When it was confirmed that legendary professional wrestler, manager and TV personality Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan had passed away at the age of 73, part of my childhood died as well.
Heenan has spent the last 15 years battling a multitude of health issues, including throat cancer which wiped out his instantly-recognisable voice, and at the time of writing this there is no official word on cause of death.
Regardless of cause of death, it is his years at full health – his hilarious, seminal, unforgettable, incomparable prime – that his fans, colleagues and friends will remember.
Heenan rose to infamy after leaving the AWA wrestling promotion to join Vince McMahon’s WWE, then known as the WWF. The old days of companies working within one- or two-state territories were being wiped out by McMahon’s national revolution, spearheaded by the advent of cable and pay-per-view.
Heenan was, throughout the 1980s, usually found stood by the side of the most fearsome and reputable villains/’heels’ working for whichever company he was employed by at the time.
His own wrestling career was modest, but his appeal as a tough talking big mouth who cowered in fear when being physically confronted was what led to his seamless transition into a mouthpiece for the bigger and more marketable wrestlers who could construct higher-quality matches at the top of the card.
His tremendous ability to cut a ‘promo’ – an interview or monologue designed to sell tickets to his clients’ upcoming matches – combined with exceptional comic timing and what his peers regarded as the quickest and sharpest wit they had ever encountered.
His peak on the more serious side of his job no doubt came at Wrestlemania 3, after he served as the storyline catalyst for Andre The Giant turning his back on his friend and then-WWF champion Hulk Hogan. Hogan’s victory over Andre, with Heenan at ringside, will forever be one of the industry’s most iconic moments and one that even people who do not care for wrestling at all can easily recall.
His ‘Weasel’ persona and antagonistic ways also led to plenty of crowd-pleasing and ticket-selling occasions where he got his comeuppance. The most popular device was when he would be ‘forced’ to step into the ring against the fan favourites he spent weeks on end insulting and interrupting their matches, with a stipulation that the loser would be forced to wear a weasel suit. No prizes for guessing which participant always ended up trounced and humiliated, to the crowd’s delight.
In the early 1990s, nagging injuries – in particular a bad neck that bothered him for years – led to Heenan, approaching 50, wanting to wind down the more physical side of his work. Recognising the manager’s gift-of-gab, McMahon transitioned him into a ringside commentator and co-host of the company’s lighter broadcasts. But not before his last serious managerial gig ended up as one of his finest.
In 1991, another legend left WWF’s biggest rival company WCW. His name was Ric Flair. And he just so happened to be their world champion when he was inexplicably fired.
Still legally in possession of the physical belt, Flair quickly resurfaced in the World Wrestling Federation – or at least, he did after the iconic image of Heenan smugly walking up to Hogan’s changing room with Flair’s world championship under his arm to issue a relatively-unprecedented ‘champion vs champion’ challenge.
From there, Bobby moved onto perhaps the most memorable chapter of his career. Often working alongside straight-man Gorilla Monsoon on commentary, the duo’s instant chemistry enhanced every show they were on, despite Gorilla being far from a skilled lead announcer in the traditional sense.
In particular, Heenan’s commentary during Flair’s famous victory at the 1992 Royal Rumble – in which he won the actual WWF version of the world title for the first time – remains the finest moment in the history of the iconic 30-man event. As ‘The Nature Boy’ produced a five-star 60-minute performance against a gauntlet of other wrestlers, Heenan matched him moment-for-moment with over-the-top biased commentary in favour of his charge that hasn’t been touched by a partisan announcer since.
Heenan made the financial decision to join WCW at the end of 1993, joining so many others who had entered the Federation from the AWA around the same time he did such as Hogan and backstage interviewer ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund.
Though he picked up where he left off at the broadcast booth, his performances soon waned and he was phased out by WCW. Heenan would go on record and say that multiple clashes with his boss, Eric Bischoff, and new broadcast partner Tony Schiavone, as well as the company being tremendously poorly run, led to him losing all passion for his work – and it showed.
Thankfully, after WCW’s self-inflicted demise and subsequent purchase by WWE, Heenan was invited back to commentate at one final Wrestlemania – one that turned out to be perhaps the best ever.
Headlined by the record-breaking rematch between Steve Austin and The Rock and filled with excellent undercard matches, Wrestlemania 17 in 2001 was a creative and commercial peak for wrestling and featured Heenan alongside Okerlund at ringside, providing light-hearted commentary for the comic relief ‘Gimmick Battle Royal’.
