An Article by Mike Mooneyham
(Published Oct. 12, 1997)
Brian Pillman’s last major wrestling angle took place several weeks ago in a motel room where, according to the storyline, he was holding his arch-rival’s wife against her will. One week ago today, in a room similar to the one used in the angle, Brian Pillman’s real life was played out, the victim of a heart attack most likely precipitated by a lifestyle all too common in his profession.
Pillman, 35, was found dead Sunday afternoon in his motel room at the Budgetel Inn in Bloomington, Minn. An autopsy conducted Monday was inconclusive, and officials said it could be days before further tests determine exactly what caused his death. Bottles of prescription pills – mostly painkillers and muscle relaxers – were found in the room, along with an empty bottle of beer.
Pillman, of Walton, Ky., had wrestled Saturday night in St. Paul and was to have taken part in a WWF pay-per-view the next evening in St. Louis. Sources say he went out for a drink after the show and was reported as “tipsy” upon his return to the motel. He was last seen alive at the motel at 10:45 p.m. Saturday.
The WWF had a chartered plane that was scheduled to leave from Minneapolis at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. When Pillman didn’t show up for the bus ride to the airport, police were asked to check the room, where they found him dead lying in his bed.
The untimely passing of Brian Pillman – a celebrated athlete whose lifelong struggle to overcome personal and professional handicaps has been well documented – sent a shock wave through the wrestling community.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“I thought he was one of the finest young men I had ever met in my life,” said 13-time world champion Ric Flair, who Pillman idolized as he was breaking into the business and later teamed with as a member of the Four Horsemen. “Just in the last two years, since his first wife died, had he been besieged by personal problems.” Pillman’s former girlfriend, with whom he engaged in a bitter custody battle, committed suicide.
Pillman reportedly had a congenital heart defect, and the weak heart combined with the lifestyle inherent to the wrestling business contributed to his death. There also had been a family history of heart problems. Pillman’s father died of a heart attack at the age of 50 – when Pillman was only 3 months old.
Pillman was a college football star at Miami (Ohio) University and played two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. He was playing linebacker with the Calgary Stampeders when he started his wrestling career 11 years ago.
Referee Eddie Sharkey reported that Pillman was acting strangely the night of his last match.
“I was at the matches with him,” Sharkey said. “He came to the matches real early, and he seemed fine, but the last time I saw him, he was just staring into space.”
Sharkey said that Pillman had been sleeping on the floor of the dressing room during the broadcast, “which was kind of unusual.” Professional wrestlers often have a hectic travel schedule, Sharkey said, but they don’t typically nap during matches. “We were supposed to go out and have a few drinks and eat,” Sharkey said. “He was supposed to come with me, but he just walked off, a real strange look to him.”
Pillman had drug problems in the past. He was arrested for drunken driving and illegal possession of prescription drugs by Cincinnati police in 1993. The drug charges were later dropped as part of a plea agreement.
Pillman also had been plagued by a serious ankle injury he suffered when a vehicle he was driving overturned on a Kentucky highway last year. Pillman, who suffered a broken ankle, nose, eye socket and cheekbone, along with multiple lacerations to his body, was out of action for more than a year.
Bruce Hart, who helped train Pillman in Canada, said that although Pillman took painkillers after his accident, “I never knew him to take drugs recreationally, like heroin or cocaine. I never knew him to take those.”
The WWF, with all of its wrestlers on stage for a 10-bell salute, paid tribute to Pillman last week on Monday Night Raw. Later in the show a video tribute was presented, and Pillman’s wife, Melanie, was interviewed from her home in Walton, Ky.
The real-life interview, which many within the wrestling industry criticized as an exploitative tactic to pump the ratings, seemed out of place in the middle of a pro wrestling show that, for weeks, had cast Pillman in the role of the “loose cannon” character who had beaten Goldust (Dustin Runnels) to secure the services of his arch-rival’s wife Marlena (Terri Runnels). That had been yet another controversial Pillman angle that, ironically, was to have reached a pinnacle one day after his death. Marlena, at the end of her 30-day “sentence,” was to have renewed her wedding vows with Goldust last Monday night on Raw, with a surprise angle that would have her turn on her husband and join Pillman.
In real life, however, Pillman had five children with a sixth on the way. He and his wife had been separated for several weeks before his death.
Pillman, who joined WCW in 1988, saw his image change from babyface “Flyin’ Brian” to a heelish “Hollywood Blond” with Steve Austin, to a hip “California Brian” and later a “loose cannon” member of the Four Horsemen.
At 5-10 and 210 pounds, Pillman was the man WCW built its fledgling junior heavyweight division around in the early ’90s. His classic junior heavyweight title bouts with Japan’s Jushin “Thunder” Liger rank among WCW’s best.
With close friend Austin, Pillman formed one of WCW’s most successful tag-teams as The Hollywood Blonds. Pillman was so effective as an arrogant heel that the WWF once asked him to fill Shawn Michaels’ role on the WWF roster, but Pillman decided at that time to stick with WCW.
Pillman was buried Friday.