Pulse Wrestling’s Top 100 Wrestlers of the Modern Era: #51 – Brian Pillman

51. BRIAN PILLMAN

Real NameBrian Pillman
AliasesFlyin’ Brian; Yellow Dog; The Loose Cannon; The Rogue Horseman
HometownCincinnati, Ohio
Debuted1986
Titles HeldStampede International Tag Team (2x, with Bruce Hart) ; NWA United States Tag Team (with Tom Zenk);
WCW World Light Heavyweight (2x); NWA World Tag Team (with Stunning Steve Austin) ; WCW World Tag Team (with Stunning Steve Austin)
Other AccomplishmentsFirst WCW World Light Heavyweight Champion; Winner of Wrestling Observer Rookie of the Year award in 1987; Winner of Wrestling Observer Tag Team of the Year award in 1993 (with Stunning Steve Austin); Winner of Wrestling Observer Most Underrated Wrestler award in 1994; Winner of Wrestling Observer Feud of the Year award (Hart Foundation vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin; Ranked #84 of the top 500 singles wrestlers of the PWI years by Pro Wrestling Illustrated; Ranked #50 of the top 100 tag teams of the PWI years by Pro Wrestling Illustrated (with Stunning Steve Austin); Participant in first ever match on WCW Nitro, died on 5th October 1997 from heart disease; ‘Loose Cannon’ gimmick broke new boundaries in mid ’90s wrestling; played football in NFL and CFL

Looking at the cold hard facts, Brian Pillman should have never been on this list. He was 6 feet tall and weighed 226 pounds – not exactly what the “big-man” era of the 1980’s was looking for. In addition, Pillman had undergone numerous throat surgeries since he was two years old to remove recurring polyps.

Despite his physical limitations, Pillman began playing football in high school where he excelled. He walked onto the team at Miami University and set a school record in tackles for loss. After graduation, Pillman joined his hometown Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent. In 1985 he was sent to the Buffalo Bills, where he was the last player cut before the season started. Still determined to succeed, Pillman headed to the Canadian Football League in 1986 where he played for the Calgary Stampeders.

After his football career had ended, Pillman finally found himself in the right place at the right time. Calgary had long been a wrestling hotbed in Canada (that didn’t focus on size as much as skill), and Pillman soon began training with the legendary Stu Hart and his family.

Pillman debuted later in 1986 for Stampede Wrestling and joined Bruce Hart in a tag team known as Bad Company. Bad Company would claim the Stampede Tag Team titles by defeating Ron Starr and the Cuban Assassin in the final round of a tournament. Ironically, another tournament in October of that year would come close to ending their reign. After a match with Jerry Morrow and Makhan Singh the titles were held up. Bad Company ended the feud in November with a decisive victory to regain their belts. In July of 1988 Morrow and the Assassin would take the belts away and end Bad Company’s only title reign.

(Interestingly enough, during 1988 Stampede stationed Pillman’s real-life girlfriend at ringside. She was introduced as his sister so that he could save her from the heels and gain heat for himself by doing so. His “sister” would return to the ring years later without Pillman under the name Beulah McGillicutty.)

Pillman returned to America in 1989 and signed with Jim Crockett’s World Championship Wrestling. It didn’t take long for him to gain gold as he and Tom Zenk defeated Fabulous Freebirds Michael Hayes and Jimmy Garvin to win a tournament that would crown new WCW United States Tag Team champions in February of 1990. They would lose the titles to the Midnight Express in May.

Pillman got another shot at gold the following October as he entered a tournament to crown WCW’s first World Light Heavyweight champion. At the 1991 Halloween Havoc Pillman defeated Richard Morton to win the belt and become the first champion.

Pillman held the title until Christmas Day, when he lost the belt to Jushin Liger. He regained the belt at the following February’s Superbrawl and lost it again in June at Beach Blast to Scotty Flamingo (who would, three years later, become better known as Raven).

In 1992 Pillman turned heel and, after a brief time working with Barry Windham, allied himself with the cocky Stunning Steve Austin to form the Hollywood Blonds. On March 3, 1993 they won the unified NWA/WCW World Tag Team titles from Ricky Steamboat and Shane Douglas.

Steamboat and Douglas, however, weren’t through. They donned masks and began billing themselves as Dos Hombres. At the 1993 Slamboree, Dos Hombres were scheduled to take on the Blonds in a steel cage match for the gold but there was one problem. Shane Douglas was no longer with WCW. Undeterred, WCW put the mask on Tom Zenk and the Blondes won the match to end the feud.

The Blonds set their sights even higher as they targeted Ric Flair and Arn Anderson next. The mockery started on Ric Flair’s interview program a Flair for the Gold, where they did nothing but insult Flair and Anderson through the entire segment. The Blonds continued by launching their own segment – a Flair for the Old, where Pillman dressed up a senile Ric Flair and Austin stuffed a Pillow under his shirt to portray Anderson.

The feud appeared to culminate at the 23rd Clash of the Champions. Flair was making his long-awaited in ring return as he and Anderson challenged the Blonds for the titles in a two out of three falls match. Flair and Anderson won the match but not the titles. The match ended with Barry Windham running in to attack Flair, which drew a DQ.

Still, Anderson wasn’t willing to let this rest. After Paul Roma was recruited as a Horseman, he and Anderson joined forces to go after the Blonds. After the Blonds retained by dirty tactics at July’s Beach Blast, WCW had another problem. Pillman went down with a knee injury. At the following Clash of the Champions the makeshift team of Austin and Lord Steven Regal lost the belts to Anderson and Roma. It was also the end of the Blonds.

