Brian Pillman: His Tale of Deception Before Untimely Death

Brian Pillman and his "Loose Cannon" gimmick was the talk of the wrestling business in 1996, with everyone from promoters, fans, dirt-sheet journalists, and the wrestlers themselves all discussing what was real and what was part of Brian’s character. He managed to play the management of ECW, WCW, and WWF against each other, thus securing himself the first-ever WWF-guaranteed contract. This is the story of how he pulled it all off.

"The Loose Cannon" Brian Pillman.
“The Loose Cannon” Brian Pillman.

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"He was either the smartest crazy man that I ever met or the craziest smart guy I ever met."

– Arn Anderson

When people talk about the beginning of the attitude era, the conversation usually turns to Shawn Michaels’ early DX shenanigans, Mick Foley’s penchant for extreme stunts, or most commonly, Bret Hart and Steve Austin’s acclaimed WrestleMania 13 double-turn. But a man that is often left out of the discussion is Brian Pillman.

Brian Pillman – Becoming the Loose Cannon

Towards the end of 1995, Brian Pillman was desperately trying to stay relevant in WCW amidst the huge wrestling stars like Macho Man Randy Savage, Ric Flair, and Hulk Hogan.

He had been a popular star in the Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in the late ’80s, had great success elevating the light heavyweight division as Flyin’ Brian Pillman in the early ’90s WCW, but was starting to stagnate with no storylines and very little airtime on television.

He had some success the years previous as one half on The Hollywood Blondes with Stunning Steve Austin, but due to backstage politics, their team was axed just as they were becoming popular, leaving Austin to be fired and Brian falling back down the card.

In WWE’s 2006 DVD release "Brian Pillman: Loose Cannon," Jim Ross talked about his disappointment with the Hollywood Blondes being forced apart.

"It’s one of those sad issues of backstage politics, insecurity, decision-makers that shouldn’t be decision-makers making bad decisions, guys paranoid of their spot. Anytime an active wrestler is involved in that process of management or creative, it is a recipe for disaster."

With under a year left on his WCW contract, back injuries, and a growing family to look after, Brian started looking to the future and trying to find a way to make it to the top and start making main event-level money.

Steve Austin spoke about it on his podcast. "Brian knew he had the kids at the house, that was always at the forefront of his mind; being able to take care of the kids and pay all the bills, and he knew his contract was coming up, and he was trying to find a way to increase his value."

In order to try to reach the next level, Brian sought out WCW Executive Vice President Eric Bischoff to ask how to improve his place in the company.

He’d been told that with his trademark raspy voice (due to having over 30 throat surgeries as a child to remove cancerous polyps), he’d never be a believable babyface, and due to his smaller height, he’d never be a believable powerhouse heel.

Brian would have to come up with a unique persona in order to stand out from the rest of the roster.

Bischoff stated in the 11th episode of the recommended 83 Weeks podcast, "Brian was very proactive and constructive in his approach to it. This was when he and I started talking about what to do with his character and how to utilize him in a different way."

Eric Bischoff and Brian Pillman on WCW Nitro

Bischoff, on Pillman’s Loose Cannon DVD, also said, "Brian and I talked about the evolution of his character and turning into a more of an unpredictable loose cannon as we’ve come to know him. That was all Brian, and it was something that I liked because it was different.

Often, when you try to be better than somebody else, you copy them. The magic with Brian is that he found a character that was so different than everybody else; it was easy for that character to stand out."

Brian Pillman Unhinged – Was It Real or Made Up?

Brian Pillman came up with the idea to create an unhinged manic character which he would play at all times, keeping everyone guessing, from the wrestlers backstage to his close friend Wrestling Observer columnist Dave Meltzer, as to what was real and what was all part of an elaborate ruse.

The character on-air would blur the lines between reality and kayfabe, causing the fans to question what was staged and the wrestlers going off-script.

