Cyberslam 1996: The Night That Brian Pillman Revolutionized Pro Wrestling

Written by Jameus Mooney

When you think of today’s crazy “universe” of professional wrestling, in which men such as Windham Rotunda (Bray Wyatt), Jonathan Good (Dean Ambrose) and James Mcahren (Jimmy Havoc) become top figures in the industry thanks to the crazy personas that they don, it’s very misleading on the past of Pro Wrestling. It’s also misleading when you focus on how protected wrestling once was because in today’s society, every wrestling fan knows what’s going to happen before it happens. Wrestling fans are in the loop more than any other niche on television, and it’s due to the dirtsheet reporters that are eager to be the first to break insider news.

And in a way, it kind of put wrestling ahead of the world when it really took off a mere 20 years ago. The world has caught up, and professional wrestling isn’t as hot as it was then. But how did it get so hot, and how did the seemingly overnight boom come to be in the late 1990s?

In PSEs new series, we take an in-depth look at the most revolutionary of promos, and their profound impacts on our great sport. Today, in our first installment, we look at Brian Pillman, the origins of “The Loose Cannon” and Cyberslam 1996.

Brian Pillman returns to ECW, 1996. (All rights to WWE)

Wrestling has changed exponentially since February of 1996. In February of 1996, pro wrestling was still in “kayfabe” mode. Kayfabe is the protection of the character that you portray on TV, and that you’re always in character when in public. Brian Pillman took it to the extreme. He believed in kayfabe so much that he ultimately ended up shattering it by accident.

In 1996, WCW was on the verge of something big and the WWF was in a down-stretch. The WWF hadn’t been able to change with the times; with wacky characters entering the audience’s living room every week. The WWF had garbage men, clowns, aliens and farmers. WCW was the traditional, more “real” feel that the NWA had previously offered. They were also quite cheesy, but you could tell something was brewing. They began pushing the envelope in early 1996, too, when Alundra Blayze showed up on WCW as Medusa and threw away the WWF Women’s Championship.

But, before WCW changed their format, if you flipped the channel you saw ECW. ECW wasn’t as syndicated, but it had gore, sex and beer. Show me a man in the 1990s who isn’t into those 3 things, and I’ll show you a deceived perception. On top of this, you had real tough guys such as Tazz and guys that would put their bodies on the line, jumping off of the television screen and etching themselves into your mind like Sabu. At the forefront, was a perfect visionary named Paul Heyman.

ECW was gaining an underground following and by 1996, they needed something to cement them as the third biggest promotion. On the contrary, WCW wanted to kick the creative direction change into full gear. Brian Pillman, a whitebread, kiss your baby, quintessential good guy had an idea and went to Eric Bischoff. And it was there where he and Eric agreed to release him.

Brian was doing a Loose Cannon character. The character, in kayfabe, was that he breaks kayfabe. He’s crazy and everything you see on television is real. He had a feud with Kevin Sullivan, who was the backstage booker at the time, and the whole feud was based that in real life, Sullivan was holding him back. He also had incidents such as the time where he attacked Bobby Heenan. Everything he did was “woah”, was that supposed to happen? Was he supposed to do that?

Brian with Eric Bischoff in WCW.

The issue is that Brian wanted the buzz, so he had to convince that the family-man, good guy was gone. The locker room didn’t buy it, so even after his WCW release, he’d still show up and wreak havoc everywhere he went.

According to multiple interviews with Bischoff, he and Brian had a plan where he’d be a free agent, join the WWF, and go back later as a mega-superstar. Following a loss to Kevin Sullivan as that years’ Super Brawl, Brian was released. The terms, however, weren’t disclosed. Everybody assumed he was still a WCW employee. Six days later, he returned to the ECW Arena in Philadelphia.

In the middle of a Joey Styles PSA, the lights went out. When they came back on, Brian Pillman was standing in front of the raucous ECW faithful. When asked what he was doing there, he simply stated that a company in Atlanta, Georgia took away his “constitutional rights” and goes on a psychotic work-shoot on WCW. When the crowd took a liking to it, he mixed it up and let out a verbal onslaught to the underground wrestling scene. The most notable insult was the phrase “smart mark” which to this very day is one of the most common insults in pro wrestling chatrooms. Pillman then proceeded to lay waste to one of the fans at ringside. The promo made Brian a household name not only in wrestling, but around the world. It also got many fresh sets of eyes onto the ECW product, which then went on to become super successful. But just how big was the impact?

The Impact of the Cyberslam Promo

In 1996, there was a NAPTE convention right after Brian was released (terms were unknown). This is around the time the Internet Wrestling Community was beginning to take off, and it was a big deal. The WWF, WCW and ECW were all represented, with a lot of high up TV executives. Brian Pillman showed up, and used Dave Meltzer’s (Wrestling Obsever Newsletter) press pass to get in.. Pillman was not under contract with a company, and walked up to the WWFs table. He looked at Jim Ross, who he had previously worked with in WCW, and said he’s going to work Vince. Pillman causes a scene and shoots on Vince McMahon. Vince McMahon was so impressed that shortly thereafter Brian Pillman became the very first wrestler to ever sign a guaranteed contract with the WWE.

This was after the promo itself landed Brian on WWEs radar, and Vince ended up making an even better offer because of this. Brian earlier in his career was told that he wouldn’t amount to anything, but because of his genius, he had all 3 major wrestling promotions vying for his services.
But through all of this, not only was his character sharp; Brian had the most entertaining work in the wrestling business. Tragedy struck, however. Brian was in a car accident and completely shattered his ankle on April 15. A once natural, Brian was arguably the best in-ring performer on the planet at the time of his career wreck. Brian, however, was just lucky to survive. As for his health, it deteriorated as he entered a week long coma, and has to fuse his ankle. He was set to receive the biggest contract in wrestling at the time. A business that still had Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Randy Savage. Fortunately for him, he still did.

