Looking back, wrestling fans in the mid-late 90’s were pretty spoiled. Three promotions (WWE, WCW, and ECW) stopped at nothing to draw eyes to their product, constantly one-upping the other, with the latest signing or controversial angle. In 1996, standing at the intersection of the American wrestling world, was the former Flyin’ Brian, the newly dubbed Loose Cannon, Brian Pillman.
In an effort to start a bidding war for his services, Pillman (along with mentor Kim Wood) crafted the new persona that often blended reality with kayfabe, often uncomfortably so for Brian and those around him. After a severe ankle injury suffered in a car accident threatened to derail his career and newfound momentum, the undersized kid from Cincinnati plowed forward, determined to make his mark in the business and provide for his family. Tragically, Pillman would pass away in 1998, found unresponsive in his Minnesota hotel room, a result of a heart failure (the role of drugs and steroids in his untimely passing is still debated).
Author Liam O’Rourke has chronicled Pillman’s fascinating and complex story, speaking with those closest with Brian both inside the industry and out. The portrait he paints can’t be described in tones of black and white, as Pillman emerges as both lovable and detestable, inspiring and heroic yet also serving as a cautionary tale. O’Rourke, who cut his teeth in journalism covering British soccer, is a writer for Vulture Hound Magazine and made his literary debut with the recent release of Crazy Like a Fox: The Definitive Chrocile of Brian Pillman 20 Years Later.
I spoke with O’Rourke on his experience self publishing the book, what he learned form those who knew Brian, and the legacy Pillman leaves on the industry today.
On Self Publishing
Describe the process of self-publishing:
It was interesting, the entire process was baptism by fire, but extremely rewarding as I reflect on it today. It was a situation where there was an offer to go with a publisher, but when I weighed up the pros and cons, I really did want to do it all myself, and the time frame of release (which was important to me) was in my hands this way.
As a self published author, how can you be successful financially? Any advice for writers just starting out?
I think in self-publishing, you are betting on yourself, because the only way it can make it is if the end product is good. It ultimately all comes down to the number of purchases, and with no built-in advertising, any self-published success comes from word of mouth and any ability to self-promote. If you can convince people to check out a self-published book but it’s no good, forget it, it ends there. If it’s something special, people will find out. Especially in this day and age.
Be honest with yourself, and be prepared. Relentlessly prepared. Not even broaching the aspect of the content itself which, it goes without saying, you have to do your homework on. The adage of “Do what they don’t today so you can do what they can’t tomorrow” has proven so important in this whole process for me personally. Be ready to spend a long time moving towards getting where you want to go – it doesn’t happen overnight, and things will take time to come together. And if you’ve done things right along the way, it feels like everything comes together all at once.
You’ve written shorter length pieces for both the medical and pro wrestling industry. How did you prepare for writing your first full-length book?
Writing a book was a completely different type of challenge. Writing in medical journals about topics I was learning about as I went, interviewing doctors and such was very difficult, but the book was different – I knew and understood the subject, but I really did think a lot about how to craft the story in a way to tell it best, which was difficult in an entirely different way.
On Writing Crazy Like A Fox
Why did you want to write this book?
I think it’s one of the most fascinating stories in the history of pro wrestling, and it had never been told properly in my opinion. I was never happy with anything that was released telling Brian’s story (the WWE’s DVD being the main offender), because I’d researched it so hard myself and knew that it’s such an incredible tale that, no matter what, unless you have the time/space/desire to cover everything, you are actually going to miss so much or what made him special. After a conversation with my brother about my frustration at people talking about Brian without knowing the full story, he urged me to put all those notes I’d been gathering to use.
There’s a general knowledge of Brian’s story, but it’s just such a shallow knowledge. “He was small, but he made the NFL” misses the week by week struggles on and off the field, the intellectual battle he fought and won to navigate to success. So much happened in his life that when you know the details and analyze what happened in football and wrestling, it tells the deeper story and it’s so much more fascinating.
What in particular drew you to Pillman that made you want to write about his life?
When I’d watch him on WCW as a kid, I hated him. He was such an obnoxious heel. As an obsessed kid going to the video store and getting older tapes, I see him as an incredible babyface. There were a few guys like Brian, where you could almost tell there was more to them than the wrestling personality. Way more. Foley was the same to me.
As Bruce Hart says in the book – with a lot of the guys in wrestling at the time, their personalities were nothing. Anything you saw was artificial, contrived bulls@*!, wannabe tough guys playing alpha males on TV that really weren’t what they were projecting. Not in all cases, obviously, there’s some legit tough guys for sure, but the majority weren’t, they were pretenders. Wrestling kind of wants that, especially in the 80’s. The weird dominance games promoters would play, they want fragile egos to manipulate, not confident wise guys like Brody who could turn the screws to them.
