The author of this review has a personal connection to the author of this book. This review was not paid for or endorsed in any way, and the book was obtained legally without the book author’s prior knowledge or recommendation.
Brian Pillman Book Review | Crazy Like a Fox: The Definitive Chronicle of Brian Pillman 20 Years Later | Author: Liam O’Rourke | Publisher: CreateSpace | Genre: Non-fiction | Year: 2017
Liam O’Rourke’s comprehensive biography of professional wrestler Brian Pillman is full of intriguing sound bites from those who knew him best and yet few of these quotes are more poignant than the one Bruce Hart offers towards the end of the book, wherein he remarks:
“My Dad used to say that the four saddest words in the English language were, ‘What could have been'”.
As the author points out early on: the broad strokes of Pillman’s career and the events that led up to his fatal heart attack in late 1997 have always been fairly well documented, but what of the man’s true potential? If it wasn’t for the football leagues who passed on Pillman because of his small stature, or the tragic car accident that would ruin his ability to perform in a wrestling ring, could anything have stopped Pillman’s ascent towards super stardom?
Over the course of an entire exposé on his life inside and outside of the squared circle, Crazy Like a Fox makes you appreciate why there is so much to take away from Pillman’s story. From his youngest days spent battling a genetic throat disorder, to his later years as an aspiring athlete and ladykiller, it’s easy to see Pillman as a gifted individual who couldn’t rely on good fortune to bring him the success he always dreamed of.
The author’s obvious passion for professional wrestling is a credit to understanding the era in which Pillman developed his craft. It’s with a level of research that transports you right back to the eighties that O’Rourke details the familiar parallels between Pillman’s American football and professional wrestling careers, as Pillman fought to prove himself in environments where bigger men, often possessing a fraction of his natural intelligence or commitment, would be considered the more bankable prospects.
Crazy Like a Fox takes you from the beginning of Pillman’s turbulent life to its equally unsettling end. It feels as if nothing was missed along the way and for wrestling fans especially, the verbose detail of Pillman’s performance in WCW and pastures beyond will likely come as a real education.
The psychology behind efficiently booking a wrestling promotion, as well as the deeper concepts behind such a fascinating business aren’t just featured here, they’re also fluidly written about. O’Rourke’s prose, whilst occasionally curt, keeps things focused and nothing feels out of place as a result.
It’s worth noting that the author’s language is quite American in tone. It is fitting considering this is a portrait of an American wrestler and often co-narrated by American voices, but the occasional descriptions of things being “bush league” or “out of left field” for example, may puzzle those who are not seasoned in their stateside slang. The book is also quite detailed in its coverage of Pillman’s football career and again, if the reader isn’t experienced with sports here, then it can be a touch harder to appreciate the impact behind Pillman’s accomplishments.
“Pillman read a screen play and steamrolled the 270-pound Bruce Kozerski, a rookie center, at full speed” reads one particular instance, whereupon it took me several seconds before realising Pillman was first predicting a football pass and not reading a script for a movie!
My hilarious familiarity (or lack thereof) with American sports aside, I should stress how well the language in this book compliments its overall presentation. O’Rourke’s tone of voice is passionate yet impartial and the prose feels very natural. That feeling is enhanced by interview snippets from the likes of wrestling personalties, Shane Douglas, Scott “Raven” Levy, and Jim Cornette; the latter always providing colour with his expletive-laden tirades on wrestling history.
The lack of Steve Austin’s voice in chapter 12 — which covers the period where Pillman forms a lasting friendship with Austin as part of the The Hollywood Blondes tag team — is glaring but understandable. There are plenty more voices to hear from, not least of which being Pillman’s own as the author cleverly uses old interview transcripts to offer up relevant thoughts from the man himself.
Crazy Like a Fox is written with wrestling fans in mind and as such the book doesn’t waste time on needless fluff or exposition as it pertains to the business in question. You’ll find cunning detail of the political dealings between WWF and WCW during the mid-nineties for instance, but for something as easily digestible as the practice of ‘blading’, an elegant paragraph mixed in with an entertaining anecdote about Brian is succinct enough.
Through sources such as Linda Pillman (Brian’s sister), wrestling insider Dave Melzter, and Pillman’s long time confident and coach, Kim Wood, the essence of everything Brian Pillman is brought out in a treasure trove of stories. Whether insightful, hilarious, or just plain shocking, it wouldn’t be a wrestling bio without them and O’Rourke delivers by recounting tales such as Pillman’s regular tenacity for backstage japes, his mythical one-night ‘handstand’, and another very perplexing square off involving a handheld cleaning item …
For wrestling aficionados, the rundown of Pillman’s work on the microphone makes for great reading as does the coverage of arguably his best match versus Jushin Liger at Superbrawl 92. Every element you would expect to be covered about Pillman’s life is mentioned here, and with that comes a noticeable momentum that the book builds from page to page.
Worthy of special consideration are the chapters dealing with Pillman’s “Loose Cannon” gimmick that saw the wrestler warp expectations with innovative matches and storylines that blurred the line between reality and make-believe. Whilst this sort of thing is a bit more common today, reading about the creation of Pillman’s new personality here is especially insightful. It outs what a deceptively clever guy Pillman was during his tragically short run, and how ahead of his time he was in thinking up some of these fascinating and apparently lucrative ideas.
O’Rourke ventures into some dark territory towards the end of the book by analysing whether Pillman’s wilder character during these years contributed to his waning emotional well-being. It’s a thought-provoking thread of inquiry that you can draw parallels to elsewhere in the world. Numerous times I was reminded of Alice Cooper; the shock rock musician whose alcoholism and subsequent relapse was, by his own admission, often due to his inability to separate himself from his on-stage character, citing that the more people wanted to see that self-destructive persona in performance, the more compelled he was to oblige them.
Indeed, Crazy Like a Fox paints a respectful picture of Pillman’s life, and yet it still remains unflinching when highlighting the weaknesses of his character. Details of his drug abuse and sometimes evident lack of respect for women will make for some uncomfortable reading, and yet it’s commendable how the author addresses these character flaws in an honest and thoughtful way rather than using them as mere fuel for more salacious stories.
To critique something can also be to love something, and it’s riveting to see the author round off this book with a highly critical look at the wrestling business itself. O’Rourke brings years of knowledge and careful research to bear here by analysing Pillman’s career through a wider lens, and taking aim at a business that often plays fast and loose with the lives of those who dedicate themselves to it.
It all leads to desire. A desire to understand the why behind the decisions that Pillman made (even though with some questions we’ll never know the answer), and a desire to understand how his seemingly bright future could have been undone at the worst possible moment. There’s no doubt that this exercise in ‘what could have been’ leads to a depressing finale to Pillman’s story, but it’s still a story filled with excitement and tenderness nonetheless.
Brian William Pillman should by all rights have been a top guy as far as his chosen profession is concerned, and Crazy Like a Fox acts as a perfect tribute to that sentiment. This book delivers a seamless narrative of a mysterious man’s life, at once an exhaustive look at sports history, and a superb education in all things professional wrestling.