The line between fantasy and reality in professional wrestling is finer than most believe or comprehend.
No one performer walked that line on a regular basis more than the "Loose Cannon" Brian Pillman.
Beginning in late 1995 and lasting until his unfortunate and untimely death in October of 1997, he underwent a character change that proved to be one of the most controversial in wrestling history and regularly had fans guessing as to what was real and what was simply an act.
Pillman quickly became one of the most talked about characters on television thanks to his unpredictable nature, but prior to changing his entire persona, Pillman was well-respected for his innovative, revolutionary, high-flying style that brought a flashiness to American wrestling typically reserved for Mexico and Japan.
Nicknamed "Flying Brian," Pillman competed against the top stars in professional wrestling, including Barry Windham, Ricky Steamboat, Jushin "Thunder" Liger and Steve Austin.
Speaking of Austin, Pillman also teamed with the future Texas Rattlesnake in a team that was both ahead of its time and the best in the world for a brief moment in history.
As the Hollywood Blondes, Pillman and Austin were so much better than anything else on WCW programming that they became a threat to the top stars in the company.
Just as they were rising to new heights, feuding with the likes of Ric Flair and Arn Anderson, the decision was made to split the team prematurely.
It was a sad ending to a duo with great potential to achieve main-event glory well before either ever had the chance to really do so in WWE four years later.
Whether it was as a smiling, high-flying babyface, a chaotic heel with a flare for the controversial or one of the best tag-team specialists of his era, Pillman proved to be a complete performer capable of adapting to different in-ring styles, playing different roles and cutting above-average promos.
In celebration of a career that exceeded all expectations and helped Pillman become a cult favorite performer of fans across the globe, here is a look back at the Loose Cannon's greatest matches and moments.
After an improbable football career as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals where he won the Ed Block Courage Award and a small stint in the Canadian Football League, Pillman entered the wild world of professional wrestling.
Like so many other great wrestlers of his time, including his future Hart Foundation teammates, Pillman trained under WWE Hall of Famer Stu Hart and worked for his Stampede Wrestling promotion.
During his time there, he primarily teamed with Stu's son Bruce but did see some singles action against the likes of Makhan Singh, Jason the Terrible and the Cuban Assassin.
It was there that he began to showcase the high-flying style that would gain him notoriety throughout North America and, eventually, land him a job in Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling.
One of Pillman's first major rivalries in the company was against Barry Windham, himself an outstanding athlete seemingly built for a wrestling ring.
Their feud would culminate in a Loser Leaves WCW match in which Pillman teamed with El Gigante in a loss to Windham and Arn Anderson. Because he was pinned, Pillman was forced to leave the promotion.
Like the classic Dusty Rhodes angle in the 1980s in which the banished Rhodes returned under a mask and was known as the Midnight Rider, Pillman returned shortly thereafter as the masked Yellow Dog. Everyone knew who he was but proving it was another thing entirely.
Pillman would eventually be reinstated and, thankfully, Yellow Dog would be shelved for good. Still, it is impossible to discuss Pillman's career without bringing up the (unfortunate) gimmick.
The Hollywood Blondes and the Tag Team Titles
With Steve Austin as his partner in the Hollywood Blondes team, Pillman had several outstanding matches and a few really good feuds.
No feud, however, resulted in as many exemplary tag team bouts as the one against the legendary Ricky Steamboat and Shane Douglas.
The teams would battle through late 1992 and well into the spring of '93, including a March 27 WCW Worldwide match that saw the Blondes capture the tag team titles.
Pillman and Austin would hold the straps for five months, competing in rematches against the former champions and even feuding with Ric Flair and Arn Anderson in an entertaining rivalry that saw the brash, young, cocky champions poke fun at the legendary Horsemen teammates' ages.
The Four Horsemen and His Departure from WCW
After nearly two years of playing a babyface, Pillman once again turned heel, joining Ric Flair, Arn Anderson and Chris Benoit in a brand new incarnation of the Four Horsemen.
The team harassed Sting and could have been one of the truly great factions of the mid-90s had the formation of the New World Order not have happened.
Also hindering the growth, development and success of the group was the fact that, shortly after SuperBrawl in February 1996, a show on which Pillman "shot" on Kevin Sullivan by referring to him as "booker man" before walking out on a scheduled match between the two of them, Pillman departed the company.
In his 2006 autobiography Controversy Creates Cash, former WCW President Eric Bischoff explained that Pillman was released from his contract with the company in hopes that he could go on to ECW and perfect the Loose Cannon gimmick he was crafting.
He would then return to WCW with the character and help add to the unpredictability the company was hoping to showcase on its Monday Nitro show.
Unfortunately for Bischoff, that is not how things played out.
Pillman did debut for ECW as planned, but then parlayed the attention he received from those few appearances into a contract with World Wrestling Entertainment, where he would close out his career.
And, unfortunately, his life.
Pillman Goes Extreme and Signs with WWE
On February 17, 1996, Brian Pillman debuted for Extreme Championship Wrestling at its Cyberslam show.
His appearance was a huge surprise for the Philadelphia crowd, who welcomed him with an insanely huge pop.