But PIllman was a legitimately interesting character, an tough alpha male, more intelligent than most with a sixth sense for street smarts, with so much to him that was always trying to get out. And though his whole career, as it comes out in the book, he’s learning along the way, and you can see that personality bubbling up and trying to break through. When it finally does, the Loose Cannon is one of the most brilliant pieces of business in wrestling history. And the depth of that scam is covered in the book in more detail than will ever be written anywhere, ever. And when you combine this with the tragic end, the football background, there is so much to be drawn to and so many interesting stories and details – it’s just an amazing story.
How did you go about researching this book?
So, I’ve been studying and researching Brian Pillman for years now. Over a decade, easily. I trained to be a wrestler in 2002/2003, and I’d always watch Pillman tapes (along with the usual Bret/Shawn/Flair/Kobashi/Tsuruta/etc) just because there was always something about him, the intangible that made Pillman special, that I wanted to capture because it felt rare. Years pass, and over time I had collected this enormous stack of anecdotes, stories, newspaper clippings, tapes….everything.
So it was a slow accumulation of notes, doing everything from getting newspapers from 1979-1984 in the Cincinnati area to sourcing tapes of his old football games, digging up college football newsletters, etc. In addition, by being involved in wrestling at a local level, you get guys from WWE, WCW and ECW brought in, and I’d always find a way to corner people to talk about Brian at some point.
You interviewed an impressive list of names from the wrestling industry in this book, such as Dave Meltzer, Bruce Hart, Raven, and Shane Douglas, as well as Brian’s close friends and family. How did you get some of them on board?
When I decided I was going to do the book, I knew that no matter what, my voice was only going to be so credible, and that Brian’s story had to be told by the people that really knew him, so that’s when I started going out of my way to track down people like Kim Wood [Brian’s mentor and friend] and Dave Meltzer and [sister] Linda Pillman. Dave is only an email away, so that part was easy, but getting him on the phone took over a year for various reasons. Bruce Hart was tremendous – John Pollock of POST Wrestling helped point me in his direction, and when I got him on the phone he was superb, as much interested in the structure, layout and approach of the book itself from a writer’s standpoint as he was in talking about Pillman. So to answer the overall question – the research just came from taking as many extra steps as I could think of to find out everything I could. I just wanted to know everything about Brian, and have done for years.
In speaking with those who were so close with Brian, did you find that they were generally willing to speak about their experiences with him?
It was very illuminating. While I knew this already, focusing on one person on a project like this really does bring your attention to how little people really know or understand about the way things are. Even at a time like this when information is more open than ever, you can never truly go deep enough to understand so many aspects of a person’s mental makeup or real-life approach until you speak at length with people who knew him, especially the ones that knew him for a prolonged period. It was great to talk to folks not just to pick up stories, quotes and anecdotes, but the stuff that doesn’t make the book necessarily – the stuff that frames the story and puts events in the proper context, that understanding develops tremendously. Perhaps moreso in Brian’s case than most, because he made a habit of surrounding himself with very intelligent people.
On Brian Pillman
Pillman was really a complex guy. Explain:
It takes a book to do that. And that’s the truth. With personalities, the nature of who and what they are comes out in their actions, and how they deal with adversity. Brian had a lifetime of adversity, and a lifetime of unique actions. In short, one of the main themes of Brian’s life is that his personality was made up of countless different contradictions. He was a borderline genius, but he could be just as simple and primitive. He was charming, funny and friendly as he could be selfish, aggressive and ruthless. He was an athlete, a jock, a scholar, a great father, a wildman with the ladies, a sensitive soul, a tough guy at the bar, he was all over the map. There are so many different layers to the guy that there is no explaining this simply. It takes a book to get into the stories of what he did in different situations that illustrates correctly just how complex he was.
How did your opinion of PIllman change from before you wrote the book to after?
It expanded it, it broadened it, it heightened it. I’ve had a lot of people give me different feedback on their opinions of Brian Pillman after they’ve read it. Some love him more than ever. Some people think his story is incredible but don’t know what to make of him. It’s not a whitewash story, I think that’s a big part of it. When I first spoke to Raven for the book, he’d said that it had to be a “warts and all” type book, which this is. [The book] doesn’t deify Brian Pillman. This just tells the full story. It’s up the reader’s interpretation to determine how Brian comes off.
