Bobby Heenan: Secret History on the Man Behind the Mic

On September 17th, 2017, some of the magic went out of this world as cancer took the voice of Bobby Heenan, one of the funniest and most talented men ever to grace a wrestling show. There was nobody like him, and there never will be again. But what was he like behind the scenes?

"The Brain" - Bobby Heenan over the years.
“The Brain” – Bobby Heenan over the years.

The Life and Times of Bobby Heenan

Bobby Heenan was the greatest wrestling manager of all time. Period. Bar none. Jim Cornette and Paul Heyman can have a tuxedo match for second place, but The Brain is No. 1.

It’s not even close.

He had a second career as an announcer for WWE and WCW. And he excelled at that, too. He was a great wrestler too, one of the premier bump-takers of his era during his AWA heyday.

No less than Hulk Hogan has called Heenan the greatest all-around wrestling talent there ever was.

A young Bobby Heenan in 1967 has a bright future ahead.
A young Bobby Heenan in 1967 has a bright future ahead.

Early Life and Breaking into Wrestling

Raymond Louis “Bobby” Heenan started his career by being a fan. As a young boy, he carried ring jackets to the back and sold programs at cards in and around his native Chicago.

Heenan knew long before becoming a wrestler that everything was a work.

Young "Pretty Boy" Bobby Heenan
Young “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan

Before Heenan’s first match, managing Guy Mitchell and Joe Tomaso as the Assassins, he rode to the venue in Louisville, Kentucky, with a pair of bona fide legends.

Heenan shares the story in his first book, Bobby The Brain: Wrestling’s Bad Boy Tells All.

“I met [Dick the] Bruiser and Wilbur Snyder at the Holiday Inn. Guy and I got into the car, and we started off for Louisville. Dick and Wilber were sitting in the front seat and talking in this language I didn’t understand.

Later, I found out it was Carny. I didn’t know about it then, so I really didn’t listen.

They’re talking about this and that, and I was counting cows thinking that I’m driving to Louisville, Kentucky, and I don’t know for what. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know I’m going to manage, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.

I had been around and had seen what managers do, but I did not know what they wanted me to do.

As we arrived, Bruiser and Wilbur decided it was time to officially break me into the business.

Bruiser threw this mask at me and said, "Put this on."

As I slipped the mask over my head, he continued, "We don’t hurt each other. We make it look like we do. And if you tell anybody what’s going on, I’ll break both your legs, your arms, and your back. And when you get better, Wilbur will break them."

I gulped, "OK, fine."

What’s funny is that I used to sneak down into the dressing rooms and listen to them talk. I knew it wasn’t real from the beginning.

He broke into the business as “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan, but when he went to the AWA, they already had a “Pretty Boy” — Larry Hennig.

Heenan changed his gimmick to “The Brain,” and became one of the biggest stars in the Midwest.

He managed Blackjack Lanza, Nick Bockwinkel, Ray Stevens, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Andre the Giant, Paul Orndorff, Rick Rude, and a host of other wrestlers who went on to have Hall-of-Fame careers.

Wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer has an excellent write-up on Heenan’s career here. But what he doesn’t talk about is the philosophy that made Heenan rise to prominence in Dick the Bruiser’s WWA, then the AWA, and finally in the WWE.

In his first book, Bobby Heenan also distilled his success in wrestling down to a simple sentence:

“I decided I was going to wrestle like a manager and manage like a wrestler.”

Watch Heenan at ringside during some of his proteges’ matches. He’s selling the babyface’s offense better than they are, in many cases.

Meltzer called Heenan one of the five most important talents in Verne Gagne’s AWA, along with talents like Nick Bockwinkel, Mad Dog Vachon, Dick the Bruiser, and Crusher.

Heenan’s heat was so great that fans seriously wished him harm — in fact, one fan in the crowd shot at Heenan during a show.

