October 5, 1997 is a date that will forever live in infamy. That date saw the first ever Hell in a Cell clash between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker take place. It also marked the passing of ‘The Loose Cannon’ Brian Pillman, at the startlingly young age of 35.
Pillman was scheduled to compete on the undercard of Badd Blood: In Your House 18 against Mick Foley’s alter ego, Dude Love. However, Pillman never made it to St. Louis that night. He had died earlier that day in his hotel room in Bloomington, Minnesota. Pillman’s passing was relayed to viewers on air by Vince McMahon. It was a devastatingly sad end to the career of one of the greatest of all-time.
Brian Pillman initially tried to make it as a professional footballer in the NFL, joining his hometown team, the Cincinnati Bengals, but was cut in pre-season. The same thing happened the following year with the Buffalo Bills.
He finally found a home in the CFL in 1986 with the Calgary Stampeders but his career was cruelly cut short by an ankle injury. When he recovered, his former coach, Kim Wood suggested he remain in Canada and try his hand at professional wrestling.
Pillman was trained at the famed Hart Family Dungeon in Calgary by Stu Hart and his sons. He competed for the family’s Stampede promotion, partnering Bruce Hart in a tag team called Bad Company.
After excelling as an athletic, high-flying act, Pillman left Stampede and toured with New Japan in 1989, before joining WCW later that year.
Given the moniker, of Flyin’ Brian, Pillman engaged in memorable singles outings with Lex Luger, Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat and others as he wowed fans with his arsenal of innovative aerial manoeuvres.
Flyin’ Brian was made the figurehead of the fledgling WCW Light-Heavyweight division in 1991. He was the inaugural champion, besting Ricky Morton in a tournament final at that year’s Halloween Havoc.
However, it was his incredible feud with Japanese sensation, Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger which really saw Pillman’s star rise and the Light-Heavyweight Title established as a coveted piece of hardware.
Pillman traded the belt with Liger in a series of blinding battles, unlike anything the West had ever seen before. Moreover, when Liger returned to Japan, Pillman did not have the same level of competition. Therefore, his status and that of the title diminished somewhat and the belt was abandoned in September 1992, only 11 months after its creation.
In November, the 30-year-old formed a short-lived tag team with Barry Windham. However, the squad was discontinued just a couple of months later. Fortunately, for Pillman, his career would soon get back on track in another tag team, a tandem that would be infinitely more successful.
The Hollywood Blonds
In October of 1992, Pillman was teamed up with fellow underutilised mid-carder, Steve Austin. ‘Stunning’ Steve had been floundering since the break-up of top heel stable, The Dangerous Alliance in mid-1992. Neither man was overly enthused about entering the tag team ranks but the pair sought to make the best of it.
With little support from the office, Pillman and Austin came up with the Hollywood Blonds moniker for their team and paid for their own matching gear and boots and developed their gimmick themselves.
Getting over huge with the crowds, the tandem won the NWA and WCW World Tag Team Title in March of 1993, dethroning Ricky Steamboat and Shane Douglas. From there the champions would soon move into a feud with WCW’s premier act, The Four Horsemen.
The Blonds expertly parodied Ric Flair and Arn Anderson in a memorable segment dubbed ‘A Flair for the Old’, a play on ‘The Nature Boy’s’ talk show, ‘Flair for the Gold’ as the young upstarts mocked the advancing ages of their opponents.
Their dispute culminated in high profile matches at Beach Blast on July 18, 1993, and Clash of the Champions XXIV on August 18 that year.
Unfortunately, not long after, the team were broken up by the creative team; a decision which the Blonds believed was motivated by backstage politics and the fact their squad was so over with the crowds that they were overshadowing the veterans.
Austin returned to the singles ranks and enjoyed a decent push by feuding with Dustin Rhodes over the United States Title. Pillman, however, was the forgotten man. He disappeared from view, occasionally appearing in opening card feuds but his 1994 was a complete flop.
WCW management had tentative plans to revive the Light-Heavyweight Title and toyed with the idea of reuniting the Blonds, but neither came to fruition. Finally, Pillman, recognising he needed to do something drastic to improve his status and reignite his stagnating career, had an epiphany. He devised a gimmick that would blur the lines between fantasy and reality and revolutionise the business.
The Loose Cannon
In late 1995, Pillman joined the reformed Four Horsemen with Ric Flair, Arn Anderson and Chris Benoit. Over the course of several weeks, Pillman began to act erratically both on-screen and backstage. Pillman had determined the only way he was going to properly succeed as a wrestler was to devise a character unlike anything ever seen in wrestling before.
His ‘Loose Cannon’ persona was unpredictable, prone to acts of rage, and frequently deviated from the script. Fans watch the show on television and in the arenas could not understand what was happening. Crucially, everything Pillman did seemed real. In the world of 1995 WCW, which was a cartoon come to life, ‘The Loose Cannon’ was the most engrossing part of the product.
Pillman’s unpredictable behaviour during this period culminated in two incidents which are still remembered over two decades on. At Clash of the Champions XXXII, Pillman manhandled colour commentator, Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan, during his bout with Eddie Guerrero. Grabbing Heenan by his surgically repaired neck, ‘The Brain’ legitimately shocked and shaken up, accidentally blurted out an expletive and temporarily left the announce desk in a rage.