The first instance of this was WCW’s Clash of the Champions 1996 in a match with Eddie Guerrero. Brian played the coward running from Guerrero when he yanked commentator Tony Schiavone’s headset off before returning later to try to rip Bobby the Brain Heenan’s jacket off.

Heenan had ongoing neck problems at this point, insisting no wrestlers ever touch him at ringside, and due to this not being a planned part of the show, he instantly stood up and shouted, "What the fuck are you doing?" on live pay-per-view.

He then picked up his jacket and walked backstage. Brian later apologized to Heenan, but this was the beginning of his act, starting to blur the lines between scripted and reality (a work and a shoot).

Brian Pillman versus the Bookerman

By this point, active wrestler Kevin Sullivan was now the head booker for WCW. Bischoff and Pillman devised a worked shoot feud, consisting of Pillman and Sullivan fighting and presenting it to the fans and wrestlers alike as legitimate.

The seeds of the feud were sown behind the scenes when Pillman, in an on-air promo, made a subtle hint to his stablemate Chris Benoit and Sullivan’s wife Nancy having a potential affair. In reality, she would fatefully leave Sullivan for Benoit the next year.

This had the locker-room buzzing with rumors that there was tension between Pillman and Sullivan, which would be accentuated further when Eric Bischoff called a locker-room meeting and went over some new talent rules; Pillman screamed out, "Does this go for the Bookerman too?"

Related: They Called Him The Crippler: The Life and Death of Chris Benoit

This disrespect for the new booker continued in the ring on an episode of Nitro. After Sullivan called Pillman disrespectful, they got into a fight where they were tearing at each other, with Sullivan appearing to viciously go for Pillman’s eyes.

The announcers and referees were not clued into what would happen, and by all accounts, only Sullivan, Bischoff, and Pillman knew about the angle.

For a week or so, no one else in the wrestling business had any idea what had happened, and it wasn’t until the next Nitro when Sullivan cut a promo on Pillman that people started to suspect it was all part of the plan. However, it still had a lot of wrestlers backstage fooled.

So, Sullivan and Pillman headed into the next pay-per-view SuperBrawl 6 to battle in an "I Respect You Strap Match," essentially an "I Quit Match" where you would have to make your opponent announce their respect for you to win the match.

In the shoot Timeline: The History of WCW 1996, Kevin Sullivan remembers how Brian’s idea was getting everyone talking.

"While this was happening, I’d have guys coming up to me saying. ‘this Pillman’s an asshole, please beat the shit outta him!’ Two minutes later, I’d see him ‘round the corner saying the same thing to Pillman about me. One of the biggest compliments I ever got in my life was when Kevin Nash was up there in the WWE, he said a bunch of them bought the pay-per-view to see the shoot, and he said they bought it as a shoot."

Pillman’s idea was working. People in other wrestling companies were taking notice of him, and he had catapulted himself up the card with his Loose Cannon gimmick. Superbrawl 6 came around, and the match dissolved into an uncoordinated scrap within seconds.

There was some tussling around and aggressive strap shots before Pillman grabbed the microphone from the referee, looked at Sullivan, and said, "I respect you, Bookerman!" (the first time wrestling "Bookers" had ever been mentioned on-air).

Brian Pillman at WCW's Superbrawl 6, giving the finger to the fans after telling Kevin Sullivan, 'I respect you, Bookerman!'
Brian Pillman at WCW’s Superbrawl 6, giving the finger to the fans after telling Kevin Sullivan, "I respect you, Bookerman!"

He then stormed backstage, flipping off the fans and tries to leave the arena. Still, in the ring, no one knew what was going on (apart from Sullivan). The commentators were trying to make the best of it but believe Pillman had actually broken character, and Arn Anderson came out in non-wrestling gear to have an impromptu match in order to save the show.

Backstage and away from the cameras, Eric Bischoff "fired" Brian Pillman to an audience of just other wrestlers before Brian left the building. The WCW locker-room thought Brian had been fired for real, and off he left for greener pastures whilst secretly still on the payroll.

