An article by Mike Mooneyham
(Published Sept. 12, 1999)
Pro wrestling is a world filled with jealousy, paranoia and mistrust. Every now and then, a gentle soul emerges, a peacemaker who embraces the business in spite of its shortcomings, and more importantly, earns the respect of an entire industry.
Brian Hildebrand may not have been the biggest name in pro wrestling and probably never even had his name on a marquee, but few in the business have ever stood so tall. Mike Tenay once said that if heart and determination were a measuring stick, Brian would have been a world champion.
Brian Hildebrand, known to many as WCW referee Mark Curtis, passed away last Wednesday evening at 7:15. Brian, who was surrounded by family and friends, had fought the good fight, with amazing degrees of determination, tenacity, courage and, finally, dignity.
His friends, numerous in number, shared their thoughts about Brian. One amazing fact spoke volumes about Brian Hildebrand. No one had ever recalled hearing anyone say a bad word about him, a rarity in any business, much less the pro wrestling business. And if Brian Hildebrand did have a fault, it was his intense demand for perfection, said longtime friend Jim Cornette.
To say he was only a referee would be far from accurate.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“You don’t find many referees who are presented world championship belts by Ric Flair,” said former wrestler Les Thatcher. “Brian was more than that.” Brian Hildebrand was, indeed, much more than a referee. He was the catalyst for bringing together a number of diverse personalities in a diverse business, all of whom were linked by a special friendship with Brian.
“I was thinking,” Thatcher noted, “that a lot of us who are going to show up for that funeral on Saturday are probably pulled together by Brian. We might not have ended up being friends if it weren’t for him.”
WCW had presented Brian with a show in his honor last November in Knoxville. Backstage back-stabbing, political power plays and the relentless race for ratings all took a night off as WCW paid tribute to one its own. It was one of the most emotional moments in Brian’s 37 years, a genuine outpouring of love and support from his many friends in the wrestling business. The highlight of that evening saw Ric Flair, on behalf of The Four Horsemen, present Brian with a replica of the world championship belt with Brian’s name on it.
“I just lost it (when Flair came out). I was crying. The stuff that he said just killed me,” Brian later said, joking that “that belt weighed damn near as much as the regular belt.” He admitted he couldn’t get to sleep from the excitement.
“It blew me away. I couldn’t have dreamed of anything like that. I woke up the next morning and looked at my wife and asked her if that really happened.”
“Brian, without a doubt, was one of the most genuine and real people I’ve ever known in my life,” Flair said Friday. “I was fortunate enough to have someone who really admired me – not really sure why – and treated me with the most respect. For some reason he admired me and thought that I was something special, and I wish that I would have been able to do more for him because he always supported me and backed me. He was a tremendous young man who deserved more than he got.”
Brian Hildebrand did everything there was to do in the wrestling business, from shooting photos for wrestling publications to putting up rings, to driving wrestlers to and from airports and arenas, to announcing, promoting, refereeing, managing and even wrestling. It’s funny to think that a man of his small physical stature (5-7, 140) actually wrestled, but the fact is that the former high school and college wrestler was an excellent bump artist, having trained at the same time with future stars Mick Foley and Shane Douglas at Dom DeNucci’s training camp. Tony Schiavone gave him the name “Shooter” when Brian turned back a fan who had charged the ring one evening on Nitro and subdued him with a front facelock.
Brian, who used the stage name Mark Curtis (his middle name was Curtis and he admittedly was a “mark” for the business) since his ring debut, was a lifelong wrestling fan and historian who became close friends with Cornette and the late Eddie Gilbert when all three were teen-agers. He first met Cornette at a wrestling fan club convention in Memphis in 1979. It was the beginning of a long friendship and business relationship.
“He was a true friend who would never let you down,” said Cornette. “If Brian told you he was going to do something, you never had to worry that not only would he get it done, but he’d have it polished for you as well,” said Cornette, who used Brian as his right-hand man for his Tennessee-based Smoky Mountain Wrestling operation during the early ’90s.
