Brian Pillman is quintessential ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ story

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Evan Husney could easily see “Dark Side of the Ring” having a different name.

The VICE docuseries, which tackles some of pro wrestling’s most colorful, infamous and complex characters and stories, has aimed at giving the most honest portrayal of its subjects by providing a deep look at influences on the person we see on screen and the situations in their real life going on around it.

“I do think what we try to do with the show is humanize these individuals,” said Husney, the show’s co-creator. “It’s almost like the show should be called ‘Human Side of the Ring’ because it’s like what we do with interviewing family members is taking these larger-than-life characters of the ring that we grew up watching, but we’re trying to ground them and show they are people just like everybody else.”

It’s what makes Brian Pillman, the subject of the show’s two-hour Season 3 premiere (May 6, 9 p.m., VICE) the “quintessential” story for “Dark Side of the Ring.”

The episode chronicles Pillman’s career and the complicated dynamic at home driving him. Pillman, whose son Brian Jr. is a wrestler, had children with different women but created one big family and saw his ex-girlfriend Rochelle commit suicide during a heated custody battle. His children delve into their strained relationship with Pillman’s ex-wife Melanie over the years and the role of Brian’s sister, Linda, played in holding things together for his kids.

“It was very much about the family wanting to — at least Brian Jr. — tell the true story of his father,” Husney said.    

Just as Pillman was about to cash in big on his “Loose Cannon” persona, his prescription meds led to him falling asleep at the wheel, resulting in a devastating Hummer accident in April 1996. It shattered his ankle and face, leaving him a shell of himself physically by the time he reached WWF (now WWE) in June 1996. He died of a heart attack in his hotel room on Oct. 5, 1997 at the age of 35.

“It really checks a lot of boxes for us in terms of what we like to explore,” Husney said. “We like to explore where does someone’s real life stop and where does the wrestling character take over. Brian made this crazy ‘Loose Cannon’ persona that I think did bleed into his real life and I think that is one of the more fascinating aspects — phenomenons, as you will — in this business.”  

Pillman rose to fame as athletic good guy “Flyin’ Brian” before becoming part of the famed Hollywood Blondes tag team with Steve Austin, who was interviewed for the documentary. Trying to break out, Pillman became the “Loose Cannon” in WCW in the early ’90s. He worked his gimmick so well in and outside the ring – in an attempt to garner the most lucrative contract he could from either WCW or WWF in the middle of the Monday Night Wars to support his large family – that even many of the wrestlers thought he had gone crazy.

One of the legendary stories around Pillman is that he “worked” then WCW President Eric Bischoff into giving him his release so he could play WCW against WWF in contract negotiations by making Bischoff believe he was in on it. Bischoff denies he was “worked,” discussing on the show how he and Pillman saw it was a way for him to become a bigger star so he could give the wrestler the sizable contract he wanted from WCW.

Pillman
Brian Pillman signs autographs at Willie’s restaurant for Jenny and Janie Poe of Milford on Jan. 1, 1990.
VICE

The episode — narrated by Chris Jericho — leaves it open-ended, but Husney doesn’t put anything past Pillman. He said “Dark Side of the Ring” didn’t get to delve heavily into how well-read and educated Pillman was about the world of con men.

“There is a movie called ‘House of Games’ by David Mamet, which is a movie all about how this woman gets embroiled with these con men and she’s learning the trade of con men, she’s gonna do a big book about it, but she turns out in the end — spoiler alert — that she’s the one being conned from the whole start,” Husney said. “So I think when Brian saw that, that’s what really inspired him. So when you hear things like that, it’s like probably, OK, he probably did feel the best way to get over Eric was to make him believe he’s part of it.”

Pillman is one of 13 topics “Dark Side of the Ring” will cover this season, including The Ultimate Warrior, The Dynamite Kid, Luna Vachon, the WWF steroid trials, the infamous Plane Ride from Hell and the WCW/NJPW Collision in Korea show.

This will also mark the first time the series will have to deal with dueling documentaries. A&E is also profiling Warrior in collaboration with WWE. Husney felt it was fitting that a figure as polarizing as Warrior would get two different viewpoints on this life and legacy. He and fellow co-creator Jason Eisner were able to interview Warrior’s first wife Shari Tyree and did their best to humanize him.

“He’s probably one of the first figures in my life that I had to kind of debate it, my own fandom for this person,” Eisner said. “We almost tried to show what made the Ultimate Warrior. What was going on in his own life and his own upbringing that made him the person he became.”

While Warrior was a subject the fans pushed for, the steroid trial of 1994 with the U.S. government that nearly brought down Vince McMahon and the then-WWF was far different. It was a topic they had always wanted to fit into the show, but was more daunting to get the access they needed to pull it off. After Husney and Eisner proved themselves with the first two seasons, they were about to talk with Jerry McDevitt, the legendary lawyer for McMahon and WWE, about the trial. He is one of the first active people inside WWE to talk about the company’s business. Husney hopes it leads to more interviews like it.

“This is kind of a real company perspective that our shows hadn’t really had before, which is exciting,” he said. “I hope though that it really opens more doors for us to be able to get more stories from the company perspective because it’s something we haven’t been able to do up until this point. I certainly would like that. There are a lot of people over there that have stories to tell.”

One of the most famous wrestling stories is The Plane Ride from Hell, a WWE flight from the United Kingdom that included Ric Flair disrobing, plenty of fighting and Michael Hayes losing a ponytail. It led to firings, lawsuits and was a black eye for the company in 2002. While many of the wrestlers and WWE employees on the plane have told their version of the story in different formats, “Dark Side of the Ring” aims to look at it for more than just the locker room hijinks that occurred.

“It’s been the story that’s sort of been seen as this sort of hilarious, almost this over-the-top Martin Scorsese ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ sort of moment,” Eisner said. “But when you hear from some of the people who worked on the plane, their perspective, it really grounds it and you realize how truly nightmarish [it was]. The term ‘plane ride from hell’ shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Eisner and Husney hope their work continues to garner the trust of people in the wrestling business and their families to allow them to tell the most complete stories possible. They felt the access they had for this season was a step in the right direction.

“We never want to be exploitative,” Husney said. “We never want the subject matter that we’re talking about just to be for the sake of our TV show. We want to have some purpose to look back at these harrowing events.

“So with that, we were able to open the door with Steve Austin and Jerry McDevitt and some other folks to get them in the fold. I just hope from here that just keeps growing and we can have these even more honest conversations about things.”

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