Bischoff stated in the Loose Cannon DVD that’s Brian’s idea was, "Let me go do my thing so that when I come back, I’ll have a little more shine on me."

Brian F’N Pillman

Six days later, in the ECW arena at ECW Cyberslam 96, announcer Joey Styles was in the middle of the ring, opening the show when the lights go out. When they come back on, who should be standing there but none other than the Loose Cannon, Brian Pillman.

Brian Pillman and his surprise appearance at ECW Cyberslam 96
Brian Pillman and his surprise appearance at ECW Cyberslam ’96.

In what’s regarded to this day as one of the greatest worked shoot interviews of all time (a planned interview presented as unplanned), Pillman started to conduct a promo, which quickly turned into an expletive-ridden tirade on Eric Bischoff, who had recently "fired" Pillman. Swearing on wrestling TV was rarely ever done back then, even in ECW.

The WCW-hating Philadelphia fans initially lapped this up before Brian turned on the crowd, referring to them all as smart marks, a particular type of fan who is clued in to the business beyond the kayfabe storylines. "Eric Bischoff is every one of these motherfucking smart-marks, rolled up in a giant piece of shit!" screamed Pillman.

Just like his "Bookerman" comments before it, the phrase "smart-marks" was an insider term that had never been uttered in the ring or on television, and along with his swearing and breaking of kayfabe, this became a ground-breaking moment in wrestling history.

Steve Austin talked about the effectiveness of this promo and how Brian had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

"Everybody knew he got fired, and he starts playing to them, and they’re taking him as the babyface, and he gives them that pause, in the beginning, to let them cheer after he calls Bischoff the jerk-off, and then he starts roping them in, and he’s about to just crap all over them.

The crowd tries to take the interview over by doing the chant, that doesn’t work, he keeps the voice low, and then he puts the hammer down, and he gets over the fact that he’s Brian F’N Pillman and, in one promo, he is over."

Pillman continued insulting the fans until he claimed he would do the appropriate thing and piss in the center of the ring. It’s at this point that ECW bosses Paul Heyman and Todd Gordon come out claiming, "This isn’t part of the deal, Brian, this isn’t part of the deal!" and Brian, after attacking a planted fan, calls Heyman "bookerman" and is run off by ECW wrestler Shane Douglas.

Once again, the wrestling world explodes, and everyone is talking about whether what Brian was doing was real or part of the show. He continued his ECW run, feuding with Shane Douglas, interrupting matches, cutting maniacal promos referring to the bookers and "men with the pencils," has a fight with a giant pencil in reference to this and essentially makes a huge impact despite never having an ECW match.

Brian Pillman wrestles a pencil in reference to the bookers ('the men with pencils') on ECW television
Brian Pillman wrestles a pencil in reference to the bookers ("the men with pencils") on ECW television.

Brian Pillman – Genius or Madman?

To make the Loose Cannon gimmick continue to work, Brian realized he’d have to keep everyone guessing and live the gimmick 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Pillman realized that to keep the buzz going and have people talking. He would have to start convincing the locker room he’d gone crazy too.

Chris Jericho recalls in chapter 41 of his highly recommended autobiography, ‘A Lion’s Tale,’ "He still kept showing up in the crowd at WCW events, causing disturbances on live TV and leading the fans and everyone in the company to think he’d lost his marbles. But it wasn’t just for the shows—he was playing crazy all the time.

"He’d shown up in ECW to continue the elaborate work and perfect his loony act. He was also doing an excellent job of convincing everyone that he’d lost it. He’d shown up at the arena that day with his pants falling from not having a belt. He went around to everyone in the dressing room, asking them if they had an extra belt (who doesn’t?), and ended up settling on a piece of twine.

"Then out in the ring, the Sandman hit a jobber with his trademark kendo stick, knocking the guy loopy. The guy was obviously going to be fine, but that didn’t stop Pillman from running around the dressing room, jumping up and down and screaming like a crack-addicted monkey in his gravelly voice, ‘Call 911! Call 911! For the love of Christ somebody, please call 911!’

