I can’t find the words to accurately express the sadness about the news that the legendary Bobby “The Brain” Heenan passed away last week at the age of 73. The conclusion of his life came after numerous health problems that began after he was diagnosed with throat cancer over 15 years ago. The terrible illness and the harsh treatments that had to be used to combat it drastically changed his appearance over the years, including the damage it did it his jaw. It was truly heart breaking that the series of health problems took away his trademark verbal gifts. But, in a true display that spoke volumes to his character and remarkable strength, even cancer couldn’t take away the wit or the will of “The Brain.”
Long before he become one of the most beloved and admired figures in sports entertainment by both fans and his contemporaries, a young Bobby grew up in Chicago, where he watched the golden era of professional wrestling on television. In his early teenage years, he dropped out of school to work in an effort to help support his family. One of his early jobs was working for Dick The Bruiser, the grizzled veteran that ran part of the Chicago territory. Heenan sold programs and concessions at events in his hometown until 1965 when he started inside the squared circle as “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan. Along with flying around the ring as a wrestler, the villainous Heenan also managed names like Blackjack Lanza, a rugged athlete that saw his stock rise after he was paired with the manager.
In 1974, now known as “The Brain,” he began working for Verne Gagne in the American Wrestling Association, one of the most well-known leagues at the time. He was booked as the advisor to Nick Bockwinkel and Ray Stevens, two legendary grapplers that became a tremendous team. In one of the most memorable moments in the organization’s history, while The Brain was given a Pro Wrestling Illustrated managerial award, Stevens took exception to Heenan’s pushy antics. Stevens waffled Bobby with a punch that sent him flying for one of his tremendous bumps and then the trophy was smashed. After that, Heenan continued to manage Bockwinkel, an athlete with exceptional technical ability that made him what most consider the definitive AWA champion.
After nearly a decade working the mid-west for Gagne, Bobby saw the industry shift with the power of cable and Vince McMahon’s ability to capitalize on it. Hulk Hogan, Verne’s top star, left the AWA in 1983. Gagne didn’t recognize the change in the business and was too far the times to keep pace with the WWF. In 1984, Heenan gave his notice to the AWA and worked his remaining schedule before he arrived in the WWF to manage another former AWA star, Jesse Ventura. “The Body” and “The Brain” would’ve been a stellar combination, but shortly after the pair were assembled, Ventura was forced into an abrupt retirement after a health scare from blood clots.
In 1985, Heenan joined Big John Studd in a notable feud with Andre The Giant that culminated in a match at WrestleMania. He also played a role in the main event the next WrestleMania when he managed King Kong Bundy in a steel cage to challenge Hulk Hogan for the championship. The following year, he played a key role in arguably the biggest match of the 80s when he guided the heel turn of Andre The Giant to attempt to win Hogan’s championship in front of a record-setting crowd of 93,000 fans at WrestleMania III in the Pontiac Silver Dome. Make no mistake, it wasn’t a coincidence that Bobby was booked for these storylines, and it showed the confidence that the office had in his ability to add to major bouts. Around the same time, he worked alongside his close friend Gorilla Monsoon to host “Prime Time Wrestling,” and the classic interaction between them are fan favorite moments.
By 1991, a neck injury he sustained in Japan in 1983 led to the conclusion of his managerial career, prompting his last angle to be the introduction of Ric Flair as the “real world champion” in the WWF. Flair, who was the WCW title holder when he left the promotion, made an anticipated arrival to the WWF. Again, it was no coincidence that Heenan was assigned an angle of this importance and he helped make the storyline as memorable as it was at the time. In fact, Heenan’s call along with Gorilla Monsoon of the Royal Rumble match that saw Flair win the WWF title in 1992 is regarded as some of the best commentary work of all time. In late 1993, after almost 30 years in the industry, Heenan decided he wanted to spend more time with his family and mutually agreed to finish his WWF run. In a nice moment, his longtime friend, Monsoon was the authority figure that threw him out of the building on Monday Night Raw for his storyline departure.
Just a few weeks after news of his WWF deal expiring, Heenan was offered a contract with WCW, where he started in early 1994. The Turner deal offered The Brain a reduced schedule that allowed him to spend time with his family, a lucrative contract, and health insurance benefits. For almost seven years, Bobby continued his work as an announcer, adding to Nitro and pay-per-view events. His release from the company in late 2000 was seen as a cost-cutting measure when the organization was on the brink of collapse.
After WCW folded, Heenan and Mean Gene Okerlund made a surprise return to the WWF at WrestleMania in 2001 when they provided commentary for the gimmick battle royal that saw many former stars appear to an enthusiastic response from the live crowd. Shortly after his cameo at WrestleMania XVII, Heenan was diagnosed with throat cancer. When he resurfaced on WWE TV for the Hall of Fame in 2004, his appearance had changed drastically as a result of the radiation treatments for the illness. Still, even thinner and somewhat frail from the harsh cancer treatments, Bobby stole the show, providing a memorable acceptance speech that earned him a standing ovation. In a nice moment, “The Brain” said a tearful tribute to his late friend, Gorilla Monsoon, who died in 1999 after his own battle with cancer.
Just two years later, Bobby appeared at the HOF again, this time to induct Mulligan and Lanza, The Blackjacks. It was no surprise that “The Brain” once again stole the show with a memorable speech. I was actually in attendance at the Hall of Fame ceremony at the Rosemont Horizon, and for WrestleMania 22 at the All State Arena. The entire weekend was an experience, and getting the privilege to see “The Brain” live really was one of the highlights of the trip. In 2010, the WWE released a DVD on Heenan’s career, which spotlighted his many accomplishments, the admiration of his peers, and the strength he displayed during his illness.
Sadly, in recent years, Heenan continued to suffer from the effects of the radiation treatments. It was tragic that the verbal ability that he was well-known for during his legendary career was taken away from him. Still, The Brain enjoyed working the convention circuit as a way to meet fans and see his peers. As a credit to his undeniable ability to entertain, he often used non-verbal acts to get a laugh from those in attendance. It was heart breaking to see the legendary manager in such a deteriorated physical state, but the look in his eyes told you that his wit was still sharp. Unfortunately, news of falls and fractures were common for him in the past two years.
Bobby “The Brain” Heenan had a career that spanned four decades and along the way he entertained in every role he played in the industry. As a manager, commentator, even part-timer wrestler, Heenan was tremendous. His skills, timing, and verbal ability were top-notch. Quite simply, Bobby Heenan was the greatest manager of all time and one of the most entertaining figures in the history of the business.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
E mail email@example.com | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta
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