As a host of ageing veterans hobbled down to the ring in their colourful gimmicks from yesteryear for a change of pace and welcome dose of nostalgia, Heenan quipped: “by the time the Iron Sheik makes it to the ring, it’ll be Wrestlemania 38.”
It was Heenan’s one final trademark line on a major stage, and after growing so disillusioned in WCW it was great to hear him enjoy that fleeting return to pomp at what would be the end of his career. Less than a year later, he would lose his money-making voice to cancer. And he never will get to see whether the Sheik shows up at Wrestlemania 38 or not.
He will finally get a reunion with Monsoon, at least. Gorilla passed away in 1999 after complications from diabetes, and it was evident during Heenan’s deserved Hall of Fame induction in 2004 just how much he loved and missed his old friend. I’m sure the two will provide alternative commentary on every future Wrestlemania from their VIP box. I give it five minutes before Heenan is testing Monsoon’s patience with lines such as these:
Classic Bobby Heenan quotes
Heenan: (on Real American, Hulk Hogan’s theme music) “That’s my second favorite song.”
Gorilla: “I’m almost afraid to ask…what’s your favorite?”
Heenan: “All the rest are tied.”
Heenan: “A friend in need is a pest.”
Heenan, when a villain would cheat: “What happened there? My monitor went out.”
Jim Ross: “Hey, everybody can’t be born with a silver spoon in their mouth and have a chauffeur named Jennifer, who told me she hasn’t had a raise in several months.”
Heenan: “She said that?”
Heenan: “She’s fired. I’ll unload her like I found her. Do you need a job on the weekends?”
Ross: “I’m a little busy on the weekend”
Heenan: “Oh that’s right, you just drive pickup trucks.”
Heenan: “Stu Hart trained all his kids–only three of them use the litter box.”
Heenan: “You call them Luchadores?”
Heenan: “That sounds like the tight pants that you wear at a bullfight.”
Heenan: “If you’re poor and you do something stupid, you’re nuts. If you’re rich and do something stupid, you’re eccentric.”
Tony Schiavone: “Scott Hall is looking a little better this week.”
Heenan: “It’s only Monday.”
Heenan to baseball legend Bob Uecker at Wrestlemania 4: “You had 700,000 votes to get into the Hall Of Fame. You’d have had a lot more, but you ran out of stamps.”
Heenan to Roddy Piper, Summerslam 1991: “I heard a rumour that your mom and dad ran away from home.”
Heenan: “Don’t touch that referee, Mr. Perfect!”
Gorilla: “Why? A disqualification will save his title.”
Heenan: “Okay…then nail him!”
Heenan: “With Duggan, taking a shower is a high risk maneuver.”
Gorilla: “Kids, ask your parent’s permission before calling.”
Heenan: “And if they don’t give you permission, just take a baseball bat, sneak up behind them, and BAM!”
Gorilla: “That was an illegal move!”
Heenan: “No it wasn’t.”
Gorilla: “Yes it was!”
Heenan: “No, it was a legal move, it was a Greco-Roman Hair Pull.”
Gorilla: “What would you do if you were the Hitman?”
Heenan: “Well, I’d have my agent buy [the championship] for me.
Gorilla: “Oh please!”
Heenan: “And if that didn’t work, I’d take him out back and waffle him with a tire iron.”
Heenan, holding Ric Flair’s WCW title on WWF TV: “Comparing this belt to Hulk Hogan’s belt would be like comparing ice cream to horse manure. Comparing the men that wear these belts would also be like comparing ice cream to horse manure. You see, the man that owns this belt is right now under contract to another company. But in the very near future, he might be coming to the WWF. The man is also a long dear close personal friend of mine.”
Gorilla: “Does the guy have a name?”
Heenan: “Yes he has a name. This man has also challenged Hulk Hogan on numerous occasions – unanswered may I add. But if you wanna compare ’em, fine. Then let’s compare Hulk Hogan..to Ric Flair!”
(After Shawn Michaels turned on longtime Rockers tag team partner Marty Jannetty and brutally threw him through a glass window on the interview set)
Heenan: “Did you see that? Jannetty tried to dive through the window to escape! What an act of cowardice!”
Gorilla: “Are you blind!?”
Finally, I’m not going to type out his best lines from the 1992 Royal Rumble. There are too many and you really need to watch and listen to the entire match to truly appreciate it. Fortunately, the entire match is available on subscription service WWE Network (and is also online here)