A dark cloud hovers over the professional wrestling world today, as one of the most beloved characters in history has checked out way too soon. But the memories of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan still live on, proving that even the darkest clouds have silver linings.
Commentator Jim Ross broke the news on his Twitter account today, September 17, 2017.
“Nobody ever did it better than the Weasel,” wrote Ross.
Heenan was 72 years-old and is survived by his wife Cynthia Jean, their daughter Jessica and grandson Austin.
Even though he played a heel character for his entire career, wrestling fans, old and young, fell in love with Heenan, because he was able to draw emotion from the audience like no other. He could make them laugh, cry, frown or smile at the snap of his finger and they all either loved, or hated him for it.
Describing Heenan in a sentence is no easy task. Some would say it’s impossible. But if anyone’s going to try, it should be someone who knew him, perhaps better than anybody.
“Bobby was the guy in wrestling that you’d love to hate,” said announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund. “He lived and breathed the profession and did a tremendous job with everything he did.”
At the 2003 Cauliflower Alley Club banquet, Nick Bockwinkel gave it a try, introducing Heenan. “If there was a world champion of managers, it would be Sir Robert of Heenan, as I always called him,” said Bockwinkel. “The thing about Sir Robert was that if Ray Stevens couldn’t make it, hurt or something, and he had to substitute, nothing was lost in the match. The man was not only the best manager ever, he was equally a proficient wrestler at the level of Mr. Stevens or myself.”
Raymond Louis Heenan was born November 1, 1944, in Chicago. He had his first taste of the wrestling business as a teenager. He grew up in the Chicago and Indianapolis areas and would oftentimes carry the bags and ring jackets for a lot of the wrestlers. He would also sell refreshments at the local events.
It wasn’t until 1965, when Heenan finally got his big break as a heel manager. While his official title was “The Brain,” most knew him as “The Weasel.” Heenan was a manager for the majority of his career and always had the same gimmick where he would talk tough, but cower in fear during a physical confrontation. But he would always keep the gimmick fresh, by coming up with new ways to generate heat and everyone knew that if they wanted to engage in a battle of wits with Heenan, they better come armed.
Heenan later joined the American Wrestling Association (AWA), where he started managing a tag team known as The Blackjacks (Blackjack Mulligan and Blackjack Lanza). He would occasionally team with them in a series of six-man tag matches also, because quite frankly, everyone wanted to see him get beaten up. But it drew huge money. It was around this time that he and Okerlund first met, as Mean Gene was doing backstage interviews.
“It was always kind of a treat to interview Bobby Heenan, because I never knew what to expect,” Okerlund said. “Bobby was always very exciting to watch and he was revolutionary. He changed the landscape of wrestling and really established credibility for managers at the time.”
Heenan and Okerlund have been paired together for a series of segments and vignettes over the years, but one of Okerlund’s earlier memories of interviewing Heenan, may stand out above the rest.
“One time I was interviewing the Blackjacks, who had Bobby as their manager and I asked Bobby what the team’s strategy was, heading into this big tag team match that they had coming up,” Okerlund said. “Bobby was holding one of the wrestling magazines and he says to me, ‘Let me show you what our strategy is,’ and he opens the magazine to me and the audience couldn’t see what I was seeing, but in front of the wrestling magazine was some sort of Playboy spread or something like that and it kind of caught me by surprise.”
After the Blackjacks, Heenan managed Nick Bockwinkel and Ray Stevens to the AWA World Tag Team Championships. When the team feuded with Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher, Bruiser started referring to Heenan as “The Weasel” — a name that stuck to Heenan like glue for the rest of his career. Later on, Heenan won an award for manager of the year, which culminated in a huge angle where Stevens turned on Bockwinkel and Heenan in storyline, after years of being mistreated. Despite his tag team falling apart, Heenan was able to rebound, managing Bockwinkel to singles gold, which may have been the climax of Heenan’s career. It was in 1975, when Bockwinkel captured the AWA World Heavyweight title away from Verne Gagne, ending Gagne’s seven-year reign as champion. One year later, Heenan’s new tag team of Blackjack Lanza and Bobby Duncum Sr. were able to capture the AWA World Tag Team titles, making Heenan the first person in history to manage a promotion’s singles and tag team champions simultaneously. And maybe the best was still yet to come.
There was a brief period in 1979, when Heenan left the AWA for the National Wrestling Alliance’s Georgia Championship Wrestling. The kayfabe reason given by the AWA to explain Heenan’s absence was that he had been given a one-year suspension by the company. Later that year, Heenan returned to the AWA to continue managing Bockwinkel, who still reigned as champion. Heenan had no problem sharing Bockwinkel’s success, because quite frankly, he deserved it. It wasn’t until 1982, when Bockwinkel finally met his match in a young, up-and-comer named Hulk Hogan, who came as close as one can to dethroning Bockwinkel as AWA Champion — without winning — and may have been the springboard to an intense rivalry between Hogan and Heenan, where Heenan would continue to challenge Hogan with whoever he could find during the next several years.
