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Dark Side of the Ring Season 3 Premiere: How Brian Pillman Broke Wrestling’s Fourth Wall


In 1996, I was in college and was introduced to two phenomena that unfortunately coincided.  The first was uninterrupted internet access.  The other was the premature death of professional wrestlers. As a northeasterner, I was a WWF kid but one of the WCW guys I went out of my way to watch was “Flyin’” Brian Pillman.  By the time I was grown, the character and the man had changed while I blinked and, when I woke up one Monday morning to check the digital version of wrestling insider news called “dirt sheets,” I found out that Brian Pillman was dead.  In Vice’s two-part season premiere of Dark Side of the Ring, we learn what changed the tiger striped acrobat into an unpredictable madman both in life and in front of the camera.

Brian Pillman’s sister, Linda, paints the picture of a childhood that made him every bit as tough as his in-ring persona.  Dozens of throat surgeries kept him hospitalized for long stretches and left him with a signature raspy voice.  His requisite silence to heal his surgeries is speculated by the infamous wrestling historian, Jim Cornette, to have given rise to his love of expressing himself.  The taunts of his classmates then may have equally resulted in his propensity for fistfights and decision to pack as much muscle as he could onto a barely 5’10” frame to become an All-American defensive lineman and future Cincinnati Bengal.

After his playing days were done in the NFL and Canada’s Calgary Stampeders, Brian’s former Bengals strength coach, Kim Wood, would direct him towards professional wrestling and the legendary Hart family of Calgary.  His natural athleticism and charisma pushed him quickly into the big time promotion of World Championship Wrestling.  Arguably the biggest star in wrestling history, Steve Austin, was paired with him and, despite not wanting to be “a tag team guy,” tells Dark Side viewers the tale of how he was taken in by Pillman’s in-ring ability and undeniable personality.  Even Ric Flair, who was matchmaking as well as being a top star in WCW at the time, wanted to work with Pillman.

Flair’s legend has always involved women and so, too, does Pillman’s.  Well-built and fresh-faced, he married Rochelle, a local girl from Cincinnati, and had a daughter, Brittany, before discovering an older daughter, Dani, from another relationship.  Dani and Brittany, as well as professional wrestler and only son, Brian Pillman Jr, paint a picture of him as a devoted and dedicated father.  Different was his marriage to Rochelle.  Linda and Brittany Pillman tell the tale of how Brian became involved with model, Melanie King, while Rochelle struggled with depression and the trauma of of a home invasion in which she was stabbed in the face by an acquaintance.  Further, no love is seemingly lost by Brittany as she describes Melanie as driving a wedge between Rochelle and the rest of the family, petitioning for full custody of the children and only showing remorse after Rochelle’s suicide.

One other eye of note that Pillman caught was that of David Meltzer.  The founder of Wrestling Observer Newsletter had been printing and distributing match reviews and insider news from sources in the locker rooms since 1982.  In a rare occurrence, Meltzer reveals Pillman as one of his former sources just as Kim Wood speaks on the agreement between he and Pillman not to reveal to Meltzer their master gambit that helped change how wrestling was seen by fans and shown by performers and promoters.

When his next contract came up, he either planned it out with or falt-out conned WCW president, Eric Bischoff, into giving him a release.  The idea was that Pillman could increase his name value by doing outlandish things to get himself “fired” and keeping the plan so close to the vest that even the other wrestlers couldn’t tell what was fact and what was fiction.  Indeed, Bischoff, Wood, and Cornette all seemingly have different stories as to how much Bischoff was complicit and how much he was manipulated.  Curious but not too curious is that Kevin Sullivan is largely omitted from the piece.  The similarly undersized Sullivan has long been rumored to have been a mentor/conspirator with Pillman but, after declining to respond to allegations about spousal abuse for the Chris Benoit murder-suicide episode, his involvement in telling that tale (if any) will remain outside of Dark Side.

Acting crazy and hostile everywhere from ECW to trade shows, Pillman had shed his “Flyin’ Brian” image for a new persona, that of “The Loose Cannon.”  Similar to Heath Ledger’s Joker with a heaping spoonful of David Lee Roth, this new Brian Pillman was set to become the biggest thing in the business upon signing with either WWF or WCW.  And he nearly lost it all, including his life, when he crashed his Hummer near his home in Atlanta.  Despite having to have his leg screwed back into place and bolted onto a brace, nobody outside of his immediate family and Kim Wood were sure that it wasn’t an elaborate stunt.

Even after the surgeries, Vince McMahon’s WWF signed Pillman to a three year deal, knowing that his in-ring ability would be forever diminished.  David Meltzer, Linda Pillman, and former WWF head of talent relations, Jim Ross, detail the toll that performing in the ring and using prescription painkillers were having on his recovery and his psyche.  To cover up his impediments in the ring, Pillman was involved in brazen and controversial storylines.  Steve Austin attacked him from behind and stomped his injured ankle through a steel chair, an act now known as “Pillmanizing.”  That story progressed (or devolved depending on your viewpoint) to seeing Austin breaking in the backdoor to the Pillman home as Pillman brandished a handgun before the camera feed cut out.  Eventually, it all came to end for Brian when he failed to answer his call for a pay per view in October of 1997 and was discovered dead in his hotel room of what was eventually revealed to be atherosclerotic heart disease, the same condition that killed his father when Brian was three months old.  The aftermath saw Vince McMahon interviewing Melanie Pillman live on air about painkiller use and about upcoming financial hardships in a segment that Jim Cornette and Jim Ross both condemned.  Melanie says that she was never coerced or regretful over it but it remains a black mark in WWF history.

After Brian Sr’s death, Melanie Pillman and their children describe her decent into addiction and depression.  Brittany talks about royalty money being spent on anything but food, utilities, and rent.  Brian Jr recounts being bullied by stepfather and being confined to his room by dogs.  Dani, living with her mother, was separated from her siblings for a time.  They all credit Linda Pillman for pulling them back together at her home to remain a family.  Brian has since reconnected to his mother who says that she hopes to be forgiven by her children for her failures someday.

Brian Pillman’s legacy is a complicated one, with all interviewed having differing opinions.  Steve Austin believes that “The Loose Cannon” was one of the most important characters in all of wrestling.  Meanwhile, Jim Cornette and Jim Ross lament the lost potential of what could have been a career remembered for all the right reasons.  Melanie sees it as a warning to wrestlers about taking proper care of themselves.  On a much lighter note, current fans may consider Brian Pillman Jr.’s success as a professional wrestler himself to be an extension of his birthright.

Professional wrestling appeal has been attributed to a lack of modern mythology.  People have a need for larger-than-life heroes and, with the real world being real even in its most extraordinary, wrestling fills the gap with flag-waving muscle men taking on undead giants to save damsels in distress and what not.  But, as any classics professor will remind us, the heroes of myth were as wrought with tragedy as triumph and, in that respect, the life of Brian Pillman was truly in the vein of legends like Hercules and Finn MacHuil.

Dark Side of the Ring Season 3 Premiere: Brian Pillman is Now Streaming on the Vice website and on demand via your local cable operator.



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