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Today I was talking about Bobby Heenan with a co-worker who was a casual fan of wrestling, but followed it closely in the late 1980s. One of things he told me was that for WWE to get him to watch on a weekly basis, they need to find someone like Heenan to be on every week. My reaction to that was simple: There will never be someone like Bobby Heenan again. His character was too unique, his upbringing so old-fashioned that even if an announcer or manager came along today with the exact same natural talent that Heenan had, there would be no way it would be developed in the same manner that Heenan’s did. Bobby “The Brain” Heenan did not have a degree in broadcast journalism and did not have a background in news or reporting; he was a whiz kid who traveled the country honing his craft as a wise-guy manager who translated those talents into announcing; his development of skills would never occur in a corporate climate. In an industry where the term “one of a kind” is thrown around generously; Heenan was just that.
Heenan was a fan of wrestling from an early age and grew up in Chicago watching wrestling on the DuMont Network while growing up in Chicago and Indianapolis. In 8th Grade, Heenan dropped out of school to help his family by working. Soon thereafter Heenan became involved with wrestling, starting out as a backstage assistant and helping wrestlers with their bags and other services. Despite his lack of formal education, Heenan was exceptionally bright and quietly observed the backstage happenings in locker rooms across the Midwest. Soon he would realize the inside story of professional wrestling, so much so when some veterans decided to “smarten him up” Heenan played dumb when in reality he had known wrestling was fixed from very early on. Soon Heenan would emerge as on-screen performer, splitting his time as a wrestler and a manger. An exuberant youth, Heenan would stand out in the wholesome and traditional American Wrestling Association. While the AWA prized toughness and featured stars like Verne Gagne, The Crusher, Dick the Bruiser, Big Bill Miller and Mad Dog Vachon, Heenan was a preening diva, known as “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan, who often begged off of his opponents when the going got tough, the anti-thesis of the brawling style of Dick the Bruiser or the tight mat-wrestling of Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel.
Heenan’s in-ring career is largely forgotten because of the success he had as a manager and as a broadcaster. Heenan’s gimmick was popular but it was never going to be something that the AWA was going to push very hard; plus he was small by the standards of the time and didn’t have the amateur background that Gagne, the promoter, craved. The one thing that stands out in Heenan’s in-ring career is that he was an exceptional bump-taker in the ring. Today, we associate bump-taking with guys like Jeff Hardy or Mick Foley, who take dramatic, climactic bumps that are more like stunts. Heenan was a bump-taker in a more fundamental way; he would get whipped into the turnbuckle and pop right over the ropes and onto the floor, he would get knocked off the apron and go soaring into the barricade. He could take a move as simple as a scoop slam and make it look like it just killed him. These skills would become very important later in his managerial career.
Heenan’s skills as a manager were second to none, and he turned the role into an artform. While never recognized as an elite drawing talent, the fact is that Heenan helped draw an enormous amount of money to shows all over the world thanks to his skills as a manager. If a wrestler was talented but needed help with promos, Heenan was the perfect guy. If a wrestler was untalented by management was high on getting him over, Heenan was the perfect guy. By the 1980s Heenan was so brilliant as a manager that almost anybody could get heat working with him, the mere association with Heenan was enough to get any performed boos from the audience, no matter how limited they may be.
For years, Heenan spent time as a wrestler and a manager in the AWA, as well as working in other territories around the world, but most notably for the World Wrestling Association in Indianapolis and for Sam Muchnick in St. Louis. He dubbed himself “The Brain” and managed a who’s who of talent; including Bockwinkel, Ernie Ladd, The Blackjacks, The Valiant Brothers, Stan Hansen, Ray Stevens and many, many other stars. In 1984, with the AWA beginning to go down, Vince McMahon swooped in and signed Heenan away from Bockwinkel. According to his autobiography, when Heenan told Gagne he was leaving Gagne threatened to strap Heenan to a chair and throw him off the top floor of the AWA’s office building in Minneapolis. McMahon had recently signed Hogan away from Gagne, and while Hogan was the crown jewel of the World Wrestling Federation’s burgeoning empire, Heenan would prove to be almost as important of a signing.
Heenan would prove to be a game-changer for the WWF, and outside of Hogan and McMahon, Heenan was arguably the biggest reason the company was so successful during the 1980s. Similar to his role in the AWA, Heenan would manage “The Heenan Family” meaning that he was not tied to any one wrestler but rather a team of wrestlers that would be in an alliance to Heenan and interfere in matches on his behalf. More than Paul Orndorff, Andre the Giant or Roddy Piper, Heenan would prove to be Hogan’s most treacherous foe, because the next Heenan Family wrestler was always waiting to dethrone Hogan.