When the AWA went on tour of Japan in 1983, Heenan suffered a serious neck injury in a match, which led to his in-ring contributions being limited from then on. He jumped to the WWF in 1984 to manage another AWA refugee Jesse “The Body” Ventura, which unfortunately never materialized, as Ventura was forced to retire due to blood clots in his lungs. But in a fair compromise, Heenan found himself managing Big John Studd, who was involved in a heated feud with Andre the Giant, which culminated in a bodyslam match at the inaugural Wrestlemania in 1985, where Heenan and Studd attempted to retire the Giant, but failed. Despite the stipulation, Heenan was still able to run off with the prize money, creating a Wrestlemania moment for sure.
In 2005, Heenan and Okerlund traded quips about it at a press conference in Toronto. The Bobby Heenan Show was an entertaining sideline on the TNT cable channel. “This was before American Idol or Canadian Idol. I insulted people,” recalled Heenan. “I had to, they deserved it. They didn’t have any talent, they stunk, they were horrible! But it made it for a fun show.”
“How long did that run?”
“Longer than my honeymoon. I was so nervous on the night of my honeymoon, I put my pants to bed and I hung over a chair.”
Andre would later turn heel in a huge angle on Piper’s Pit, where he challenged then WWE Champion Hulk Hogan to a match at Wrestlemania 3. He also acquired Heenan as his manager and it was just as exciting for Heenan, because he was the person in history to manage Andre the Giant. Andre lost to Hogan that year, but the real story is the sellout crowd at the Pontiac Silverdome. Many attribute that number — 71,000 legit, but always billed as 93,173 — to the size of both combatants, but what should not go overlooked is the managerial skills of Heenan, who did all the talking for Andre and was just as important, when it came to hyping the main event.
For the next few years, Heenan added more and more fresh faces to his new faction known as “The Heenan Family.” He managed a who’s who of wrestling’s greatest legends, including Rick Rude, Mr. Perfect, Harley Race and Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff.
Orndorff was really happy being on his own as a singles wrestler at the time. But being paired with Heenan may have been one of the biggest highlights of his career. And it’s a highlight that Orndorff certainly had no regrets about.
“I never really thought I needed a manager,” Orndorff said. “But in New York, they were big on managers at the time, and fortunately, I got the best one.”
Orndorff didn’t have Heenan as a manager for very long, but he remembers it as if it was yesterday. Heenan always put others before him and as over as he was at the time, he always made sure that his guys were just as over as he was.
“Bobby brought a lot to the table and I think it added to what I was doing at the time,” Orndorff said. “He really helped me a lot.”
At the time, the manager-wrestler relationship was an important one, because the company was very high on kayfabe and the managers did have to spend a lot of time with their protégés. Of course, nobody can please everybody, but Orndorff says it’s very hard for anyone to dislike Heenan.
“I loved and respected Bobby. He knew the business and was very quick-witted,” Orndorff said. “He’s a very funny fellow. He would lift you up, but at the same time, he would chew you up and spit you out. You’d have to be around him to truly appreciate him.”
As Heenan’s managing career was at its peak, he was continuing to suffer from neck problems and unfortunately, he was unable to be as physical.
When Ric Flair entered the promotion in 1991, the company wanted Heenan as his manager. But with Heenan’s history of neck issues, he could not take bumps anymore, which would have been an essential part of that role. So instead, the company placed him behind the broadcast table, to work with his good friend, the late Gorilla Monsoon. It was a role that Heenan was just as comfortable with and did just as well, as he was now able to do what he did best — talk from the opening of the show to the end.
Taking Heenan out of the managerial role essentially made little to no difference, as he was still able to call it like he saw it and still able to put all the heel talent over.
One night in particular that stands out to most wrestling fans is the 1992 Royal Rumble match, which Flair won. But just as important was Heenan’s commentary, as he not only put over the significance of the match, but also established Flair as the top heel in the company and made the title seem even more important than it already was.
Of note, as well, is Heenan and Monsoon co-hosting WWF Prime Time Wrestling, with their playful bickering behind the desk as entertaining as the matches themselves.
In 1993, Monsoon was nearing the end of his run as an announcer. At Wrestlemania 9, he introduced the man who would later replace him as the voice of the company, Jim Ross. Ross had just left WCW to work in an environment that he wasn’t too familiar with. He was paired with Randy Savage and Bobby Heenan that night and it may have been Ross’ first dose of sports entertainment. But Ross would describe working with Heenan as a pleasurable experience.
