PWInsider - WWE News, Wrestling News, WWE

 
 

LOOKING BACK AT THE ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER OF BOBBY 'THE BRAIN' HEENAN

By Mike Johnson on 2017-09-17 20:39:00

"I'm a legend in this sport. If you don't believe me, ask me."

The greatest manager in the history of professional wrestling, WWE Hall of Famer Bobby "The Brain" Heenan passed away today at the age of 73 years old.  Understand that when I write he was the greatest of all time, that is not opinion.  It is fact.  It is with that in mind that as you read this, understand we are barely scratching the surface of Heenan's greatness as a performer, the surface of what he accomplished and the surface of the legacy he leaves behind.

Heenan, who's penchant for excellent bumps, quick wit and amazing comedic timing allowed him to become of the most infamous personalities ever, had been dealing with health issues for years after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002.   While he did eventually beat the cancer, the treatments left him susceptible to infections and he suffered a bad infection in his jaw that forced him to undergo reconstructive surgery, changing his distinctive look and voice to the point that during a WWE Hall of Fame processional where talents made their way to the ring, Heenan was shown on camera in the venue and the audience didn't react, not realizing who it was.    While the circumstances of his passing have not yet been made public as of this writing, it's not hard to point to his health issues over the last 15 years and know the likely cause.

"I’ve been in this business since 1954. I was 10 years old.   I went to an Arena in Chicago & I was hooked. Just like that. When you’re hooked you’re in this business whether you like it or not. Remember watching the heels come out. They’d tell people to shut up, and they got louder.  Every time they told them to do something they wouldn’t do it. They ignored them.  I said I could do this for a living, it’s like being at home."

Heenan dropped out of school in the eighth grade to begin working to help support his mother and grandmother.  Pro Wrestling was his escape.  Heenan attended a show at the age of ten and fell immediately in love with the business.   He initially broke into the business not as a personality but as someone who carried ring jackets to the back and helped set up the ring.  Heenan was thrilled just to be around the business and began training as both a wrestler and a manager for Dick the Bruiser's WWA promotion in Indianapolis.  He worked for the territory for several years as "Pretty Boy" Bobby Heenan before feeling he was disrespected on a payoff by Bruiser for a big event and never returned.

Heenan moved to Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association, where his nickname morphed into "The Brain."  He most famously managed Nick Bockwinkel and Ray Stevens, who were the AWA World Tag Team champions.  The "Weasel" nickname that would follow Heenan as a taunt for the rest of his career came, ironically enough from a promo where Dick the Bruiser called Heenan out as one, during a feud with Bruiser and The Crusher challenging Stevens and Bockwinkel for the belts.  

"I am not a weasel!"

This led to a gimmick used in the AWA and later in the WWF against Ultimate Warrior, where Heenan would wrestle in "Loser Wears a Weasel Suit" matches that led to Heenan being beaten and knocked out, then stuffed in the suit.  It would lead to the comedic scene where a groggy Heenan would wake up, to his horror, of being in the suit and even, yes, chasing his own weasel tail, before taking a bump.  It was a great way for the villain to be humbled.

 Later, when Bockwinkel was the AWA World champion, Heenan was his manager.  Bockwinkel would later go on to comment that while he was great in the ring, Heenan could do what he did and manage as well, and do both roles better than Bockwinkel could.  The first Heenan family was also created in the AWA featuring Bockwinkel,  Stevens, Bobby Duncum Sr. and Blackjack Lana.  Before the Four Horsemen made the wrestling stable cool, Heenan created a franchise grouping of top villains in the AWA.

Although Heenan left the AWA for a year to work in Georgia Championship Wrestling (explained as a suspension in storyline), he would return to his relationship with Bockwinkel, which led to Heenan working against his most famous foe, Hulk Hogan, for the first time, as Hogan challenged for the AWA World title.  It was the earliest days of Hulkamania, with Hogan having crossed over into the mainstream due to his appearance as Thunderlips in Rocky IIII.   

