The Mahou Blog

November 10, 2006

Meltzer on Pillman

Filed under: Uncategorized — mahou @ 4:14 pm

From http://www.wrestlingobserver.com/

There are a lot of weird coincidences this week that bring back the
memory of Brian Pillman.
Pillman, a major 90s star, passed away in a Bloomington, MN, hotel room
on October 5, 1997, the day of a PPV show in St. Louis, at the age of 35,
from a heart attack. He had wrestled the night before in St. Paul. As
you’ll note by the date, this week is the 9th anniversary of the date.
Coincidentally, the WWE this past week released a DVD called “The Loose
Cannon,” on his life, showing many of his highlight matches, although
with the Eric Bischoff book and Mr. McMahon DVD, the company is not
promoting it. And most eerie is, the more you think about it, the more
you realize that in so many ways, the wrestler who currently has most of
the same attributes, Kurt Angle, is the most talked about wrestler in the
business today.

        The WWE’s DVD is one of the better ones the company has put out.
Besides wife Melanie, sisters Angie and Linda, mentor and father-figure
Kim Wood (the long-time strength coach of the Cincinnati Bengals) a few
childhood friends, the DVD contains some very frank comments from Steve
Austin, who has always called Pillman his best friend ever in wrestling,
Jim Ross, Eric Bischoff, Paul Heyman, Road Warrior Animal and Chris
Benoit (who started his career with Pillman in Stampede Wrestling). The
documentary theme of the DVD is basically a video version of the October
13, 1997, issue of this publication (no acknowledgment of it at the end,
but that’s to be expected, for the same reasons that Bruce Prichard was
on the DVD and have people like Mark Madden, Bruce Hart and myself, all
of whom I’m told his friends said needed to be on it, were not spoken
with, but in the end they involved far more friends and more people out
of the WWE than any DVD project I’ve seen). Because of that, when it
comes to historical accuracy, as far as dates, times, places and angles
(with the exception of the actual day of his death being one day off, the
same mistake in that issue of the Observer, written by me two days later
in my own state of shock), it is the best major DVD on any star the
company has put out. The B.S. factor evident in most WWE DVD’s is a non-
issue, since most of the people who carried the DVD were either out of
the business, and it appeared this project was low enough on the radar
that with one exception, the political aspect of the spin was non-
existent. It was clearly an attempt to put as happy a face as you
possibly could to a story that simply can’t have a happy ending. But
there was no faking reality, most notably at the end, showing Brian’s
children, in particularly daughter Brittany and son Flyin Brian Jr., who
today sadly admit they have no memories of their father.
        It’s really a shame, because there are very few people in this
industry that I have as many memories of than Brian Pillman. He had a
depth of understanding of the business of pro wrestling that only the top
few percent of those in the industry had. Part of it is that he was very
smart, was a tremendous reader, and had great awareness of his
environment and the world, even at the end when he was falling apart. And
of all those memories I have of Pillman, the most vivid involved
Brittany, then 8, and Brian Jr., then 4, at his wake. There was just
about nobody around, as it had ended. The two children, having absolutely
no real understanding of what was going on, as they were being summoned
to leave, Brittany ran to the casket and told Brian Jr. that “We have to
say goodbye to Daddy.” They ran, just like little kids playing. Brittany
stuck her head in the casket and kissed him. Even though he remembers
none of it now, Brian Jr., who was very much Brian’s pride and joy as his
only son, by that time did understand who his dad was, as he’d climb
tables and counters and jump off, saying, “Look, I’m Flyin Brian.”
The positive of the DVD is they do a pretty great job of getting across
the athlete that Pillman was, a gutsy small kid from a working class
section of Cincinnati, who overcame cancer and nearly dying twice as a
child and growing up without a father, and was an absolutely ridiculous
athletic overachiever. In that sense you really see all sorts of
comparisons with Angle, in particular with athletic heart and drive, and
obsession with proving coaches and naysayers wrong when the “too small”
tag was shoved in their respective faces. Quite frankly, they did a far
better job of getting across Pillman’s positive real-life traits than any
wrestling promotion ever did when he was alive and getting his career-
long half-assed pushes. We used to joke that throughout the history of
wrestling, many guys who played college football but weren’t even stars,
and weren’t even necessarily good workers, got big pushes because of the
idea it made them credible athletes. But here he was, a genuine college
All-American and NFL player, the only NFL player in pro wrestling (until
Steve McMichael and Kevin Greene came to WCW) at the time, a good worker
and a good promo, and his real-life athletic background was almost never
pushed. The problem was he was small, and a pretty boy. The idea that
this little guy, maybe 195-200 pounds off steroids, was a defensive
lineman who was so good, he was often double and sometimes triple-teamed
by offensive lineman twice his size and still set school records for
sacks and tackles, was an All-American and played in the NFL, didn’t make
any sense for this white meat babyface little cut bodybuilder looking
guy. Once, when a lead announcer, and I’m not sure if it was Ross or Tony
Schiavone, but he was working with Jesse Ventura, brought up Pillman as
an All-American middle guard, Ventura started laughing on the air, like
this was the most preposterous wrestling lie/exaggeration ever delivered
and he wasn’t about to sell for it.
        The truth was, as a kid, Pillman’s best sport was ice hockey. As a
15-year-old, he was playing on men’s teams. But there was no Ice Hockey
in Ohio high school sports, so he concentrated on football. As a junior
at Norwood High School, he was 5-7 and 147 pounds, and routinely blew by
the 200-pound offensive linemen. At that size, he was a two-way starter
on both the offensive and defensive line. As a senior, he was listed at
180 pounds, but that figure was probably exaggerated. He led the city in
tackles and sacks, and started the pattern that pretty much told the
story of his athletic career. He was the only member of the All-City team
in 1979 not to get a college scholarship offer, because the idea of a
180-pound defensive lineman playing college football was patently
ludicrous.
        He walked on at Miami of Ohio. While the coaches pegged him as far
too small to play college football, his attitude was off the charts. As a
freshman, he was on the seventh team, used as cannon fodder, but
performed so well the coaches told him if he worked this hard in
practice, by the time he was a senior, there was a chance he could get a
jersey and make the traveling team. With the right attitude, he could
have been like the character in the movie “Rudy.” Maybe as a senior if
there was a blow out, he could get in on a live play. By the 4th game of
the season, he had moved up to second team, and newspaper stories at the
time wrote he was a better player than the starter, but the coaches
couldn’t pull the trigger on him because of his size.
        By the time he was a sophomore, listed at 195 pounds, he was
starting nose tackle and considered one of the stars best players on the
team. He lifted weights but was not super cut or anything. Most likely it
was at this point he discovered steroids, as he became best friends with
a local contest winning bodybuilder.
        He came back as a junior, at 5-8 ¾ and 225 pounds, with a 425 pound
bench press and 600 pound squat. As a junior, he was Division I-AA first
team All-American middle guard, described in local newspapers as having
the “physique of the Incredible Hulk.” As a senior, he was named Mid
American Conference Defensive Player of the Year, led the conference in
both sacks and tackles, setting school records in both categories. He was
a second team AP All-American, behind William “Refrigerator” Perry. Like
in high school, he was the only 1983 first or second team All-American
football player who wasn’t drafted by the NFL, as he was far too short,
even to be converted to linebacker in the pros.
        He signed as a free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals. He was
expected to be an early cut, as he started basically on the list of guys
who were to be worked until they were broken or quit, but he survived
that phase and did well in practice and preseason games. He was in the
running for the final roster spot, and after a spectacular play on the
final preseason game at Riverfront Stadium, made the team. He played
special teams in 1984. He got a lot of local publicity for defying the
odds, and was considered one of the physically and mentally toughest
players on the team. Because he was a little guy, playing as a wedge
buster, how hard he practiced and overcoming size and childhood cancer,
he became, among the players, one of the most popular members of the
team. That year, the players voted the winner of the Ed Block courage
award. In 1985, he went to the Buffalo Bills, where he was made it until
the final cut. The staff had decided he had made the team, but an
assistant coach found his steroids in his room. The NFL didn’t do any
testing in those days, and it wasn’t like steroid use was unusual, but
the coaches felt he was a little guy all juiced up and it swayed the
decision against him. In 1986, he signed on with the Calgary Stampeders
of the Canadian Football League, but broke his ankle in the third game of
the season and never played again.
