It’s taken me a while to write this. The thing is, I’ve not been active in the wrestling business for a few years now. Even then though, I still do (and likely always will) feel a connection to it. So, when an old favourite passes on, it catches me off guard a little. Well, on September 17 2017, we lost a good one. You see, when I was looking to transition into onscreen management rather than primarily working in-ring, there was one guy that I wanted to be like: Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan.
As much as I love Paul Heyman, Heenan always sticks with me more. He was just such a staple of my early days watching wrestling, whether he was managing someone like Andre The Giant, or playing just as an important role on commentary as the workers were in ring. Heenan knew how to work a crowd, and he knew how to put bums on seats to watch him potentially get his comeuppance. So, let’s talk a little about who he was.
Using the nickname ‘Pretty Boy’, Bobby Heenan got his first break in 1965 when he began working as a heel manager and wrestler. His gimmick, which never really changed over the years, was that of a tough talking loud mouth who cowered in fear when facing physical retaliation. BY 1967, he was working for WWA in Indianapolis and managing such luminaries as Angelo Poffo (father of ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage and The Genius) and the original Blackjacks. In 1974, he moved on to the AWA and took on his well-known ‘The Brain’ moniker. And here Bobby stayed, garnering much success as a heel manager, until 1984 when Vince McMahon came knocking.
Unlike many others who left the AWA at the time, Heenan chose to work out his notice with the company. Even so, Vince knew what he had in Heenan and so had him manage Big John Studd in a feud with Andre The Giant. Soon after, he then reformed ‘The Heenan Family’, his stable from his earlier promotions. When you look at the list personalities that fell under this group (such as Andre The Giant, ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude and Mr. Perfect to name but three), you can see just how well-regarded Bobby was. He was out there helping to shape the careers of some truly phenomenal talents, and doing so in style.
As the years trundled on, Heenan gradually transitioned into the role of ‘broadcast journalist’. You see, Heenan had longstanding injury troubles stemming from a broken neck that he suffered in the early 1980’s. This being the case, continuing his performances at ringside were taking their toll. This, of course, led to one of the greatest pairings in wrestling history: Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon. Between Heenan’s openly rooting for the heels and Gorilla’s exasperation at his colleague, the two had such a natural chemistry that they essentially formed THE commentary team. In the end though, the neck injury was just too much, and Heenan jumped ship to WCW in 1994 so that he could take on a lighter work schedule.
Unfortunately, a negative work environment and clashes with his colleagues Tony Schiavone and Eric Bischoff left Heenan unhappy with the company, and being replaced by several others over the course of 2000, he eventually left. After this, Heenan slowly faded away from the scene, and only made sporadic appearances for WWE (including a Hall of Fame induction) and TNA.
Outside of wrestling, Heenan was a devoted husband. He married his wife in 1972 and remained with her until his death. The couple had one daughter and two grandchildren. Heenan also published two books in the early 2000’s. But, sadly, not all was good in Heenan’s life. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002, and though he was eventually cleared of this, the treatments had a detrimental effect on his health. In 2007, he underwent reconstructive surgery on his jaw, only to have this lead to an infection at the end of 2009. In 2010, a fall led to a broken hip and shoulder, both of which would be reinjured between 2014 and 2016. Finally, this year, Heenan died at home, surrounded by his family. The official cause of death was organ failure as a result of complications caused by his previous cancer. He was 72.
Watching Bobby Heenan perform was always a pleasure. He was truly a special talent, and his abilities remain unmatched to this day for me. When you hear him speak about his time in wrestling, you realise that he was not only a professional, but a genuinely nice guy. He was one of the voices of a generation of wrestlers and fans alike, a well-loved family man, and he will be missed the world over.
Thank you for the memories, and the inspiration Brain. RIP.