“Bobby Heenan is as naturally funny with uncanny, comedic timing, and dramatic timing too for that matter, as any performer I’ve ever encountered. He is unquestionably the best three-tool talent (talking, wrestling and broadcasting) ever in the wrestling business,” Ross said. “We met in 1993, when I first went to work at WWE, after coming from rival WCW. Bobby and Gorilla Monsoon were the first two men who really took me under their wing and treated me with genuine friendship and professionalism, when others did not. To Bobby and Gorilla, I was simply ‘one of the boys’ who had worked 19 years to earn the opportunity to work in the WWE. The three of us bonded almost instantly. I was invited into their car on road trips and made to feel as a part of the family.”
Most fans remember Heenan for his comedy. But as mentioned, Ross was fortunate enough to travel a lot with Heenan and he says that Heenan was just as funny when the cameras weren’t rolling, but his comedy was best when it was properly timed. Ross says Heenan also knew when to be serious.
“Bobby was just as funny, mischievous and child-like at times, as he was on camera. He took it upon himself to make people around him laugh, and he always tried to relax the mood. However, when he was upset, he could make his point just as effectively and succinctly as he did when he was a villain manager. No one missed the point and one always knew where ‘The Weasel’ stood on any issue,” Ross said. “I loved his honesty, his passion and his God-given skills. Most of all, I loved Bobby for simply being Bobby. He made me look forward to come to work whenever I knew that he and I were working together on Wrestling Challenge, a pay per view, or any other WWE TV project.”
Ross also recalls some occasions when Heenan may have pushed the envelope just a little bit further than it was willing to be pushed. But he says it was all in good fun and nobody really resented Heenan for it.
“Bobby would usually get to the arena early, old school all the way, and slip into Vince McMahon’s private bathroom and leave McMahon a ‘gift,'” Ross said. “Bobby did this for a long time, thinking that Vince didn’t know who the culprit was, but I always felt that Vince knew and just flushed and played along with the Brain’s prank. Bobby was the king of the sight gags and loved physical humor.”
Okerlund traveled a lot with Heenan as well during their run in the WWE, and also in the latter stages of both of their careers. He recalls not only how certain people would react differently to his humor, but also how Heenan himself would react in certain situations, as he was great at improv too — but sometimes it was difficult for the inexperienced to identify whether or not Heenan was being serious.
“There were times that he was grumpy, but sometimes you’d just catch him on the wrong day,” Okerlund said. “I remember this one time that we were on a plane from Salt Lake City to San Francisco and a lot of people were carrying on their luggage. We were in first class and Bobby was trying to force his suitcase into the overhead compartment, but there was limited space. One of the attendants came up to him and asked if he was okay, and Bobby turns and says, ‘What are you a doctor?’ Bobby is the kind of guy who wouldn’t change in the day, but he would change in the moment.”
Perhaps a good example of “changing in the moment,” is at the end of 1993, when Heenan was offered a large sum of money from the rival WCW, which he could not refuse. But rather than just quit cold turkey, Heenan was notorious for being a company guy, and he surely left his mark on the WWE with his departure.
Kevin Nash remembers Heenan’s WWE exit quite vividly.
“I remember when he left New York and they threw him out, he had the toilet paper hanging out his ass,” Nash said. “I think it was in White Plains (New York) we did it. He walked out the door and I said I couldn’t believe they were letting him go. He just asked for a little more money, because WCW had offered Bobby some money. Bobby was told they couldn’t match it. Well f— you then. But he did it with class. He left with class. He had toilet paper hanging out of his ass and being thrown out of the building. I mean, he left with class. As an announcer, he did a job going out the door.”
In the early part of 1994, Heenan walked through the doors of WCW and immediately got noticed. He reprised his role as a color commentator for the company, working alongside Tony Schiavone. Just like in the WWE, Heenan was brought in to replace Jesse Ventura, who had just left and he was really the only guy at the time who was capable of filling in Jesse’s shoes.
An argument can certainly be made that Heenan wasn’t as comfortable in that role, as he was in the WWE. But he did the job to the best of his abilities and was still able to be “The Brain” every once in a while.
Okerlund came to WCW almost in sync with Heenan. He says he never noticed a change in pace with Heenan’s delivery after leaving the WWE, and that Heenan was always a consistent professional.
“As a commentator, I thought he was able to deliver tremendous insight and develop storylines effectively,” Okerlund said.
