The Bobby Heenan that most of you are familiar with is the ‘80s WWF version. Naturally, in the immediate aftermath of his death, much of the reminiscing about his career focused on the funniest moments.
In wrestling, Heenan was peerless, easily the most gifted comic mind in the history of the business. His back and forth with Gorilla Monsoon as hosts of the syndicated Wrestling Challenge and especially USA Network’s Prime Time Wrestling were often the highlight of WWF programming, which could have its fair share of dull stretches. On Prime Time, in between endless Jose Estrada vs. Jim Powers time limit draws, Gorilla and The Brain would do largely improvised studio wraparounds that lit up the screen with their often inane but always enjoyable banter. And if they left the studio? It could be even better, with their trip to Busch Gardens, a show-long boat trip to Catalina Island, and the Halloween 1989 show (with all of the hosts in costumes, including Roddy Piper as Heenan) being notable fan favorites. In the VHS era, finding fans who had mainly saved the wraparounds and not the matches from Prime Time was fairly common, and the segments are perfect for YouTube.
Heenan was so good on Prime Time, in fact, that the WWF decided to experiment in 1989 by taking the last half hour of the two-hour show and turning it into The Bobby Heenan Show, a talk show where he had offbeat guests like the world’s fastest painter, a fifth rate Jack Hannah, the worst comedy duo they could find, and porn star Heather Hunter. It tanked in the ratings most weeks, which was a bigger problem than it sounds on paper because somehow, USA Network had not been notified of the change. While one episode did a shockingly good rating, it went off the air after four weeks, leaving something of a “brilliant, but cancelled” legacy behind it. It’s not necessarily as good as it sounds, but it’s so weird, and Heenan himself is so good that it’s the type of show that would be absolutely legendary if it came along at a different time.
Comedy routines aside, Bobby Heenan was a lot more than just slapstick. That may even be his greatest talent: Yes, he was hilarious. But he was also the top heel manager in the WWF for half a decade, during which he was somehow able to simultaneously balance making the fans laugh with him every week with being the most sinister, spineless, hateable human being on the show as well. It’s a delicate balance: In wrestling, you can’t be a heel and be too funny, or else the fans will cheer for you. Some could do it with insult comedy, and while Heenan didn’t eschew that, he remained well-rounded. Funny Heenan and Manager Heenan didn’t usually occupy the same space, but they could still be reconciled as the same person.
“Bobby’s timing was incredible,” said Stokely Hathaway, a manager for the World Wrestling Network family of promotions whose work is inspired by Heenan. “Better than most comedians at the time and even today. Who else could go from evil villain to the funny, loveable mastermind that made you laugh? That’s a skill. An art. He did it with such ease.”
In terms of being hateable though, Heenan’s best work was before the WWF, working primarily in the midwest for Dick The Bruiser’s WWA and Verne Gagne’s AWA. That version of The Brain is a lot rougher around the edges, with the more loathsome aspects of his persona turned up further than when he was managing in the WWF. Most famously, he managed longtime AWA World Heavyweight Champion Nick Bockwinkel. Bockwinkel was, for lack of a better comparison, sort of an intellectual, classier predecessor to Ric Flair, a brilliant rich playboy without the sleazy, guy-who-fucks-everything-that-moves parts that Flair brought. Bockwinkel gave beautifully eloquent interviews full of $10 words, coming up with ideas by flipping through a dictionary in his spare time. Unlike many wrestlers who were given managers to speak for them because they weren’t very good at cutting a wrestling promo, Bockwinkel was one of the best ever, with Heenan there to compliment them. They were a pair of refined brats, and Heenan drew so much hatred out of the fans that during their ‘70s peak, the pulpy wrestling magazines of the day routinely featured Heenan’s face, soaked in blood, on the cover.
With the old wrestling magazines, given their three month or longer lead time, they couldn’t react to the happenings all over the country and pick cover stories based on that. The wrestlers on the covers often were just going to be those who sold the most magazines on their own. Most were the good guys, like Mil Mascaras, Dusty Rhodes, Tommy Rich, Andre The Giant, and Hulk Hogan. So when a heel was all over those covers, like Heenan’s always-bloody face was, he had to be moving magazines better than most.
The one thing that Heenan is probably being praised least for in the aftermath his passing is that he was actually an absolutely tremendous wrestler. Sure, he’s known best as a manager and self-described “broadcast journalist,” but the same things that made him a great ringside manager, like his timing, facial expressions, body language, and reckless disregard for his body in taking bumps, made him a pretty fantastic in-ring performer. He could have entertaining matches with limited muscle heads like The Ultimate Warrior or perennial loser Salvatore Bellomo, or if you put him in a serious match, like when he would team with Bockwinkel. He was so good, in fact, that in 1984, a few months before he left the AWA for the WWF, he was booked into All Japan Pro Wrestling.
While AJPW was the most Americanized of the groups in Japan at the time, it was still Japanese pro wrestling, which had no use for western managers. So he made a good accounting throughout the tour, which, unfortunately, spelled the end of him wrestling regularly, as his neck was broken by an errant Atsushi Onita knee drop from the top rope. That he was still taking bumps the way he did after that (albeit as a manager and only occasional wrestler) is a minor miracle. It also led to his WWF departure a decade later, as when he finally made the call to get neck surgery, he needed to get good health insurance, which necessitated going to rival WCW, where he would be a salaried employee.
Heenan’s death was more of a shock than a surprise. While he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002 and beat it, the radiation therapy did significant damage to his jaw. He had to have surgery in 2007, removing significant portions of the jaw and reconstructing it to the point he looked similar to Roger Ebert, who lost much of his jaw to salivary gland cancer. Like Ebert, this caused further health complications, and for a decade, fans would hear from time to time that Heenan was in rough shape, fighting for his life or close to it. He would always recover to some degree, but his greatest gift to the world at large, his voice, was gone, and last year, the wrestling world was cruelly teased by a fake Heenan Twitter account that somehow got verified. It seemed like the perfect medium for a Heenan who couldn’t use his voice, but it wasn’t to be.
Still, from time to time, even as late as last year, Heenan would fly around the country and do autograph signings. Bobby would take the fan’s cash from his wife and examine it, looking for proof that it was counterfeit. He couldn’t talk, but even as his body was failing him, Raymond Heenan still did his best to be Bobby “The Brain” for wrestling fans, and that was more than enough to make their day.