The Tragic End to Wrestling’s First Great ‘Madman’
The third season of Vice’s excellent docuseries “Dark Side of the Ring” opens with the wild, dark tale of Brian Pillman, aka “The Loose Cannon.”
Dramatic recreations are a stain on most non-fiction efforts, but not so with Dark Side of the Ring. Vice’s docuseries about professional wrestling’s wildest, scariest and saddest stories boasts perhaps the finest reenactments in the genre, thanks to a smoky, shadowy aesthetic that leaves everything feeling cartoonishly melodramatic—fitting, for the subject matter—and features actors (only seen in faceless silhouette) whose physical resemblance to wrestling’s larger-than-life brawlers is nothing short of uncanny. Staying true to the look and spirit of their chosen subject, they’re a prime example of a generally superfluous and cheesy device done right.
That continues with Dark Side of the Ring’s third season, which once again delves into the notorious side of the sports-entertainment arena. For this go-round, creators Evan Husney and Jason Eisner’s series will focus on a host of well-known faces, including the fanatical Ultimate Warrior and the rugged Dynamite Kid, as well as topics ranging from the steroid trials that rocked the industry in the mid-‘90s to the issue of homophobia in this aggressively macho field—an issue addressed via the ordeal of Chris Kanyon, who hid his homosexuality throughout most of his career. Yet perhaps its most memorable tale is told in its two-part premiere (May 6): that of trailblazing loose cannon Brian Pillman.
Narrated by Chris Jericho, Dark Side of the Ring’s debut is yet another example of a tragic wrestling dynamic in which a performer rises to fame by exaggerating their personality for an in-ring persona, only to then become that fictional character in real life, to catastrophic ends. It’s a lethal dance with the devil that eventually caught up with Pillman, an athlete who, following a short stint in the NFL (with his hometown Cincinnati Bengals) and the CFL, began training as a wrestler with Calgary’s famed Stu Hart. That led to an auspicious tenure with the regional Stampede Wrestling promotion, which in turn caught the eye of Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW), where Pillman found himself somewhat stalled on a mid-level track until he was paired in a tag-team with future icon Steve Austin.
“The first time I saw him, he had this magnetic charisma that you can feel across the gym, and you just thought, hey man, this guy’s a star,” remembers Stone Cold in a new interview, and though Austin didn’t have an interest in becoming part of a duo, he and Pillman soon turned “chicken shit into chicken salad” by reimagining themselves as the Hollywood Blondes. Their partnership brought them greater national attention and exposure, but for whatever reason, WCW was never fully behind them. When ratings for a pay-per-view event at which they had a big match (against Ric Flair) fizzled, they took the rap and were split up. “It broke my heart,” remembers Austin, and it did likewise for Pillman, whose career was now at a crossroads.
Compounding Pillman’s troubling situation was the fact that his home life was a mess. Dark Side of the Ring recounts Pillman’s professional trajectory with a fantastic amount of archival footage, while using family photos and interviews with his sister Linda, his ex-wife Melanie, and his children to detail his tumultuous domestic circumstances. A good-looking and magnetic ladies’ man, Pillman’s relationship with his daughter Brittany’s mother went sour when he learned he’d had a prior daughter, Dani, that he didn’t know about, and later when he hooked up with Melanie, with whom he had Brian Jr. All three of these now-grown kids provide insight into what was, to put it mildly, a dysfunctional upbringing, although their bitterness is primarily directed at Melanie—whose addictions and selfish cruelty left her on the outs with her relatives—and not at Pillman, whom everyone agrees was a loving and devoted father.
In the midst of constant familial tension, Pillman made a decision that Dark Side of the Ring rightly characterizes as revolutionary: he’d sell himself as a legitimate out-of-control madman known as “The Loose Cannon.” To do this, he broke the fourth wall and addressed wrestling’s inner workings. He also spontaneously went off the rails in interviews and during matches, such that even his colleagues and bosses (and Wrestling Observer Newsletter publisher Dave Meltzer) were unsure if his antics were part of an elaborately scripted “work” or the manifestation of mounting insanity. Aided by clips of Pillman losing his mind on-camera, industry legends Jim Ross, Jim Cornett and Eric Bischoff all reminisce about the live-wire act that the wrestler pulled off, which culminated with him partnering with former NFL strength coach Kim Wood to orchestrate one of the most daring ruses in wrestling history.
That involved convincing Bischoff to release him from his contract as part of his ongoing Loose Cannon narrative—a gimmick that Bischoff agreed to, purportedly not realizing that Pillman’s real aim was to use this legitimate firing to create a bidding war for his services between WCW and Vince McMahon’s rival WWF (now WWE). Though Bischoff claims he was always in on this ploy, Dark Side of the Ring’s many speakers are still giddy over the success of Pillman’s scheme. However, as is so often the case with these sagas, calamity was waiting in the wings. Pillman lost sight of where his anything-goes character ended and his real identity began, culminating in an auto accident that destroyed his body—multiple metal plates were needed to hold his face together, and his shattered ankle was never the same—and torpedoed the shot at superstardom that was in his grasp.
Post-injury, Pillman still signed with the WWF, and his self-destructive refusal to stay out of the ring (along with a reliance on pain pills) no doubt contributed to his early death at the age of 35 in 1997. Strangely, Dark Side of the Ring spends considerable time on the toll his demise took on his clan but expends little effort discussing Pillman’s legacy as a pioneer of the self-conscious and extreme bad-boy wrestling that came to dominate the industry in the latter part of the ‘90s and early 2000s. Nonetheless, the docuseries’ premiere remains another telling portrait of the dangers of mistaking fantasy for reality, as well as a reminder—proven by final footage of Melanie being interviewed on TV the night after her husband had passed away—that few individuals ever come off worse in wrestling stories than Vince McMahon. As Wood states in no uncertain terms, “You know what you do with a whore? You f--k ‘em. That’s what I thought of Vince. That’s all I think of Vince.”