Twenty years ago, at 7pm on Sunday, October 5, 1997, the WWF was getting ready to put on it’s latest PPV event, In Your House: Badd Blood. It was to feature the first ever Hell in a Cell match, the culmination of The Undertaker‘s vengeance at Shawn Michaels for interfering in his World title match against Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart months previously. It was also planned to unveil Paul Bearer‘s big surprise for his former henchman, The Dead Man, in the debut of a brand new form of evil. But shortly after 7pm, Jim Cornette – then working for the WWF and the creator of the Hell in a Cell concept – was worried. One of the scheduled talent that night, Brian Pillman of the Hart Foundation, had failed to show up to the arena for his match against one of Mick Foley‘s personas, Dude Love. Cornette called his hotel, only to find out that the staff had found Pillman dead in his hotel room earlier in the day. He was only 35 years old.
Brian Pillman has fallen into the legend and lore of pro wrestling history and for good reason – he transcended sports entertainment and broke molds in the late 80’s and 90’s and it was his “attitude” that seemed to rev up the roster as it enter the aptly named Attitude Era in 1997. He redefined what an ex-football player could accomplish in the wrestling ring, setting new bars for athleticism and aerial attacks in North American wrestling, and was constantly surrounded by legends (and future legends) of the industry, from the Hart Family to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
A college football star with Miami University (Ohio) – at 5’8″ and 195lbs, he was akin to the school’s own Rudy – he went undrafted in the 1984 NFL Draft, but signed on with his hometown Cincinnati Bengals. He appeared in 6 games for the Bengals that year on special teams, but was cut after one season. He attempted to make the Buffalo Bills the next year, but this time was cut during pre-season. Like many football players who failed to catch on with the NFL, Pillman headed north to Canada to join the Canadian Football League (CFL), landing a spot with the Calgary Stampeders in 1986. And it was this decision that would become the most important football decision of his life. While in Calgary, he became friends with the infamous Hart Family of Calgary and after a broken ankle cut his CFL career short, he began training at the Hart Dungeon in a class that included Owen Hart, Chris Benoit, Hiroshi Hase and Jushin “Thunder” Liger to name a few. It’s no wonder he became a high flyer. He spent the next three years working for Stampede Wrestling. But unlike most of the Stampede talent that headed to the “big leagues”, Pillman chose WCW over the WWF.
He debuted in WCW in 1989 and by the early 90s was one of the company’s top high flyers. When the company decided to start it’s own Light Heavyweight title (the precursor to the Cruiserweight title), Pillman was crowned it’s inaugural champion (which he would hold twice). When the Light Heavyweight division was dissolved in late 1992, Pillman was moved to the tag team division. Alongside “Stunning” Steve Austin in The Hollywood Blondes, Pillman became a star in WCW’s early days, capturing the NWA/WCW World Tag Team titles on two occasions. When the team eventually split, he would join up with old Hart Dungeon classmate Chris Benoit and join Ric Flair and Arn Anderson in a new formation of the Four Horsemen in 1995. In a swerve on WCW President Eric Bischoff, Pillman worked Bischoff into releasing his contract for real to pretend to invade ECW (in order to convince the whole WCW staff). He headed to ECW in 1996 and became “The Loose Cannon” and began to tear apart WCW on ECW television. But the plan to return to WCW never happened.
Instead of following through with the second half of his and Bischoff’s plan, Pillman joined his former tag team partner Steve Austin – now “Stone Cold” instead of “Stunning” – in the WWF. He made history, becoming the first wrestler to sign a guaranteed contract with Vince McMahon, following the departure of former stars like Kevin Nash and Scott Hall for not being given one. He initially allied with Austin but soon turned on him and joined up with his original wrestling family, the Harts, in a larger, more lethal Hart Foundation. He would remain with the Harts until his final days. And while injuries had slowed him down from being the “Flyin’ Brian” from his WCW days, his charisma and psychology still made him a star about to explode. But instead it tragically burned out. An autopsy on Pillman revealed his cause of death to be from arteriosclerotic heart disease, a hereditary illness he was unaware of. Brian Pillman may not have been a big part of the Attitude Era, but his “Pillman’s Got A Gun” storyline was definitely a big part of the start of the Attitude Era.
But while one star was burning out, another one was about to shine. Glenn Jacobs had been a wrestler for the WWF for two years previously to his debut that night and already had three failed gimmicks before him – he debuted as Unabomb in 1995, then as Jerry Lawler‘s “evil dentist” Dr. Isaac Yankem shortly after that, and following Nash and Hall’s departure in 1996, he was the unfortunate soul picked to portray “Fake Diesel“. By all rights, Jacobs WWF career should have been buried alive. But in the waning moments of Badd Blood’s main event that night of October 5, 1997, Jacobs emerged from the curtains in a red mask that has since become infamous, as the Big Red Machine, Kane – The Undertaker’s long thought dead “little brother”. He was an instant sensation.
Thankfully, it was a time before the widespread use of the internet – so most of the audience had no clue it was Dr. Yankem behind that mask. Otherwise he may have got the “IIII-saac YANK-em” chants in the same manner that Bray Wyatt still hears the odd “Husky Harris”. But back then, the audience was drawn in and they never let go. For 20 years, whether a heel or as a face, Kane has masterfully taken a gimmick that should only have had a limited shelf life (much like his “big brother”) and managed to swim through the changing currents of professional wrestling and kept Kane alive – even through such potential derailments as speaking, removing his mask, and become a suit-and-tie Authoritarian.
He remains a respected member of the WWE locker room and an absolute legend of the WWE Universe. But with Jacobs now on the campaign trail to win the Mayorship of Knox County, Tennessee, it’s unfortunately probably true that we’ve seen the last of The Devil’s Favourite Demon in a WWE ring. A surefire WWE Hall of Fame career, after three failed attempts, Jacobs (as Kane) would retire a 2x World Champion, ECW Champion, 2x Intercontinental Champion, Hardcore Champion and a staggering 12x Tag Team Champion – believe it or not, Kane’s longest reign as a title holder was his 245-day run as Tag Team champion with Daniel Bryan in Team Hell No back in 2013. And there was always a different sort of buzz in the air whenever Kane joined up with The Undertaker in the Brothers of Destruction.
October 5 will always be a special day in the history of professional wrestling, a day of triumph and tragedy. One exceptional talent was taken from the world, just hours before another one was unleashed.