Tragedy is no stranger to Dark Side of the Ring. From the murder of Bruiser Brody to the many deaths of the Von Erichs, the Vice TV docuseries mainly deals in broken dreams, strange deaths, wasted potential, and wrestlers whose run at greatness was cut short. From among those stories, though, Brian Pillman’s stands as perhaps its most tragic.
In the two-hour season premier of the show’s third season, which aired on Thursday, May 6th, 2021, director Jason Eisener and writer Evan Husney paint a picture of a man that intentionally blurred the line between fact and fiction at the cost of stability in the public eye, which inevitably extended into his private life.
As tends to be the case in most of the previous episodes in the series, Pillman’s story starts with a very brief run through his origin story. His initial aspirations, decisions, and hardships are all put on the screen through original wrestling footage, interviews with close friends and family, and Dark Side’s own signature reenactments. After this part of the story is done, the show moves on to the focus of its narrative, which concerns the creation of Pillman’s wrestling identity and the chaos that followed it.
I was initially concerned about the two-hour runtime of the season premier. The only other episode that went this route was Chris Benoit’s, and it justified it by also including his close friend Eddie Guerrero’s story. It makes sense in terms of how their careers lined up and how their friendship informed Benoit’s tragic fate. Pillman’s story justifies the two hours by virtue of complexity. This man’s story is fast and hard, unique in how groundbreaking it was initially but also how exceptional it could’ve been had Pillman lived to develop it further.
Pillman, also known as The Loose Cannon, is often considered a genius among his contemporaries, an occurrence that is quite common in the show due to his creation of a wrestling character that turned kayfabe (the illusion wrestling is real) on its head.
Among those that attest to this and how it made his life so difficult to read, based on how casually he switched on and off his wrestling persona, are his old tag team partner Stone Cold Steve Austin (one half of the Hollywood Blondes), his wife Melanie Pillman, his strength and conditioning coach Kim Wood (from Pillman’s Cincinnati Bengals days), wrestling commentator Jim Ross, and ex-promoter Jim Cornette.
Steve Austin’s contributions, which cover their Hollywood Blondes run as tag team champions and the infamous remote shoot where the Loose Cannon threatens him with a gun, are intimately insightful. Austin had a front row seat look at how Pillman gave shape to his storytelling methods and how he used them to raise his value in the crowded wrestling scene.
Jim Ross and Jim Cornette, on the other hand, come in as concerned backstage players that witness the madness unfold as Pillman desperately tries to remain a valuable asset after going through a life-changing experience involving a single-car accident and a subsequent recovery period that didn’t guarantee a future in the ring.
What sets Pillman’s story apart is his relationship with kayfabe. Pillman went lengths to convince people in the industry that he was actually crazy, the very embodiment of a loose cannon. It was so successful that some believed his car accident was part of an angle he was mining.
The documentary does an incredible job of separating what was real and what wasn’t, cleverly using the reenactments as a way to differentiate fact from fiction. Eisener and Husney truly capture the overbearing quality of his wrestling persona and the demands it put on Pillman’s mental and physical health.
The showrunners were smart in making Pillman’s car accident the event that closes one part of the story and opens the other. Tragedy takes the spotlight in Part Two of the premier by focusing on Pillman’s anxieties and stresses over his recovery. What could’ve been a story about supreme wrestling genius turned out to be a story of potential being dealt a bad hand.
After considering the facts, it could be said that Brian Pillman was a legitimate victim of kayfabe. Trying to figure out when he was in character and when he wasn’t was a difficult task for far too many people in the industry and it made it difficult for some of his closest friends to help him out. It hits hard because had his car accident never happened, Pillman would’ve arguably gone on to change the industry in ways unimagined. The show makes a strong case for that, and it does it well. Turns out kayfabe can sometimes be too real for its own good.