        Pillman wasn’t a big wrestling fan growing up, but remembered
seeing The Sheik on television as a kid. He never really channeled it
until the Flyin’ Brian days were over, and he tried to think back and
recall how this mystical guy had everyone frightened, drew such
incredible heat, and packed houses. Wood, who had become a father figure
to him when he was with the Bengals, signed him up with an Observer
subscription while he was still playing football, feeling that his look
and personality were tailor-made for wrestling. It was pure luck that he
was in Calgary when his football career ended. Wood loaned him the money
to be trained by the Harts, who at the time were starting a crew of young
wrestlers that were bound for superstardom. Among those in the territory
breaking during those years were Benoit, Owen Hart, Hiroshi Hase, Jushin
Liger, Kensuke Sasaki, Shinya Hashimoto and Phil LaFleur (Phil LaFon/Dan
Kroffat). A few years earlier you could add Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart,
Dynamite Kid, Cobra, Bad News Allen and Davey Boy Smith to that list.
        After a short period of training, he was billed as a player on the
Stampeders there as a guest, who was attacked by the local heel group,
the Karachi Vice. He vowed to wrestle the next week, and bring the
Stampeders with him. On November 5, 1986, in the main event at the
Pavilion, with numerous Stampeders cheering him on, Pillman & Owen Hart &
Keith Hart beat Makhan Singh & Gama Singh & Vladimir Krupov. Soon, Bruce
Hart took him as his regular partner, and as “Bad Company,” they became
the area’s top babyface tag team for most of 1987 (when he was voted
Rookie of the Year) and 1988.
        Stampede Wrestling was a crazy territory, and he lived a wild life,
between the women, the drugs and the crazy ribs he would play, and at
times got played, such as the night he had a hot date and they told him
after his show he was booked in the town to do a “Say No to Drugs”
speech. He was then dropped off at an old folks convalescent home to give
his speech.
        He was tight with the Hart family, who treated him like family, but
in doing so, that made him a lot of enemies. Brick Bronsky was a 270-
pound bodybuilder who was probably the strongest guy in the territory at
the time. Bronsky corroborated the story of when he was told to sucker
punch Pillman and knocked Pillman to the deck. Pillman, who probably
wasn’t more than 200 pounds at the time, got up and tore him to shreds,
but suffered a torn triceps in the melee. But Pillman saw it as his wake-
up call that it was time to get out of Calgary.
        He contacted Jim Ross, who was on the WCW booking committee. A deal
was set up where he would team with Dennis Condrey as a Midnight Express
member, managed by Paul E. Dangerously, to feud with Jim Cornette’s
Express, of Bobby Eaton & Stan Lane. However, before he could start,
George Scott was hired as booker. Scott, credited by many in the 70s for
booking the Mid Atlantic territory from being just another regional to
being the best territory in the country, and then booked WWF during the
early years of its national expansion before losing his position after
losing a power play with Hulk Hogan. By 1989, Scott had been out of the
business only a few years, but it was enough that time had passed him by.
Even though he’d been a star in Calgary for more than two years, Scott
had never heard of him, and didn’t want to bring in a wrestler he had
never heard of. It was his second false start on the U.S. scene. A few
years earlier, Heyman and Eddie Gilbert booked him into Continental
Championship Wrestling (the Alabama territory), and he gave notice at
Stampede and was about to come down. Gilbert and Heyman ended up falling
out with owner David Woods, and both were fired, and Pillman’s job was
gone.
        When Scott was let go, Pillman’s name resurfaced, but this time the
plan was to use him as a babyface. He was a mid-carder, who would win
most of the time, but lose clean when matched with the stars. A February,
1990, singles match against world champion Ric Flair drew the largest
audience ever to watch a match on WCW Saturday Night, a show that lasted
in one form or another, about 28 years. Flair, sensing they had something
in Pillman, asked to lose the match, or at least lose via DQ, which at
the time would have made Pillman an instant major star. But the rest of
the booking committee argued that Flair had a main event title defense
with Lex Luger a week or two later, and they didn’t want the top issue
confused. Flair, as the heel in the PPV main event, had to go over. The
DVD showed enough clips that you end up with the conclusion that this guy
was a hell of a performer, and by that I mean outside the ring.
        Inside the ring, he was a good flier young and did develop into a
very good worker for his time, and his work ethic was closer to the
wrestlers of a few years ago when business was hot, as compared to the
wrestlers of his own time. On big shows, he was always out to steal the
show, even though most of the time he was in prelims. His greatest big
show singles match ever, where he beat Jushin Liger to win the WCW light
heavyweight title, was the opener on the February 29, 1992, SuperBrawl
show in Milwaukee and was a landmark match in U.S. wrestling at the time.
If anything, from the clips, you end up questioning how the promoters of
the time didn’t go all the way with him. But it was a different time.
Eddy Guerrero and Chris Benoit were both better wrestlers than he was,
and neither of them could even get a job in WCW, and at the time would
have been laughed right out of WWF, if not by the fans, definitely by
management, because of their size.
        Prichard, who was used to kind of explain the background of what
was going on (and missed many key points in doing so, on purpose because
some things they clearly didn’t want to talk about, basically the nature
of the conning in the industry and how Pillman many times outplayed the
puppeteers), aptly noted that it was a big man’s business. That theme was
used to talk about the flying moves that he did in the ring, a lot of
springboard moves and such that nobody was doing at the time. But they
all missed the point that in wrestling, like with football, no matter how
good he was, in the end, at the top level, he was unable to overcome the
size handicap.
        That was the motivation for the “Loose Cannon” persona. The
weakness of the documentary, and again, the documentary is really good
overall, is the lack of understanding of that persona. Actually, they
completely missed the boat on it, as far as even a cursory understanding
of why. My feeling is the two subjects that they knew, and in both cases
didn’t want to address, were drugs, both street drugs and steroids as
they did address pain killers, and the entire mentality and creation of
the character. The people who do know tell me that with the exception of
Kim Wood, who formulated the entire character on his kitchen table with
Pillman, and perhaps his wife, Bruce Hart and maybe Terry Funk, I
probably understood it the best, because when I figured it out (and in
the beginning, when it was formulated, Wood told Pillman to work everyone
and avoid me, because I will figure it out and resent him for trying to
play me, and for several weeks I never heard from him), I was just about
the only person let in on it, and not at first.
        Ironically, now that he’s been dead for so long, Wood told me that
he explained the entire character, the reason why, how it was formulated,
and the goals, on camera for the DVD. None of it made the documentary.
Instead, you had people like Teddy Long who were speculating, and Eric
Bischoff, vaguely noting that he’s not sure if he was in on it or he was
one of the people being conned.
        I can understand the avoidance of the subject of the drugs, or some
of Pillman’s other extracurricular activities, such as his almost
legendary womanizing. On that subject, the joke used to be that when you
read the letters about sexual escapades in “Penthouse Forum,” you always
question whether they were made up or real. The answer is, they are real,
and Brian Pillman wrote most of the letters based on personal experience.
Dustin Runnels (Goldust), who was feuding with Pillman at the time of his
death, and noted that he doing hated the angle, since it was based on the
reality that Pillman had dated Terri Boatwright (Terri Runnels) before
they got married, and Pillman claimed their daughter, Dakota, was their
love child. Runnels claimed his wife dumped Pillman for him in real life,
although I don’t know how accurate that story is, although the part about
Dakota was made up. In hindsight, putting a young girl in that position
is kind of awkward and I can see where Runnels had problems, but in the
end, it shows the power of the business because he still went along with
it. In another long forgotten story, back in the late 80s in Calgary,
Pillman found a woman, Theresa Hays, and brought her to Stampede
Wrestling to do an angle where she was Theresa Pillman, his sister, for
some heels to abuse and lead to a grudge match. Many years later, Hays
got back in wrestling using the name Beulah McGillicutty in ECW. When he
was on the road nailing someone well known, he at least once, if not
more, would call Mark Madden’s phone and have him listen in and make sure
he got the woman talking, I guess in case he needed a witness if people
didn’t believe the story. In college, when he was the school’s football
star, he was something of a cult hero on campus. Among those who idolized
him was a freshman on the wrestling team named Mark Coleman, for an
incident where it was known that Pillman had sex with a woman who was
hanging upside down from a pull-up bar wearing gravity boots (old school
exercise equipment).
