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20 Years ago today  Rate Topic 
 Posted: Thu Oct 5th, 2017 04:04 pm
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1997 - Brian Pillman, one of wrestling's most controversial figures, passed away at the age of 35. Pillman's body was found in a hotel room in Bloomington, Minnesota (where he wrestled the night before) when he didn't show up in St. Louis that afternoon for a WWF Pay-per-view.   Jess McGrath penned the following look at the life of Pillman for the Wrestling Lariat Newsletter

Nothing is immune from tragedy.  Not even the sad and often sordid world of professional wrestling

.At 1:09 PM on 10/5, WWF wrestler Brian Pillman, 35, was found dead in his room at the Budgetel Motel in Bloomington, MN, just hours before the WWF presented its Badd Blood pay-per-view, on which he was to be prominently featured.  Reports were that he had last been seen alive the previous evening at about 10:45 PM, after wrestling at a WWF show in St. Paul, MN.

Those who saw him before his death thought he looked out of it, and perhaps intoxicated.  In fact, early reports indicated that he had been sleeping on the locker room floor earlier that night.  No cause of death had been determined, but an autopsy was to be performed on 10/6.

The preliminary reports were that it was probably a fatal mixture of alcohol, painkillers, and muscle relaxers.  In his motel room there were many empty vials of legal prescription drugs (preliminary reports indicate no illegal drugs in the room), which he has been taking to ease the pain in his previously destroyed ankle, and an empty beer bottle.  He passed away in his sleep.

Pillman’s widow, Melanie, was told by the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office that early tests revealed that 50 percent of her husband’s heart was found to be diseased.  The bad heart probably reacted badly with the mixture of drugs he took, and led to heart failure.

The initial reaction within much of the underground wrestling world was one of disbelief.  The first time word reached me, I responded, “It’s a work.”  That in itself is a sad commentary on the mentality of pro wrestling promoters in the 1990’s, and the depths to which they will sink to fool the smart fan, but it’s also a digression from the bigger point.

Pillman for the past three years has been doing a loose cannon gimmick, where nobody knew what he was going to do, and the implication was that he was crazy.  Considering the direction in which the gimmick was going, it would not be too far of a reach to suggest death would be the next stanza.  It would have been a tasteless stanza, one which would have made Fritz Von Erich look like an angel.  Unfortunately for everyone, it wasn’t an angle.  To be able to complain about the tastelessness of a death angle would be a much happier ending than the story which must be written instead.

Pillman, a former reserve linebacker for the 1984 Cincinnati Bengals, broke into the business in 1986 in Stampede Wrestling after training in Stu Hart’s “dungeon”.  The territory was in somewhat of a renaissance in terms of talent.  Owen Hart had entered the sport around that time, and in his first year in the business was top-ten in the world caliber.  Chris Benoit would arrive soon thereafter, beginning a journey that would lead him very close to (if not at) the number-one in the world position in terms of workrate.  Working as a babyface, Pillman formed a tag team with another good worker, Bruce Hart (the brother of Owen and Bret).  Bruce had recruited Brian to become a wrestler when he was playing for the Calgary Stampeders Canadian Football League team.  Nicknamed Bad Company, the duo won the Stampede International tag team belts in the finals of a tournament on April 6, 1987, beating Cuban Assassin and Jerry Morrow.  They did a quickie switch back-and-forth with Morrow and Makhan Singh (Mike Shaw/Norman the Lunatic/Bastion Booger) in November 1987.  For all intents and purposes, though, Hart and Pillman were the top tag team for over a year.  They lost the belt for good to the team of Morrow and Assassin on July 22, 1988.

In early-1989, Pillman made the jump from Stampede to WCW.  Initially, he was pushed as a mid-card babyface, using the moniker “Flyin’ Brian” (with his last name mentioned but not emphasized).  He worked a series of matches with Lex Luger for the U.S. title, including his first major pay-per-view match at Halloween Havoc ’89 (where he was booed out of the building by the heel Philadelphia crowd).  Early in 1990, he was put together with Tom Zenk, and the duo won the U.S. tag team titles by beating the Freebirds in the finals of an 8-team tournament.  They lost the titles to the Midnight Express at Capital Combat ’90: The Return of Robocop, on May 19, 1990, in Washington, DC.

By this time, Pillman had established himself as a very good worker, who was if anything a bit on the uncharismatic side.  He also established himself in another way in the underground wrestling world, by getting into a fight with Sid Eudy at a bar.  In that skirmish, Sid brought in a squeegee to use as a weapon, leading to thousands of squeegee jokes and signs at house shows whenever Sid appeared.

Pillman lingered in the mid-card for most of 1990 and 1991.  At the start of ’91, he ended up being the guy to submit for his team in the War Games match when Sid (of all people) kept powerbombing him, “further injuring” his shoulder.  For the next few months, he did a program with Barry Windham, but it was clear by the finish of their SuperBrawl I match as to where each guy stood in the booking scheme.

