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In 1995 Brian Pillman was, like a fair number of WCW's roster, underutilized. A phenomenal, if characterless talent, Pillman when given the opportunity showed that he was one of the most gifted in-ring performers on the roster. In matches against the likes of Alex Wright and Johnny B Badd, Pillman wrestled his part in some of the best WCW matches of the year. But other than ear-marking him as the star of the new Cruiserweight Division, that perpetually seemed to be a few months off in the plans, WCW didn't seem to have many big plans for him.
That was before the reboot of the Four Horsemen. Alongside Ric Flair and Arn Anderson, Pillman was subsequently joined by Chris Benoit – among other things the stable contained four of the best wrestlers on the roster. For Pillman, while it may have restricted his already limited opportunities to wrestle exciting matches, it did give him an opportunity to get involved in some and actual programs and now, as a heel, show some more personality.
It wasn't an opportunity he was likely to spurn, either. With Benoit already one of the best wrestlers on the planet, but also a man who was better off speaking in short bursts, if at all, the junior members of the Horsemen would need to be voiced by Pillman. He quickly started showing a new edgier side to his character, his promos less happy go lucky and more scathing, even if on the surface they often felt like directionless digs at random members of the WCW roster, they did play their part in antagonising people like Kevin Sullivan and Paul Orndorff.
As 1995 became 1996, the change just kept going. Pillman had gone from recognisable jackass heel to something unlike anything else on television at the time. "Loose" performers had existed in wrestling for decades, but most of these were dare I say it "traditional" crazy characters, presented as something out of the ordinary and out of step with the rest of the roster. Pillman still seemed "normal" - that was probably what made him stand out so much.
This, of course, was the start of the famous worked-shoot character that Pillman sorta/kinda had a lot of people in on. If you go by the adage that everything you see on TV is part of the show, nobody perhaps should have been surprised but with a tight circle of people in on the ruse, and Pillman falling into a bit of luck (namely yanking of Bobby Heenan's jacket, causing him to exclaim "What the fuck are you doing?" live on Clash Of The Champions) Pillman's character was cemented.
The next of all this, if it was entirely a work (which it probably wasn't) was Eric Bischoff granting Pillman his "release" from WCW after the Superbrawl pay per view. The idea being that Pillman being away and being fired would build some mystique ahead of a return potentially as early as March's Uncensored pay per view. Pillman arrived at ECW and showed that, if you are going to try and work a smart crowd, you better try bloody hard.
"The great success story of '96, former coffee gofer for Verne Gagne (laughs), is now leading the show in the big time. You, are a piece of fucking shit!... No, no, Joey Styles. You're not running this interview, I am! Cause I'm Brian fucking Pillman!"
Whether it was the expletive laden promo (ECW was many things, but swearing wasn't as common as you might think at the time), or literally calling fans in the ECW Arena "smart marks" before ending the thing by pretending to whip his "Johnson" out and piss all over the ring mat. That, in another work designed to look like a shoot, although Shane Douglas crowing "he's shooting, he's shooting" may have been overdoing the angle somewhat. Sign guy in the crowd already had one he made earlier - "Pillman, don't work me".
Pillman's run in ECW was bizarre to say the least. His prime foe was Shane Douglas (returning from a dire run in the WWF), who had quickly refound his position as the all-talking hero for ECW fans. Pillman, who was consistently an unwelcome visitor, would get under Douglas' skin often just by being there or even, at one New York taping, putting his cousin and nephew in harms way to stop an attack from Douglas. When Douglas chased after him in the ECW arena, he lept into the arms of Philadephia Eagles offensive tackle Harry Boatswain (who had accompanied him at the show) and quickly left the arena.
If what aired in front of the paying public seems to be missing a screw or two, the pretaped interviews were downright bizarre. ECW Hardcore TV opened March with a shot of Pillman, inside a house, grappling a giant pencil. It was a throwback to something that aired on WCW Saturday Night where Kevin Sullivan cut an inset promo hyping their Superbrawl might, briefly breaking a pencil in a segment that sounds groundbreaking but when you see it is actually incredibly forgettable. At least the ECW audience is probably more in tune to the reference, a load of old people and children settling down to watch at six oh five Eastern might be forgiven the confusion.
That was topped at the end of the show by Pillman cutting a pre-taped promo on Eric Bischoff wearing... absolutely nothing. For the second time in as many months Pillman had threatened to show us his Johnson, this time it was only his left leg that obscured the view. Three weeks later Pillman was in a restaurant and granted a signiture request from a fan, presumably. After casually signing it he said... "You know... this is all a work".
For all the talk and all the noise that Pillman was making, what had it all been worth. His run in ECW petered out into nothing, falling out with Paul Heyman over a number of things, including the hotline Pillman had been running with them. He had returned to WCW in a couple of segments designed to continue on the character, but they were trying to get too clever. The angle on Nitro involved so few people the cameramen weren't in the right position to pick him up. He returned on the following week in an angle building up to Uncensored where he attacked Randy Savage.
Then he never appeared at the show... it was bizarre. He was being peddled all week on television, and even on the day of the show when it was clear he wouldn't be there his name was still being mentioned. Even as the main event started Tony Schiavone questioned where he was. The angle had ran dry. Within a month Pillman would be involved in a car accident that all but bought any plans to a standstill. He would get a money contract with the WWF soon after, but in many ways would never be the same again. He died in October 1997, aged just 37.