YouTube Finds: Loose Cannon fires up Memphis wrestling as Brian Pillman’s makes his lone USWA appearance
The beauty of appearing on a live TV wrestling show like Memphis was that it was largely unscripted, except for a format sheet distributed to the boys backstage minutes before we went on the air at the WMC-TV studio on Union Avenue.
In the ’80s, with polished territory guys like Bill Dundee, Austin Idol and Dutch Mantell, this lent itself to wonderful, off-the-cuff moments that only added to the realism of the illusion that is (or was) professional wrestling.
Shortly after planting my size 12 Doc Marten low-cut shoe on Jerry Lawler’s skull in May 1994, I began devising in my head the diabolical heel promo I’d cut on the King the following Saturday. However, when I arrived at the WMC-TV studios the following Saturday, Lawler and Eddie Gilbert instructed me to play an apologetic babyface until Lance gave me the mandate from promoter Eddie Marlin that I was suspended.
I was then supposed to protest, and Gilbert would come out and argue with Lance as I was pushed to the background. I was told that the plan was for me to be a heel for a week or two before Gilbert and the heels double-crossed me, and I’d return later as a babyface ref.
Realizing that this might be my only chance to cut the heel promo of my dreams, one that I had practiced in front of a mirror several times as a kid growing up in Memphis, I decided to play a heel from the start of my interview with Lance. Figuring it’s live TV, what can they do? Instead of apologizing, I began a diatribe about how Lawler had shoved me around for too long, and that during the match, I merely stomped him “like the cockroach” that he is. (I was told later that Lawler was watching on the monitor backstage during my promo and said, “What in the hell is he doing?!”)
After the show went to a break, I nervously walked behind the curtain to find Lawler, who waved me over, shaking his head. Instead of pulling down the proverbial strap, he actually complimented me but not without issuing a stern warning: “That was good. But next time, say what we tell you to do.”
Over the next several months, I had the freedom to sound off with any insult that happened to pop into my thick head, often with obscure old-school references and personal insults like “Brian Christopher is the only guy I know who has to go to a VD clinic to meet women” and “The only reason they had to make a new Southern title belt was because the old one wouldn’t fit around Lawler’s waist anymore.”
Around the same time, Brian Pillman was reinventing himself with a bizarre character that made many in wrestling wonder if he was truly losing touch with reality, eventually leading to the moniker “The Loose Cannon.”
Personally, I’d been a huge Pillman fan since 1991, after his memorable WTBS bout with Ric Flair (with the late Nancy Benoit at his side), who liked the kid so much he did his best to make him a star. Unfortunately, Pillman was later sidetracked by politics and contract disputes with Bill Watts, which delayed his top-tier stardom, despite incredible bouts with Jushin Liger.
He and Steve Austin (a Memphis wrestling alum), both afterthoughts in the Hulk Hogan era of WCW, were thrown together as a team yet still managed to catch fire against the odds with the classic “Hollywood Blondes” gimmick that dated back to the ’70s. The duo had stunning matches with the likes of Ricky Steamboat and Shane Douglas–not to mention the memorable “Flair for the Old” segment–before they were eventually broken up, with Austin getting a heel singles push and Pillman relegated back to mid-card babyface status.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps inspired by the crazed Terry Funk promos he’d studied incessantly, Pillman slowly began showing signs he was “losing it” during live Monday Nitro segments. From the moment Pillman uttered to Kevin Sullivan the words “I respect you, booker man,” it was fascinating to watch his slow descent into apparent madness.
Today, it would be easy to see through such a gimmick, but that was before the boys themselves had been kayfabed several times by management, which eventually led to such strife and distrust within WCW’s dressing room that it helped kill the company.
Although I’d never put myself remotely in Pillman’s category, Lawler used to often joke backstage that I was “The Loose Cannon of the USWA.” He meant it as an insult; I took it as a compliment.
Unfortunately, just as Pillman had parlayed the gimmick into making himself the most sought-after free agent in the business (thanks to Eric Bischoff foolishly releasing him from his contract to sell the controversy), and putting himself in the position to make “Lex Luger money,” as he termed it , he was involved in a horrible Hummer accident that nearly killed him. Still, he managed to con Vince McMahon into believing he’d be back at full strength after surgery, but his shattered ankle told a different story. Desperate to make a strike in the Monday Night War, McMahon signed Pillman anyway, if anything, to stick it to Bischoff and steal one of the few major stars he’d managed to help develop on his own.
Pillman, however, was never the same in the ring but remained brilliant in an avant-garde sort of way on the mic as part of the ’97-era Hart Foundation. Like other former WCW stars signed to the WWF, including Mankind, Pillman was sent to Memphis, which was serving as a farm league of sorts at the time for the Former Fed, including a memorable run by Flex Kavana, the future Rock. I regret that by the time Pillman showed up in Memphis, I had finally left the promotion after one too many $40 payoffs while struggling to maintain a career as a writer.
The Memphis segment isn’t as memorable as you might think. Instead of storming the set unannounced, which would have fit “The Loose Cannon” perfectly on the last remaining live territory wrestling show in the country, he gets permission from Lance Russell first–a sure sign Randy Hales was still running things behind the scenes–which made zero sense. Given the fact that it’s early Saturday morning, Brian also probably wasn’t at his sharpest. Nevertheless, it’s priceless to see Pillman interact with Lance, the perfect straight man for his antics. Watching this, though, I can’t help but wish Pillman had been around during the glory years of the Memphis promotion in the early ’80s, when the Loose Cannon could have really unleashed his fury.
Less than six months after his appearance in Memphis, Pillman was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in a Minnesota motel room on Oct. 5, 1997, after he failed to show for a scheduled bout with Mankind. The similarities of his death to Gilbert’s really shook me up, leaving me to wonder how many more would follow.
Sadly, it’s a trend that’s continued.