By Tony Cline, Columnist
Over the course of the last forty years, professional wrestling has seen some amazing talents as managers. There was the “Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart, Captain Lou Albano, Paul Jones, Paul Ellering, James J. Dillon, Gary Hart, Paul E. Dangerously (aka Paul Heyman), and the incomparable James E. Cornette. But there was one that always stood head and shoulders above the rest, one manager that pulled more heat, drew more money, and was a bigger star than the rest: Bobby “the Brain” Heenan.
Heenan rose through the ranks as a wrestler and manager in the WWA and then the AWA, but was always better and more famous as a manager. In the AWA, he formed the first iteration of the Heenan Family with Nick Bockwinkel, Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, Bobby Duncum Sr., and Blackjack Lanza. It was in the AWA that Dick the Bruiser would first call Heenan a weasel, a nickname that stuck for the rest of his career, eventually being used as a term of endearment by his comrades. Bonus trivia: Heenan left the WWA because he claimed Bruiser failed to pay him an agreed upon amount for a large event, so there was real heat between these two.
It was as a part of the Heenan Family that Bockwinkel would break the seven-year title run of AWA owner Verne Gagne (and people complain about how Dusty booked himself…) and become the AWA champion. The following year, when Blackjack Lanza and Duncum won the AWA tag team titles, Heenan became the first manager in history to manage the world champion and tag champs of a major organization.
In 1984, the WWF came calling. They were raiding most of the AWA’s best talent, and Vince notoriously paid each of them a large bonus to leave the AWA without notice, a devious underhanded tactic meant to cripple one of the few remaining competitors. The Brain, in a move that would have ruined his kayfabe persona had it been discovered, refused McMahon’s bonus and worked a six-week notice for Gagne before departing for the northeast.
Heenan put together a decade-long run in the WWF that was iconic for managers and still stands as the measuring stick by which all other managerial runs are measured. In this stretch he managed Ric Flair, Big John Studd, Ken Patera, Paul Orndorff, King Kong Bundy, Andre the Giant, Rick Rude, the Islanders, Harley Race, the Barbarian, Mr. Perfect, Lex Luger, and Terry Taylor, along with a few others. For most of this time, Heenan feuded with Hulk Hogan and led several of his Family to challenge Hogan for the WWF title. For much of this stretch, Heenan could be considered the top heel in the company, even though he rarely wrestled.
Heenan’s time with the WWF saw him become part of one of the most iconic wrestling broadcast teams in history with Gorilla Monsoon. As with so many of his roles, Heenan became the standard for heel announcers during this run. His babyface partner and great friend, Monsoon, would eventually be the one to throw Bobby out of the WWF on television. Heenan also garnered his own talk show, The Bobby Heenan Show, which aired as a segment on WWE television and featured some overweight ladies known as the Oinkettes.
As 1993 came to a close, Heenan’s contract with WWE was up. Still suffering pain from a neck injury suffered ten years earlier and wanting to spend more time with his kids, Heenan retired from the business in the aforementioned storyline where Monsoon threw him and his belongings out in the streets of White Plains, NY. However, soon after he left the WWF, World Championship Wrestling came calling. With an offer of a lighter work schedule, health insurance, and a base of operations much closer to his daughter’s school in Alabama, Heenan eschewed his retirement and returned to the business he loved, spending six years as color commentator on WCW Saturday Night and Monday Nitro. In 2000, Heenan finally moved into full retirement, making only occasional appearances for WWE and smaller promotions.
Beginning in 2002, the Brain began a decade-and-a-half battle against throat cancer. In this time, he suffered much, having to deal with several surgeries, relearning to talk, and a medically induced coma. In 2004, Bobby was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, he continued his heel persona telling attendees that the introduction Pat Patterson had given for Sgt. Slaughter “will be replayed in your rooms at midnight in English.” However unfortunate it may be, nature always wins eventually, and the Brain, whom Pat Patterson called “without a doubt, the best wrestling manager ever in the wrestling history” left this world on September 17, 2017.
Bobby Heenan did not transform professional wrestling in his time in it. He was not the first manager, he was not the first color commentator, and he was not the first act to get his own interview segment. However, he WAS the very best at all three, and perhaps the greatest heel in wrestling history.
For a quarter century, Heenan offered a consistent villain and a consistent voice for the action on screen. All the fans hated him, and that was what he wanted; he loved his role and was good at it. But behind the scenes, Raymond Louis Heenan was a stand-up guy who risked pissing off his new boss to do right by his old one, who inspired love and devotion from all of the talents he worked with. Our thoughts and prayers at The Gorilla Position are with Heenan’s family and friends. Brain, you made the business more fun for all of us, especially those that hated you. Thank you.