        But for all the stories about Pillman and women, his luck wasn’t
always the best. Before getting married, he had a long-time girlfriend
from before wrestling named Rochelle. She was from Cincinnati but lived
with him in Atlanta during his WCW days. Once, while he was on the road
wrestling, somebody broke into their house and viciously stabbed her,
which left her with some mental issues. And she was crazy to begin with.
Brittany was from this relationship. Rochelle had major drug problems,
and Pillman was hardly a choir boy. It turned into, after they broke up,
a year-long nightmare of a custody battle, with vicious accusations going
back-and-forth on both sides, with both sides accusing the other of
drugs, and Rochelle making up things far worse, right down to insane
accusations of sexual abuse. The pressure did a real number on Pillman
during the battle, but it only got worse when it was over.
        By that point, Brian had gotten married for the only time in his
life. He actually was looking through a Penthouse magazine and saw a
photo spread of the future Melanie Pillman, using whatever stage name she
was going by, and told friends that he was going to marry this woman, who
at this point he had never met. As it turned out, he found her, and after
a whirlwind romance, Pillman proposed to her at the Grand Canyon. The
funny part of the story was, she knew wrestling, as she dated Jim Hellwig
during the period he was on top in WWF. After that, she thought all
wrestlers were insane and never wanted to date another wrestler. Pillman
hated Hellwig, particularly when Hellwig would call his wife up and make
fun of her for having to settle for a “little man.” I remember him
telling me at the time how he had just gotten married a few days earlier,
out of nowhere, and how happy he was, and it happened
so quickly that I had first assumed it was Rochelle.
        In 1994, while the custody fight was at its ugliest, Rochelle was
one day supposed to pick up Brittany, but never showed up. Nobody, not
her friends, nor her family, knew her whereabouts. After a few days, it
was feared she was dead, and everyone fingered Brian to be the lead
suspect. Brian was drinking heavily at this point, and scared to death.
While nothing broke in the press, he was expecting she was going to turn
up dead, and since he was a local celebrity, and a national wrestling
star, that he was about to become the white O.J. Simpson (this happened
just a few months after the Nicole Simpson murder).
        Trying to clear himself, and totally wasted at the time, he went to
the worst section of Cincinnati, carried a photo of Rochelle, who by this
time had a major crack cocaine problem, and went to all the street corner
drug dealers trying to find information. As he was there, the police came
by, recognized him immediately since he had been a sports star in the
city since high school. As they approached, they believe they saw him
swallow something. He was arrested, and it made press, that he was in a
bad part of town and arrested on drug charges. Quite frankly, if he had
not been so popular among the higher-ups in WCW, he very likely could
have been fired as well. However, when he proved he had a prescription
for the pain pills found on him, he plea bargained down to drunk driving.
He was still under suspicion in Rochelle’s disappearance for several more
weeks, although never formally charged. The stress on him was
unimaginable, and while it was claimed his real problems started with his
humvee wreck in 1996, it was really at this point when things started to
change.
        Eventually, Rochelle was found in Florida a few weeks later, when
police pulled over a car with her and some men. Her disappearance out of
nowhere, probably clinched her losing the custody fight. Due to her own
drug issues becoming obvious in the custody hearing, and losing custody
of Brittany, Rochelle was so messed up she wanted to kill herself. Her
plan was to shoot herself while on the phone with Brian. In her messed up
mind, that would be her final revenge, to leave him with the guilt for
the rest of his life. But when she made the decision to end her life,
Brian was on the road. Instead, she talked, at length, with Melanie, who
kept trying to talk her out of it. After a long conversation, Melanie
thought she had succeeded in talking her out of it, and got off the
phone. Rochelle then called up her mother, and while on the phone with
her, blew her brains out.
        Brian was devastated in so many ways. He felt guilty because he
blamed himself for her doing what she did. He felt guilty because he was
on the road that night and Rochelle’s mother, who Brian loved, ended up
on the phone as her daughter shot herself. He felt, if nothing else, if
he had been home and on the phone, it would have spared her mother, as
well as his wife, at least some of the mental anguish. Worse, her friends
and family all blamed him, because of the belief it was losing the nasty
child custody fight, that caused her to lash out in the only way she
could come up with.
        His career at this point was also going nowhere. After the break-up
of the Hollywood Blondes, a tag team name he came up with for he and
Steve Austin, and a team that by all rights should have gone down as the
best tag team of the 90s, by late 1993, his career was floundering. While
in the early part of the 90s, he could be counted on regularly to have
one of the best matches on any show he was booked on, no small feat
considering some of the names on the WCW roster, now he was rarely on the
PPV shows or “Clash of Champions.” He had a bad back, that made training
difficult and limited him in the ring. He was up to 220, but this wasn’t
good weight, as he was getting a beer belly from drinking and lack of
training, and noted that he still looked presentable in the ring because
“I can hide behind my tan.” In those days, the popular aerobic equipment
wasn’t the treadmill or the stationary bike, but the Stairmaster, and his
body wasn’t made for it. His back was destroyed when he tried to use it,
not that the taking bumps and all the years of contract sports were
probably more to blame.
        Worse, at 33, because he really was one of the real students of the
world wide wrestling business, as opposed to just someone who saw
whatever wrestling was on his television when he was home, he thought he
knew the future. He had known for some time, really for two years, that
the business was changing and his days of “Flyin Brian” were about to end
because he watched and studied AAA wrestling. Long before they ever
stepped foot in a mainstream U.S. promotion, he believed that Eddy
Guerrero, Art Barr and Rey Misterio Jr. were going to be the future of
the business, and in watching them, he recognized his own physical
limitations. He was in total awe of the talent of Guerrero and Misterio
Jr. in particular, and while he had overcome the size odds to make it in
sports since he was a teenager, he saw those two performing in the ring
at a level he could never reach.
        Earlier than all but a few mainstream American wrestlers, he knew
Misterio Jr. was the one who would change wrestling, and make his flying
style obsolete. Only a few people in the U.S. understood that change was
inevitable, but Pillman saw it in more depth, because he also believed he
was going to be the victim, as opposed to the benefactor. He’d still be
too small to be pushed with the top guys, but no longer a good enough
high flier to stand out. His four-year contract was coming due in 1996,
and he was making $225,000 per year as a base salary, plus bonuses based
on dates worked, which in those days was far more than a prelim guy that
didn’t even work the big shows should have been getting. He’d survived a
1992 showdown with Bill Watts over the contract. Pillman was WCW’s first
light heavyweight champion as having great matches on every PPV show when
Watts came aboard. Watts’ role was to slash expenses and lessen the
company debt. The two contracts Watts thought immediately were out of
line were Pillman and Dangerously. Pillman, in his mind was making far
too much for a junior heavyweight guy, who he saw as too small to
headline. Dangerously, who he felt was talented, was making far too much
for a manager.
        Watts gave Pillman the choice. He’d cut him to $156,000, more in
line with what a wrestler of his level at that time was making, and push
him. Or he could keep his contract, and he’d not only lose the title, but
lose every match from that point forward. Everyone in the company,
particularly the headliners and management, told Pillman to play ball
with Watts. But to him, this was a showdown and Watts was the 6-4, 300-
pound guy on the offensive line laughing at him in college. He refused,
joking to everyone he was quite willing to become the highest paid job
guy in wrestling history.
        He did get a strong run in 1993, more by accident than anything.