During their taped-fist bout, Windham crotched Pillman as he stood on the top rope (a rare finish in those days), then superplexed him to get the clean victory.  While Pillman was a good second-tier babyface, it was evident that there were no plans for him to rise to the next level.  At the Clash of the Champions in June, he and El Gigante lost to Windham and Arn Anderson in a match where the loser of the fall would have to leave WCW.  Pillman did the job for Windham, but a few days later, a new wrestler in a mask appeared, calling himself The Yellow Dog.  The idea behind the gimmick, which was never explained at all on TV, was that Pillman using the Yellow Dog moniker was a dig at Windham, who masqueraded under the same name in the mid-80’s during a program with Ron Bass.

As Yellow Dog, Pillman worked against Windham during the Great American Bash tour that year, usually in War Games.  Frequently during those bouts, Pillman lifted his mask to reveal his face to the crowd, making it abundantly clear who exactly was the Yellow Dog (you would have to have been incredibly dense not to see it was Pillman).

After a few months, Pillman was “reinstated”, and he won a tournament to determine the first WCW light heavyweight champion at Halloween Havoc.  The idea was to build the light heavy division around Pillman and Jushin Liger.  During Christmas week of 1991, Pillman and Liger had the best one-week series of matches in wrestling in years.  Liger won the light heavy title from Pillman at the Omni on Christmas day.   Pillman regained the belt from Liger in a fabulous match at SuperBrawl II on February 29, 1992, in Milwaukee, a bout considered to be the best match of that year in the U.S.

Unfortunately, soon thereafter WCW flubbed the division by dropping Liger, not bringing in any more Japanese guys, and pushing people like Scotty Flamingo (Raven) and Tom Zenk as legit contenders.  People saw the title as a second-tier jobber belt again.  Pillman dropped the title to Flamingo at the Beach Blast PPV in June 1992.

He began a heel turn around that time.  The character they created for him was one of a cocky, arrogant, sneaky heel, almost like the old Memphis heels, but with a harder edge than those guys had.  One of the more memorable angles of that time was at the November Clash of the Champions, where Brad Armstrong was to wrestle Pillman.  Armstrong had been out with an injury for a couple months prior to that and had been on crutches.  Here, though, Pillman came out on crutches and said he couldn’t wrestle.  When Armstrong turned his back, WHAM!  Pillman got a quick pin.  Unfortunately for Brian, he did little else during that period.  Bill Watts was in control at WCW, and in a cost-cutting measure, tried to get guys to agree to a cut in pay, in exchange for which they would receive a push.  If they didn’t take the deal, they could forget a push altogether.

Watts was gone from power by February 1993, however, and direction was given to Pillman’s character.  He was put with Steve Austin to form the Hollywood Blondes.  They won the WCW World tag team titles from Rick Steamboat and Shane Douglas on March 3 in Macon, GA.  Ric Flair had returned by this time, and he was put into a tag team with Arn Anderson to challenge Pillman and Austin for the belts.  The hype for their first match, which took place at the June Clash of Champions, was tremendous, as Pillman and Austin were both given a chance for the first time.  They did a hilarious parody of Flair’s cheesy interview segments, which they dubbed “A Flair For The Old”.  The match ended up being a waste of time, with Flair and Anderson winning in two straight falls, the second a DQ, which allowed Pillman and Austin to keep the belts.  At a TV taping in August, Pillman injured his ankle when he landed wrong doing a spot on jobber Frankie Lancaster.  Shortly thereafter, Lord Steven Regal took Pillman’s place, and the team of Austin & Regal dropped the belts to Arn Anderson & Paul Roma.  The Blondes were broken up a couple months later, with Pillman going babyface, while Austin, managed by Col. Robert Parker, got the U.S. title from Dustin Rhodes.

From then on, it was almost as if Brian Pillman never existed.  He and Lord Steven Regal had a very good match for the TV title at Spring Stampede in April 1994, but his career got trapped in neutral afterward.  There was no question Pillman was a good worker, and made a very natural heel, but for some reason, he was falling through the cracks in WCW.

In late-1995, things started to get going again.  At the first Nitro in Minnesota, he worked the first-ever Nitro match, beating Jushin Liger in a match that came nowhere close to the level of their previous bouts.  But Pillman’s name began appearing more and more.  He did a heel turn, and then started one of the most talked-about angles of the 1990’s.  Pillman and booker Kevin Sullivan started feuding, but they were acting like they were shooting.  During a tag match on Nitro, Arn Anderson was heard on camera telling them to “stop shooting”.  The two worked stiff with each other, and usually didn’t sell either.

It culminated in a strap match at SuperBrawl which ended in less than a minute when Pillman said, “I respect you, bookerman,” (since the stip was that in order to win, one guy had to make their opponent say he respected him) and walked out.  Pillman’s newfound gimmick of the crazy shooter made for some memorable TV, including when Bobby Heenan asked him, “What the f**k are you doing?” during the January 1996 Clash of the Champions (Heenan has a bad neck and Pillman was trying to use him as a shield in their angle).  Did it draw money?  No.  But it reinvented Pillman as a hot commodity in the wrestling world.