Life isn’t a perfect story, it’s not a movie where somebody is always a babyface or a heel. To me, I respect his genius more than ever, I admire his drive and moxie more than ever, and I love how much of a chancer he is. Even though sometimes people got hurt, which isn’t a good thing, and I’d argue he hurt nobody worse than himself, he went for it all, and in a world now where cautious values are held, he didn’t play to be careful, he played for keeps.
What’s your own personal favorite story about Brian? What’s your favorite moment or time period from his career?
The answer is the same for both here – the Loose Cannon. That whole six month period between sitting down at Kim Wood’s kitchen table trying to figure out a way to get a huge contract, to the time he puts pen to paper with the WWF, is the most incredible time of his career, his peak as a performer, the most captivating real-life aspect of his career, and my favourite story and section of the book. It covers three chapters, but to compile the detailed breakdown of the mentality, the methods and the manipulation, looking at where Brian sourced the scam and the character and put it into action perfectly, it’s just amazing.
Warning – Contains NSFW language
What was Brian’s influence on the business? His legacy?
It’s so far reaching. What’s funny is that I think a lot of the changes in the business that came out on the surface because of Brian (him lobbying for lighter weight divisions in WCW in 1991 and 1995 that led to so many talented guys coming in, the tapping into reality with the Loose Cannon that became a blueprint for the whole business) were things that I believe were going to happen anyway sooner or later. The brilliance in Brian is that he saw it before anybody else and had the platform to bring it to the major leagues first. And because he was good enough to pull it off, we had so many efforts to duplicate the success that led to a litany of failures, but some genuine successes that changed the business. So I’m not sure if the business is in a different place without Brian, but it would have taken a lot longer, and it probably wouldn’t have been as good without him setting the bar. His legacy…again, not to avoid the question, but it does take a book to explain.
On Wrestling Today
Growing up in England, you’ve seen the evolution of the British wrestling scene. In America, many fans are just now being exposed to British exports through NXT, with wrestlers like Tyler Bate, Trent Seven etc. How has it changed?
When I was growing up there really was no British wrestling scene. World of Sport was long gone, British indies were nothing, and WCW and WWF both had great coverage here. WWF had the deal with Sky that helped the major league perception, but WCW had what was, especially in retrospect, an incredible TV time slot that they did nothing with – Saturday afternoons on ITV, a network station that everybody got. It’s kind of amazing and speaks to how ineffective their show was that this country didn’t have a huge WCW backbone to draw from.
But yeah, [I] fell in love with the WWF and WCW very young, watched it my entire life from then. British indies are doing well as an extension of WWE’s marketing approach of creating megafans, but few casuals. Obviously WWE has had a huge fanbase in this market forever, and enough passionate fans that it can sustain a lot of companies popping up and doing relatively well. I don’t see it getting much bigger, and I think it’s got a ceiling on it. I don’t think the ITV World of Sport, had they done it (which they won’t) would have taken off at all. ITV’s editing style doesn’t mesh with wrestling in a way that would click with the masses.
Are you still a fan of the current WWE product today? Who are some of your favorite superstars?
I watch, but I’m not a fan of their television style for the most part, though you do get good in there. Shinsuke Nakamura is superb – he has the intangible that feels missing from so many guys where he’s a genuine superstar. AJ Styles is obviously excellent. Roman Reigns is also tremendous, but he typifies the issues with WWE’s booking and television presentation issues. If they rolled with the punches and remember that wrestling needs to be organic, he probably would be the biggest babyface in years right now. Instead, they can’t attract casual fans with anything but nostalgia and the WWE fans have made up their minds on him.
Brian brought a certain unpredictability to his Loose Cannon persona. Is there anyone today that brings that same edginess and unpredictability?
Steve Austin had it and became the biggest star in the history of the business. Punk tried, and Pillman was clearly the blueprint for his Pipe Bomb angles, but nobody truly believed that CM Punk had gone rogue. It was still fun while it lasted, but it was a make believe, go-along because we want to buy into it type of thing. The funny thing with wrestling fans today (and with people inside the business too), and Brian figured this out – as smart as everybody wants to think they are, they love go along for a ride and play along that something might be real.
The mystery of it is more fun. I’d argue that this fanbase is easier to manipulate than ever because they all assume so much knowledge. As a time when it was harder to manipulate people, Pillman did things that had no comparison, which made it a lot easier to believe because after all, when had a wrestler ever outed somebody as a booker on TV before?
Do you think someone with Brian’s temperament/personality could make it in today’s WWE?
That’s a great question. In today’s WWE he would either make it all the way to the top, or he’d last a year and be driven crazy and leave. Knowing his insatiable desire to succeed, I think he’d get to the top and probably have become an all-time great.
On Future Plans
Any plans for upcoming books? Are you looking to do another biography of someone in the wrestling business?