An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published May 23, 1999
Every once in a while professional wrestling puts its best foot forward. Such was the case on Wednesday night when WCW, the WWF and independent promotions from around the country joined forces at the Cincinnati Gardens for the second annual Brian Pillman Memorial Show.
The event was a class act from start to finish. Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat, two of the greatest stars to ever lace a pair of wrestling boots, served as VIP hosts for the tribute to Pillman, who died Oct. 5, 1997, at the age of 35. Among the other talent appearing on the Pillman ’99 show were Mankind (Mick Foley), Di-Lo Brown, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Rey Misterio Jr. Konnan, Al Snow, Road Dog (Brian James), Terry Taylor, Dr. Tom Prichard, Woman and Missy Hyatt.
Former pro wrestler Les Thatcher, who organized the event, called it a labor of love and said he found the uniqueness of the “Big Two” organizations working together refreshing. Political barriers were broken. Egos were checked at the door. Everyone came together for a good cause.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“I think the reason the `Loose Cannon’ would have looked down and smiled is because the tribute to him was the fact that all these guys went out there and busted their behinds and cranked it up and performed as well as they could. And they did it for nothing.”
Thatcher, who runs a gym, wrestling school and Heartland Wrestling promotion in the Cincinnati area, said the show was a reflection of Pillman’s work ethic in the ring.
“What I liked about Brian is that he was old school. He came to the ring to give 100 percent of whatever he had that particular night, he was an artist, he had a passion for the business and he wanted to perform. That’s the kind of people we’ve tried to invite to the show both years. Guys like Terry Taylor, Tom Prichard, Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit exemplify that kind of spirit.”
Thatcher brought Flair out at the top of the show to one of the biggest pops of the night. Recounting his introduction of Flair, Thatcher told the audience: “I wrestled this guy over 25 years ago when he was just a kid. I was impressed with the ring knowledge he had for such a short time in the industry at that point. And I knew he had potential, but Lord knows, I didn’t know how much potential, and he proved over and again what he had. You may call him the `Nature Boy,’ you may call him the 14-time world champion. There’s an old adage in our business that a guy is so good, he has a match with a broomstick and makes the broomstick look good. This is the guy they wrote that adage for. I call him `The Man’ – `Nature Boy’ Ric Flair.”
The WWF’s Di-Lo Brown bowed in respect to Flair and Steamboat upon his arrival in the ring. “You’re the guys who are the reason I’m in this business,” he told the two masters of the mat. Before Di-Lo left the ring, Flair took the mic and responded, “Hey, kid, I’ve caught your act. If everybody was like you in this business, I’d stay another 10 years.”
The show, which drew 1,400 paid and 1,800 in the building, raised nearly $35,000 for the Pillman Foundation after accounting for building costs and other expenses. A celebrity auction generated the bulk of the proceeds, which will go toward an education fund for Pillman’s six children.
Last year’s high-ticket item was a “Hitman” hockey jersey, signed by Stu, Bret, Bruce and Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith and Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, that netted $475. Some of this year’s items netted considerably more.
Flair’s robe went for $2,250. A pair of Benoit’s boots and long tights with the Horsemen logo got a $700 bid. Di-Lo Brown’s chest protector and a plaque from his European title brought more than $600. Road Dog’s autographed shin guard and T-shirt went for $400. Steamboat brought a hundred 8x10s, autographed them, sold them for $10 apiece and turned the money over. Other items included a Diamond Dal las Page leather vest, an Al Snow “head” and T-shirt, Missy Hyatt lingerie and a gown donated by Woman. Raffled off were a copy of the NWA world TV title belt and a poster-sized portrait of Pillman autographed by all of the wrestlers on the show.
“Bless his heart, Steve Austin sent us a check for $10,000 too,” said Thatcher, who added that only personal issues prevented the WWF champion from attending.
“Everybody had a great time, in terms of fans and the wrestlers themselves,” said Thatcher. “I’m an old war horse, but it was an honor to be a part of this. The boundaries are down, the guys communicate, there’s a camaraderie that used to be there. It was really something special.”
Thatcher said Flair even asked to wrestle at next year’s event. During the show he hinted at a possible meeting with his most celebrated opponent, Steamboat, when he said, “Hey, what do you think, let’s do it again.”
“The place came unglued. It was really neat just to have been there with them when they (Flair and Steamboat) were just kids cranking it up,” said Thatcher, who was a mainstay in the Jim Crockett-run Carolinas territory when both Flair and Steamboat were rising to national prominence.
A special touch to the show was added when Brian Hildebrand (WCW ref Mark Curtis) served as ref for the main event between Malenko and Benoit vs. Misterio Jr. and Konnan. Hildebrand, who for the past year has been battling stomach cancer, was himself the subject of a tribute show last November in his hometown of Knoxville.
“You couldn’t have kept him away,” said Thatcher, who added that when Hildebrand’s wife was hauling him off to the hospital recently, she called Thatcher to let him know. “I could hear Brian in the background yelling over his shoulder, `Don’t worry. I’ll be there for the 19th,`” Thatcher said.
Hildebrand was scheduled to officiate only the Taylor-Prichard legends match because of the slower pace. Thatcher said he was pleasantly surprised when he was introducing the main-event tag-team bout and saw Hildebrand walking down the aisle.
“I’m going to try,” Hildebrand assured Thatcher. “You may have to pick me up and carry me back, but I’m gonna try,” he said.
“What determination that guy has,” said Thatcher.