At SuperBrawl VI on February 11, 1996, Pillman in a planned spot, apparently broke kayfabe, when he grabbed the house microphone and said: “I respect you, booker man’ to WCW’s real-life booker, Kevin Sullivan, with whom he was engaged in a heated feud. The pair had been set to collide in an “I Respect You” Strap Match wherein victory would be earned when the loser was so beaten up, he was forced to say: “I respect you.”
The match lasted all of 90 seconds and as Sullivan feigned confusion, Pillman’s Horsemen comrade, Arn Anderson hit the ring and had an apparently impromptu bout with Sullivan.
The words “booker man” were removed, from the replays of SuperBrawl, which seemed to add credence to the fact, Pillman had gone off script. Further adding to the drama, ‘The Loose Cannon’ was fired by WCW Executive President, for real.
This was a scheme concocted by Pillman and Bischoff to convince the world that Pillman really was going into business for himself on WCW broadcasts.
Pillman subsequently showed up in ECW, who were also assisting with the storyline, thrilled that wrestling’s hottest act was participated in their television shows. ‘The Loose Cannon’ made his debut at CyberSlam on February 17, just days after his supposed firing from WCW. He appeared in a segment with Joey Styles, Tod Gordon and Shane Douglas and was forcibly removed by security after he threatened to urinate in the ring and engaged in a vicious war of words with ‘The Franchise.’
This was supposed to set up a match between Pillman and Douglas. However, before the feud could get physical, fate intervened.
Whilst driving home from filing his tax return, Pillman fell asleep at the wheel of his Hummer on April 15, 1996. Pillman who was not wearing a seatbelt was thrown the vehicle which flipped over repeatedly. ‘The Loose Cannon’ suffered a shattered ankle and was in a coma for a week. His ankle was so severely broken, it needed to be reconstructed with bone from his hip. It was fused into a fixed walking position that essentially meant his career as a high-flying wrestler was over.
Pillman also suffered severe facial injuries and had four titanium steel plates drilled into his skull.
Despite his awful injuries, Pillman was still a wrestler in demand. He made further appearances with ECW, although he was unable to wrestle. After mulling over contract offers from WCW and the WWF, Pillman made his decision in mid-1996.
After a protracted bidding war, Pillman finally signed on the dotted line with the WWF on June 10, 1996. He first appeared on WWF television at the 1996 King of the Ring event. Pillman cut an intense promo in which he threatened to run through the company, once his ankle had healed. In a nice piece of continuity, Pillman exchanged knowing glances with Steve Austin. However, in truth, Pillman’s WWF run was largely inconsequential.
Whilst he recuperated from his injuries, Pillman undertook interviewer responsibilities as the WWF took advantage of his superb vocal skills. However, when ‘The Loose Cannon’s’ ankle failed to heal properly and Pillman faced a prolonged period on the side-lines, he was written out of storylines on the October 27, 1996 Raw.
In an in-ring segment, Pillman expressed his respect for Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart with whom his long-time ally, Austin was feuding. Austin turned on his buddy and in storyline re-broke his ankle.
Their mini feud continued later that year when Stone Cold threatened to assault Pillman in his own home. Arming himself with a pistol, ‘The Loose Cannon’ threatened to shoot ‘The Rattlesnake’ if he showed up. When Austin forced his way into Pillman’s house, a shot rang out as the live feed to Pillman’s home cut out.
Pillman would sit out the next few months before returning to television in the spring of 1997, aligning himself with The Hart Foundation in their ongoing war with Stone Cold.
‘The Loose Cannon’ returned to the ring in May, mainly in tag and six-man matches to ease the workload on his surgically repaired ankle. The most significant in-ring contribution during Pillman’s return to the ring was the famous 10-man tag team main event of In Your House 16: Canadian Stampede on July 6, 1997. Pillman and his Hart Foundation comrades defeated Stone Cold’s squad when Owen Hart pinned Austin.
Pillman next engaged in a feud with Goldust, which saw him win the ‘services’ of Goldust’s wife, Marlena and forced to wear a dress, when he lost a stipulation bout to Dustin Runnels’s alter ego.
Pillman lost to Goldust on October 4, 1997, on a House Show at the Civic Center in St. Paul, Missouri. It would prove to be his final ever match.
‘The Loose Cannon’ died of a heart attack, which was attributed to an undiagnosed condition called Atherosclerosis Heart Disease, which his father had also perished from.
Surprisingly, Pillman has yet to receive an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. However, there is no doubt that ‘The Loose Cannon’ would be a deserving inductee.
His body of work during his decade long career far surpasses that of many of his contemporaries. An incredibly gifted worker, Pillman influenced many wrestlers who adopt an aerial approach to their offence with a style a decade ahead of its time.
He also popularised the ‘shoot’ promo which the likes of CM Punk, Eddie Kingston and others have used to great effect.
No-one however has truly lived the gimmick the way Pillman fully embodied the ‘Loose Cannon’ persona both in and out of the ring.
His memory lives on further in his son, Brian Pillman Jr. who competes in AEW.
You can watch many of Brian Pillman’s moments and matches from his unforgettable career exclusively on the WWE Network.