Heavyweight Division didn’t last long, eventually disappearing and ultimately being replaced by the Crusierweight Division several years later, it did successfully get Pillman over as a truly special wrestler who could wrestle a variety of different styles and put together midcard matches that were as well-worked, if not better-worked, than any main event.

Following his Light Heavyweight run, Pillman returned to tag team competition, first forming a successful pairing with Barry Windham and then joining up with “Stunning” Steve Austin as The Hollywood Blonds. The Hollywood Blonds were a perfect tag team, if not the perfect tag team. Both Austin and Pillman were fantastic in-ring workers, with each bringing a different sensibility to the pairing. Pillman worked a hybrid Japanese-American style of flips and top-rope moves, while Austin brought a decidedly hard-nosed ‘Merican style that embodied his Texas upbringing.

While their in-ring brilliance was rooted in difference, the Blonds’ charisma was rooted in similarity. As always, Pillman was ambitious, determined to beat the odds stacked against him by the mafia-like WCW establishment, while Austin was equally driven — and mad as hell. The result was a blend of the heelish Midnight Express of the 1980s and the fun-loving Delta Tau Chi fraternity from Animal House.

Both in the ring and in their promos, the Blonds took no prisoners. They ruffled the feathers of luminaries ranging from Rickie Steamboat to Ric Flair himself, catching the attention of a fan base who were also tired of the Crockett-era holdovers who still dominated WCW in the early-to-mid-90s. The Blonds, while heels, rose and became the unabashed favorites of newsletter-reading, tape-trading smart fans. This was a mixed blessing, however, as (just as today) promoters were unwilling to push the team because their popularity was the result of a legitimate connection with the fans, not a concerted “push” from above.

In spite of their talent, the Blonds’ own off-the-charts ambition and take-no-prisoners attitude ultimately led to WCW splitting them up in a less-than-memorable cookie cutter tag team breakup feud. The message to the locker room was clear: don’t get over unless we tell you to get over. Pillman also inferred a different message: the wrestling establishment does not accept you.

After the breakup of The Hollywood Blonds, Pillman began making appearances for ECW as part of a working agreement between the Philadelphia-based organization and WCW. This was either an acknowledgement of Pillman’s ability to be a bigger star in a smaller pond, or a threat to Pillman that he could easily find himself working for minor league operations if his insolence continued. Either way, Pillman worked a style that the ECW fanbase, who were well-schooled in Japanese wrestling and knew shit from shinola, were eager to see.

During this time, Pillman also became one of the many great wrestlers to “work on his character” with Paul Heyman. Heyman and Pillman, who both felt that the treatment of their on-air characters in WCW had been more or less personal attacks, began to reimagine Pillman as a man who “shot back” in a world where the work on TV was starting to feel more like a personal shoot. This was essentially the genesis of the era in which we live today, where the backstage machinations of pro wrestling are as much a part of the storytelling as the matches or promos.

Pillman returned to WCW ready to portray this new character, who was deemed to be a “loose cannon,” an unhinged malcontent with no respect and even less self-control. This version of Pillman formed an unlikely partnership with the no-nonsense Arn Anderson, with the angle being that the two of them were going to convince Ric Flair to reform The Four Horsemen whether he liked it or not. Pillman, Anderson, Flair, and HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED eventually came together to create a Horsemen team that, while amazing on paper, lacked the cache and enthusiastic booking that made the original team work.

Throughout the Horsemen run, Pillman became gradually more erratic, leading to a memorable moment in which Arn Anderson slapped him across the face on live TV. It was during this point that Pillman famously began “working the boys,” not letting his compatriots in on exactly what he was going to do and how much of it had been agreed to by management. This culminated in two especially memorable moments: the first, a shoot in which he grabbed Bobby Heenan by the neck and shook him, causing Heenan to curse in surprise; and the second, a work in which he called out Kevin Sullivan as the booker during a match. (Sullivan was a huge fan of Pillman’s work and wanted to get the character over as living completely outside of kayfabe.)