Heenan suffered a neck injury in 1983 while wrestling, of all people, future Death Match legend Atsushi Onita during a tour of All Japan Pro Wrestling.  Neck issues would haunt Heenan for the remainder of his career and would even lead to his eventual exit from World Wrestling Federation.

Heenan remained with the AWA until the national expansion of the WWF in the mid 1980s.   Like many other AWA personalities, Heenan was peached by WWF, but unlike every other star, Heenan refused to jump without notice.  Unlike Hulk Hogan, Gene Okerlund, Jesse Ventura and others, Heenan worked every AWA date he had scheduled before moving on to the WWF, something the Gagne family noted numerous times over the years.

"So now I know I’m going to New York. I make a phone call to Vince McMahon Jr.  I’m in Denver. I can’t take it there anymore, I had to get out.  I called Hogan, he said to call Vince. I called Vince and told him I planned to leave.  I called Verne and told him I was giving my notice. I would fulfill my dates but I was leaving.   He said, 'I dare you to come here and tell me that face-to-face?'  I said, 'How’s 1 o'clock?' He said fine.  I took my wife with me, Cynthia …. I didn’t think he’d hit a woman!  She’s Italian, God knows what would’ve happened to him.  I called Vince and said Verne wants me to go to the office and he sounds mad.  Vince said, 'Boy I wish I could be there with you.'  I said. 'To back me up?'  He said, 'No I want to tape it."

In the WWF, Bobby relaunched his Heenan family and while he wrestled for the company, he was hired more as an antagonist to the then-reigning and defending WWE champion and at the time, real life Superman, Hulk Hogan.  At the time, the Hogan formula was on fire as Hogan would be challenged by an endless cavalcade of villains.  He would start strong, then  be worked over and sell, sell, sell until making the big comeback.  

When one thinks about it, Hogan's greatest foe in that era really was Bobby Heenan.  Heenan was the number one threat to Hulkamania, obsessed with toppling the champion as he managed the likes of King Kong Bundy, Big John Studd, Paul Orndorff, among others in attempts to take Hogan out.  While the villains would have their run and then go back down the card, Heenan never wavered as often, he was bringing challenger against challenger to face the seemingly unbeatable Hogan.

The climax of this was the legendary turn of Andre the Giant in 1987.  Although Heenan had been the foil for Andre previously when he managed Studd against Andre, even being blamed as the architect of a storyline suspension for Andre, he would also take the blame as the one that took the friendly Giant from the French Alps and turned him against his friend and protégé, Hogan.

It was a story that would seem beyond tame by today's standards, but led to the most famous and legendary bout in the history of WWF, one that will be forever immortal as THE Wrestlemania moment - Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III.  Andre had been celebrated and given a trophy for being undefeated for 15 years on an edition of Piper's Pit.  The following week, Hogan was given a much larger trophy in honor his three year anniversary as WWF champion.  Andre, obviously offended, walked off. 

Jesse Ventura promised to produce Andre on the Pit if Piper would produce Hogan and they would get to the bottom of the issue.  Only, Bobby Heenan walked out with Andre, shocking everyone, even Ventura.  Heenan went on a rant about how Hogan had disrespected Andre and never offered him a shot at the title.  Hogan was disbelief, saying that Andre couldn't be with Heenan after all Heenan had done to him and his fans.  In a bellowing voice, Andre, who had never been a heel in the WWF, told Hogan to look him in the face and challenged him to a title match at Wrestlemania.  He then tore Hogan's shirt and trademark crucifix off, accidentally nicking Hogan, who began bleeding down his chest.

By the time Andre and Heenan walked off and Piper quietly told Hogan, "You're bleeding," the world was shocked and what was the ultimate pro wrestling showdown was set.  Andre vs. Hogan headlined the first-ever nationally  broadcast professional wrestling PPV, selling out the Pontiac Silverdome en route to becoming the stuff of legend.  While Andre would fall to Hogan, Heenan, clad in a white and gold outfit, got to manage the main event of the biggest show of the era, making a six figure payoff, likely the largest a manager, past or present, would ever receive in pro wrestling.  Heenan would later call it the biggest night of his life.

