Cancer took the voice of the funniest man to ever grace a wrestling show, and eventually, complications from the disease caused the death of Bobby Heenan.
At least he’s with Gorilla again.
Bobby Heenan is dead, and some of the magic has gone out of the world.
Details on the 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 to ever grace a wrestling show, and eventually, complications from the disease took his life.
Why the death of Bobby Heenan is such a loss to wrestling
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. There was nobody like him. There never will be again.
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. 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 have gone 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 The Brain: Wrestling’s Bad Boy Tells All, Heenan 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.
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.
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?
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?
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 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.
Behind the scenes, 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:
Even on his way out, 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:
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.
I woke up at 4 a.m. today to hit the gym. My editor asked if I could write something up on the death of Bobby Heenan. The first thing I asked was “Why? What’s happened with Heenan?” And then I saw the news. Very, very rarely has a death in the wrestling world brought me to tears. But hearing about the death of Bobby Heenan this loss has hit me 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 was unable to participate in its boom. You know he’d have been a hit. Thank you for the memories, Brain.
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