Soon thereafter, Pillman was gone from WCW. The details are cloudy as to exactly how it happened. One theory is that high-ups in WCW weren’t sure how much of Pillman’s erratic behavior was real and how much of it was a work, so they thought it would be safer not to employ someone like that. Another theory is that Pillman was going to work in ECW and tour the indy circuit to enhance the believability of his character as an outsider (something similar to what was done with A.J. Styles late last year) and then be brought back into WCW down the road for something big. Regardless of what the original plan was, the record shows that Pillman basically worked Bischoff, securing his unconditional release with little intent to return to WCW.

In many ways, Pillman’s exit from WCW was his finest moment as an artist. His intent was to blur the lines between reality and fiction, and he did so with such skill that almost fifteen years after his death, people still aren’t sure what really happened. Pillman’s worked-shoots worked (pardon the clunky use of language) because he played his cards close to his vest; his true intentions were known to nobody, which is either the work of a genius or a crazy person. Pillman was happy to embrace the perception that he was either.

Pillman went on a tear in ECW, cutting some great promos that got heat from the fans and ruffled feathers backstage. He was like some sort of cyberpunk surfer, riding a wave the likes of which nobody had ever seen before. He was an artist in his prime. Then, he fell asleep at the wheel and flipped his car.

Pillman’s ankle was essentially destroyed in the accident, needing to be fused together to the point of near-immobility. Other than Kerry Von Erich and Zach Gowen, very few men ever wrestled on one leg more literally than Pillman after his accident. The man who had been “Flyin’” Brian was now grounded Brian.

With his body destroyed but his spirit and drive unconquered, Pillman signed with the WWF, where his former partner and close friend Steve Austin was now on top. The two men had a feud punctuated by one of the high/low water marks of the Monday Night War, a segment in which Austin forced his way into Pillman’s home, leading to Pillman pulling a gun on him (a far softer version of this angle was done a few years ago with Triple H and Randy Orton). The segment was over-the-top in the Pillman style, but also something USA Network invited the WWF never to do again.

Like last week’s WOTW, Davey Boy Smith, Brian Pillman became a part of the Hart Foundation vs. Steve Austin storyline. Although he was decidedly American, Pillman’s Stampede Wrestling credentials and, well, craziness made him a logical fit as the traitorous madman. The role was a good fit because, while his wrestling skills were diminished to nearly nothing, Pillman had all the personality that the Harts and Davey Boy Smith lacked. While it was a featured role, Pillman had to have been personally frustrated that he, who had once been one of the top workers in the business, was reduced to a brawling cartoon character.

Unfortunately, Pillman’s last feud in the WWF was one that screamed “brawling cartoon character.” Pillman engaged in a rivalry with Goldust, claiming in a series of lurid (even for wrestling) vignettes that he had slept with Goldust’s manager (and real-life wife) Marlena. The part that made the angle a bit uncomfortable was that, for all intents and purposes, it seemed like Pillman had in fact slept with Marlena. The feud was truly bipolar, as it swung from the too-realistic vignettes of Pillman naked in a bed smoking Marlena’s already-suggestive cigar to a match in which Pillman wound up wearing a dress. It was utter Vince Russo and, frankly, an undignified angle for a wrestler of Pillman’s skill.

Then, on the night of the Badd Blood In Your House show, Pillman didn’t show up for work. Surely, wrestlers and agents in the back were left rolling their eyes wondering if this was another one of his stunts. Would he show up moments before his match laughing the whole thing off? Did he have some agreement with McMahon that this would be part of his character?

Regrettably, neither of those were the case; he was dead in his hotel room. Pillman, it turned out, suffered from an undiscovered heart condition, which had probably been exacerbated by anabolic steroid use and the incredible regimen of pain pills and other drugs he’d been using to keep himself in the ring after his car crash.

Pillman, in a world of zany characters, was truly unique. He was the guy who was dealt a nothing hand and bluffed everybody else out of the game. Whether he was Flyin’ Brian or one of the Hollywood Blonds or The Loose Cannon, Brian Pillman always brought his A game. His death, perhaps more than any other wrestler of the era in which wrestlers died every week, was a huge hit to the business. The hundreds, if not thousands, of crazy, brilliant ideas inside his brain are forever lost to wrestling and to time.

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