Watts was gone, and he was put together with Steve Austin as a heel tag
team. They weren’t put together to get over, and Austin was furious as
what he believed was being lowered, since he had been a singles champion
and Pillman was a guy largely going nowhere. But the two became best
friends. Pillman came up with idea after idea and was captain of the
team, as he studied tapes of the best old tag teams he could find, came
up with “the terrible towel” as a gimmick, and the name The Hollywood
Blondes, taken after a 70s tag team of Buddy Roberts & Jerry Brown. While
people remember the team as one of the best of the 90s, and they should
have been, in actuality, they were together only a few months. That was
enough to win tag team of the year for 1993, and become one of the most
remembered duos of the entire decade. Dusty Rhodes took credit for
putting them together, and while he may have been booker at the time,
they were not put together to be stars. But the tag team division was
weak, and they became the heel opponents for champs Ricky Steamboat &
Shane Douglas, and eventually won the titles. They did a long build for a
June 16, 1993, “Clash of the Champions” in Norfolk. Ric Flair had
returned to WCW after leaving WWF, and there was a long build for his
first match. Pillman & Austin had been mocking him, doing some brilliant
comedy segments, including a spoof on Flair’s “Flair for the Gold”
interview segment, called “A Flair for the Old,” where Pillman came out
in a wig and pretended to be Flair at 80. Flair & Anderson won the match
in two straight falls, the second via DQ, so the title didn’t change
hands. The idea was to start a main event program.
        But far more important, the bout did a 2.6 rating, the lowest in
Clash history. Flair was the greatest ratings draw in company history, in
his first match back in two years, and a near record number was expected.
Austin said the powers that be didn’t want them over, and cut them off
when they got over. In actuality, when that rating came in after all the
build-up for Flair’s return live in prime time, particularly since tapes
of three year old Flair matches had drawn bigger numbers in bad time
slots, the Blondes were the scapegoats. Even though they were a great
team both in and out of the ring, and had just scratched the surface
after being together barely six months, it was deemed they were
entertaining, but couldn’t draw money. The rest of the program with Flair
& Anderson was immediately nixed. The decision was made to put Austin in
the U.S. title picture with Col. Rob Parker (Robert Fuller) as manager,
after he would turn on Pillman to end the team. Austin was a strong
technician in the ring, but it was thought he couldn’t cut a main event
promo. Pillman, well, he would lose his feud with Austin, making him back
to being a babyface, and there were no plans for him after that. He was
being jobbed out again, and he knew, at best, he was going to get his
money cut back, and at worst they wouldn’t offer him a new deal. At the
time, he was considered to small to work WWF, and while he could have
gone to ECW in an instant, as Paul Heyman always felt he was
underutilized, there was no money there.
        While Brian & Melanie were as opposite of “The Brady Bunch” as you
could imagine, the pro wrestling wildman outside the ring and stripper,
they each brought two children into the relationship. Brian was raising a
second daughter, born to another woman. The whole “Loose Cannon” was
built on the premise that he needed to become an extreme character that
would be the talk of the wrestling world. He caught a break as the
company decided to, for the 50th time, recreate the Four Horsemen. At one
point it was Pillman was the fourth guy, to go along with Ric Flair, Arn
Anderson and Sting. They turned on Sting and went heel, and eventually
picked up Chris Benoit. His bizarre character was already getting over,
and the idea was he was out of control and would turn on Flair &
Anderson, forming a group, anchored by him and Benoit, called The Four
Horsemen of the Apocalypse, to feud with a new Four Horsemen group headed
by Flair & Anderson. At one point, while wearing his Horsemen T-shirt, he
single-handedly apprehended a guy holding a lady hostage at the Residence
Inn in Orlando.
        Things were going well enough by that point that he was in no
danger of losing his job, and he didn’t have to be Flyin Brian, but he
felt his body giving out and didn’t know how many years he had left. By
this point, with the birth of Brian Jr., he had five children to support
and an almost mansion like home in the Cincinnati suburbs of Walton, KY.
I don’t know if the term jealousy, envy or disdain would be the right
term, but one or all of those words described Pillman’s feelings about
Lex Luger. When Pillman was breaking into WCW, Luger was a superstar in
the business. Even though every attempt to make Luger into a franchise
player had backfired, Pillman never forgot how Luger would laugh at
Pillman before shows when Pillman would practice new moves in the ring,
something the “stars” in those days wouldn’t be caught dead doing. Luger
would rub it in, joking he knew five moves and made double what Pillman
did studying all those tapes and trying to learn new things. But whether
Luger ever truly connected or not, he always received huge money and was
always a main event player, because that was the game in that era and he
had the prototypical look. Whether Pillman’s matches got over or not, he
was too small to headline in the minds of the decision-makers.
        It drove him crazy, because he had a great physique as well, and
the big guys weren’t drawing, and many were having crappy matches on top,
and still get a free pass on top. Once, he nearly had a showdown with Sid
Vicious, who was almost a foot taller and close to 100 pounds heavier.
Their heat started in 1991, regarding a match at the Meadowlands. There
was no question who was going to win, nor any problems over it, even
though Pillman was far better in every aspect except stature. Vicious
gave Pillman virtually no offense in the match, squashing him. While
Pillman wasn’t a main eventer, he was a big enough star that nobody
should have squashed him. They had words before the match, as Vicious
told him it wouldn’t be credible for him to sell because of the size
difference, and Pillman told him that when he played in the NFL, he
knocked people Vicious’ size on their ass and that was real. But
visually, Vicious was right at the time, as in the ring, the size
difference made it look ridiculous.
        A few years later, after Vicious went to the WWF, he was in an
Atlanta bar that Pillman and some of the other wrestlers were at, and
they had words, as Vicious came in bragging about how much money he was
making and how he was drawing money on top, although at that moment he
was down with a torn triceps. He made mention that nobody else there can
draw money, which was that buzz word that caused Pillman to blow up, and
Mike Graham, who was even smaller than Pillman but had been a star in
Florida in his day, was probably even madder, feeling disrespected.
Vicious left the bar, and came in with, of all things, a squeegee you’d
use on the windshield of a car as a weapon to confront Pillman. Graham
then took the squeegee away, and Vicious noted he was injured, and it
wasn’t worth reaggravating the injury. He left the bar.
        By 1995, he felt that in WCW, and at this point it was the Hogan
era, you got pushed based on the size of your contract because they had
to justify the deal. He was looking for a $450,000 or more deal, which he
believed was Luger level money, and that if he got it, politically, he’d
be treated as a star. And at that point, he’d have been lucky to get any
more than a third of that.
        His new character was based on being unpredictable to everyone, at
all times, based on the idea that before his death, Bruiser Brody always
had promoters and wrestlers on edge because he could be unpredictable and
violent. But in doing so, Brody made himself one of the highest paid
wrestlers of his era and everyone bought his gimmick as the wildest tough
guy. Road Warrior Hawk was another person he took the character from, in
that in his heyday, he played his character all the time and people were
genuinely afraid of him. Brian was too small to make people fear him,
even though he was a tough little guy, so his goal was to get people on
edge, where they wouldn’t know what to make of him, and he’d steal the
spotlight and be noticed. As he was formulating his character, the only
two people in wrestling he consulted with and let in on it, largely for
ideas, were Bruce Hart, his original trainer and tag team partner when he
broke in with Stampede Wrestling and one of his best friends, and Terry
Funk, because of the belief that Funk had seen it all, everywhere, and
knew everything that did and didn’t work. He would play a reactionary
right wing nut on the popular Cincinnati talk show hosted by Bill
Cunningham (who appeared on the DVD). His best idea, in his mind, was one
Wood refused to help him with. He wanted to run onto the field during the
1996 Super Bowl game and chain himself to the goal posts. Wood told him
that if he got Pillman tickets to the game and it was traced to him, he’d
likely be fired.
        The original plan was to involve only Eric Bischoff. One idea was
to have scenarios backstage, in front of only the wrestlers, where
Pillman would act like he was out of line and Bischoff would get mad.
Several situations occurred in this direction. At first, nobody even
thought it was a work, because Pillman was getting on everyone’s nerves
by this point with his weird behavior. Unfortunately, because it worked
at first, it became the mantra of Bischoff and later the WCW company’s
fascination with “working the boys.” In the end, it wound up as a
pathetic overdone trend that never made them money and created extensive
mistrust in the organization and destroyed the credibility of management.
        It was supposed to culminate in a fight between the two. Pillman
was even willing to let Bischoff, who used to brag about his being a
kickboxer, get the better of it, thinking it would boost Bischoff’s ego,
and Bischoff would be more willing to give him a better contract.
