There's something about the over-the-top, chaotic and often tragic world of professional wrestling that makes the industry a hotbed for stories that stretch well beyond our TV screens. The characters, while enthralling on screen, are even more fascinating off it.
However, telling those stories in their entirety can be a near impossible task in a business in which many versions of the truth exist -- especially when the subject is no longer alive.
In the new book "Crazy Like a Fox," Liam O'Rourke dove headfirst into the story of Brian Pillman and gave fans the opportunity to read the most accurate account of one of the most interesting stories professional wrestling has had to offer through the eyes of those closest to him.
"Brian was one of the guys, even though he wasn't an all-time great as a wrestler, he was somebody who I always watched because I always held that intangible that he had to a high standard and thought, 'You know, if someone can capture that, then they could go pretty far,'" O'Rourke said during a recent interview with ESPN.com.
Capturing the life of Pillman, who rose to prominence in the wrestling world in the late '80s and early '90s, became most famous (and infamous) for his commitment to his "Loose Cannon" gimmick. That commitment to fully living the gimmick in front of the public eye made telling this story a difficult task because of how closely Pillman played things to the vest, as well as the nature of the events surrounding his death.
Pillman kept even his closest friends out of the loop of what ended up being one of the best-kept secrets in wrestling. The WWE, which has the resources and the footage to tell wrestling stories better than anyone if it so choses, has instead largely distanced itself from the controversial Pillman outside of a single 2006 DVD release that told a surface version of his story.
Pillman's career arc and chaotic life outside the ring have long been an untouched gold mine just waiting for the right person to tell the story properly.
As it turns out, a 31-year-old England native who was only 11 when Pillman died, but he ended up being just the right person to unearth the right details in this remarkable story. O'Rourke, a journalism major and writer in medical journals for a number of years, never wrote a book before "Crazy like a Fox: The Definitive Chronicle of Brian Pillman 20 Years Later," but he was unknowingly moving toward writing this story far before it ever came together.
It began when O'Rourke was training to become a professional wrestler in 2002 at the FWA Academy in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, that he first became infatuated with Pillman's career. As a child, O'Rourke "hated" Pillman, but as an aspiring wrestler he found himself studying Pillman's eccentric ways. O'Rourke was captivated by Pillman's intense promos and realistic style in the ring. He would research Pillman for over a decade, watching film, taking notes and collecting newspaper clippings, and still, writing a book was the farthest thing from O'Rourke's mind.
Ultimately, it was only when O'Rourke ran out of material on Pillman, and couldn't find a single DVD or book that thoroughly and accurately told Pillman's story, that O'Rourke decided to tell the story himself.
"It came to the point a couple of years ago where I just thought to myself, 'You know, I got this collection of notes and I was never really happy with any version of Brian's story that had been told before,'" said O'Rourke. "Because I researched him enough to know there was more to the story. He is a case where I think it requires a book. It takes a book to go into the kind of detail you to need to explain the scope of his talent."
O'Rourke didn't seek out a book deal or reach out to anyone who might try to shape the narrative of Pillman's story for their own benefit. Instead, O'Rourke's first move was talking to those closest to Pillman, since he couldn't get the perspective from the man himself.
That list spread throughout the wrestling business, with Raven, Mark Coleman, Bruce Hart, Jim Cornette, Shane Douglas and Pillman's close friend Kim Wood among those who ultimately helped to tell the story. Extending outside the business, O'Rourke also talked to Pillman's family, including his sister Linda and Pillman's children, Brian Jr. and Brittany.
Even O'Rourke couldn't tell the entire story, though. He wishes he could've spoken to Pillman's tag team partner and travel buddy Steve Austin as well as Jim Ross, but the friends and family who did offer their insight for the book were refreshingly honest in their discussions of Pillman. The stories of Pillman's many bar fights, sexual escapades and quirky personality behind the scenes were some of the most engaging aspects of the book.