Heenan would be in the main event of both WrestleMania II (the first WrestleMania to be shown on PPV) and WrestleMania III (the largest wrestling show up until that point) playing two very different roles. At WrestleMania II, Heenan managed King Kong Bundy, a 400 lb behemoth but outside of his physical size was not much of a worker or a promo guy. However, the nefarious actions of Heenan and the Heenan Family got him over and Bundy worked a match with Hogan that headlined a show that proved that wrestling could succeed on PPV. The following year, Andre the Giant turned on Hogan and became the company’s top heel, eventually leading the hugely successful WrestleMania III show. Heenan again played a key role, because the storyline was basically that Heenan had influenced Andre into turning on Hogan and chasing after the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Heenan desperately wanted to manage a champion, but Hogan had thwarted him at every step. Now Heenan had courted the most dominant wrestler of the last 15 years; to fans it wasn’t just that Andre had turned on Hogan, but that Heenan had masterminded a plan to finally wrest the championship from Hogan and was using a beloved babyface to do his dirty work.
As a manager, Heenan’s reputation as a terrific bump-taker was put on full display. No big match was ever complete unless Heenan had been knocked off the apron and taken some form of comical fall to the outside. Often times, the heel wrestler would attempt to hit the babyface, only for the face to move out of the way and cause the heel to hit Heenan, which was always guaranteed to be the biggest reaction on the show. As great as was at his job, Heenan had no ego and had no qualms with selling for other wrestlers, or doing things to embarrass himself such as getting stuffed into a weasel costume by The Ultimate Warrior.
Heenan is also recognized as being one of the best announcers in the history of wrestling. Jesse Ventura helped define what a heel announcer could be, but Heenan really perfected the art form. As we’ve seen in recent years with guys like Michael Cole and JBL tackling the role, it isn’t an easy thing to do. Always openly rooting for the heels and referring to the fans as “humanoids”, Heenan was the perfect foil for the straight-man announcers, mainly Vince McMahon and Gorilla Monsoon. Cocky, arrogant, capable of sounding both crazed and completely confident, Heenan was like wrestling’s version of Gene Wilder. A lot of fans believe the best Royal Rumble was in 1992 when Heenan became obsessed with Ric Flair, who he had guaranteed victory, and watched in horror as Flair came out as entrant number three in the Rumble, famously shouting “It’s not fair to Flair!”. Slowly, Flair was able to deftly avoid elimination and eventually did win the match, which Heenan reacted to as if it was the greatest moment in his life. One of his best traits was his ability to become tongue-tied and frustrated when Monsoon would question his claims; once again showing Heenan’s unselfishness and his willingness to take a lashing as frequently as he doled them out.
It was with Monsoon that Heenan would be best remembered. Both men were intelligent and were very close friends in real life, and that showed in their broadcasts. As often as they disagreed, it was evident in each man’s character that deep down they respected each others opinion. In the current over-produced world of wrestling broadcasting, filled with generic talent; it is tough to imagine two colleagues displaying the kind of charisma and personal relationship that Monsoon and Heenan had on the numerous shows they hosted for the WWF. Something to remember is that shows like Prime Time Wrestling, All American Wrestling, All-Star Wrestling and Wrestling Challenge, were not particularly good. The matches were mostly WWF talent squashing local jobbers and pre-taped segments that advertised future shows. However, the relationship between Monsoon and Heenan carried those broadcasts and they really were the stars of the show.
Heenan would leave the WWF in 1993 and emerged in World Championship Wrestling as a color commentator in 1994, eventually becoming one of the lead announcers for Nitro. While on the air for many big moments in WCW history, Heenan was not the same talent as he was in his prime. He admitted later that his work suffered due to the negative work environment in WCW, and he didn’t get along with play-by-play man Tony Schiavone, which was a far cry from his days working with Gorilla Moonsoon. As the 90s came to a close Heenan’s enthusiasm waned and someone who had broken into wrestling in 1960 and was clearly very intelligent about the business, could easily see that WCW was a sinking ship. However, when there was the rare good segment or match on Nitro, Heenan would still display his intelligence and skill as an announcer, showing that he still had his fastball when it was needed. In 2000 he was replaced on Nitro by Mark Madden, which is like replacing Beethoven with Kid Rock, and he left WCW shortly before they were bought by the WWF in 2001.
Heenan was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002 which began a long and hard 15 year battle with the disease as he dealt with numerous radiation treatment and surgeries. His poor health reduced his ability to speak, a tragic bit of irony for a man who made a living with his mouth. While Heenan passed away yesterday at the age of 72, I couldn’t believe he was that young. For a guy that started his career before WWE was even founded, it seemed like Heenan had been around forever. From breaking into wrestling as a teenager and hanging around throughout the territory days to the rise of the WWF’s national expansion, to the decline of WCW, Heenan was a living time capsule of professional wrestling in the modern era; and he will be greatly missed.