"When I came here they had three Freebirds, they had the Junkyard Dog, two Bulldogs with Mathilda, another dog. You had insects. Two Killer Bees.  You had serpents.  You had a guy with a snake, you had a Hawaiian guy with a lizard … I’m not done yet!  And to top it all off, I’m the Weasel and I'm doing commentary with a Gorilla!"

While Heenan would go on to manage a slew of other talents and be a fantastic antagonist for everyone from Ken Patera to Roddy Piper to the Ultimate Warrior and more, perhaps his greatest tag team partner would be the person he never once teamed with, Gorilla Monsoon.  Put together as an announcing team, the two were perfect for each other, creating a duo that did a great job at getting over the stars while also presenting incredibly funny banter that enhanced the product.  

They really were the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello of pro wrestling announcing.  Gorilla playing the straight man, reacting to the stupid banter and scummy shenanigans of "The Brain", who claimed he was a broadcast journalist and would complain his monitor went out anytime it was obvious a villain was cheating.  The two were magic together as an exasperated Monsoon would often exclaim, "Give me a break!" in response to Heenan's ridiculous claims. 

The duo were so perfect together that years later, the WWE Network would use the first episode they hosted together as the chapter point to begin adding Prime Time Wrestling to the streaming service.  If you've never seen them, they are destination viewing and in many cases, the host segments are better than some of the action presented on the episode.

Behind the scenes, Heenan and Monsoon were best friends and in fact, when Heenan gave notice to go to WCW in 1994 (a move he made because the company offered him, as a broadcaster, medical insurance and his neck issues were to the point that he required surgery), it was booked that Monsoon, finally fed up after years of Heenan's antics and insults was the one to attack Heenan, drag him kicking and screaming from the announcing position and throwing him out of the company, literally.  Monsoon threw Heenan out the back door of the Westchester County Center in a tremendous scene where Heenan legitimately began crying as the contents of his bag spilled out before he collected his belongings (including, of all things, a roll of toilet paper), took one last look around and stomped off. 

The scene was created together by Heenan and Monsoon, who spent the next hour together at Heenan's hotel, weeping as they said their goodbyes.   Indeed, It was the last time the two did anything together on camera, but Heenan's love of Monsoon was so deep that during the height of the Monday Night Wars, when Monsoon passed away, Heenan still spoke lovingly of him, paying tribute on an episode of WCW Monday Nitro - and would again pay tribute to him during Heenan's WWF Hall of Fame induction in 2004.

"It's not fair to Flair!" 

Although Heenan "officially" retired as a manager in the early 1990s, he was brought back as an advisor to Ric Flair when Flair, billed as the "Real World champion" jumped from WCW to the WWF, with the NWA/WCW World championship as well.  When Bobby Heenan showed off the belt and announced that comparing the WWF title to it was like comparing "ice cream to horse manure", the ultimate dream match among wrestling fans was set.  While Curt "Mr. Perfect" Hennig would go on to really manage Flair on the road, Heenan and his past with Hogan set the stage for Flair's entrance.

During his run with WWF, Heenan managed The Brainbusters, Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson, to the WWF Tag Team championship, Hennig and Rick Rude to the WWF Intercontinental championship and later on, Haku and Andre the Giant to the Tag Team championship.   One might argue that he finally got to lead someone to the WWF championship when Ric Flair captured the belt in the 1992 Royal Rumble, especially since Hulk Hogan was one of the last man tossed out of the ring.

As mentioned earlier, Heenan had an incredible comedic wit.  He could have easily gone into television or film with his timing, but his first love was professional wrestling and it exploited his talents to the greatest of his ability.  At one point, the company even gave Heenan his own segment "The Bobby Heenan Show part of Prime Time Wrestling.  Heenan could also be a hell of a heel, including one notable episode of the series where, after losing a bet, Heenan had to dress as Santa Claus.  He spent the entire episode playing the role until finally declaring that there was no such thing as Santa Claus and that all the kids watching had been swindled by their parents.  That led to an irate Roddy Piper tracking him down and beating the crap out of him before declaring that he believed in Santa Claus.