To his credit, and a testament to the level of performer he was, Pillman managed to turn that rabid audience again him in a matter of minutes thanks to a venomous promo that ended when he threatened to urinate in the center of the ring. (Warning: Promo is NSFW)
Pillman would make a few more appearances for the promotion but would ultimately sign with World Wrestling Entertainment in June.
Before he could debut with the company, however, Pillman would suffer serious life-threatening injuries in a car crash.
Though not as bad as the coma he found himself in for some time after the accident, the ankle injury Pillman suffered would adversely affect any plans he ever had of being the same great in-ring performer he was earlier in his career.
His ankle was so badly shattered that it was fused in a walking position. That eliminated any chance that he could fly as he once did and suddenly forced the former Cincinnati Bengal to adapt his in-ring style.
Pillman the Broadcaster
Wanting badly to capitalize on the hype surrounding Pillman, Vince McMahon still managed to feature the Loose Cannon on his television shows.
Thanks to Pillman's ability to talk and engage an audience, he was cast as a commentator and interviewer.
He also worked with Sunny on the WWE Superstar line. Everything he did outside of the ring while he healed from the crash-related injuries was to take advantage of his superior talking skills.
One of the most memorable moments of his time in that role was when his former partner and best friend, Stone Cold Steve Austin brutally attacked him and attempted to re-injure his ankle.
Austin pounded away at Pillman, then stuck his ankle in a steel chair and proceeded to jump off the middle rope, crashing down on the chair and ankle with all of his weight.
Despite being one of the most despised characters in professional wrestling, Pillman was able to elicit great sympathy from the crowd. It was a great moment and one of the highlights of Pillman's WWE stint, even if it was one that has gone overlooked.
The Gun Incident
November 4, 1996 is a day that will forever live in wrestling infamy.
For the fans that watched that night's Raw, they will forever remember the image of Pillman sitting on a couch in his home in Walton, Kentucky, waiting for Austin to make good on his promise to show up at his house and finish the job he started a few weeks earlier.
The great Kevin Kelly, whose job that night was one of the best by an interviewer in WWE history, was by Pillman's side and reacted accordingly when the Loose Cannon produced a gun and insinuated that he would use it on Austin if he came through the door.
The segment was sheer chaos and the first real glimpse at the shock television writer Vince Russo would be responsible for in the years to come.
USA Network, home of Monday Night Raw, was infuriated at the use of a deadly weapon on a show typically aimed at families and nearly pulled the plug on the show.
It was a surreal scene that is still as shocking some 17 years later as it was the night it aired.
The Goldust Rivalry and Pillman's Untimely Demise
Pillman's final program in wrestling would come as a member of the reformed Hart Foundation faction.
The group, also featuring Bret and Owen Hart, British Bulldog and Jim Neidhart, would become the main event heels for World Wrestling Entertainment in the summer of 1997. Naturally, each member would have its own rivalry with Superstars that opposed the group's pro-Canada stance.
While some of those rivalries were fairly standard, no-frills wrestling feuds, the story involving Pillman and Goldust was one steeped in personal issues and a real-life relationship dating back to World Championship Wrestling.
Earlier in his career, Pillman had dated Terri Runnels, who starred for WCW as Alexandra York. Eventually, that relationship ended and Runnels eventually married Dustin Runnels (known to fans as Dustin Rhodes), who would end up signing with WWE in 1995.
As Goldust, he introduced a controversial nature to shows, straddling the line between good and bad taste with overtly sexual and homosexual antics.
In 1997, he became a fan favorite and toned down his act significantly.
In the summer, he found himself involved in a rivalry with Pillman in which the past real-life relationship between the Loose Cannon and Terri, who had joined Dustin in WWE as Marlena, played a key part.
At SummerSlam in August, Goldust defeated Pillman and as a result, the latter was forced to wear a dress until he won a match. That gimmick would go on for a few weeks until a rematch between the two was set up for September's In Your House: Ground Zero event.
The stipulation was that if Pillman won, he would get Marlena for 30 days. He won and immediately high-tailed it out of the ring with the stunning blonde in hand.
Over the weeks that followed, Pillman released video of he and Marlena in a hotel room that emotionally impacted Goldust, adding great heat to the program.
Soon he returned to the ring, accompanied by a Marlena whose look drastically changed. No longer was she clad in gold. Instead, her hair was slicked back, she sported dark makeup and skimpy outfits that were quite edgy for that period.
Eventually, it was announced that Pillman would meet Dude Love at October's In Your House: Badd Blood pay-per-view, and if Love won, Pillman would have to face Goldust afterwards.
Unfortunately, Pillman was found dead in his hotel room that afternoon. It was determined that a heart condition he had that had gone undetected was the cause of his death.
He was only 35 years old.
Brian Pillman was a performer who spent his career ahead of the curve.
He was flying around the ring before it was cool and he became controversial and cool just before the Attitude Era kicked off, a period of time in WWE history in which he could have easily become one of the biggest, most successful stars.
One of the best wrestlers in the world during his time with WCW, it was a shame that his automobile accident did the extensive damage it did to his health, preventing a new audience in WWE fans from seeing just how truly great he was.
His death came far too early as well, robbing future generations from watching the great performer ply his craft well into the next century.