"He was completely overreacting as if the guy had been beheaded. But he wouldn’t stop and was making everyone in the room very uncomfortable when right in the middle of his tirade with nobody looking, he gave me a wink. I thought, ‘That guy is a genius. He’s working everybody.’"

Around this time, Brian Pillman came up with various stunts he could perform to raise his profile and garner attention outside the wrestling world. One of his ideas was to run onto the field at the Superbowl and chain himself naked to the goalposts.

Kevin Sullivan, on Vince Russo’s podcast, remembers Brian pitching this idea. "Remember when Cincinnati went to the Super Bowl? He came to me and said, ‘I’m going to do something that’s gonna shock the wrestling world. During the game, when the ball’s on the other end, I’m gonna run out on the field, with a chain, strip naked and lock myself to the goalpost with six chains!’

"Even if they stayed away from it, you knew it was going to make the front page. They would have put him away for observation for 90 days, but HE WAS WILLING TO DO IT! That’s how far out his thinking was."

Unfortunately for Pillman, all of his old football contacts from his days in the sport were too worried about getting themselves fired if they helped him sneak in, and the plan never came to fruition.

In the Loose Cannon DVD special features, Good ol’ JR recalls a time Brian told him he had to speak with him somewhere private:

"Who knew what Brian’s issue was… He said, ‘I gotta talk to you privately.’ So we go to the shower area, and [Pillman] says, ‘Okay, are you ready?’ I said, ‘Yea, what is it? What’s the problem?’ ‘I gotta show you something.’ So, he swings the door to the commode stall open, and in that commode was the longest uninterrupted piece of human waste known to man. If it wasn’t 18 inches long, I’m not wearing a black hat.

"He has gone to the bathroom and made meticulous effort to have a bowel movement uninterrupted because he knew something special was happening. He got one of the referees and one of the ring crew guys to stand guard at the stall, most of the afternoon, so that when the guys would come in, he could go get them, and bring them to show them his masterpiece."

Watch: Jim Ross shares the story of Brian Pillman’s magnificent poop:

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It was around this time when Brian first met WWF Chairman Vince McMahon. There was a NAPTE conference in Las Vegas, in which representatives from both WCW and WWF attend, along with many people from the television industry. Brian broke in by borrowing Dave Meltzer’s press pass and went straight to McMahon and Jim Ross to cause a scene.

Austin recalls, "Brian was a super-smart guy. He was at a NATPE convention one night, that one day, whatever it was in Las Vegas [Nevada]. He goes up and starts taking pictures with Vince and taking pictures of Vince, and right before he leaves, he’s making this big, loud production about it, totally just crashes the party.

"He goes to shake Jim Ross’s hand, and he gets in his ear, and he goes, "It’s a work." So he goes out, and Jim relays the message to Vince because Vince doesn’t know what’s going on. And Jim says to Vince, ‘You’ve been worked.’

"That’s what got in Vince’s mind what kind of guy this was. He was creating this ‘Loose Cannon’ character and just going further and further out there. And then, doing the bookerman thing, he was taking on Kevin Sullivan at that one pay-per-view event, and he was basically able to extricate himself from his WCW contract."

It appears every wrestler from this era has a story about how crazy Pillman was, yet it’s only a few who mention his intelligence and knowledge when it came to the business. Steve Austin often recalls how, when driving together from town to town, Brian would often be sat in the back reading vocabulary books or wrestling history books to gain more knowledge and better his promos and in-ring work.

He was well known for calling other wrestlers in the middle of the night to ask them about choices they made in the ring or studying tapes of Terry Funk or Bruiser Brody and even serial killers in order to get the maniacal cadence and delivery on point in his interviews.

Jim Ross recalls, "He became so learned beyond his years. He would observe this information like a sponge. Brian became a wrestling historian."

But it was when WCW started to order him to come back from ECW that Pillman put his real genius masterwork into action.

