AS I SEE IT 9/12: Remembering...six years later

Bob Magee
Pro Wrestling: Between the Sheets

This past September 8th will make it six years.

It was six years ago on September 8, 1999, when Brian Hildebrand died after fighting a two year battle against cancer.

There are few people within wrestling who were held in such universally high regard at the time of their passing. When people eulogized Brian, the words they used weren't the kind that social obligation or courtesy often require; but were instead deep and heartfelt, epitomized by Mick Foley, who said about Brian in his best-selling book Mankind: Have A Nice Day that "Brian brought out all the better angels of our nature".

Back at the time of his death, it was said that there were only two people in the entire wrestling business without enemies: Brian Hildebrand and Owen Hart. Sadly, neither are with us today.

Brian was such a special person that he inspired everyone who knew him...whether friends, family, fans, or co-workers... to frequently share our feelings on such a funny, dedicated, committed individual who was and always will be an inspiration to live each day of our lives to their fullest... and to follow our dreams, no matter how impossible they may seem.

As I said in the original 1999 column right after Brian's was almost eerie, yet at the same time totally expected, when I got the news in, of all places, a funeral home at a wake for the uncle of a friend, after being called by a family member via cell phone.

I'll always remember Brian Hildebrand as a man who lived for and loved the wrestling business more than anything else on this earth, except for his beloved wife Pamela. He got to live his dream of making a living in wrestling as referee "Mark Curtis" for Smoky Mountain Wrestling and World Championship Wrestling. Brian Hildebrand was a man who lived to the last day of his life with more courage than anyone I've ever had the privilege to know.

As most longtime readers know, Brian fought stomach cancer for nearly two years, after being initially diagnosed in October 1997. But he refused to allow cancer to stop his incredible spirit and his wonderful sense of humor. He seemed amazed and somewhat embarrassed at all the attention his battle with cancer received.

I saw Brian for the first time in 1990 during a combined Dennis Coraluzzo-Joel Goodhart benefit show for Philadelphia area wrestling fan Tom Robinson, with Brian doing his manager's gimmick of "Dr. Mark Curtis". Years later, I got the privilege of finally getting to know him, meeting him just before Smoky Mountain Wrestling's Fanweek 1993. Brian became responsible for two of the most special experiences of my life, Fanweek 1993 and 1994.

For those who never got to attend one of these events, SMW Fanweeks were held yearly from 1993 through 1995, and were a combination traveling road show (complete with barbecues, beer, shoot Q&As, and marathon videotape parties) that gave wrestling fans a chance to experience the last real Southern wrestling territory.

Brian was the reason these yearly Fanweeks were possible, because of his non-stop organizational work during the weeks leading up to them; and during the moment to moment problems that occur when one is trying to please 55 human beings, please Jim Cornette and Sandy Scott, AND work as referee "Mark Curtis" all at the same time.

Brian always did this with such unfailing patience, good humor, never forgetting to still be a fan of the very business he worked in. That's the reason why he always used the word "Mark" in his ring name.

Along with rememberances of the past, the trips themselves always seemed to have a series of great stories.

In August 1994, there was the story of our infamous tour bus to Johnson City that was (well, almost) outraced by the Mongolian Stomper.

The bus rented by SMW going that afternoon from Knoxville to Johnson City, TN for "Fire on The Mountain" was having major engine problems and could only travel 25 miles per hour, on top of having to travel on I-81, which was cut through mountain after mountain. In those pre-cell phone days, there was no way for Brian to inform the SMW staff already over in Johnson City that there was a problem, and that we needed help. We didn't pull over because all aboard were afraid that the bus engine wouldn't start again if we did...and that we'd be stuck somewhere without phones.

As we creeped along, we were reminded of the story that Archie "Mongolian Stomper" Gouldie (even in 1994, he was in as good a shape as he had been in his prime) was reported to take some trips between venues by bicycle...riding as strongly as some competitive long-distance racers. As we putt-putted along I-81, more than one comedian on the bus claimed to see Stomper passing us.

We finally arrived at Freedom Hall just before showtime, to a apoplectic Sandy Scott. Brian, as usual, calmly told Scott what had happened, and managed to get in a crack about Stomper beating us to the building...which calmed Scott down somewhat. We had a new bus for our return trip....and one helluva unique experience to remember.