As an announcer, Heenan was so excellent that when Monday Night Raw launched in January 1993, radio personality Rob Bartlett was brought in to be the comedic announcer.  Within a few months, Heenan had proven to be funnier and more familiar with the product and quickly and quietly replaced Bartlett.

The other reason Heenan left the WWF for WCW was the close proximity its Atlanta headquarters would be to his daughter's college in Alabama.  Heenan wrote lovingly of his relationship with his daughter in his two autobiographies, including one quirk that his daughter had that whenever he sent her to the store for something, she decided the change was her payment for the deed and that she never returned it.  In his later years, Heenan was thrilled that he became a grandfather.

In WCW, Heenan was used as an announcer.  Gene Okerlund bemoaned on the air that Heenan had followed him, but in reality, the debuts of the former WWF personalities were the first sign that the Ted Turner owned organization was making a move at challenging the WWF for as the leader in the business.  When Monday Nitro launched in September 1995 on TNT, Heenan was made one of the primary announcers alongside Eric Bischoff and Steve McMichael.  While he did his job, Heenan's passion for the job waned over the years and in many, many interviews following the demise of the company, Heenan would describe the company by flushing his toilet.

Heenan remained with WCW through the end in 2001, but was all but replaced by Mark Madden in January 2000 as a lead announcer and was relegated to Thunder and WCW Worldwide, secondary series.  He and Okerlund would return weeks after the end of the promotion as a surprise at Wrestlemania X-7, announcing the Gimmick Battle Royal and appearing at Wrestlemania AXXESS, signing.

Heenan would not return full-time for WWF/WWE ever, but did make appearances over the years for Jimmy Hart's XWF (where he managed Curt Hennig against Hulk Hogan, the last time he would be foil for the Hulkster), TNA and Ring of Honor (including a memorable segment where Heenan and Jim Cornette had the chance to work against each other for the first time as managers) and doing commentary on the one and only WOW Women of Wrestling PPV.

"Now I’ve got the opportunity to come out here and be induced into the Hall of Fame.   The Hall of Fame of Wrestling, something I’ve loved all my life.  Why did I stay? It was a job, I had to.  I was feeding my mother, my grandmother, my aunt.  I had to feed people and myself.  But it wasn’t just the money, it wasn’t just the people I had to feed, it was because I loved this.  I love you and I love them. That’s what this is about."

Heenan would pop up in cameos for WWE, inducting Paul Orndorff into the WWE Hall of Fame a year after Heenan himself was inducted as well as a funny cameo at Wrestlemania XX where he and Gene Okerlund were dragged into a closet by an amorous Mae Young and Fabulous Moolah despite his protests that, "I haven't been well", a reference to his battle against throat cancer.  He also appeared on a number of WWE DVDs, including the Self-Destruction of Ultimate Warrior, knocking Warrior as the two never, ever liked each other. 

In recent years, Heenan had continued to make regular appearances at conventions and signing appearances, although there were regular instances of Heenan falling and breaking bones, which required numerous hospital stays.  While his antics and even his trademark quips had been silenced by his health issues, he was met with unanimous respect and happy greetings by those he had worked with over the years in the business.

There was a great reason for this - there will only ever be one Bobby "The Brain" Heenan.  He was the greatest at what he did and everyone else, no matter who they were, were competing for second place....and going forward, that's all they will ever compete for.

"It’s just an honor, it’s a real privilege to be here in front of all you people and in New York City, and only one thing’s missing.  I wish Monsoon was here.  Thank you....... we get paid for this, right?"

On behalf of everyone associated with PWInsider.com, we'd like to express our deepest condolences to Bobby Heenan's family, friends and fans.

If you enjoy PWInsider.com you can check out the AD-FREE PWInsider Elite section, which features exclusive audio updates, news, our critically acclaimed podcasts, interviews and more, right now for THREE DAYS free by clicking here!