Perhaps one of the biggest storylines in company history may have almost been sabotaged by Heenan. It was at WCW’s Bash at the Beach pay per view in 1996, when the NWO was formed. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had just arrived in WCW, fresh off their runs in the WWE and had announced that they would indeed have a third man in their corner for a huge six-man tag in the main event. As Hulk Hogan returned that night, to supposedly fight off this hostile takeover, both babyface announcers, Dusty Rhodes and Schiavone, were in full support of Hogan. But Heenan questioned them, ‘Who’s side is he on?’
However, considering the rivalry over the years between himself and Hogan, and as a heel commentator, if he had joined Schiavone and Rhodes by supporting the fact that Hogan had returned, it might not have been as believable. So some might says it was once again just Bobby Heenan being Bobby Heenan.
In the year 2000, Heenan started to slowly disappear from the commentary booth. He was replaced on the company’s flagship show Monday Nitro by Mark Madden. He was then replaced on Thunder by Stevie Ray and released altogether in November of that year.
WCW went out of business in March 2001, and one has to wonder if Heenan’s departure may have been one of the final nails in the coffin. Regardless, the WWE held that year’s Wrestlemania 17 in Houston, and Heenan was called in as a guest commentator for a huge gimmick battle royal, which he called with Okerlund. Heenan was certainly on point that night, as he was every other night he was on commentary, proving once again that he hadn’t skipped a beat.
Following that appearance, Heenan briefly worked as a sports agent for the X Wrestling Federation, managing Curt Hennig once again.
He then started writing a couple of memoirs on his career.
In 2002, he put out Bobby the Brain: Wrestling’s Bad Boy Tells All, with a foreword by Hulk Hogan, and in 2003, it was a follow-up with a different publisher, Chair Shots and Other Obstacles: Winning Life’s Wrestling Matches, which had an introduction by Ric Flair. Both books were co-written by Steve Anderson.
In January 2002, Heenan announced on his website that he was battling throat cancer. Although the condition had improved over the next several years, he suffered from significant weight loss, which altered his appearance. His voice had also changed drastically as a result.
Despite all of this, Heenan was still able to prove that he can still deliver a decent promo. In March 2004, Heenan was inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame, and many will agree that his acceptance speech stole the show. He was inducted by one of his first protégés Blackjack Lanza, who, along with his partner Blackjack Mulligan, would later be inducted into the 2006 Hall of Fame, by Heenan. A month later, Heenan was presented with the business’ top award, the Iron Mike Mazurki Award, by the Cauliflower Alley Club at its annual banquet in Las Vegas. In 2006, Heenan was inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, NY, but did not attend the ceremony.
One of the other inductees for the 2004 Hall of Fame was seven-time NWA Heavyweight Champion Harley Race, whom Heenan also managed in the WWE. Like many others, Race remembers nothing but good times with Heenan.
“He came from the same side of the road that I did,” Race said. “He started to help supporting my family when he was 15 years old. He went on from that to become the greatest one-line guy who’s ever been involved in wrestling. I have nothing but total respect for him.”
Following his acceptance speech at the 2004 WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, Heenan was utilized quite a bit for the next couple of years, including a classic vignette at that year’s Wrestlemania, involving himself with Okerlund, The Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young in a closet.
He also inducted Orndorff into the Hall of Fame in 2005, and in a humorous turn of events, Orndorff fired him as his manager on stage once again.
“We worked very well together,” Orndorff said.
Heenan even made an appearance for the WWE’s new rival promotion TNA, joining one of his former broadcast colleagues Mike Tenay and Tenay’s new partner Don West, to call a six-man basebrawl match at the end of 2005.
Since then, Heenan has been used for taped segments for the WWE, including delivering his insight on some of the WWE’s documentary DVDs.
In late 2007, Heenan had reconstructive surgery on his jaw, and after the first one did not go well, he was placed in a medically induced coma and then slowly brought out by mid-2008. He was only able to communicate with his eyes at this point and would have more surgeries to come. The reconstructing of his jaw was complete by the end of 2008, but doctors discovered another jaw infection by December 2009, which needed immediate treatment. Earlier this year, Heenan’s jaw infection was completely repaired.
For the man who had given his entire life to wrestling, it’s only fitting that wrestling give something back. The WWE put out a two-disc DVD set on Heenan’s career in December 2010 — a must-see for all Heenan fans.
Those who knew him best would say that Bobby Heenan did the best job possible with everything he was a part of, and did it, while making others laugh. He was not only a lovable wrestling character, but also a devoted husband to his wife of 44 years Cynthia Jean, a loving father to his daughter Jessica and a great friend to everyone who had the privilege of knowing him.
In 2005, he summed up his career pretty well.
“Thank you for 40 years in this industry because I loved it. I loved people like [Okerlund], I loved people behind the scenes that worked hard … I loved the boys in the business. Some of them I can’t stand, but most of them are all right. I liked the midgets because you could hide things from them.”
– with files from Greg Oliver