wrestling / Columns

Who is the Best Manager Ever? Bobby Heenan vs. Jim Cornette vs. Paul Heyman

November 10, 2017 | Posted by Jake Chambers

The “manager” is a lost art in the world of professional wrestling, aged out and sorely missed in today’s homogenized “reality” era. Long replaced by the “authority figure” as the main antagonist for the heroes of the show, Managers at one time were a major component to the main event scene of a wrestling company. That was before the great “Montreal enlightening”, when there was still a believable logic for non-wrestling agents in the narrative to control the matchmaking for their clients, but now too much power rests in the hands of fourth wall-breaking General Managers and corporate presidents to keep that old manager trope relevant.

Much like the GM role of today, Managers were at their best when they were powerful evil forces in the story. However, these great Managers of the past, from Mr. Fuji to Larry Sweeney, were also kind of comedy geniuses, taking their delusional hubris to a plane of sublime wackiness that is absent from most modern authority figures – any comedic aspect today feels siphoned off to the “babyface” GM figure in a Mick Foley lovable-horny-doofus model.

Needless to say, Managers, much like so many of the nostalgic aspects of old school wrestling, hold a warm place in the hearts of all pro-wrestling fans who watch the shows today and wonder where it all went so wrong. We were spoiled, I guess. The Bobby Heenans, Jim Cornettes and Paul Heymans of the past were less pioneers of a lasting tradition than outliers at a specific genre in time, you know, like how The Clash or Bad Brains, EPMD or De La Soul didn’t lead to a 2017 where amazing punk and hip-hop music are mainstream either. So then, looking back to those masters of old, do you ever wonder just who was the best wrestling Manager of all time?

Well then, damn, you came to the right place!

The 411mania Wrestling 3-Way Dance matches up three opponents in an intellectual battle every week. The biggest advantages and disadvantages of each contender will be highlighted before a final ranking will declare the ultimate winner. This week’s 3-Way Dance:

Who is the Best Manager in Wrestling History?

Bobby Heenan vs. Jim Cornette vs. Paul Heyman

Reasons why this Manager might be the best ever…

Bobby Heenan = Funny.

As I said before, these Managers used to be so damn funny. In fact, pro-wrestling is generally funny a lot of the time, almost unintentionally camp (or is that the point?), but how many characters do you think could actually hold their own outside of the wrestling world as legit comedians. If you ask me, Heenan might be one of the few; a more relaxed and sharp wit you couldn’t find on commentary or in vignettes, while also a shit-talker who was master of the in-your-face burn, the sideways burn and the back-handed burn. While his style is a bit old-fashioned, I think it holds up as more “classic” compared to, say, the one-liner comedy of a Jerry Lawler. Few things Heenan came up with sounded canned, he was just a guy who could riff on whatever situation came up, stick to his heel-perspective, and make stupid sound authoritative.

Jim Cornette = Negotiations.

A good Manager had to really be the person driving the negotiations for his clients, and Cornette in the 80s was the perfect nerdy jerk loop-hole-knowing smart ass who could be the catalyst for some great rivalries and stipulations. Sure, when he interrupted Precious Paul, got slapped for his insolence and later sicced the Midnight Express on the Road Warriors, he did end up booking his clients in a death-defying Scaffold Match by accident. But that’s the perfect role for a Manager, to get his clients out of bind – or even better, accidentally put them in one! And it was Cornette who took the big fall that night anyways, giving the audience that satisfying purge at the end of a historic rivalry. Speaking of history, who didn’t think that the Lex-Express was gonna roll right over Cornette’s client Yokozuna at SummerSlam ’93 to fulfill his destiny as the the WWF’s next muscle-bound patriot world champion? It was Cornette’s devious paperwork that said Lex wouldn’t get another title shot if he didn’t win the belt that night, even though Luger won the match by Count-Out. These examples of the political machinations that added nitrous to the fuel of old school feuds is exactly what a Manager used to do, and few were as good at it as that slimy Jim Cornette.


Paul Heyman = ECW

While the omniscient authority figure is old hat to the wrestling fans of today, back in the mid-90s the concept was just beginning to take seed. Sure, there’d been Presidents and Promoter characters in American wrestling, but this idea that Paul Heyman was a passionate “owner” of ECW, an entire federation, and was going to stand up and go to war for his wrestlers and (maybe more importantly) the company’s fans, was an evolutionary leap for the Manager’s role. While Eric Bischoff at the time was being derided as this uncreative, corporate Turner/WCW stooge just playing a part on TV, Heyman had everyone believing that ECW was a mainstream pro-wrestling revolution. Real or not, Heyman brought the same ferocious fervour to this on-screen role as he had as a Manager who was simply trying to get the Dangerous Alliance title shots in WCW.