But my frequently-told and favorite Fanweek story involves the time that I had to go with Brian to Knoxville's West Town Mall to get Jim Cornette a new tennis racquet (a local fan had taken it upon himself to steal Jim's racquet at a house show the night before). Brian and I went to a sporting goods store and got the racquet. The sales clerk fell all over himself meeting "Mark Curtis".

I stood and watched. As the clerk rang up the purchase, he asked me "Can I help you, sir?". I replied, in full kayfabe mode, "I'm just here with Mr. Curtis". We walked away into the Mall to grab lunch, and Brian asked me, "How in hell did you just do that?" My reply was "Because you and Jimmy taught us to remember that your folks down here 'still believe'." It can safely be said that Brian Hildebrand did that very thing for his entire career in the wrestling a mark for the business, but never one about it.

It's the reason that Brian was honored at the Eddie Gilbert Memorial Weekend in Philadelphia in February 1998. He was the surprise honoree at the Gilbert Memorial Banquet on February 27, 1998. Brian had called me days before the Banquet, wondering why Jim Cornette and then NWA-New Jersey promoter Dennis Coraluzzo were calling him numerous times to make sure he was coming.

Brian said "Bob, what in hell is up here?" I replied, not wanting to ruin the surprise, but knowing he'd smell me fudging a mile away... "Well, if you actually got Dennis to return a phone call...if you got Corny calling that many times in a week...I'd bring a suit... and be prepared to say something".

The tribute that Jim Cornette did for him at that Eddie Gilbert Banquet was pure Cornette, totally irreverent as usual, but also done with a great deal of feeling.

The kind of person Brian was is also the reason that WCW honored him with a night dedicated to him later that year on Sunday, November 29, 1998 at WCW's show in Knoxville, TN; with a classic match of Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero against Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit, which saw Brian involved in the finish to count the pin. The evening was topped by Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen presenting Brian with a championship belt.

Then on July 30, 1999, there was the "Curtis Comes Home" benefit show in Rostraver, PA. Jim Cornette, Shane Douglas, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Mick Foley, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Tracy Smothers, Chris Candido, Tammy Sytch, Public Enemy, Dominic DeNucci, Al Snow, D-Lo Brown, Terry Taylor, Les Thatcher, and Sandy Scott took part in this tribute in Brian's hometown.

Brian kept himself going through such sheer will and determination despite such a physically devastating form of cancer that he actually refereed a match for Southern States Wrestling only days before his death. He had the often-expressed hope of returning to work fulltime for WCW, and never gave up that dream.

Even after his death, Brian kept inspiring people. At the 2001 Brian Pillman Memorial Weekend, the "Mark Curtis" Memorial Pro Wrestling Fantasy Camp was held. Featured trainers were Ricky Steamboat, Terry Taylor, Bill Alfonzo, Bill "Hugh Morris" DeMott, Les Thatcher and the stars of the Heartland Wrestling Association; along with Les Thatcher.

In a previous column, I spoke about Liz Malone, one of those attending the Camp. I imagine that as he watched from a better place, Brian was getting a kick out of Liz Malone (bottom row right with a blue shirt in the picture), the only woman among a group of guys, smaller than all the rest...not giving up on her dreams. No doubt, she reminded Brian very much of himself.

While a small man in stature, Brian showed us all a giant heart that is an example for us all. There's no doubt in my mind whatever that he would have admired it in someone like Liz Malone. But there is little question who the person most deserving of admiration really was. During the 2001 Curtis Fantasy Camp, Brian would have especially appreciated another moment; what friend Jeanette
Gogan-Olivier described as:

" unforgettable, heart felt speech by Ricky Steamboat which spoke about the heart of true wrestling. Pam Hildebrand said that Ricky's words were moving, and that Brian would have approved because this was what the whole day was about, and what Brian Hildebrand was about. None of us in attendance will ever see the business the same..."

Brian could appreciate most any style of match, but he appreciated most an old-school attitude toward wrestling which showed respect for the business and those who make the sacrifices to succeed in it. There's no doubt that he'd have been honored to have Ricky Steamboat participate in anything he was associated with...and amazed at the same time to be honored by Steamboat in an event bearing his name.

It can be said that at the time Brian Hildebrand left this world, he knew he was loved and respected by all within the business he himself loved so much.