Instead, Bischoff insisted booker Kevin Sullivan also get involved and be
let in on it. The first major worked altercation, with the attempt to
fool the wrestlers was when Sullivan went after Pillman’s eye in the ring
on Nitro, and the announcers were not clued in. It probably would have
worked better as being believable if Sullivan didn’t cut a promo on it
the next week on television and talk about the incident to build a match
on PPV. At that point, it was clear to me what it was, yet because the
act was being pulled on the wrestlers, even when explained, at that point
most still believed it was real. To this day, even though it really has
all come out, many had the opinion Teddy Long had on the DVD, saying that
management wanted you to believe they were in on it, but he didn’t think
they really were.
        Of course, the irony was the plan was to work Bischoff and Sullivan
in the end. On February 11, 1996, in St. Petersburg, they booked a
“respect” match, similar to an “I Quit” match, with Pillman vs. Sullivan.
The loser would have to say “I respect you.” Pillman took a few shots,
sarcastically said the famous line, “I respect you, booker man (Sullivan
was the booker at the time, and the term booker was never used on
television in those days),” and walked out of the ring, out of the
building, and out of the promotion. Everyone was scrambling because the
match didn’t go “as scripted,” and there was a panic backstage. On the
DVD, it was talked about like this incident was not staged by Arn
Anderson, who in fact, was not clued in. As this was going on, in the
middle of the chaos, Glenn Gilberti (Disco Inferno), said, “My God,
they’re working the boys.”
        As Bischoff and Sullivan figured, the angle was to end there.
Pillman would be “fired,” and sent to ECW. While everyone knows, thanks
to the “Rise and Fall of ECW” and bankruptcy documents, about WWF helping
pay some ECW bills, it was a very well kept secret that WCW had a
financial involvement in ECW at that time. Pillman knew because Steve
Karel, Heyman;’s right-hand man, had tipped off Wood, who he knew from
the bodybuilding/exercise machine business (Wood at the time was co-owner
and designed the Hammer Strength equipment). Plus, Pillman knew he could
do whatever he wanted in ECW, far from the restraints he was under in
WCW. Whether all this was going to get him “Luger money,” was still very
questionable, because even though Pillman had become the single most
talked about character within wrestling, he had that tag of having never
drawn money, and being “too small” to headline–ie., get headliner money.
But Pillman noted that not everyone was buying the angle and the people
in the office would know he was still employed by WCW while being in ECW,
which would make public the secret relationship and kill the angle they
were working.
        So Pillman talked Bischoff into taking the work even farther.
Bischoff had WCW give Pillman a real-life termination notice. On paper,
he was fired. Ultimately, the office people would know, and tell the
wrestlers, and that would “prove” to the wrestlers it was not a work. Of
course, in the grand scheme of things, none of this had anything to do
with manipulating the fans and actually drawing money. By this point I
knew the goal, but never in a million years did I think he’d be able to
pull it off. The key was, with the termination notice, the deal was he
would get paid his salary under the table somehow by WCW the entire time
he was gone, probably as part of a backdoor deal with ECW, which was part
of the con with Bischoff. Pillman worked out the entire angle with both
Bischoff and Heyman himself, but Bischoff did have to approve the deal.
The con on Bischoff was Pillman’s contract was expiring in a few months,
so while being paid, he was free to negotiate with WWF, or even sign with
WWF, right in the middle of a competitive wrestling war. He was
negotiating with McMahon, showing him the termination notice. Bischoff
and Sullivan were furious, telling him he knew full well the termination
notice was a work on everyone, but because the people who wrote it up
weren’t in on it, it was written as if it was legal and binding, and he
claimed it was.
        Pillman working on ECW was important because when he made his
surprise return to WCW, doing whatever angle it was, it would have
credibility that he was uncontrollable. That actually, as a storyline,
did make sense long-term, because he would spend months on ECW
television, ripping WCW, and building his return, but since nobody knew
the relationship, they’d believe his ripping WCW was a shoot. His hatred
for Bischoff, Sullivan and the WCW organization would have a higher level
of reality toward it, because he “really” did lose his job, proving the
actions at the end in WCW were “real.” They had to be, since he was
appearing with WCW’s arch-enemy, ECW, for months.
        Pillman made a few appearances on ECW television, doing some
incredibly clever stuff and vignettes way ahead of their time, including
wrestling a giant pencil (“pencil” being the business term for booker) in
somebody’s living room and acting like he was unemployed and working as a
cook in a restaurant. The funny thing is, all this stuff talked about
never drew any company a dime, but it sort of ushered in a new era with
promoters. The old school promoters lived and died based on how business
was. At this point, you saw promoters, Bischoff and Heyman in particular,
as McMahon always had his eye on the bottom line until he got so rich
after the Austin era that it didn’t matter, really booking more for
something else. Ego. The idea of doing things people talked about. It was
the beginning, probably with this angle, of booking for “the net is
talking about it” mentality more than the actual box office. Perhaps this
was part of the mentality that fueled the greatest boom period in the
history of the business, but more likely, based on historical results of
all the stuff that was tried and went nowhere with the casual fans, that
was just a coincidence.
        Still, WCW was desperate for ratings. At this point, the Raw vs.
Nitro feud was pretty much even, as Nitro hadn’t gone two hours, the NWO
hadn’t been formed nor had the Luchadores with the new style hit WCW
which started the pull away in the race. Even though he wasn’t supposed
to come back for six months, WCW ordered Pillman back on Nitro a few
weeks later. Bischoff and Sullivan understood enough not to ruin their
angle, so the idea was for him to show up in the audience at a Nitro and
cause a disturbance in the audience. He’d only be acknowledged in passing
and the cameras would accidentally show him, then pan away from him. It
was only to be a split second. He also made a sign, plugging a 900 number
to call to find out about him, which for a few weeks did big business.
Hulk Hogan saw the reaction he got, and well, this was Hulk Hogan. The
main event on the March 24, 1996, Uncensored PPV in Tupelo, MS, was going
to be Hogan & Randy Savage vs. eight heels in a triple decker cage match.
Hogan saw that Pillman was over, and even though he was supposed to be
fired, Hogan knew better, and told management he wanted Pillman as one of
his opponents, of course, to beat.
        Pillman’s raspy voice was a result of cancerous polyps on his vocal
cords. He first got them at the age of two, and on two different
occasions, once at the age of two, the other at the age of four, came
close to death when his heart stopped due to complications. He survived
31 throat surgeries before the age of five, and every few years, the
polyps would start growing back and he’d need surgery to scrape them off.
When he got buzzed that Hogan wanted him in that match, he scheduled a
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 PPV
main event and being a ping pong ball for Hogan, would kill his gimmick.
But 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.” But WCW kind of ruined the gimmick anyway, even after he told
them he was having surgery and his doctor sent a note that he wouldn’t be
recovered on time. The truth is, if it was a match he wanted to do, he’d
have been in the ring. If anything, the match lived down to Pillman’s
expectations, and was among the worst PPV matches in wrestling history. A
year or so later, when he was in WWF, he worked on an infected ankle and
hooked up to an IV, he ripped out the IV, left the hospital against
doctor’s orders, did a match, and went back to the hospital after to get
hooked back up. WCW killed its angle, as it often did, advertising the
“fired” Pillman in the main event on television and even as late as the
live pre-game show, and was pressuring him until hours before show time
to come to Tupelo.
        Of all the Pillman incidents, only one was truly unplanned. During
a match on January 23, 1996, in Las Vegas, when Pillman beat Guerrero in
a 5:50 match that wasn’t nearly what you’d think it would have been, at a
Clash of the Champions, Pillman decided on the spur of the moment he was
going to pull Heenan’s jacket off. Heenan freaked out, because he didn’t
know what was happening and was afraid Pillman was going to hurt his bad
neck. He swore right on the air, and walked off.
        Even though Wood told the interviewers for the tape the entire
story of how the gimmick was established, all of the most interesting
stuff didn’t make the air. My feeling is twofold. First, I think they
didn’t want it known that someone completely outside of wrestling had
come up with the most talked about gimmick at the time in wrestling. And
second, a key aspect of the gimmick is that Pillman completely outworked
Bischoff, which was okay, but in many ways, at least for a time even had
McMahon not knowing what was and wasn’t real. In WWF, Vince McMahon can
never, not for a moment, be out of complete control of every situation.