Playing All Sides

During his time in ECW, Brian Pillman was still technically employed by WCW, in a working agreement Bischoff had secretly made with ECW owner Paul Heyman. People backstage were starting to suspect that Pillman may not be the free-agent he’d been claiming he was, so Pillman used this to convince Bischoff to give him legitimate termination papers.

Bischoff agreed to make the whole angle seem more legitimate to the backstage talent, so Brian was effectively released from his WCW contract.

"I’m not sure if he was working me, or if WE were working everybody else," Eric Bischoff claimed on Pillman’s Loose Cannon DVD.

And so, Brian Pillman now had legitimate documents claiming he was no longer employed by WCW, appearing on ECW weekly TV despite still being on the WCW payroll, took these documents to the WWF offices to start negotiating with Vince McMahon for a WWF contract.

He had made himself such a hot commodity in just a few months that he was now playing the three biggest wrestling companies of the ’90s against each other to leverage himself into a big-money contract that he’d been constantly told he would never get.

But WCW could still order him to return from ECW due to him still being on their payroll. During his time in ECW, Brian had been running promos and adverts for the Brian Pillman hotline, a telephone number fans could call, and he would talk to them, berate them or just behave in his now commonly unhinged way.

WCW first brought him back to be spotted in crowd shots, behaving wildly in the audience and acting like an unscripted part of the show. Pillman made sure to always have a sign on the show with the number for his hotline whenever he was on TV in these shots, and reports indicated he made a massive amount of money from his hotline in the first few weeks.

With Brian now back on WCW TV, Hulk Hogan started to notice just how much of an impact Brian was having and decided he wanted to face Brian and get a little of this spotlight back on himself. Hulk was scheduled to wrestle at the next pay-per-view with his partner Randy Savage against a team of eight other wrestlers, which of course, Hogan was scheduled to win.

Hogan’s idea was to make it a 9-on-2 handicap match, adding Pillman to the heel team, and Hogan would win the match by beating Pillman with his finishing Leg Drop. Brian realized this could derail everything he’d been building up this last year, knew this could potentially be one of the worst matches of all-time (it was), and started to think of ways to get out of the match.

His doctors had told him that he would need another throat surgery within a year or so. Brian, ever the opportunist, scheduled it the same day as the Pay-per-view and told the management he couldn’t participate in the match, saving himself the Hulk Hogan burial in the process.

His friend Dave Meltzer wrote in an October 2006 edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, "When he got the buzz that Hogan wanted him in that match, he scheduled surgery. The surgery was real, and at some point, over the next few months, he was going to need it, but this was a surgery to avoid Hogan burying him, and his feeling was just wrestling a match in WCW, let alone a pay-per-view main event and being a ping pong ball for Hogan, would kill his gimmick.

"In actuality, he stressed to me that he knew that match was going to be ‘near the top of every list of the worst matches in the history of the industry.’"

So Brian had been having contract negotiation meetings with the WWF (now WWE) by showing them his WCW termination papers, and now Eric Bischoff, knowing Pillman’s contract would legitimately run out in the coming weeks, started to try to negotiate a new contract with Brian to capitalize on the storylines he’d originally help conceive.

At the height of the Monday Night Wars, Brian had both WWF and WCW trying to outbid each other to bring the Loose Cannon to their company.

Meltzer later wrote, "Bischoff low-balled Pillman in the early negotiations. But when he realized McMahon was making a serious play and offering guaranteed money believed to be around a $250,000 to $300,000 downside, with the potential of more if he could work on top. McMahon had only offered guaranteed money to a handful of wrestlers in history at this point; Bischoff upped his offer to somewhere in the $400,000 range.

He had worked the system and everyone in the system and got an offer nearly double what he had been making. But he was already starting to morph into the character in a bad way."

