Brian Pillman died 20 years ago today. Scheduled to wrestle at WWF’s Badd Blood PPV that night—the event with the classic first Hell in a Cell match, between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker—he didn’t show up to the arena. He’d died in his sleep overnight at a budget motel in Bloomington, Minnesota. He was 35.
Pillman was an excellent wrestler. Early in his career, he was so good at off-the-top-rope theatrics that WCW dubbed him Flyin’ Brian. Later, he wrestled in a tag team partner with (not yet Stone Cold) Steve Austin, and was in one of the more memorable incarnations of the Four Horseman.
But what I remember most about Brian Pillman were his promos. He was as good as anyone at working the crowd up into a lather.
In 1996, Pillman was involved in one of the most infamous angles in wrestling history. A minute into an “I Quit” match with Kevin Sullivan, he grabbed the microphone and said: “I respect you, booker man.” Sullivan was WCW’s booker at the time. He and WCW head honcho Eric Bischoff had planned the whole thing, but Pillman went one step further: Instead of a pretend firing, Pillman got Bischoff to actually fire him. He then jumped ship to ECW, with a planned return to WCW in the works. He’d eventually sign with WWF. (Further reading: Stuart Millard has an excellent essay on Pillman in his collection, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal.)
Pillman cut a particularly great promo when he debuted in ECW in February of 1996. The clip above is bonkers and dated and stupid—the crowd chants “Bischoff takes it up the ass, doo dah, doo dah”—but Pillman’s role in it is great. The ECW fans know the game. They know Pillman is trying to pull a fast one on him. Fans in the front row even have a “Pillman—don’t work me” sign. They’re cheering him when he enters, but he manages to make them hate him in just a few minutes by calling them “smart marks,” comparing them to Eric Bischoff, threatening to piss in the ring, and beating up a plant—whom he threatens to stab! It’s basically poetry.
My favorite Pillman promo also came in Philadelphia, once he’d jumped ship to the WWF. Eight days after the opening of the new arena in South Philly, Pillman gave an anti-Philly speech so good he couldn’t help from cracking up in the middle of it. This is up there with the work of Bill Burr.
He probably wouldn’t be too put out about people thinking back to the time he was too funny for his own good. Raise a toast his way later.