        Actually, McMahon was leery of Pillman. They met in Las Vegas, the
day after the Guerrero match. McMahon and Jim Ross were together at the
NATPE convention representing WWF, and WCW used to do shows in Vegas in
conjunction with the convention. In those days, all the major movers and
shakers in the TV industry were there. As you can imagine, security was
tight at those things as far as being able to get in. The funny part of
the story is it was my badge that got Pillman in. I was leaving when I
saw Brian in front of the doors, signing autographs, and showing some WCW
wrestlers with him publicity photos of Melanie under her stage name. None
of them were able to get in. Since I was leaving, I gave him my badge. He
did tell me he didn’t go so far as to display the name on the badge when
he went to see McMahon and Ross. But he was in character, all the time,
went up to Vince and hugged him, and made Vince uneasy, getting photos of
the two of them together. Vince thought he was nuts, and didn’t want
anything to do with him, thinking that at least some of those crazy
stories were real. And he was right. But Pillman gave Ross a wink to let
him know “it’s all a work.”
        Still, in a story I never heard, Joey Styles noted that one night
when they were doing production for the ECW television show at the home
of the mother of producer Charlie Brezene, that Pillman took a shit on
the floor of the living room for no reason. He said that soured him on
the whole Pillman gimmick.
        Eventually, both Ross and Jim Cornette went to bat for Pillman, and
McMahon turned around on him, and started seriously negotiating for him.
McMahon offered Pillman a guaranteed money contract, something he’d only
done for a few people. It wasn’t so much Pillman was so valuable he was
breaking his conventions on the business, but he had just lost Kevin Nash
and Scott Hall because he wouldn’t give them a guaranteed money deal, and
was looking for a measure of retribution.
        One thing not made clear in the documentary, for obvious reasons,
is that Pillman never wanted to go to WWF. The idea was always to use WWF
for leverage to get the “Luger” contract in WCW. To be honest, I don’t
know how much most knew about that, and even if they did, that wasn’t
going to be broached on a company DVD.
        In fact, the two of us used to argue the subject, because I
strongly felt he needed to go to WWF. Hulk Hogan was going to be the main
star in WCW, and even if he would work with Pillman, he’d never work
competitively with him. Plus, Hogan had his clique that he was going to
keep on top, and besides them, Sting, Luger, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and
Savage were all guaranteed top spots. Sure, he and Benoit could feud with
Flair & Anderson and probably have good-to-great matches (physically
Brian, even before the humvee wreck, was having severe back problems and
couldn’t perform at the level he had a few years earlier, but as a team
with Benoit against those two, it would be a piece of cake). But they’d
never be allowed to work on top. But Pillman felt WCW would, in the end,
offer the best money deal, because he figured Bischoff and Sullivan
wouldn’t want to lose the character they thought they had created. As
badly as he wanted the shot on top to prove his gimmick could draw money
(during the period he was “fired,” he desperately wanted to work Mexico
as an American heel, for almost no money, because in his own mind, he
needed to prove that he could draw money). He was almost 34, his body was
breaking down, and he saw his next contract as his last chance to really
make money in wrestling. My argument was that he wanted to work on top,
and even though there were no guarantees of as much money, a top spot in
WWF was going to end up paying as well as I suspected WCW would go, plus
WWF at the time was building around Shawn Michaels, and had no
challengers at the time who could match Pillman’s personality. They had
just lost Hall & Nash, and Bret Hart was leaving after Wrestlemania to
try his hand at acting. Austin was a mid-carder going nowhere and not
even yet on the map. Guys like Owen Hart, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Davey
Boy Smith and Jeff Jarrett couldn’t match his charisma and ability to get
over at that time. It was basically he and Vader looking at the time like
potential opponents for Michaels if he believed they’d give him the
chance.
        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–and 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 morphing into his
character in a bad way.
        He was constantly wired. Footage of him from that period in late
1995 and early 1996 has him almost looking like a junkie, all strung out
and very skinny. He would stay up all night, spending hours on the phone,
playing his character and basically becoming his character. While the
whole idea was to save money from his last few years in the business,
while this was all going on, he spent $85,000 on a humvee. Within weeks,
on April 15, 1996, after binging and not sleeping for several days, he
fell asleep at the wheel. He humvee went off the road, he got thrown 40
feet into a field, where he was found, laying in a pool of his own blood.
He face was so swollen that his friends who visited him in the hospital
didn’t recognize him. He needed his face reconstructed, and they had to
take bone from his hip to reconstruct his ankle.
        By this point, half the people in wrestling thought this was his
latest angle, even though it got extensive local media coverage. I’d also
seen the police reports, talked to people who saw him in the hospital,
and was updated by his wife daily, and still, I was being told that this
was just his best orchestrated charade. Kevin Sullivan swore to everyone
in WCW that he knew, saying the facial reconstruction was because he was
going to WWF and it was an angle where he’d go in looking exactly like
Michaels. Sullivan claimed the ankle surgery was just to fix the bad
ankle he’d had from football.
        Pillman went into deep depression. He had the wrestling world by
the balls and was about to sign a contract, most likely with WCW, and he
was laying in a hospital bed and the doctors told him the ankle damage
was so bad he would never wrestle again. He blamed himself for crashing
his car 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. Creative and how he
expected to be used played no part in the ultimate decision. It was only
about insuring he’d have a job for the term of the contract if he
couldn’t perform in the ring.
        By this point, in the summer of 1996, WWF rushed the Pillman
signing onto television in a failed attempt to close the ratings gap.
Pillman was traveling while he should have been rehabbing, appearing on
WWF television in various roles while they waited for him to be able to
wrestle. In doing so, his ankle didn’t heal properly. In September, he
was told he had damaged it to the point all the work in the first surgery
was for naught, and he’d need a second operation, where they’d have to
re-break and re-set the ankle.
        In storyline form, this was set up when Austin turned on him and
stuck the ankle in a chair and stomped on the chair. This reconstructive
surgery saw surgeons fuse his ankle into a walking position. Just a few
days after the surgery, Pillman came up with the infamous gun angle.
Pillman was recuperating at home, while Austin vowed to go to his house
and beat up his crippled former friend. WWF was moving the time slot of
Raw up one hour and decided to do a shock angle to establish the slot. As
Austin got past bodyguards and broke into the house, Pillman pulled a gun
on him. A gun blast went off and the satellite transmission went out.
They teased showing how things turned out until the end of the show. WWF
by this point was way behind in the ratings, and Pillman & Austin were
like little kids on Tuesday, waiting for the Monday numbers to come in,
thinking this angle was going to beat Nitro and end the streak, or at
least close the gap. Pillman wanted every bit of info in every
demographic. Both he and Austin were both highly disappointed as the
angle actually flopped in the ratings. People were switching to Nitro
when it was going on in every demographic except older women. Worse, the
USA Network was so mad Vince McMahon had to go on television and
apologize for it, and they’ve never done an angle involving a gun shot on
Raw since.
Pillman was kept home for a while to heal, and later brought back as the
co-host of “Shotgun Saturday Night,” a late night syndicated project with
the idea of presenting a more risque version of wrestling from a night
club setting that quickly died.
        Finally, in the spring of 1997, he returned as an active wrestler,
after roughly a year off. He did not have to come back. He should never
have come back. He felt guilty that he was collecting a big weekly
paycheck for being a wrestler, and in his mind, he had not contributed
enough to earn the money he was getting. It was a self-imposed guilt trip
that got him back in the ring before he should have. But the reality was,
any comeback would have been too soon.
        His acting ability by this point was great, but in the ring, he was
very limited. But what he didn’t let on, to anyone, was he was in
ridiculous pain. You had a guy who could not even get through airports
without pain pills, going out and working matches every night. Worse, you
had a guy who took more pride than most in his ability to have good
matches, and while he was involved in a few, even as bad off as he was,
most of the time he was just taking shortcuts to get through a match. His
indoctrination to the world of pro wrestling was the Stampede Wrestling
style, watching New Japan videotapes and hours of Ric Flair interviews
and matches. To him, what he was doing was not what he thought pro
wrestling was supposed to be, although he loved what he was doing outside
the ring, some of which was breaking new ground .
