The saying that perception is reality applies to few industries more than professional wrestling, and none so more than the case of Brian Pillman. He was first a victim of the often baffling blurring between fact and fiction and then harnessed that confusion for his own advantage before his struggles to deal with physical reality ended in tragedy.
It’s a tale that is told expertly in Liam O’Rourke’s biography, a work that not only covers a subject that suits detailed examination but avoids many of the stumbling blocks of many similar books. At one extreme you have bios that are too light on detail, relying on broad strokes with little insight. At the other you have books where the author has clearly put immense work into research but lacked the self-discipline or self-awareness to edit down so that only relevant information is included – instead almost trying to prove they’ve put in the effort.
That’s not to say Crazy Like A Fox lacks research: quite the opposite. It’s packed with detail, with many revelations that were fresh even to this seasoned grappling obsessive (on the very first page we learn Pillman was half-Welsh), but every tidbit advances the story and illustrates a point.
As well as research on the details of matches, the book draws from a carefully selected batch of interviewees: enough to give a rounded insight to Pillman’s life and career but not so many that the reader loses track or that quotes are included for the sake of it. Perhaps surprisingly to some readers only two wrestlers (Raven and Shane Douglas) are among the interviewees, but the list includes figures who can speak with authority to Pillman’s dealings with the political nature of pro wrestling, notably ‘insider’ newsletter writer Dave Meltzer and NFL strength coach Kim Woods, both of whom acted as confidants and advisors for Pillman’s career choices.
For those unfamiliar with Pillman, or indeed with the wrestling business, the book fully explores his best-remembered period under the ‘Loose Cannon’ banner in the World Championship Wrestling. This involved Pillman secretly working with WCW chief Eric Bischoff to attempt to fool fans and colleagues alike that he was a performer out of control who would go off-script during live TV appearances. Pillman fully committed to the character, both at wrestling shows and in ‘real life’, becoming the talk of both the industry and a growing online community of fans who were as fascinated by behind-the-scenes machinations as the on-screen storylines.
The punchline was that Pillman was in fact playing Bischoff as much as his colleagues. The character – developed with Woods’ assistance – was designed to peak his notoriety just as his contract expired, the idea being to provoke a bidding war between WCW and the rival World Wrestling Federation. Indeed, at one stage Pillman even convinced Bischoff to order WCW’s human resource department to legitimately release him from his contract. While Bischoff believed this was simply a way to make the insider storyline more realistic, Pillman had in fact created an opportunity to begin negotiations with both sides on his own terms.
At the simplest level, Crazy Like A Fox explores these events in intricate detail. For example, it was already known that Pillman had planned to gain publicity for his ‘crazed’ character by chaining himself to the goalposts at the Super Bowl, giving up the idea only because he could not persuade contacts to lend him a pitch-side press pass. However, the book also reveals that he had tickets for a WWF event with the intention of attending in a mask and hitting the ring without authorization during the main event, unhooding to attract attention before the inevitable arrest, with only a family emergency foiling the plot.
More impressively, everything in the book sets the scene for this period of Pillman’s life and the context in which he pursued the character. We learn how football coaches could not overcome their perception of him as too small to succeed in his chosen position despite him performing impressively in real games. We also see how he learned the lesson that attracting attention and becoming a known figure in the locker room helped him politically in both football and wrestling.
We also discover how Pillman came to learn how perception is reality in the multi-layered world of pro wrestling. Promoters decided he was too bland or small to attract ticket-buying customers and TV viewers, selectively choosing their evidence and ignoring the occasions when Pillman proved he really could ‘get over’ with a crowd. Yet we also realise how the process works in reverse: by portraying Pillman as a loser in wrestling storylines, promoters were able to damage his standing with the audience and in turn hurt his market value. Indeed, the way in which wrestlers with large guaranteed contracts were promoted in prime position to justify the expenditure was a self-fulfilling prophecy that both frustrated and drove Pillman in his career choices.
That leads the book to its depressing final section in which Pillman is hit with the cruellest blow: just as he becomes the bidding war prize he hoped, he suffers a serious car wreck that destroys his ability to perform in the ring with advanced athleticism. Joining WWF just a couple of years before it exploded in popularity headed by his former partner Steve Austin, Pillman sinks into a cycle of painkiller dependency and personal life chaos. It’s sadly no spoiler to reveal that he died in 1997 of a cocaine-induced heart attack like exacerbated by damage caused from steroid use.
To try to pick out criticisms of the book is a difficult task. For British readers at least, a little more explanation of the college sports system might have made it easier to understand the progress Pillman made and the challenges he faced. There’s also an analogy to Hitler and Martin Luther King that comes across as a little heavy-handed. But these are petty niggles at worst.
While Crazy Like A Fox justifies its billing as ‘the definitive chronicle of Brian Pillman’, it is far more than the tale of one man’s life. Both Pillman’s journey and the way in which it is told here serve as a truly enlightening explanation of the physical and psychological stresses of a business that few people truly understand.
Brian Pillman was one of those people and one of the many tragedies of this story is that ultimately this didn’t make a difference.
(This review originally appeared on the Cinemazine site.)