Brian Pillman: Looking at How WWE Has Changed in the 15 Years Since His Death

Travis TaylorFeatured ColumnistNovember 2, 2012

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Brian Pillman came to WWE in June of 1996, turning the company on its ear with his brash style and attitude. 

In the 15 years since his death on October 5, 1997, the WWE has done a complete 180-degree turn in terms of its product: from adult themes to family oriented themes.

Three different eras shaped the current product now on TV: Attitude, Ruthless Aggression and PG. Would the Pillman of 1996 recognize any of it?

According to, Pillman, a standout football player at Miami of Ohio, played for the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL and the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL.

After injuries forced him to retire, he discovered his love for professional wrestling. He was lucky enough to be trained by Stu Hart, father of Bret and Owen Hart. 

Pillman came to the WWE after successful runs in Stampede Wrestling, ECW and WCW, where he had won the tag team title with Steve Austin. He had a style like Shawn Michaels: fast-paced with a preference for high-flying maneuvers, as opposed to a solid mat attack. (

Nicknamed the "Loose Cannon," it described him to the core.

Two months before signing with the WWE, Pillman fell asleep driving his Hummer, hit a tree and flipped the vehicle. He was in a coma for a week and shattered his ankle, forcing doctors to fuse it in a walking position.


It was a possible career-ending accident that, according to, should have killed him. 

Considered the top free agent despite his injury, the WWE snatched him up and gave him a guaranteed contract.

He worked as a commentator first, while his ankle healed, before transitioning back into a wrestler. He joined the heel Canadian Hart Foundation and engaged in a heated angle with Austin. This culminated in the infamous "Pillman's got a gun" segment, which saw Austin break into Pillman's home and Pillman threaten him with a gun.

He died in 1997 from arteriosclerotic heart disease, a buildup of plaque in the arteries that restricts blood flow. (

When Pillman passed, the WWE was in the midst of the Attitude Era, a period marked by more adult themes, more violence and a blurring of the lines between good guys and bad guys.

The hardcore division became a reality in 1998 ( and gimmick matches abounded during this time, including Buried Alive, Tables, Ladders and Chairs and Hell in a Cell.

Would Pillman have fit in during the Attitude Era? It's a safe bet to say yes, given how on edge the Superstar was. The WWE even gives him credit for helping to usher in this period.

Two other eras followed the Attitude Era: Ruthless Aggression and PG.


The Ruthless Aggression Era featured more emphasis on standard wrestling. It featured the same great story lines from the earlier era, but without an overabundance of sex and foul language. This was the time that saw the rise of Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho and RVD.

Today's WWE is the complete opposite of when Pillman passed. Labeled the PG Era, an emphasis on family friendly product, less violence and language, and more cartoon characters like in the '80s is the norm. Attitude Era matches like Hell in a Cell are bloodless.

Brian Pillman was a one-of-a-kind superstar who had no idea what doors he helped open. The WWE has changed since his time, in some ways better, in some ways worse. It all depends upon fan opinion.

But ultimately could any of it have been the same without him?