        Still, he was a participant in the year’s top WWF angle, the Hart
Foundation vs. Steve Austin and assorted other babyfaces. Stu Hart was
like a father figure to Pillman, and he always kept in contact with him
via phone long after he had left the Stampede territory. On the DVD, Jim
Ross said that Lou Thesz’s book “Hooker,” became Pillman’s bible. Pillman
was consumed by the book, and really did memorize every bit of
information in the book, but also it was his belief that Thesz was
largely full of shit. He would call up old-time wrestlers to try and
check on every story, and Stu was his favorite, since Stu, while often
oblivious to what was going on, had total recall of the 30s, 40s and 50s.
When Thesz stated that Stu Hart wasn’t really a tough guy or a great
wrestler (Hart was a Canadian national champion in freestyle wrestling
and would have competed in the 1940 Olympics, and possibly the 1944
Games, if they weren’t canceled due to World War II), that he was great
at demonstrating holds but couldn’t actually get real wrestlers into
those holds, Pillman took it as if the credibility of his own father was
being questioned. He called Thesz up and argued with him, saying he’d
seen Stu in action and that Stu was the real deal. From all the stories
he heard, and the photos of a young Stu Hart who was a national champion
in wrestling and a pro football player, Stu was one of Brian’s heroes.
He’d talk endlessly about Stu. “Look at photos of Stu Hart in the 40s. He
didn’t even lift weights. Stu was a stud.”
        He wanted to say Thesz was a fraud as a wrestler, but since Stu
vouched for Thesz was the real deal (categorizing him as not the very
best, which he considered people like George Gordienko and maybe a few
others like Rube Wright, Karl Gotch and Luther Lindsay, but Thesz was in
their league in Stu’s mind, or at worst, right below them), he accepted
that much.
        Pillman by this point thought he could only be a crazy heel, to the
point he didn’t accept that eventually he was going to be a babyface,
whether he liked it or not. So he was put into a grouping with Bret Hart,
Jim Neidhart, Davey Boy Smith and Owen Hart. The fact Bret Hart
personally picked him was basically saying he really was a member of the
Hart family. Very early in the run, they had a match in Canada, and were
cheered. Not only that, but Bret worked like a babyface. Brian called me
that night and complained Bret was compromising the angle, and that Bret
told him that night his idea is they were heels in the United States, but
at the same time, babyfaces in Canada and Europe. Brian thought it was
completely stupid, feeling Bret’s ego about not wanting to be booed in
Canada was going to ruin the angle. But he very quickly realized he
misread it.
        The greatest night of his career was July 6, 1997. The WWF was
producing a less than two hour “In Your House” PPV from the Saddledome in
Calgary. The main event was the Hart Foundation facing usual babyfaces
Austin & Goldust & Ken Shamrock & The Road Warriors. It was supposed to
be a throwaway show, but instead was probably one of the greatest PPV
shows in wrestling history. He called after it was over, admitting he
completely misread the landscape, absolutely loved being a babyface in
Canada, and said nothing he had ever done in the business, the matches
with Liger or Flair, the turning on Sting, compared to that night.
        But that was one of the few bright spots of an otherwise rapid
decline. Pillman became almost like a man possessed by the devil in the
movies and slowly losing grip, where his stage character was taking
over–even at home. Melanie would get mad as he’d be “The Loose Cannon” at
home when no cameras were around and it was only them and the children.
Wood refused to see him or talk to him the last few months of his life
because he was playing the character the two of them had created at his
house. One day Pillman came over to his house, and he noted fresh needle
marks in his arm and a swollen forearm. Wood told him to get out of his
house, and not come back. He had several good friends in the WWF at the
time, as he was part of the Hart Foundation, the company’s top heel
group, and friends like Mick Foley and Austin who he had known from WCW
were becoming superstars at the time. But most were having nothing to do
with him. His behavior was the talk of the wrestlers, who were trying to
figure out a way to confront him on it, fearing the worst. Before his
death, about the only connection Wood had was through Karel, who in mid-
September of 1997 gave Wood the message that “Paul Heyman told me to let
you know your buddy is on some Mexican quaaludes and isn’t going to last
more than a few more weeks.”
        That wasn’t the only time he said it. A few weeks earlier, when
Heyman was talking to Shane Douglas about the “November to Remember” PPV
on November 30, 1997, in Pittsburgh, Douglas suggested Pillman to be his
opponent. They had started a feud in 1996, but because Pillman had the
wreck, he never wrestled a match in ECW. Heyman wouldn’t consider it,
telling Douglas,”Brian isn’t going to be alive by then.”
        I was still in regular contact with him, and half the time, he was
still brilliant when it came to business, but the other half, he was
scary, in the way you knew this wasn’t going to have a happy ending. And
it wasn’t as if I wasn’t hearing about what Heyman was telling others.
Company officials were getting extremely worried about his behavior. He
wrecked three rental cars, two on the same weekend. Wrestlers who liked
him were steering clear of him and afraid to travel with him. Once, while
on an airplane, he was on one of those old airplane telephones shouting
and cursing loudly out of control at his wife. Jim Ross started
counseling him, sometimes several times a week. Around Labor Day, Ross
ordered him to take a drug test. He went nuts, admitting he was taking
pain pills, just like everyone else in the company, because he believed
it was impossible to be a pro wrestler without them. He was vehement
about being picked on, particularly because it was by Ross, who in his
deluded mind, he saw as a close friend who betrayed him. He insisted he
was doing nothing nobody else wasn’t doing, and claimed Shawn Michaels,
one of the company’s biggest stars, was worse off than he was, but was
politically untouchable for some reason. He said he had never gone on
television so loaded he couldn’t perform, noting another top star had
done so twice in recent weeks, with impunity. He lashed out at Ross,
called me and told me they would find nothing in the test but the same
pain killers everyone else was taking, and said he wanted to quit and go
back to WCW. In fact, when the test came back, it only showed
prescription pain killers and a small amount of Decadurabolin (an
anabolic steroid) in his system.
        I tried to talk him out of quitting, but he kept saying how others
guys would pass out after shows and their face would fall into their
food, yet he’s the one and only person singled out for drug tests. With
the benefit of hindsight, Pillman should never have been allowed to
wrestle again. At the time, I didn’t know if WWF could save him, and
despite all the wrestlers who had died that I knew, none of whom were as
scary at the end, I never fully acknowledged that he could die. When
Vince McMahon made the announcement during the pre-game show at the Bad
Blood PPV, that was the first I heard. It was the only time watching
wrestling that I ever went into shock. But I knew something bad was
inevitable. I did think WCW was the wrong place for him to be at that
time because he would be walking into a political minefield and I didn’t
think anyone there was going to intercede if he had problems. WWF had far
less talent so he was guaranteed TV time, even though he couldn’t work
much. In WCW, the fact he had turned into such a great out-of-the-ring
performer was going to work against him because that company had become
all about the top guys burying anyone threatening. Plus, there was a
wrestling war going on and I didn’t believe WWF would let him out of his
contract, even if they were afraid of him, and have him show up on Nitro.
And by asking for a release, which he did, he would be burying himself
politically.
        On the DVD, Eric Bischoff revealed Pillman had called him and
wanted to come back. He had told me he was going to call Bischoff and I
was trying to talk him out of it, but once he made his mind up, that was
how it was. Melanie wanted him to go to rehab because she was worried
about the level of pain medication he was taking. His response was to buy
a T-shirt and wear it around the house that read, “Rehab is for
quitters.” He blamed WWF for ruining his marriage and started going off
that when the company is ruining your marriage and your life, you have to
get out of the company. He asked for his release, and at the time there
was an open slot in the Four Horsemen that he figured he could slide
into.
        He and his wife had further problems. Melanie was pregnant, which I
actually didn’t know until the day of his death. I knew things were going
really bad between them. He never told me that he knew she was pregnant.
She told me she had never told him as things had been bad and she had
just found out herself. In hindsight, based on one conversation when he
was on a rant maybe two weeks before his death, I believe he may have
known. I also believed he questioned whether the baby was his. Other
friends of his after his death told me that was what he had believed at
the time . She filed for divorce after he wrote a letter to his children,
calling his wife some graphic words that young children shouldn’t hear.
She got a restraining order against him. He violated that, and had to
spend four straight Saturday mornings in a court-mandated Anger
Management Class, which meant he had to be taken off all the Friday night
house shows. Still, in the last week or so before his death, they did
make up and played softball together that week. He was in so much pain
that when he got a hit, he couldn’t run the bases.
