On Brian Pillman

When Brian Pillman was announced as a playable character for the soon-to-be-released WWE 2K16 (as part of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s showcase mode), it instantly brought back memories of watching Brian Pillman on ECW when I was a kid. Here’s a guy who, even for ECW, managed to be one of the most entertainingly unhinged wrestlers on the roster (with the exception of maybe New Jack, who wasn’t so much a wrestler as a feral human who stabbed people.) He died of a heart attack on October 5, 1997, due to undiagnosed arteriosclerotic heart disease and likely exacerbated by his battle with drugs and alcohol.

Side note: if you do an internet search for Brian Pillman, you’ll find a lot of posts by wrestling fans who treat his addiction as a personal failing. I cordially invite you to piss up a flagpole if you think that Brian Pillman, or ANYONE, deserves to die because they struggle with addiction.

Brian Pillman is one of the most criminally underrated wrestlers of all time, and the Attitude Era as we know it probably wouldn’t have existed without his influence. (Which, depending on your feelings about the Attitude Era, may not be a point in his favor.) He was cutting worked shoot promos while CM Punk was probably griping about how high school proms were too mainstream for him to attend, and although lots of wrestling fans will point to things like the Austin/McMahon feud or the Montreal Screwjob as the start of the Attitude Era, I would put forward that it started with a vignette featuring Brian Pillman, Steve Austin, and a handgun.

Pillman’s career would always be tied to Austin’s — they’d worked together in WCW as the charmingly tacky Hollywood Blondes (if you haven’t seen photos of Steve Austin with long blond hair, I implore you, Google this immediately), and both of them would follow a similar trajectory from WCW to ECW to WWE. The home invasion vignette came when the two started feuding in WWE, and it was a fairly huge break from the cheese of the New Generation era. Who cared about Mantaur and Max Moon when you had Brian Pillman’s “Loose Cannon” gimmick? Dean Ambrose is probably one of the most direct descendants of Pillman’s persona and wrestling style, but even during Ambrose’s blood feud with Seth Rollins, the PG Era would only allow Ambrose to go so far with his “Lunatic Fringe” character. Popping out of giant Christmas presents and hot dog tong assault aren’t on the same level as pulling a gun or saying “I respect you, booker man” to Kevin Sullivan after losing an “I Respect You” match in WCW. He even cut a promo for his ECW debut with a derisive callout for “smart maaaaarks”:

So why the lack of respect or recognition for Pillman’s contributions to wrestling? Maybe it was a case of getting lost in the shuffle because of the rising stars of Austin, The Rock, and Foley. Maybe he was just too ahead-of-his-time with blurring the lines between kayfabe and real life, and WWE wasn’t ready for it yet, especially as they found their voice during the Monday Night Wars.

But there’s a culture of disposability when it comes to pro wrestlers. They’re on the road for 300+ days a year, wrestling and traveling and recovering from injuries and medicating themselves to deal with the pain of this cycle, and we might be devastated when an older wrestler dies, but we’re hardly ever surprised. As the Attitude Era kicked into gear, the fans were so enamored with the product that developed that they weren’t particularly concerned about its origins. Pillman is mostly mentioned as a footnote in Steve Austin’s career, like a kind of pro wrestling Vanishing Twin Syndrome that bolstered Austin’s (not negligible) status as the icon of the Attitude Era.

But he deserved much, much more.

–Ryan Boyd

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