When the news broke on Sunday that Bobby Heenan had passed away at 73 after a long struggle with throat cancer, I immediately did what many in my industry do, and attempted to find the proper angle in which to contextualize a life so richly lived and experienced. The disease took away his ability to speak, but what he’d already said for decades spoke for him during those years, and will continue to do so until the end of time for legions of fans, both past and present.
Writing a tribute or an homage almost feels like a selfish exercise on our part. What flawless words can I compose to bring a tear to someone’s eye and at the same time lead to heaps of praise being draped across my back? It may not be what we think we’re doing, but we fall into that trap.
But in my specific case, my thoughts drifted to how Heenan both effected and affected the life I have today. Very few entertainers can claim such a feat. While many individuals can do one or the other, it’s a special circle that can both lead you to your future and also touch your soul.
Bobby Heenan is, was, and always will be one of those people. And I’m still shaken by his death, although in the pain and discomfort he often lived during his final years, I’m calmed by the belief that he’s finally at peace…
…except when Gorilla Monsoon won’t shut up and leave him be up by the pearly gates.
Why on earth would I say such a thing about Heenan’s importance to my life? This was a professional wrestling manager and a man that played an old school villain’s villain, mixing the serious with the comical. You might argue that Bobby was simply a character on a screen, and I’m generally being too dramatic. But you’d be wrong.
I knew I wouldn’t be writing a straight obituary of Bobby Heenan, and although I could delve into the facts and spin stories about his life, including quotes from his contemporaries, colleagues, and friends. Those are already out there to be found, and later this week, Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter will write the seminal posthumous piece on Heenan. It’s something I urge everyone to read, as Dave’s obits are worth the cost of the newsletter and access all by themselves. I eagerly await that article, though it will be bittersweet as it solidifies a goodbye to a legend.
For me, Bobby Heenan meant the world, and while I was younger, I never quite understood what impact this monumental talent would have on me. I grew up a wrestling fan, brought into the fold by my father and his father, and I fell in love at a very early age. Because I grew up in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina, I was more a fan of Jim Crockett Promotions, which would later be bought by Ted Turner and would become World Championship Wrestling.
Any true wrestling fan watches everything, however, and I was also a huge fan of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation. To be a WWF fan in the mid to late 1980s was to loathe Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. This loudmouth managed the best, yet he and his dastardly Heenan Family stable still took the underhanded low road whenever possible. The most obnoxious heel is the one that’s good enough to win it legitimately but still cuts corners to make situations easier on his guys.
Also, Heenan was a wordsmith of wordsmiths. On the shortest of lists of greatest talkers in the history of the business, Bobby’s name would be included. When affiliated with Nick Bockwinkel in the American Wrestling Association prior to Vince’s rather hostile takeover, it’s arguable Heenan and Bockwinkel were the single best interview duo anyone had ever seen. It may still be true, with the possible exception of Ric Flair and Arn Anderson, and that’s by no means a slam dunk. Bobby Heenan wasn’t simply “The Brain” as a character, he was a wrestling genius.
Innately, Heenan understood how to toe the line between being an unlikable, dominant antagonist and a Bakhtin-style authority figure without any clothes. The tongue-in-cheek industry he inhabited and the more over-the-top era of WWF sports entertainment wasn’t just enhanced through his contributions, it was built on them. While Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant drew the house at the Pontiac Silverdome, it was Heenan that often provided the obnoxious voice for the monstrous heel in that pairing.
Heenan, Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Jim Cornette, Roddy Piper, and Arn Anderson are the six that stood out most during my childhood when they spoke. These men talked and I was transfixed to the screen, and as someone not blessed with physical gifts other than height, I gravitated to words to fight many of my battles. I began cutting promos in the bathroom mirror and learning to communicate with pace and style. It serves me well to this day, because I can speak clearly with rapidity, and I’m quick on my feet.