Of course, the accounts from the ones closest to Pillman during his darkest moments -- the drug use, the near fatal car accident, and his death -- were particularly gripping passages for writer and readers alike -- and presented one of the biggest challenges for O'Rourke during the writing process.
"Knowing how sad it was it was still so hard, people telling [me] how bad off Brian was at the end," O'Rourke said. "Hearing the tone of their voice as they tell me the story as I'm putting pen to paper, that was so tough. After spending so long thinking about this book and putting it together, you kind of feel like you do know him.
"I was in a minor sulk, a depression for two days after finishing that chapter where he dies because you got your head in your hands," O'Rourke continued. "You know it's sad. When a guy dies at 35 it's obviously a sad situation, but when you see the ebb and flow, week to week, [with] him kind of falling apart. Gotten it from the people who are actually witnessing it, everything about Brian gets amplified, multiplied, exaggerated tenfold when you read this and from my perspective learning all this and putting it all together and compiling it."
O'Rourke's attention to detail throughout the book does Pillman's comprehensive story justice. The story starts with an in-depth look into Pillman's football career with Miami of Ohio and the Cincinnati Bengals. O'Rourke struggled to find film of Pillman's football days, but upon getting his hands on the vintage footage realized how important it was to describe the way Pillman played compared to just regurgitating stats.
As an undersized 5-foot-10, 220-pound nose tackle, using the film to describe how Pillman maneuvered double teams and played with unrivaled tenacity was important because it was emblematic of Pillman's mentality throughout his life.
O'Rourke dives deep into the peaks and valleys of Pillman's wrestling career, most notably the infamous "Loose Cannon" angle where Pillman acted like a maniac inside and outside the ring, leading to him being fired by Eric Bischoff from WCW to further the angle. The debate of who knew what during the angle is examined in the book from accounts of Pillman's firsthand conversations with Kim Wood. O'Rourke didn't take any shortcuts telling this once-in-a-lifetime story.
"As messed up as wrestling is, and it's probably the reason why Brian found wrestling attractive, the stories and the characters that gravitate to wrestling is so unique and it's such an amalgamation of personalities, there's just so much to touch on and so much to cover and it's such a rich industry in terms of the content," O'Rourke said. "There's so much you could do and so much you can write."
Pillman's legacy stretches far beyond the "Loose Cannon," and yet that part of his career has prevented the full picture from being portrayed. Pillman was a pioneer for future cruiserweights in his "Flyin' Brian" days in Stampede Wrestling and WCW, putting on mat classics with Jushin "Thunder" Liger. His "Loose Cannon" angle still has had a resonant effect beyond his own history, by inspiring future wrestlers to control their own destiny and get out ahead in contract negotiations.
It could even be argued that Pillman's promos and dedication to his character helped usher in the realism of the Attitude Era. However, the story of everything Pillman did in the ring and within the wrestling business consistently gets overshadowed by how his life ended in a Bloomington, Minnesota, hotel room in 1997 and the downward spiral that led up to it. Those factors have helped keep Pillman out of the WWE Hall of Fame despite a worthy resume. O'Rourke hopes his book can help change the negative perception that lingers with Pillman's legacy.
"A lot of people when they talk about Brian, their mind goes to what could've been because of what happened at the end, but he's also a case of what was," O'Rourke said. "It's kind of amazing that he was what he was. To me, the legacy of Brian is that he was the guy that figured it out before anybody else did. He knew what was coming next and he was actually in a position where he was good enough, smart enough, he was enough of a talker backstage to get things going his way, and you only needed to get the ball rolling a little bit and then he could take it the rest of the way from there.
"To me, that's the legacy of Pillman -- scratching, and clawing, and fighting, and cajoling, and planning, and doing anything he can to make it only to figure it all out, only for it to still not happen and for everything to blow up in the most tragic fashion imaginable. [Pillman] had this kind of cult icon status since he died. The typical 'musician who dies young' type of thing. You got to see some of the greatness but, gosh, what could've been. Brian's one of the first ones like that in wrestling."