Two days after Brian died, I took a previously planned trip down with friends to a WCW house show at the Baltimore Arena. The show began with then-WCW announcer David Pinzer announcing the news to those who hadn't read the news online, or seen the mention the previous evening on Thunder. Pinzer then signaled for the traditional 10 bell salute. It was a special moment for the group of us that knew Brian well in attendance. Many of those working the show wore black armbands in tribute to him.

Charles Robinson, who was with Brian and the family when he passed away; as well as Scott Dickenson, were given special greeting by those of us who knew their relationship with Brian. The group of us made sure that we gave Dickenson his traditional rib about donuts (one that Brian gave us to get Scott with at the first Philly Monday Nitro). Our seats were close enough that he clearly saw and heard it.

Then late in the show, after a Chris Benoit-Bam Bam Bigelow US Title match; Shane Douglas, Chris Benoit, and Dean Malenko came out in an out-of-character moment, and dedicated the evening's show to Brian with heartfelt words for their friend.

It may have only been a WCW house show for most of the relatively small Baltimore Arena crowd that night. But it was a way for those of us who were there together to say goodbye to Brian in the most appropriate atmosphere possible...a wrestling show.

For those of you who would like to send your thoughts to his wife Pamela on the anniversary of Brian's passing, or to send contributions to the Brian Hildebrand Memorial Fund; you can do so at the following address: Pamela Hildebrand-Clark, 353 Don Carson Road, Telford, TN 37690

For those of you who would like to read more about Brian, a website dedicated to him is located at Brian On the website, you can read the thoughts of people within wrestling about Brian...a list including Chris Benoit, Bob Ryder, Chris Jericho, Mark Madden, Mike Johnson, Dave Meltzer, Dave Scherer, Diamond Dallas Page, Dory and Marti Funk, Bill Apter; as well as many other fans and friends of Brian.

You can also purchase the Mark Curtis Memorial Wrestling Reunion DVD from earlier this year. The DVD is $20 (plus $3 shipping) with checks or money orders made out to: Pamela Hildebrand-Clark, 353 Don Carson Road, Telford, TN 37690 (make checks payable to Pamela Hildebrand-Clark).

Matches on the DVD:

  • Eddie Golden vs. KC Thunder (with the Duke of New York)
  • Roger Anderson vs. Timber
  • Tim Horner and Cody Michaels vs. The Turbanators (with Perry James)
  • Terry Taylor vs. Tom Pritchard
  • Al Snow and D-Lo Brown vs. Mick Foley and Shane Douglas (with Dominic DiNucci)

    Along with these matches, backstage interviews and footage are included.

    Ironically enough, as many of you who read this column know, CZW did a memorial show for Christopher "Chris Ca$h" Bauman this past Saturday afternoon. Bauman was a young man who was as passionate about wrestling as Brian Hildebrand...sadly with even fewer years to have been able to show that incredible passion.

    Somehow, I have a feeling that Brian Hildebrand and Chris have already met in that better place we all know they're in. When Brian meets Chris, he will meet one of the few people in Heaven that loved wrestling as much as he did. I'd love to be a fly on the proverbial wall of those debates between Brian and Chris about the merits of old school wrestling vs. new school wrestling.

    Rest in peace, dear Brian. You are still, six years later, missed more than you can ever know.

    Finally, I'd like my readers, wherever they may live, to take some time and consider how they might help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The various charities listed below can receive donations online through the Network for Good portal.

    To donate cash by telephone:

  • American Red Cross (800) HELP NOW/(800) 435-7669 English; (800) 257-7575 Spanish
  • America's Second Harvest (800) 344-8070

    To donate cash or volunteer:

  • Adventist Community Services -- (800) 381-7171
  • Catholic Charities, USA -- (703) 549-1390
  • Christian Disaster Response -- (941) 956-5183/(941) 551-9554
  • Christian Reformed World Relief Committee -- (800) 848-5818
  • Church World Service -- (800) 297-1516
  • Convoy of Hope -- (417) 823-8998
  • Lutheran Disaster Response -- (800) 638-3522
  • Mennonite Disaster Service -- (717) 859-2210
  • Nazarene Disaster Response -- (888) 256-5886
  • Presbyterian Disaster Assistance -- (800) 872-3283
  • Salvation Army -- (800) SAL-ARMY/(800) 725-2769
  • Southern Baptist Convention -- Disaster Relief (800) 462-8657, ext. 6440
  • United Methodist Committee on Relief -- (800) 554-8583

    Until next time....


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