Pillman got into a serious humvee accident that nearly killed him shortly thereafter.  In an ironic twist, his life was saved because he wasn’t wearing his seat belt.  Had he been wearing it, he surely would have been pinned under the wreckage of the vehicle.  The result of the crash was a destroyed ankle, which led to him being on the sidelines for over a year, and began a dependence on painkillers.

He appeared at ECW a few times, both before and after the crash.  His last venture to the hallowed halls of Swanson and Ritner was most memorable, because he used the word “n^^ger” during an interview.  New Jack was incensed, and not only cut a shoot interview on Pillman later that night, but also went looking for him in the back.  The incident created a ton of tension in the locker room, and precluded him from any further involvement in the company (if there had ever been any thought of bringing him back anyway).

He joined the WWF, and they tried to come up with anything to keep his name in the storylines.  He attacked the Bushwhackers with a crutch.  He did TV commentary.  He even did his own interview segment.  When Pillman finally returned to action this year, it was evident he was nowhere near the worker he once was.  His legs were extremely tiny, and his ankle remained rather fragile.  It seemed that every time he worked, he would experience pain in, or re-injure, the ankle.

The WWF finally got his character going by putting him in a program with Goldust.  At the Ground Zero PPV in September 1997, Pillman beat Goldust, which allowed him to earn the services of Marlena for 30 days (if Pillman had lost, he would have been forced to leave the WWF forever).  It was expected that a major angle was going to come out of the Badd Blood pay-per-view, and subsequent night’s RAW show, to follow up on the end of the 30-day period.

The death of Pillman is reminiscent of the passing of another wrestler, Eddie Gilbert.  Both guys were smallish workers, very talented in the ring, but for one reason or another, were overlooked for most of their careers.  Both were involved in car accidents which gave them limitations.  Both were doing crazy-man gimmicks at the time of their passing (Gilbert had just wrapped up a very brief stint in Smoky Mountain where he was acting paranoid all the time).  Both guys were on the downside of their careers, just a couple years after their peak as performers.

And perhaps most importantly, both wrestlers had painkillers in their system at the time of death, a sad statement on the state of the business in the 1990’s.  It has become a business in which injury and lingering pain are facts of life, and the methods through which to alleviate those problems can create their own problems, such as addiction and, in the cases of Pillman and Gilbert, death.

It is always sad to report on the death of a member of the wrestling brotherhood.  The pain is multiplied when that performer was taken in the middle of his career.  No one can say for sure what Brian Pillman’s legacy on the wrestling business will be.  But it can surely be said that for a man whose very gimmick was about doing things nobody expected him to do, his final act will be remembered as the one that was the most shocking.

Last edited on Thu Oct 5th, 2017 04:21 pm by bpickering

"22 years of my fucking life just got fucking ruined!!!!"---Fan outside Wrestlemania XXX

PRO WRESTLING HALL OF FAME: (updated December 10 2017)

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 Posted: Thu Oct 5th, 2017 05:48 pm
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Hall Of Famer

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Hard to fathom he would only be 55 if he were still with us. Damn.

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 Posted: Thu Oct 5th, 2017 07:17 pm
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Mr Monday Night!

Joined: Sun Oct 14th, 2007
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For some reason this date always sticks out in my mind.  I remember it like it was yesterday and it's hard to imagine it's been 20 years.  I was practically a kid. 

My cousin was throwing a birthday/PPV party, but I backed out because the Yankees and Indians were playing Game 4 of the ALDS (and now they're playing in the ALDS again tonight).  Sandy Alomar, Jr. hit a game-tying shot off of Mariano Rivera and the Indians went on to win, so I was fucking pissed and went straight to bed.  The next day I went to my college classes and that night was Game 5 and the Yankees lost again.  I didn't watch Raw or Nitro or anything.  It wasn't until Tuesday, Oct. 7 that I put in my Nitro tape after classes and saw the R.I.P. message at the beginning of the show that I found out Pillman had died.  My first thought was that it was a joke.  Bischoff was doing so much tasteless shit you never knew.  So I immediately removed the Nitro VHS tape and put in the Raw VHS tape (man this was a long time ago) and found out it was legit.  Pillman was my favorite wrestler at the time so it hit me hard.

Hard to believe that just 20 years ago I could go 2 1/2 days without hearing something like that.  No cell phone for anyone to text me, no Internet (at least not in my house at the time), no DVR player.  If you weren't watching, you actually didn't find out things.  The stone age. 

This thread was great before AA ruined it.
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 Posted: Thu Oct 5th, 2017 11:42 pm
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I was never a fan. he was a bland babyface. and when he was at his most popular as a heel it was because of his mouth and the gimmick he had. not due to his wrestling. The gun thing with Steve Austin was more tasteless than anything Bischoff ever did. someone online asked Jim Cornette if there was any thought of putting the world title on him in WCW. Good Grief. I think after he died people elevated him way higher than what he really was when he was alive.

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