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I’ve wanted to write about wrestling as routinely as Movies and TV and thought to myself last night “this week, I’m going to start that ball rolling”. I wake up, check my phone, and see a notification from the WWE app.
“BREAKING NEWS; Bobby “The Brain” Heenan passes away, aged 72.”
Death is nothing new, especially in a world that has seen its fair share of giants who flirt with disaster as often as they perform a body slam, but it’s still a shock to the system when someone you admire and truly made an impact on something you love passes away.
Raymond Heenan was born in 1944 in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up a fan of wrestling. His break in the industry came in one of the least glorious fashions possible; carrying bags, jackets, and luggage for wrestlers as well as selling refreshments at his local events. Back in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, wrestling was still a territory based industry, with each region of America having its own dedicated organisation (WWE in the New England area, WCW around the mid-Atlantic/Georgia states, etc.) and each region had its own stars that were, essentially, exclusive to that region. Heenan’s local territory was the AWA or the American Wrestling Association, founded by another legend of the industry, Verne Gagne. Former wrestlers of the AWA include; “Superstar” Billy Graham, Scott Hall, Shawn Michaels, Jesse Ventura, and Hulk Hogan.
As you can imagine, there were a fair few big names that Heenan would have potentially run into in his formative years.
Heenan dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help support his mother and grandmother, but soon found his first real break in the wrestling industry as a heel (bad guy) manager and wrestler in 1965 when he was known as “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan.
His gimmick over the years had remained roughly the same; a tough-talking big mouth, who cowered in fear when physically confronted.
During this time in wrestling’s history, heels were often given managers to act as mouth-pieces and speak for them in interviews or promos, to help rile up crowds during matches, and usually, cheat on their wrestler’s behalf – something that modern day fans will see with Brock Lesnar and manager Paul Heyman. Heenan took this and evolved the role of a manager by creating a stable of some of the most successful wrestlers in the world at that time, in a group named “The Heenan Family.” This stable existed, in one form or another through different wrestling promotions for over 20 years.
Heenan stuck around with the AWA until 1984 when he made the move over the Vince McMahon’s WWF. Heenan started off his WWF career managing Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and then soon thereafter reformed a new form of the Heenan Family, and famously managed the likes of Andre the Giant during the legendary Wrestlemania III main event match between Andre and Hulk Hogan.
However, perhaps most the most famous part of his WWF career came as part of one of the legendary commentator teams in the sport’s history alongside Gorilla Monsoon. The pair had an instant chemistry, engaging in, more often than not, unscripted banter that ranged from Heenan berating the town the show was emanating from, making comedic references to fans of the show, and mocking Face (good guy) wrestlers, all to the chagrin of Monsoon.
Heenan left the WWF to work as a commentator for rival company WCW during the 1990s through the infamous Monday Night Wars between the WWF and WCW. Heenan lead the commentary team through WCW‘s 84-week winning streak against the WWF, which very nearly drove Vince McMahon out of business.
As history will tell you, the WWF was able to pull through and ultimately beat their competitors and secure victory. By this point though, Heenan had been released by WCW in 2000, and appeared sporadically in the business, including being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.
After his career came to a complete end, Heenan suffered with throat cancer, tongue cancer, and numerous other life-threatening ailments and illnesses between 2002 up to his death on 17th September 2017.
With a career that has spanned 4 decades, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan will go down in history as one of the all-time great managers, commentators, and general heels that have ever graced the industry. There won’t be another Brain, and he has helped define what a good heel gimmick should be like.
I’d like to end this post with a couple of Heenan’s best quotes, to cheer you up, and to demonstrate the natural humour and comedic timing that made him the best in the business;
(on Texan wrestling legend Kerry Von Erich and his Tornado Punch)
“Oh my, what a GREAT scientific move—a punch to the head!!”
(on British wrestling legend “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith)
“Million dollar body, ten cent mind, and Whoopi Goldberg’s hairdo”
(at Wrestlemania IX with another legendary commentator, Jim Ross)
Ross: Back in Oklahoma, Bobby, we called a match like this a slobberknocker
Bobby: I thought that’s what they called the waitress at the Tip Top cafe in Downtown Tulsa.
Ross: Hogan’s giving the money away!
Bobby: Hold my headset! I’m gonna go get some cash!”Thank goodness for next year, huh Ross. Indoor plumbing comes to Oklahoma.”
(at the 1992 Royal Rumble; after Ric Flair performs a low-blow on Davey Boy Smith)
Gorilla (Monsoon): Did you see that? Talk about desperation.
Bobby: You know what’s at stake? A man’ll do anything!
Gorilla: Pulling out all the stops, Ric Flair doing whatever necessary to hang in there.
Bobby: I’d do that to my own grandmother if I had to.
Gorilla: I’m sure you would.
(Roddy Piper arrives to save Ric (Flair) from a Jake “The Snake” Roberts DDT)
Bobby: I never thought I’d say this, but thank you, Roddy. It’s a kilt. It’s not a skirt, it’s a kilt.
(Not long after, Piper attacks Flair)
Bobby: You no-good creep! You skirt-wearing freak! It’s not a kilt, it’s a skirt!
“A friend in need is a pest.”
“I know all about cheating. I’ve had six very successful marriages.”
[At his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame] “I wish Monsoon was here.”