For the second instalment of this occasional piece, we have taken a leap forward in time from before; now in 1996 when WWE was on the cusp of the Attitude Era and already starting to feel the influence of the innovative ECW. From here on, WWE would start to provide a much higher quantity of controversial material, and the one we are looking at today still stands tall amongst the crowd….
“Pilman’s got a gun”
Prior to 1996, WWE didn’t produce any moments I would consider shocking (the Cobra incident from the previous article notwithstanding); a few story twists and match outcomes were unexpected and surprising, but nothing to make your jaw drop or genuinely outrage. Then Brian Pillman arrived in WWF. Already a controversial figure in wrestling, due to his antics in WCW and ECW where he bent kayfabe almost to breaking point, Flyin’ Brian Pillman had been appropriately re-titled ‘The Loose Canon’. When he joined WWF, he sided with his former tag team partner Stone Cold Steve Austin but soon struck up a friendship with Austin’s nemesis Bret Hart. Stone Cold then began to feel Pillman was favouring Hart over him, and eventually flipped out and attacked him during an in-ring interview, breaking his ankle with a chair (storyline). Because of this, Pillman was laid up at home but this did not deter Stone Cold from seeking retribution.
On the November 4th 1996 episode of RAW, WWF broadcast the following segment of The Rattlesnake visiting Pillman’s home, with incendiary results:
Even when considering the emotional intensity in this feud, the above moment still seems extreme, and age (this was 16 ago now) has done nothing to diminish its impact. Austin and Pillman were both on brilliant form and it would have been equally tense without the appearance of a 9mm. It really is gob-smacking that WWF thought they could use a fire-arm in an angle, and it almost feels as though they were simply testing how far they could push the envelope. They soon found out, when a disgusted USA Network (who WWF neglected to tell a gun would be involved) demanded a grovelling apology and threatened WWF that should they ever pull a similar stunt they would be thrown off the network. And their reaction is understandable; WWF went way past the line, and in doing so sullied what would have been an otherwise exciting angle, and offended a lot of people in the process. Having a performer appear to genuinely threaten to kill another broke a cardinal rule of the game too; this further upset the long-time fans, already turned off by the direction WWF was beginning to take.
Nevertheless, this infamous moment does serve as an interesting artefact from a time period when WWF was tentatively trying to establish a new identity, and find a new audience to carry it forward. This, along with a few other key moments from 1996-1997, foreshadowed the beginning of period that would produce more controversial moments than any other in history: The Attitude Era.