This week, the highly-anticipated season premiere of “Dark Side of the Ring,” the critically-acclaimed series that shed light on professional wrestling’s most controversial stories, will air of Vice TV for a two-part episode on the late Brain Pillman, one of the most revolutionary performers in the history of the industry. Tragically gone too soon at the age of just 35 years old, Pillman’s legacy has echoed within the sports entertainment conversation since his passing. The triumph and the tragedy of his often turbulent life was matched only by the agony of the downfalls, as well as the ecstasy of the peaks of fame.
In an industry where everyone thinks they know the real story, Pillman Sr. with his wide eyes and intense presentation made even those on the inside of the business question the line of reality. With modern technology of Youtube, social media, and podcasts, the revolutionary work of the late Loose Cannon is still a talking point.
Nearly a quarter century after his death, the focus of much of the wrestling world is on Brian Pillman Sr. with the upcoming debut of The Dark Side of The Ring episode.
Clearly, the former Hollywood Blonde is still remembered, and ironically, a brand new video release of a vast amount of never-before-seen footage hit the market as well with the presentation of The Brian Pillman Memorial Show Anthology, a four-disc set of the most complete production of the tribute shows that honored the grappler’s legacy in the years that followed his passing.
A true display of just how respected he was in his prime, these all-star cards brought together athletes from every major promotion of the late-90s. Despite the bitter weekly ratings battle on television, the legacy of Brian Pillman brought stars from WWF, WCW, and ECW to the same event. Nobody else in the industry could’ve blurred the line of reality the way that The Loose Cannon did in his heyday, the same way no other cause could’ve brought the rival promotions together, except to honor the life of a legendary performer.
However, as was often the case with forms of media at the time, some gems of the industry can get lost in time, especially with the acquisition of assets in the business as it condensed in the years after the Monday Night Wars. Perhaps one of the only figures in the sport today that could piece together such a treasure trove of content is Joe Dombrowski, a nearly twenty-year pro as an announcer around the independent scene. Along with his skills as a wordsmith, the voice of Ring Of Honor’s Future Of Honor division brings an almost obsessive nature toward the goal of the preservation of history, especially at a time when it’s much easier for corporate wrestling entities to attempt to rewrite the narrative of any era.
Along with his more recent release of “Wrestling from The Heartland,” a deep dive into Les Thatcher’s HWA when it was a developmental group for the big leagues of its time, the true historian that he is, Joe saw an important project within the Thatcher archives since the legendary Les Thatcher originally ran the Pillman memorial events under the HWA banner.
“The reason I chose to work on the Brian Pillman Memorial Show Anthology was, more than anything, a chance to preserve history. There had never been a release of these events on a wide scale, only some VHS copies sold at local shows in Cincinnati and some bootleg copies that leaked out. No one had been able to touch these for so long because the distribution rights were retained by the Pillman Estate, who had stayed pretty distanced from pro wrestling for a long time,” Dombrowski explained.
Between snacking on KFC and shifting through VHS footage of some of the most rare appearances of many of wrestling’s biggest stars, Joe sat in his home office with pen and paper to jot down detailed notes about everything from match line-ups to the tape quality of bouts.
“The early process was very much a wild goose chase in the sense that I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. It was still coming down to configuring the best video presentation, best audio, best way to condense raw footage into a slicker production, making sure we had all of the afternoon pre-show matches, etc. Every event is in its entirety, except for 1999, which is presented in its most complete existing form,” Joe commented.
The 15-hour production takes viewers back in time to watch the star-studded event, but aside from the top names and action in the ring, the presentation has much depth to it and offers a unique viewing experience on several levels.
“I’d say the main takeaway is the level of respect everyone had for Brian Pillman. Whether they were a fan of his work or one of his best friends, everyone was so willing to fly in on their day off, to give everything they had in-ring, to sign autographs for hours on end, just do anything they could to give back. Beyond that, it’s a slice of history that can never be replicated. During the peak of wrestling’s popularity and the peak of a massive wrestling ratings war, talent from every top company came together under one roof for the same cause, and it’s the only time that ever happened where cameras were allowed to roll. That speaks to the magnitude of this event, the trust everyone put in Les, and what Brian meant to everyone,” Dombrowski remarked.
While his longtime friendship with Les Thatcher quite literally opened the door for access to the footage, it was meeting Brian Pillman Jr. (you can read the article I penned about his decision to become a wrestler a few years ago here) that ultimately green-lit the project, as the Pillman Memorial Anthology was completed with the participation and authorization of Pillman Jr. Along his many travels with the many hats he wears, Joe promotes events in Cleveland, Ohio and met the second generation grappler there, which led to the work together on the memorial project.
“When Brian Pillman Jr. entered the industry, and there was an opportunity for us to work together what with him living in Cincinnati and me running events in Cleveland, it opened the door to develop a chemistry and working relationship and it built very organically from there. I wanted to get Les’ side of the story having been the man behind it all. I wanted to get Brian Jr’s recollections, having been in the middle of it all as a young child. Then I wanted to go inside the locker room so to speak and talk to the talent that volunteered their time and what those nights, and Brian in general, meant to them. We have original interviews with guys like Chris Jericho, Matt Hardy, Mark Henry, and DDP and their stories and memories are just priceless,” Joe said.
A true deep dive into the historical events, the production also features Les Thatcher in an interview with Pillman Jr. where the two discuss their memories of the nights where WWF and WCW were under one roof. Dombrowski took a multi-tiered approach to the presentation, as he looked to showcase the best in-ring work along with matches that had historical significance to the development of stars in the industry.
“The obvious answer is Wiliam Regal vs. Chris Benoit. I know Chris’ name will always come with a polarizing response, which is why we made the decision to not use Chris in any of the advertising and artwork for this, and the viewer can decide whether or not to view those portions. But many people point to Regal vs. Benoit as the match that saved Regal’s career and so many have said they could literally feel the energy in the building grow from indifference to pure electricity throughout that match. There’s a match with Mark Henry vs. Bill DeMott that Mark credits as a pivotal moment in his career. Seeing Edge & Christian vs. The Hardys vs. DDP and Kanyon is such a trip on a non-WWE event,” Dombrowski said.
So, on a week where the professional wrestling world tunes to Vice TV to watch the presentation of the legacy of Brian Pillman Sr., the Memorial Anthology seems to be the perfect complementary piece to see when the stars of the industry paid tribute to it. One thing is for sure, it speaks volumes that even 24 years after his passing, the Pillman name is the talk of the wrestling world this week.
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