Brian in 1997. (Courtesy of the WWE)

In 2019, the internet is a huge thing for professional wrestling. With journalists as the aforementioned Meltzer, Sean Ross Sapp and Ryan Satin, everybody’s trying to make the fans smarter first. But, the first real story any of the “dirtsheet” writers had was “what would Brian Pillman do next?” and the amount of news they could break on what Brian Pillman was doing. He keyed quite a few wrestling terms, and gave them the platform they needed to make wrestling the way it is today. Other than just that, he blurred the lines so much that fans had to have what was real at their fingertips. This, in essence, effectively killed the actual kayfabe portion and is why wrestling doesn’t have many surprises anymore. He broke the fourth wall.

As for signing that WWE contract, he completely changed the way that WWE contracts work. Previously, WWE superstars worked by date and house, with big merchandise residuals. That was no more, because Brian Pillman had gotten himself a specific starting salary. This changed the way Vince changes business. And if he doesn’t sign on that dotted line?

Brian’s Impact in the WWE

Brian during a match with WWE Hall of Famer Mankind on Raw. (WWE)

By mid-1996, the WWF was floundering in obscurity and just trying to manage to keep their heads above water. When Brian signed, it was a massive deal. He was one of the first wrestlers (if not, the first) to have a televised press conference to announce the deal. Brian looked at Hall of Famers Gorilla Monsoon and Michael Hayes, two of the most influential figures in the history of the industry, and told them that they’re “props” and “yes man” here to present him. Brian spoke, as always, with such angry articulate and intensity. “Ladies and Gentleman, the Loose Cannon is here at your disposal.”

Because he still was unable to work in the ring, the character was a staple on the WWF product, and pushed the envelope far more than the family-friendly confines had ever seen. His first main program was with the hot “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Steve Austin and Brian Pillman had a legendary partnership in WCW as the Hollywood Blondes. But, both had managed to reinvent themselves and lead the charge of the new “attitude” that the WWF was seemingly exuding. At the 1996 King of the Ring, Austin was crowned king and cut the infamous “Austin 3:16” promo, which we’ll examine in the coming weeks here at PSE. Austin needed somebody to bounce off of on his road to becoming the biggest star in pop culture. Brian and Steve were a match made in heaven. Brian attacked him on an episode of Superstars, and what happened next was the image that encaptured Brian’s entire persona into one perfect photograph.

“When Austin 3:16 meets Pillman’s 9MM glock, I’m going to blow his sorry ass straight to hell!”

-Brian, Raw, November 1997.
Raw, November 4th, 1996.

It was November 4th, 1996. And Monday Night Raw ended with its most edgy hook in the history of the show. Steve Austin broke into Brian Pillman’s home and the camera cut as you heard gun shots. You didn’t know if Austin made it out, or alive. Pillman is now the craziness man in the history of professional wrestling. He’s so insane that USA Network called Vince McMahon and told them that they’re taking them off the air. Vince, being the excellent conversationalist and master of persuasion, convinced them not to.

He’d soon return to the ring and at WrestleMania 13 in 1997, he aligned with his real life best friends in the Hart Foundation. The Hart’s were anti-American Canadians and ran rampant across the World Wrestling Federation in the months thereafter. That night, Austin lost to Bret Hart in a submission, continuing that storyline. Austin’s story with the Harts and Pillman ultimately established him into the rebel superstar we all ended up loving.

As a result of Austin moving on, so did Brian. But, how could Brian up the ante? He had a feud with the eerie film director/kinky make-up artist Goldust, where he won Goldust’s real-life wife, Terri Runnels, and shot the “Pillman XXX Files.” Pillman originally won the services of Runnels (also known as Marlena) as his “personal assistant” for 30 days at the Ground Zero: In Your House pay per view event. Brian was the first to take the IYH pay per view series and actual break up somebody’s house. Irony aside, Brian shot cryptic, erotic segments that certainly lived up to its name. Pillman was supposed to face Dude Love at the next IYH event, with Goldust handcuffed to the post.

Tragedy struck the day of the Dude Love match, as Brian passed away in his hotel room. Prescription pain killers had sucked him into an addiction following his near-fatal car crash; and it was an addiction that he would not recover from. Brian’s story ended, and he’s by far the biggest “what if” story in the history of pro wrestling. And just a month after his untimely passing, Vince McMahon ushered in the aptly named “Attitude Era.” The Attitude Era pushed the creative envelope in a revolution Brian Pillman started. The Attitude Era saved the WWF, and allowed it to continue as the global phenomenon it is today. WWE owes a massive amount of gratitude to Brian. Although we’ll never figure out if he would’ve gone back to WCW to lead the way, his intention of being a megastar and changing the business for the positive is still felt to this day.

This was a brief synopsis of the 20 month odyssey of the “Loose Cannon.” Nobody on television today can generate as much buzz as a Brian Pillman, and for good reason. His creativity was second to none, and you can pinpoint an entire revolution of sports entertainment to one promo. The promo that escalated Brian Pillman: Cyberslam 1996.

That promo got him the first guaranteed contract Vince McMahon ever agreed upon. That contract transcended the IWC to what it has since become. That contract continued the meteoric rise of Steve Austin. That contract allowed Brian to push the envelope and become the unsung hero of the most pivotal era in professional wrestling.

Brian’s memory lives on, with multiple different tribute shows, the WWE Network and his own 2006 documentary. His son, Brian Jr., is currently a major in the Independent promotion MLW. There will never be anybody quite like Brian Pillman.

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About the author

Jameus Mooney