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Gone Too Soon: Remembering Brian Pillman & His Legacy

Not too many famous people come from my hometown of Norwood, Ohio. It’s a small town, technically inside Cincinnati but big enough to be its own city. People there take pride in where they live – they can insult it but nobody else can. It’s ours, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Brian Pillman was also born and raised in Norwood. While the larger wrestling fan base and industry loved him for his talents and achievements, I also loved him because we shared roots. He was my childhood hero and at 35, the same age Brian was when he passed away,  I still admire him just as much as I did when he was setting the wrestling world on fire.

Brian grew up in and out of the hospital, having over 30 surgeries before he was 3 years old due to throat polyps. This attributed to his trademark raspy voice most would associate with him in his professional career. Brian also grew up fragile and small in size, which fueled his “stop at nothing mentality”. Excelling in football, Brian played in the NFL and CFL (Canadian Football League) before entering the profession he would make his legacy in professional wrestling.

When you think about it, Brian’s career in wrestling was really short, when compared to the list of achievements he amassed. In total, Brian had an 11-year career in the squared circle from debuting in Stampede Pro Wrestling and his death, while an active member of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Especially in yesteryear, it took wrestlers years to make it big in the national promotions. Pillman was a rare talent who broke through quickly, first due to his high flying abilities and later, because of his mind.

Anyone reading this article remembers Pillman’s run in WCW’s light heavyweight division in the early ’90s, including those classic matches with Jushin “Thunder” Liger, which were a precursor to the more athletic style of pro wrestling we would see evolve over the coming years, giving us modern stars such as AJ Styles and Seth Rollins. While the fast-paced, acrobatic style was more common outside of the U.S., Pillman brought it into our living rooms here in America. It wouldn’t be the last time he was a pioneer in the industry.

Brian Pillman tries to escape Liger's attack on his legs

It’s not too common that a tag team ascends to the main event level of any promotion but that’s exactly what Brian and his partner, “Stunning” Steve Austin, collectively known as the Hollywood Blonds did. Both Pillman and Austin knew they were main event caliber talents and that swagger came out in the act, two men who didn’t want to be deprived of the opportunities they deserved. Their feud with Ric Flair and Arn Anderson gave wrestling fans the never-forgotten “Flair for the Old” skit that saw the much younger Blonds vent their real-life frustration as part of the storyline feud.

After the Blonds split up, Pillman became part of a talent exchange with ECW, and Pillman’s next phase was soon born. Partially inspired by the realism he saw in ECW, Pillman developed his “Loose Cannon” persona, often working not only the fans but also his peers, leaving everyone to wonder if it was just an act or if he really was going crazy. Moments such as Pillman referring to Kevin Sullivan on pay per view as the Booker (wrestling lingo for the person in charge of writing the storylines) simply wasn’t the norm back then. Over the years, reality would break through a lot more into wrestling, but back then the business was protected and Pillman was way ahead of the curve once again. While credit for the “Attitude Era” that saw wrestling go mainstream in the late ‘90s is typically given to Austin, Vince McMahon, and even Vince Russo, to deny that Brian Pillman kicked that door in first would be flat out wrong.

Pillman’s Loose Cannon persona would allow him to leave WCW, convincing Eric Bischoff to let him out of his deal to get his gimmick moreover in ECW. While Pillman would make a brief stop in ECW, he would soon be in the WWE, reunited with his former Hollywood Blond partner, Steve Austin, who would become the biggest star in the business in just a few years time. While Pillman’s various injuries over the years prevented him from being the in-ring star he was previously capable of being, his personality still shone brightly.

Throughout his WWE tenure, perhaps the most notable angle Pillman would be a part of was reuniting with the Hart family who had originally befriended him and trained him when he first decided to enter the professional wrestling business. It is said that the Harts thought of Pillman as a brother and he would be the only non-member of the family to be a part of the Hart Foundation, which would be one of the hottest acts of 1997.

Brian Pillman delivering a trademark Loose Cannon promo

Brian’s death on October 5th, 1997 shocked the wrestling world. While it was ruled a heart attack it would later become known that he suffered from the same heart condition that killed his father, when Brian was only 3. The wrestling world over the next 10 years lost many, many more names and faces we knew and loved. While Brian had always been a trendsetter within the industry, his death appeared to open a floodgate of sorts. A dark time in the industry was ushered in, behind the scenes.

As the story goes, when Vince McMahon was informing the locker room about Brian’s death, it was during that same speech that he admitted that times had changed and he needed to modernize. The “Attitude Era” was born the day Brian left us. While some might call that coincidence, I won’t. Brian Pillman was the “Attitude Era” before it had a name. His death prevented him from reaping the rewards that came with the business boom but he was absolutely a major part of the reason why it came to be.

After Brian’s death, in a truly unprecedented move, wrestlers from all 3 major organizations (WWE, WCW, and ECW) appeared at a show in the Norwood Middle School to raise money for the wife and 6 kids Brian left behind. This was at a time when the competition between these companies was cutthroat. For this to happen, was nothing short of a miracle. Only Brian could make this happen. I remember standing out in the rain, 13 years old, waiting to get inside my school to see some of the biggest names in the wrestling industry unite to help the family of their fallen brother. When it was my turn to meet the former tag team partner of Brian Pillman, his best friend and now the biggest star in the business, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, I remember asking him to give my principal a “Stone Cold Stunner”. Austin looked at me dead serious and said “If he gets out of line, I will son”.

Brian Pillman’s legacy lives on in current WWE Universal Champion Seth Rollins. It lives on when wrestlers blend reality into their storylines when promotions let go of their business feuds and come together. It lives on in his son, Brian Pillman Jr, who is quickly making a name for himself in the business. Much like James Dean, Brian Pillman was only with us for a short period of time but he changed this world for the better. From his fighting spirit as a kid to the way he pushed the business he lived forward, Brian Pillman deserves to be remembered as one of wrestling’s best. For me, he’s still the guy who grew up down the street from me, that hometown pride that achieved his dreams and unfortunately, left us too soon. Brian Pillman, remembered always.

Written by Andrew Grevas

Andrew is the owner & CEO of 25YL Media, the parent company of Sports Obsessive, Lifelong Cincinnati Bengals fan, obsessed with dynasty football leagues and former pro wrestling commentator who finally got his one more match from CM Punk.

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