I worked in professional wrestling for nearly ten years officially, much of the time with a microphone in my hand, and none of it would be possible without Bobby Heenan. I didn’t realize I was studying when I watched All-American Wrestling, Prime-Time Wrestling, Superstars, Challenge, Nitro, and many dozens of Pay Per Views, but I was.
We become what we ingest, both physically and psychologically. One of the reasons attending church has become so important to me is that it balances out the crud I allow to infect my weeks. It’s an opportunity to rediscover the foundation and prioritize what’s important from what’s superficial. Professional wrestling has been a part of my diet since I was three feet tall, and remains so today. It’s helped pay my bills, and it was the thing that made me decide to try and write for a living, and much of my education came from the brilliance and skill of Bobby Heenan.
He was hilarious, but not in a cheap way. His jokes weren’t mean or nasty, and even as corny as many of them were, they never failed to be endearing and enriching. The Brain was a fun villain, but when the time came, he could be a dastardly one. When he grabbed The Ultimate Warrior’s ankle at WrestleMania V, holding him down for a Rick Rude three count that switched the Intercontinental Championship, I was infuriated. Some of his promos bit me to the core, and Heenan was a master of eye contact with the camera, but never so much so that it felt artificial. He was speaking to us, and he was talking down to us.
Unlike so many wrestling heels of today, Bobby Heenan was never unwilling to humiliate himself to get someone else over in an angle. In 2017, the heels want to be cool, they want to sell gimmicks, and they want to wear sunglasses and play the bully that gets the cheerleader in the end. Bobby Heenan always played the jerk, sometimes the geek, and did so with gusto. As he aged, he permitted even further self-injurious jesting. He ran from the real British Bulldog, Matilda, and dressed in a weasel costume to entertain the masses, amidst hundreds of other instances.
Yet, as much of a dork as he set himself up to be, he was still always taken seriously. That’s the signal of a one-of-a-kind entertainer. When you transfer from being the Michael Scott we first met, with the slick backed hair and the mean-spirited antagonism, to being the lovable loser, to being the one we rooted for with Holly in the proposal episode of The Office, that’s when a man, a character, or a performance becomes iconic. Bobby Heenan was indelibly imprinted on our cultural hearts forever, regardless of what he was doing at any specific time.
He was good at everything he did. In fact, he was great at it. In fact, he was the best manager ever, the best heel commentator ever, and one of the smartest men ever to step into the wrestling landscape in any capacity.
Everyone respected Bobby Heenan.
Everyone respects Bobby Heenan.
Everyone will always respect Bobby Heenan.
He grasped entertainment and saw his role within that construct. His ego was never bigger than the shows he worked. He was a cog in the machine that by sheer force of will, intellect, and savvy, became one of the most simultaneously beloved and reviled figures of that era. When he left managing behind, or even when he lessened that side of his workload, he just kept on talking. Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon’s classic back-and-forth on screen relationship was often more interesting than the matches they called, but both kept the focus on the stars, rather than themselves.
He was effortlessly funny, and his lines could bring you to your knees. When Shawn Michaels famously turned on his longtime tag partner, Marty Jannetty, superkicking him through a barbershop window set, Heenan quipped that Marty jumped through the glass to escape and called it an act of cowardice. It’s still one of the funniest, most absurdly beautiful things ever said in professional wrestling.
Without Heenan, I may never get into drama and performance in high school, but without a doubt, I never start writing about pro wrestling in the late 1990s. I simply wouldn’t have been as big a fan. I wouldn’t have been as obsessed, and WCW’s New World Order angle wouldn’t have meant as much to me. Heenan’s voice is the one that spoke most to me during that time, and it was that single angle that addicted me all over again and reignited my fire for pro wrestling.
I never become that great at speaking quickly sans Brain, using large words and rich descriptions along the way. I never decide to jump into the industry myself, because I wanted to be Bobby Heenan, and as a result, I never find myself on television as an announcer and commentator. I certainly never become a pro wrestling manager, which put me as a heel in front of an audience and formulated not just my ability, but my DESIRE to be a smart entertainer.
