First Favorite Wrestler – How Brian Pillman Became My Favorite Wrestler
Growing up, it was always hard for me to say who my favorite wrestler was. As a child of the 80s, I was immersed in the world of eccentric characters that appeared on television every weekend and superstars earned my support for a variety of reasons. I adored the Von Erichs because they reminded me of my older cousins, a family unit who always had each other’s back. Dallas and Dynasty were required viewing for my family and The Four Horsemen were wrestling’s version of the 80s excess that I loved about those primetime soaps. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat was a martial arts movie hero come to life. The Ultimate Warrior looked as though he leapt out of one of my Marvel comics, a heroic powerhouse who was virtually indestructible. It felt like every interest I had at that point in my young life was being represented inside the squared circle.
Then came Brian Pillman.
I was approaching age 9 when Pillman burst onto the national scene in World Championship Wresting and I was immediately captivated. Here was this young guy, smaller than your usual pro wrestling powerhouses, doing moves I hadn’t seen before. I had loved the way the British Bulldogs bounced around the ring, but now here was someone who felt closer to my age (despite his babyface looks, Pillman was actually 27 years old).
To this day I’ve never been a Hulkamaniac. My love for the Ultimate Warrior stems from my love for comic book superheroes. These were the two unstoppable icons that kids were being fed a healthy diet of, but neither ever felt relatable on a human level. Pillman reminded me of the titular character from the movie Lucas in that he was an underdog who was out to prove that he belonged in the ring with the best opponents that WCW had to offer. As a young kid who had been doing martial arts for five years at that point and had sparred with kids bigger than me with mixed results, I felt a kinship to WCW’s newest arrival.
As time went on, I felt that Pillman’s character was evolving right at the time I was maturing. At age 12, I was coming of age, growing tired of certain things from my youth, and there was Pillman, shifting from young upstart to an obnoxious heel. Many times when a virtuous hero turns his back on the fans, the fans refuse to accept the shift in attitude. Not me. I was all in on Pillman’s new persona and when he doubled down by teaming with “Stunning” Steve Austin (who I had enjoyed since first seeing him wrestle on ESPN) and creating a tandem that appealed to my movie-obsessed mind, I was ecstatic. The Hollywood Blonds became must-see viewing. It didn’t matter if they were up against two journeymen on Worldwide or using underhanded tactics to best stars like Ricky Steamboat and Shane Douglas, because I was there, in front of the TV.
By the time I entered high school, the Hollywood Blonds were no more, and Pillman was back to being a high flying, high-fiving babyface, but he was being overshadowed by a pack of interlopers. WCW had been overcome by Hulk Hogan and his troupe of wacky WWF rejects. He was dragging guys like “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Sting into feuds with oddballs like Kamala, Brutus Beefcake, and Avalanche (formerly Earthquake). Pillman was on a virtual treadmill, winning and losing matches against guys like Alex Wright and a not-yet “Buff” Marcus Bagwell. In an era where everything around me was become cutting edge, Pillman started to feel stale, or maybe misplaced. My support for him remained strong, and just when I had grown bored of what WCW had become, Fall Brawl ’95 happened.
On the same night that Hogan led his supergroup into a War Games match against the cartoonish Dungeon of Doom, Pillman had an epic encounter with Johnny B. Badd in the opening match. The two men pulled out all the stops and there were hints of heel Pillman coming through. Badd won the encounter, but it served as a preview for things to come, because when Arn Anderson battled best friend Ric Flair later in the night, it was Pillman who hit the ring and kicked Flair in the back of the head to help Arn win. Flair is beloved by almost everyone who is or has ever been a wrestling fan, so there probably weren’t too many people happy with Pillman that night, but I certainly was.
Now, this is around the time that I began subscribing to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Dave Meltzer’s weekly updates on the state of the wrestling industry and those within it captivated me. I read it at lunch, during class, and at home. I’d read and re-read it. I loved absorbing information on contract status, plans that changed, the things expected to happen and the matches that could have been. This was also the time period where everything felt more edgy. It wasn’t just television, music or fashion… it was everything and everybody. Pillman had his finger on the pulse of things and knew this too, and that’s why in late 1995, the “Loose Cannon” came to be.
In a world where being predictable now meant that you were safe or boring, Brian Pillman took being unpredictable to the next level. He would scream and curse. He would sneak up on announcers and legitimately scare them. He would go “off script” and get into it with friend and foe alike. Pillman was once again the star of the show simply by being an extension of his true self, a wild man who was sick and tired of playing second fiddle to milquetoast superstars.
By the mid 90’s bland babyfaces were not cool, nor were wacky characters like wrestling clowns, vikings, or natural disasters. Pillman was the alternative. He was the grunge and gangsta rap of wrestling. 1996 is my personal pick for favorite year regarding anything I love in popular culture; movies, television, music, and of course pro wrestling. Brian Pillman’s “Loose Cannon” character, one that appeared in all three major companies before the year was through, was a huge part of why.
Once he was in the WWF, Pillman could no longer wrestle at the level that first drew me in, so what he couldn’t do in the ring he tried to make up for outside of it. Storylines were crafted to make him more detestable. An alliance with Bret Hart and the new Hart Foundation (which made sense since Brian trained for wrestling under Stu Hart) kept him in the spotlight even when injuries hampered him. By this point, the Monday Night Wars had taken the world by storm and even the most casual wrestling fans were hooked on what was happening in the WWF and WCW each week. Foul-mouthed Steve Austin was a superstar, Hulk Hogan (of all people) was now a rebellious badass who had people eating out of the palm of his hand, and Brian was working hard to keep his psychotic character relevant in an industry that was now colored with shades of grey.
Sadly, we’d never get to see how big of a part Pillman could play in the Attitude Era because he passed away in September of 1997, the morning he was to appear on the WWF’s Bad Blood pay-per-view. I was rattled by the news of his passing more-so than any other celebrity death at that point. The evolution of his persona through the years matched up perfectly with my maturation and growing pains. His matches were always exciting to watch whether he was a high flying hero or a heel coming up with new ways to cheat. I’d root for him no matter what side of the locker room he represented.
Although I’ve had my fandom fade away and never return when it comes to certain stars (looking at you Randy Orton), Brian Pillman has remained my favorite wrestler to this very day. So, while you’re housebound or bored during these odd times, cue up the WWE Network or YouTube and see for yourself why Pillman made such an impression on me.