Long before Martin Sheen's little lad started ‘winning’, the NFL star-turned-pro wrestler Brian Pillman embarked on a reign of terror that ensured long-term infamy. And then he died.
On February 11 1996, Extreme Championship Wrestling staged its annual internet convention Cyberslam. Although far smaller than the WWF (as it then was) and World Championship Wrestling, ECW was a considerably more vibrant entity, happy to embrace sex and excess, bloodshed and blasphemy. But even with ‘mad professor’ Paul Heyman at the helm, ECW had never experienced anything quite like what occurred that cold February evening when Brian Pillman appeared in the ring.
Pillman showing up in an ECW ring was notable for many reasons. First up, until relatively recently, the man formerly known as Air Pillman had been a babyface, a fan favourite unlikely to do anything more extreme than flash a smile or offer a handshake. Secondly, Pillman didn’t actually work for ECW – he was a WCW employee, or at least he was until he persuaded his boss Eric Bischoff to break his contract in order to make the ‘angle’ (storyline) he was working seem more realistic. As for the aforementioned angle, Pillman had been busy reinventing himself as ‘The Loose Cannon’, a nutjob apt to do anything at anytime. Think Charlie Sheen talking about tiger blood seems pretty ‘out there’? It had nothing on Pillman quitting matches before they could begin or ruffling old hands like Bobby ‘The Brain’ Hennan to such a degree that they lost their composure on live TV.
And the weirdness didn’t end there. A former Cincinnati Bengal, Pillman tried to get hold of touchline passes in the hope that, come halftime, he could handcuff himself to the goalposts. The guy who owed his scratchy voice to some 40 throat surgeries during his childhood also became infamous for blowing up at hotel check-in desks and for proudly guarding locker room toilets in order to show off his dinosaur-sized stools to the rest of the boys.
“But this is wrestling,” you say. “Weird shit happens all the time.” Not in the mid-1990s, it didn’t. Back then, wrestling was a kid-friendly affair dominated by the all-prayer sayin’, all-vitamin devourin’ Hulk Hogan. A cartoony business happy to revel in its ridiculousness, wrestling has always been a ‘work’ – that’s to say, it’s always been orchestrated – but back then, it was so fake, Pillman’s antics seemed realer than real. Which is strange since the Loose Cannon character was itself meant to be a work.
The guy who owed his scratchy voice to some 40 throat surgeries during his childhood also became infamous for blowing up at hotel check-in desks and for proudly guarding locker room toilets in order to show off his dinosaur-sized stools to the rest of the boys.
Ask anyone in the wrestling business about the real Brian Pillman and they’ll tell you he was a loving family man. The strange thing with wrestling, however, is that, in a business all too happy to blur the lines between reality and fiction, things that start out scripted have a funny way of becoming fact. So, after persuading Eric Bischoff to release him from his contract to add efficacy to the Loose Cannon situation, Brian Pillman went out and signed with WCW’s arch rival the WWF. He then suffered a car crash which nearly ended his career and left him with both acute depression and a painkiller dependency. To his credit, WWF owner Vince McMahon stuck with his injured acquisition, a move which paved the way for a truly infamous angle involving one Stone Cold Steve Austin. Cue ‘Pillman’s Got A Gun!’
Again, Pillman drawing on Austin was but another work. But there still seemed something worryingly real about the distress the former WCW tag champ was experiencing. And nothing was more real, or more final than Brian Pillman’s death on October 5 1997. According to the autopsy, the former Flyin’ Brian died from an undetected heart condition the severity of which had been exacerbated by years of drug use and drinking. He was just 35. After years of winning, the Loose Cannon had lost.
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