Without that television background, I probably stay in retail management and never end up inspired to leave South Carolina in 2009 to finish my broadcasting degree. I was planning to be a lawyer after graduating high school in 1997, and although I left North Carolina State University on a medical withdrawal, my plans in law and politics didn’t change until I gave in fully to the prospects of media and pop culture as a career.
Without all of this, I never meet some of the close friends I have today in media, and never have a random discussion with a WKU classmate where this person mentions a Nashville sports talk station he thought I should contact for an internship. If I don’t write that hopeful email, I never get to WGFX-FM, and never have an opportunity to pitch myself to, you guessed it, Clay Travis, to start writing about television for Outkick the Coverage.
I then certainly never end up becoming Executive Producer of the Outkick radio program in 2016. And finally, bringing all that history to this very moment, you never read this article, nor anything else I ever write. You never hear of me at all, and I honestly have no clue what my life would look like.
So as we remember Bobby “The Brain” Heenan for his contributions and all the enjoyment he provided us for decades as an irreplaceable figure in pro wrestling, I find myself simply wanting to say thank you. What I was born to do, I never would have tried without Bobby Heenan. He made my weeks better with his words, his talent, and his willingness to be honest when necessary about things with which he disagreed. I’m saddened by his passing, and just as disappointed that of all the many big names I’ve met and worked with in wrestling, I was never lucky enough to share the same room with him.
As you read the many kind words written about Heenan this week, some already released, some yet to come, consider the things being said. Bill Goldberg said his career wouldn’t have been the same. He’s right. Bobby was the guy that got him over on the microphone best, and it was also Bobby that made the 1992 Royal Rumble the single greatest call in wrestling history. He helped make Ric Flair for those few in the WWF audience unfamiliar with the Nature Boy’s successes down south, but he also went from being just a commentator on that night to an unapologetic, at times nearly apoplectic fan boy.
Flair’s tweet following Heenan’s death was the only one I felt the need to retweet, because when that guy says this thing about this guy, it ends the discussion.
When inspired (the vast majority of his prime) or working with his close friends and those with whom he had the best chemistry like Monsoon or Gene Okerlund, Bobby Heenan cared deeply about the business, and that adoration extended through the televisions and dimly lit buildings into the, pardon the pun, but it’s intentional here, brains of the customers.
When uninspired, he was still better than just about anybody at what he did. We rarely knew his personal life, because he didn’t bring it onto the set. He bickered with some of his colleagues, just like all of us do, but until the WCW decision-making went into the toilet and his interest fluctuated and dissipated, he was usually the consummate professional. He could be outspoken, willing to stand up for what he believed was in a company’s best interest, but he was also generally right.
He became a star while always shining the light on those he was tasked to make better. As a manager, he was as important as his guys, but he never sought it out or stole heat from the squared circle. He still ended up one of the biggest stars of the era, mentioned in rap songs, movies, and television shows, and he was a symbol of what professional wrestling could be when at its creative apex. He was so much fun, and he made that escape such a better vacation every single time he jumped on the bus to go to the matches with us.
If you want to laugh, cry, and remember how amazing this gentleman was, I refer you to his 2004 WWE Hall of Fame speech, which remains one of the best ever given:
I’m going to miss Bobby “The Brain” Heenan walking the same earth with me, but men like Heenan don’t die. Their value, their importance, and their work lives on within the generations that follow. WWE’s finest current announcer, Corey Graves, tweeted on Sunday just one line…
“Without him, there is no me.”
Well said, Corey, and looking at my life today, again somewhat failing in an attempt to avoid selfishness, I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Goodbye Brain. You won’t be forgotten. You won’t be replaced.
And thank God we all had a chance to get to know your brilliance.
Now… rest in peace…
This one measly diehard humanoid.