"Here was a man that was the talk of all three promotions and about to make the biggest money in his career, feed his family and make enough in a couple of years to really stock away a retirement. And then…..BAM!" – Paul Heyman, Brian Pillman: Loose Cannon DVD

Brian Pillman – The Wreck

Brian had been living the loose cannon gimmick hard since its original inception. He’d often binge, staying up for days, and was becoming somewhat strung out. In April 1996, Brian had fallen asleep at the wheel when driving his recently bought Humvee one night. He flipped the Humvee and was thrown over 40 feet from the car.

His face was an unrecognizable mess, and his foot had been snapped back 180 degrees and now pointed in the wrong direction. In the middle of his contract negotiations, Brian had potentially hurt himself so badly he may never wrestle again.

"That wreck just tore him up, and he was just consumed with guilt over it," Paul Heyman remembers in Pillman’s Loose Cannon DVD.

"He blamed himself for crashing his car," Dave Meltzer explained in his newsletter, "and ruining everything he worked for. Plus, now, he thought his career was over as well. The first thing he did was lie to everyone, including me. He said as bad off as he was, the doctors said he would be able to wrestle, and after healing, his ankle would be at 100%.

"He even said, since it had been damaged for a decade, that it would actually be stronger after the surgery than it had been. To his shock, both McMahon and Bischoff were still after him, and he was downplaying the long-term effects to both of them.

"In the end, McMahon got him because Bischoff, not fully trusting whether Pillman really was going to make a full recovery, offered more money, but wouldn’t eliminate the standard 90-day termination cycle in the multi-year contract. When Bischoff wouldn’t budge on the point, that was the difference-maker."

Brian Pillman at his WWF signing
Brian Pillman at his WWF contract signing.

For the most part, Brian Pillman went to WWF due to Bischoff no longer trusting Brian’s word. He was used as an on-air personality for most of the year, with Jim Ross pushing him into a commentary role, but Brian’s heart was in wrestling. He rushed back from the injury, resulting in the need for more surgeries and an ever-growing dependency on painkillers.

"I truly believe that Brian’s situation was that he was going to do this wrestling thing no matter what. And that’s what he did. No matter what. I can’t believe the pain. I can’t even fathom how much pain he was in on a daily basis," Jim Ross explained.

Brian continued to push the envelope in his WWF career and blur the lines of reality and kayfabe. He showed up on RAW demanding his money from Vince McMahon (then in an announcer role and not publicly shown to be the owner of the company).

He was also in a love triangle storyline with his ex-girlfriend Terri Runnels and her then-husband Goldust and was in a famous home break-in gunshot angle with Stone Cold Steve Austin, but his in-ring work had greatly diminished due to his injuries.

The Death of Brian Pillman

Sadly, his desire to become a top wrestler led to him being in a great deal of pain throughout his WWF career. His reliance on painkillers exacerbated a pre-existing heart condition. Brian Pillman was found dead on October 5th, 1997, due to heart failure.

It was the night of WWF’s Badd Blood Pay-per-view, in which Brian was scheduled to win the Intercontinental Championship.

"We always thought that he’d finally came to the realization," Jim Ross reveals, "that he couldn’t physically do what he used to do because of the fused ankle. And even though the coroner said he had a heart attack, I’ve often believed that Brian Pillman died of a broken heart."

WWF bungled the handling of his death in many ways, but it seems only fitting that the night after his death, the entire locker room broke character and stood on the stage to bow their heads during a ten-bell salute tribute to him.

He was one of the most original characters in wrestling, a true lunatic fringe, a man who out-politicked Hulk Hogan and played all three major wrestling promotions against each other in order to secure the WWF’s first-ever guaranteed contract.

Brian Pillman has become one of the great what-ifs in wrestling. His controversial storylines became a staple of the Attitude Era in the coming years, and his trend-setting blurring of the lines of kayfabe and reality have become commonplace in today’s "reality era."

We can’t help but wonder what he would have achieved if he had a chance to continue his career throughout the years after his death, but his influence on the business will always be felt.

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Rob Ireland is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories and can be reached on Twitter @Real_RobIreland.