And nobody was happier than Cornette when his friend finally cracked the “big time” several years ago when WCW hired him.
“Brian was the best referee in the business and had worked harder than anybody I know to get there,” said Cornette, who added that Brian (in a turtle costume as Cowabunga The Ninja Turtle) was also the best opponent he ever had.
Former mat great Sandy Scott, who knew Brian for nearly 11 years and whom Brian had considered “like a second father,” called Brian an inspiration to others and said he lived his life to the fullest.
“He was one of the most honest and straight guys you could ever meet,” said Scott, who served as Brian’s best man at his wedding. “He was kind, and everybody liked him. When you were in his company, you could feel a sense of pleasure and relaxation, and you could just talk about anything. I never ever heard him talk badly about anyone. It was just rare.”
Scott said Brian never let his size pose an obstacle to his goals.
“I guess he was told he was too small to accomplish anything in the wrestling business. He proved all those people wrong when he went with WCW. He lived his dream.”
Brian married Pam Murphy in spring 1998 and took a honeymoon trip to Charleston later that month to attend a legends reunion where he served as one of four special refs: two of the greatest from the past (Tommy Young and Ron West) and two of the greatest from the present (Brian and Charles Robinson).
But Brian, who was no stranger to adversity, was dealt yet another blow shortly after realizing his lifelong dream at WCW. He was diagnosed with an ulcer which prevented him from keeping food down, and when doctors removed the ulcer, they discovered cancer in 11 lymph nodes in his spleen. Doctors removed them and put Brian on chemotherapy.
Although being forced from the ring for eight months, he came back with renewed vigor until exploratory surgery last October revealed that the cancer had spread. And although he was told that the cancer was in operable, he vowed that he would return. And he did, on several occasions, despite at one point dropping to 75 pounds before being fed with IVs to boost his weight.
“Brian was a good friend and a real professional in the ring,” said fellow WCW ref Charles Robinson. “Even with a slow match – because of the excitement that he brought to the ring – even a boring match was exciting with Brian in it. He really loved the sport and he gave his heart and soul for it. During his illness, he never gave up his faith in God. God will take care of him. I love him and I miss him, and I’ll see him when I get to heaven.”
Thatcher said he’s relieved only because the pain is finally over for his friend.
“The only other positive I see is that when I die, I’m not sure where I’m going, but at least I’ve got somebody to give me a good reference. And I know he’ll speak up for me no matter what an SOB I might be, because he loved me and I loved him.”
Brian Hildebrand proved over and over again that he just may have been the toughest man in the wrestling business.
“I marvel at how long he’s held on and how hard he’s fought,” said Thatcher. “He never spoke of dying or if he was coming back to work. He was coming back to work.”
“He fought right up to the end,” added Scott. “He told me he wasn’t ever going to give up, that they’d have to carry him out of the ring. Believe it or not, he was looking to go back to work this October. I don’t know if he talked to them down there about it, but he had his sights set on October. He had overcome one setback after another. He fought it and fought it. I sure admire the guy. The good Lord’s got a good one.”
Most remarkable was the fact that Brian Hildebrand refereed at a show just days before he died. It was at a small show in east Tennessee, not at all unlike the hundreds of shows he took part in years ago.
“He worked the most obscure shows you ever heard of,” said Cornette. “Shows that no one even knew about or ever heard about.”
That’s how much he loved the business. There aren’t many people who actually get the opportunity to do what they really love, but Brian was one of them, and he was the first to tell you that he had been truly blessed.
A benefit show was held for Brian on July 30 in his old hometown of Rostraver, Pa., and some of the biggest stars in the business donated their time to show their love for Brian, while both WCW and the WWF paid trans for the talent to appear. The show was called “Curtis Comes Home.” There’s no doubt he’s really home now.
As for myself and the rest of Brian’s friends, we’ll miss those trademark suspenders. We’ll miss that sense of humor. We’ll miss his fighting spirit. That, I’m sure, will never die.