Memorable Bobby Heenan Quotes

Later in his career, Heenan would take that same work ethic and attitude toward his time as a “broadcast journalist” for WWE, acting as the foil for the babyface Gorilla Monsoon.

Heenan got himself over, he got Monsoon over, and he got the WWE over.

In the meantime, there was no joke so ridiculous, no claim so outrageous that The Brain wouldn’t try it on Monsoon. The result? Comedy gold.

Some favorites:

Tito Santana enters the ring after Reba McEntire sings.

Heenan: Boy, can Tito’s sister belt one out!
Monsoon: Will you stop?
Heenan: That’s Arriba McEntire! 

And then there’s the classic, “A friend in need is a pest.”

Heenan: Do you know what Koko B. Ware’s mom’s name is?
Monsoon: What?
Heenan: Tupper.

Or how about this one, when Koko showed up with his hair dyed to match Frankie, the parrot he carried for his WWE singles run:

Heenan: Do you know what Koko calls his new hairstyle?
Monsoon: No. What?
Heenan: Afroturf.

And half a shoot about the often absentminded Texas Tornado (Kerry Von Erich)“He’s the only man who can hide his own Easter eggs.”

Again, a half-shoot, commenting on Shawn Michaels poking the notoriously visually challenged Hacksaw Jim Duggan in the eye: “That’s a difficult move. He’s only got a 50 percent chance of getting the good eye.”

And that’s the stuff that Heenan got away with ON CAMERA.

Purchase this Gorilla Monsoon and "The Weasel" Bobby Heenan "Oh, will you stop?" shirt on today!
Purchase this Gorilla Monsoon and “The Weasel” Bobby Heenan “Oh, will you stop?” shirt on today!

What Was Bobby Heenan Like Behind The Scenes?

Behind the scenes, Bobby Heenan was even funnier. He and Monsoon developed a deep friendship after being involved as on-air adversaries for so many years.

When Heenan came to Vince McMahon to talk about going to WCW, Heenan and Monsoon wrote The Brain off of WWE TV in the most hilarious way possible. Words can’t even do it justice. Here, watch:

YouTube video

Even on his way out of WWE, Heenan put on a show and made sure his good friend got a babyface pop.

He was unselfish when it came to getting other people over, and his masterpiece was the 1992 Royal Rumble when the obviously partisan Heenan was basically rooting for Ric Flair to win the WWE world championship during the main event.

Flair came in at No. 3 and lasted the whole match. It’s an epic performance by the Nature Boy, but as good as Ric Flair is during this match, Heenan’s call is what people remember — and rightly so.

Take a look/listen:

YouTube video

I don’t know what else to say about Bobby Heenan. He drew heat and money wherever he went. He was one of the reasons for the wrestling boom of the 1980s, as he paired with star after star to go after Hogan in the WWE. His one-liners were genius.

Tragic Death of Bobby Heenan

Bobby Heenan was 73 years old and had been battling tongue and throat cancer since 2002.

By the end of his life, he’d had his jaw removed and his face reconstructed.

Cancer took the voice of the funniest man ever to grace a wrestling show, and eventually, complications from the disease took his life.

Very rarely has a death affected the wrestling world like his. Heenan’s death hit hard.

Heenan had largely been silenced in his later years, a tragic turn for a man whose mouth made him a living for so many years.

I keep thinking about the explosion of wrestling podcasts in recent years, and I hate that Heenan could not participate in its boom. You know he’d have been a hit.

Thank you for the memories, Brain.

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Bobby Mathews is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories as well as a veteran journalist whose byline has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, The Denver Post, as well as other newspapers around the country. He's won multiple awards for reporting and opinion writing, and his sports journalism has garnered several Associated Press Managing Editors Awards. He has covered Division I college athletics and professional sports including MLB and NFL games. He has won awards from press associations in several states, including a General Excellence award from the Georgia Press Association while sports editor at The Statesboro Herald. He currently lives in suburban Birmingham, Alabama and can be reached on Twitter @bamawriter.