        On October 3, 1997, he missed the house show in Winnipeg due to his
mandatory classes. The next night he worked at the St. Paul Civic Center
against Goldust. Pillman was sleeping on the floor in the dressing room
during the show. He had a few drinks after the matches, was described as
being tipsy, when he went into his hotel room at about 10:45 p.m., called
his wife and left a message.
        October 5, 1997, in St. Louis, was the Badd Blood PPV. He was
scheduled in a mid-card match with Goldust, and their angle with he and
Terri Runnels was scheduled to take an even darker turn after the match.
The angle took advantage of his greatest strengths at the time, his
acting ability and ability to play a convincing real-life psychotic
character with new cartoon aspects. Between the PPV show, and the next
two television tapings, the storyline was to wind up with Marlena, also
called Terri, leaving Goldust for Pillman and entering into a kinky and
bizarre sexual relationship. Neither Pillman nor Bret Hart were there in
the afternoon. Hart had a reputation for always being late and was a big
enough star he could get away with it. The feeling was Pillman was
probably with him. Hart showed up, and told everyone that he hadn’t seen
Pillman.
        At 1:09 p.m. Central time that day, he was found dead on his bed at
the Budget-tel Motel. There were several bottles of pills, muscle relaxes
and pain killers, all in prescription cannisters, mostly prescribed by
Dr. Joel Hackett of Indianapolis, who was years later brought up on
charges for his prescription writing to pro wrestlers. Only a few months
later, Louis Mucciolo (Louie Spicolli) died in his sleep at home with
several bottles of pills prescribed by Hackett in his room. They were not
the only wrestlers to die with a large amount of pain pills prescribed by
Hackett.
        Police came to the Pillman house and told Melanie the news. She
fainted, and Brittany, whose mother had committed suicide, shrieked like
an animal that had just been stabbed. The WWF got the word, and Vince
McMahon felt it was his duty to go on the pre-game show and make the
announcement. To most people, that PPV was a total blur. None of the
matches were particularly good except one. Michaels was somehow was able
to ignore what happened and had what was at the time an off-the-charts
Hell in a Cell match with Undertaker in what was really a one man show.
Probably nobody else on the show was really thinking about their matches.
        The WWF wasn’t as polished, if that’s the word, about handling of
the death. They had all the wrestlers come out at the beginning of Raw
the next night and play a ten bell salute. Much of the show was built up
for an interview with Melanie Pillman. Whatever the design or intentions
were, on that night, it came off as the tackiest ratings ploy in history,
with the constant hyping of the interview. It was not the tribute show,
with the out-of-character interviews and devoid of angles and promotions
that the company has sadly mastered doing with experience. She wanted to
go on, largely because she wanted the wives of every WWF wrestler to get
her message not to ignore if their husbands were using heavy levels of
painkillers, because she knew how rampant it was. In hindsight, the
unscripted interview was terribly uncomfortable to viewers, both due to
the hype, the clumsiness of her conversation with McMahon and the fact it
was too soon probably for either because of the shock she was going
through to have this discussion on television.
        Two days after Pillman died, WWF’s General Counsel sent letters out
to several doctors well known for dispensing pills and steroids to
wrestlers, telling them they were no longer welcome in their dressing
rooms. Hackett was among them. Hackett, who was African-American, tried
to make a racial case out of it. The WWF wrote to the doctors telling
them dispensing of medication to wrestlers should only be performed
through an individual appointment at the physician’s office in a
traditional doctor/patient relationship. They later singled Hackett out,
and told all talent to avoid him, fearing the feds were going to go after
him because of his prescriptions associated with several wrestler deaths.
They feared he would become the next Dr. George Zahorian. But since he
had developed a reputation for being a handy man with the prescription
pad, several WWF stars were regularly getting stuff from him. In fact,
the week after Spicolli died, in what was an amazingly short-sighted
move, some of the top WCW stars flew Hackett in to the Cow Palace, where
they had a PPV, so they had a guy right there.
        In trying to make it as nice as possible, Ross said he believes he
died of a broken heart, because he could no longer perform the way he
wanted to. Ross said it wasn’t an overdose, and had nothing to do with
steroids. It cited his family history of his father also dying relatively
young. Like Brian’s children, Brian had no recollections whatsoever of
his father. His father died at 50, when Brian was only a few months old,
of a heart attack. He was going to work one day, missed his stop, stepped
out of the train at the next stop, and collapsed. Brian’s mother raised
him and two older daughters as a single parent working as waitress.
Nevertheless, Brian’s death certificate did list cocaine as a
contributing cause of death, and the unusually enlarged heart and damaged
left ventricle found were remarkably similar to so many wrestling deaths
that would take place over the next eight years.
        Steroids were a funny issue with him. He used them in college and
pro football. He was very learned on the subject, hated them, got all the
muscle tears that a little guy bulked up on them would get playing
football and even had other health problems from them. But still, because
his natural bodyweight was maybe 195-200 pounds clean, and probably
closer to 180 if he’d never used steroids at all, he used them on-and-off
during most of his wrestling career. His wife believed the heart attack
was caused by Growth Hormone, which he had been getting from Dr. Edmund
Chen in Palm Springs until just before his death, when he stopped, due to
the cost. ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” in doing a story on Pillman and
other wrestling deaths, had Melanie Pillman state it was Hulk Hogan who
connected the two. Hogan never publicly responded to the piece, but
privately denied knowing the doctor or having any idea where the story
came from. The reporter, when airing Pillman’s claim, said on the air
that another wrestler they talked with confirmed the story.
        The WWF paid Melanie for three months based on Brian’s downside
guarantee after his death and later put out a special magazine on his
life to benefit his family. At another point maybe a year or so later,
after she called Vince and feared for losing her house, Vince McMahon
wrote her a $10,000 check. Brian had tried to get life insurance about a
year or two before his death. It was before the wreck, and there must
have been something amiss when he was examined, because he was only
allowed to buy $135,000 worth of insurance. Unlike the wrestling funerals
in recent years where many wrestlers attend, aside from area independent
wrestlers, nobody came to Brian’s funeral except Joey Maggs, Bruce Hart
and Bischoff (Vince McMahon and Ross attended his wake). Still, he was so
popular that the biggest independent wrestling show annually over the
next few years was the Brian Pillman Memorial show held in Cincinnati. In
the middle of a national wrestling war, ECW, WCW and WWF all sent talent
to appear on the same stage. Before long, the show was a full day and
night’s worth of matches, because so many wrestlers, both big names and
small, wanted to be on the show. Many of the biggest names in the
business attended those shows, including Flair and Austin, which
routinely raised $35,000 or more for the family. Eddie Guerrero, Chris
Benoit, Dean Malenko, Konnan and Rey Mysterio came virtually every year.
The year Austin showed up, he wrote a personal $20,000 check. Another
year, Kevin Nash showed up, got drunk, pledged he would write a $20,000
check if Missy Hyatt, who came to every show, would take off her top.
Hyatt noted the audience was filled with young children and seemed mad it
was even suggested. Nash agreed at the show to write the check anyway,
but he sobered up and changed his mind. On the 2000 show, William Regal,
who nearly lost his life, let alone his career, due to his own drug
issues, was down and out and literally saved his career in a spectacular
match with Benoit.
        Melanie remarried very shortly after Brian died. At the last
Pillman show, there was a distinct negative vibe, partially because she
brought her husband to the show and even though they had at that point
been married for a few years, many of the wrestlers started questioning
why they were doing this. When Les Thatcher, who organized the shows
every year, told Melanie there wouldn’t be another one, because he simply
didn’t have the time with a new job he had gotten as a WWF trainer, she
was furious, and it turned into an ugly exchange, leaving bitter feelings
on both sides. In the end, she lost the house.
        The true tragedy of all the wrestling deaths is not that fans are
deprived of seeing great wrestlers who should have performed on the big
stage longer. Wrestling is an assembly line business, and there is always
somebody new to fill the spot and except for the most ardent fans, most
of these people become vague faded memories. The tragedy is the families
they left behind. Their lives aren’t of the assembly line variety, and
there is no replacing the missing part. And if the children left behind
are young enough, they don’t even get the benefit of the vague faded
memories.

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