When Pillman returned he found himself marking time until late 1995. At that time he allied himself with Arn Anderson, who was feuding with Ric Flair. A match was set for Halloween Havoc that would settle the feud – Anderson and Pillman vs. Flair and Sting. Needless to say, Flair turned on Sting and the Horsemen were reborn. They were soon joined by new WCW signee Chris Benoit.

Pillman had been undergoing a personality change through 1995 as well. His personality had grown darker and more unpredictable, which had earned him the nickname of the Loose Cannon. This was nowhere more evident than at the 1996 Superbrawl. He’d been feuding with Kevin Sullivan and was set to take on Sullivan in a strap match that would only end when one man said the words “I respect you.” Less than a minute into the match, Pillman grabbed the mic, said, “I respect you, Bookerman,” and left the ring.

The truth is somewhat harder to discern as Pillman had his side and Eric Bischoff has his. Apparently, Pillman convinced Bischoff that the next logical step would be for him to be given a release from his WCW contract (Bischoff himself claims this was done so that Pillman could go to ECW and continue developing his Loose Cannon character). Regardless of the motivation, the outcome was the same. Pillman was gone.

Pillman headed to ECW for a time. In his first appearance (at the 1996 Cyberslam) he shredded Bischoff and WCW during an interview with Joey Styles, then made history by saying that since he’d pissed on WCW verbally, he might as well do it physically, then began trying to undo his pants. ECW security, led by Tod Gordon and Shane Douglas quickly hustled Pillman out of the ring. Pillman, however, broke free and attacked a “fan” in the audience with a fork he’d hidden in his boot.

Pillman’s stay in ECW would not be long. In April of 1996, he fell asleep at the wheel of his Hummer and was involved in a car accident. The Hummer was totaled and Pillman’s ankle was shattered. In addition, he was in a coma for a week. Pillman’s doctors were forced to operate on his ankle and fused it, which spelled the end of his high-flying style and forced him to adopt one that was more mat-based.

In June, before Pillman was even off his crutches, he signed a contract with the WWF (which was notably the first guaranteed contract in WWF history). While Pillman recovered he was placed as a color commentator on Shotgun Saturday Night.

Still, Pillman longed to be back in the ring and, after recovering (and attacking a “fan” at a Shotgun taping) he found himself back in active competition. Soon after Wrestlemania 13, Pillman joined forces with Bret and Owen Hart, the British Bulldog, and Jim Neidhart to reform the Hart Foundation. The anti-American Harts soon found themselves at odds with Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Pillman himself would soon bear the brunt of his former partner’s wrath.

Off-screen, Pillman’s health had been deteriorating. He had returned to the ring too soon after his ankle injury and he had damaged the ankle further. To remove him from active competition, he was attacked by Steve Austin, who placed Pillman’s ankle inside a folding chair and stomped it shut in an angle today known as “Pillmanizing.” This would also lead to one of Raw’s most infamous moments.

In November of 1996, Austin had declared that he was going after Pillman. On the November 4th Raw, Kevin Kelly had a live remote at Pillman’s home, where Pillman was recovering from a follow-up ankle surgery. During an interview with Kelly, Pillman pulled out a pistol and asked what would happen when Austin 3:16 met Pillman nine millimeter.

Outside, Austin brawled his way through a group of Pillman’s friends and broke into the house through the back door. Just before the feed went to static Pillman produced the pistol and aimed it at Austin.

Commentator Vince McMahon demanded updates from Kelly, who said only that there had been a couple of “explosions.” As Raw ended, we got the feed back and saw Austin being dragged from the house while Pillman screamed that he was going to kill him (and managed to drop the f-bomb in the process).

As might be expected, the USA network was less than pleased with not only the whole angle with the gun, but also the profanity going out on a live broadcast. The WWF and Pillman both apologized, and the relationship between the WWF and USA returned to normal.

Throughout 1997, Pillman continued to work with the Hart Foundation until he shifted his attention to Goldust. Pillman wound up pursuing Goldust’s manager (and wife) Marlena, eventually winning her services for 30 days at the Ground Zero In Your House. Pillman went on to torment Goldust by running vignettes of Pillman’s XXX Files on the Titantron.

The rematch at the Badd Blood In Your House would never take place. During the night before the show Brian Pillman passed away in his sleep. His cause of death was listed as arteriosclerotic heart disease. He was 35 years old.

During his short life, Pillman showed that he was unafraid to buck the status quo, and that trend only grew in his wrestling career (especially once he joined up with fellow rebel Steve Austin). The Hollywood Blonds shot to notoriety with their assaults on legends like Flair and Anderson and are still remembered fondly today. Once Pillman began developing the Loose Cannon character, all bets were off. He shattered the walls of kayfabe by “outing” Kevin Sullivan as the WCW booker. He gave a promo that was too extreme for ECW. He got the better of Austin and caused waves between the WWF and their longtime broadcaster.

Pillman may have been a rebel, but he loved the business of wrestling. The effects of Pillman’s rebellion are still being felt today. Despite his short life, Pillman definitely earned his place on this list of the top 100 wrestlers of the modern era.

The entire Top 100 Wrestlers feature can be found here.

Join our newsletter

never miss the latest news, reviews, live event coverage, audio podcasts, exclusive interviews and commentary for Movies, TV, Music, Sports, Comics, Video Games!