Reasons why this Manager might NOT be the best ever…

Bobby Heenan = Commentary.

Being one of the greatest colour commentators in wrestling history actually hurts Bobby in regards to his legacy as a Manager. Even when Flair came to the WWE in ’91, Heenan’s role was more of a hype man on commentary than that of a traditional Manager, because by that point he was just too invaluable calling all the matches than to only being involved peripherally in a few.

Jim Cornette = That look.

Whereas Heenan could get in the ring and wrestle with anyone, and Heyman just seemed like such a slight, Wall Street scumbag in his prime that you wouldn’t even bother trying to fight him, Cornette looked like a non-wrestler who the real wrestlers should be able to punch. With that giant ass and big thick glasses, it was kind of hard to take him seriously as either a physical threat or an intellectual superior, but he was just doughy enough to appear capable of taking abuse. And, sure, that tennis racquet is iconic, but talk about a gimmick that made NO sense. Regardless of the real explanation for him carrying that thing around, to an outsider looking in they gotta be perplexed as to why this out-of-shape dork is walking around with a tennis racquet?

Paul Heyman = Brock Lesnar

Being paired up with Brock back in 2002 was kismet, no doubt. I’m not even sure Brock would be who he is today, from the NFL to UFC to straight up rich, if not for those first few months where he had Heyman at his side. And then the second act of Brock’s WWE run was a welcome return to this pairing, and without Heyman being there to exclaim the shock of him defeating the Undertaker’s WM streak I don’t think that moment would have even been as historically jarring. But from that point forward, his association with Lesnar has become as monotonous on the mic as it has been in the ring. The two of them seem to be going through the motions most of the time, which feels very Patrick Ewing on the Supersonics of them. And I think this Lesnar-stagnation has eventually hurt Heyman creatively outside of their collaboration, as his attempts to “advocate” for Cesaro, Curtis Axel and Ryback have been glaring black marks on a once stellar resume.

Okay, so these are all reasonable options, but who REALLY is the best Manager ever?

# 3 = Jim Cornette

No one will dispute Cornette’s place in the pro-wrestling pantheon of Managers, and I’ve no doubt he firmly belongs in third place, but no higher dare I put him. Two factors go against him compared to the next two in the ranking: his un-likability and his peak year. If Heyman’s peak is the 2002 Brock run and Heenan’s is the 1987 Andre run, Cornette’s highest profile managerial year has to be the Yokozuna run, which (while I loved that year) is probably one of the WWF’s weakest years in the Wrestlemania-era.

On top of that, he’s always been so unlikeable as a character. We all have a begrudging respect for the arrogant Heyman, like you would a physics professor or a chess master, and the pure Don Rickles-esque comedy glee you get from Heenan is undeniable, Cornette, though, is always just a dick Manager. Arguably, a great skill in-storyline, but leaving him ultimately less memorable than Heyman and Heenan.

# 2 = Paul Heyman

While all three of these men can performance excellently on the microphone, I think most would agree that Heyman belongs in the 411mania 3-Way for Best Promo Performer of All Time. His ability to turn a phrase with escalating intensity is unparalleled, and he is one of the few left who knows how to subtly package the selling of a fight into his dramatic oration. Cornette and Heenan were good at this as well, with only Heyman and Cornette being the ones who had the opportunity to do it in the “reality” era. And while Cornette has regressed into just another podcast diatribe-er in what is a polluted ocean of similarity (where professional and amateur can be considered equals), Heyman – while arguably stale at times these days – is still a relevant performer in main event feuds, who can pull out a knock-down promo for his client when necessary.

To be that good in 2017 is pretty phenomenal. The question is, do we think that Bobby Heenan would have been capable of this level of work in the modern era had he not been robbed prematurely – and oh so damn tragically – of his voice? Certainly his commentary role in WCW felt very neutered compared to the conceited alpha-male we were in awe of in the 80s, so it’s hard to see how he might have regained his form afterwards… but it’s not impossible. So in that regard, Heyman should be able to make the case for being #1, although ultimately (and obviously) that was one I could not buy.

#1 = Bobby Heenan

No matter how good Heyman still is today, or how good he’s been throughout his career, it’s just never going to overshadow Heenan’s legacy as a Manager, specifically as head of the Heenan Family in the 1980s. This coalition to bring down Hulkamania is such a driving factor in the success of that Rock ‘N’ Wrestling era, and Heenan was the foil. When Piper stepped back, Heenan’s role became key, especially with the way he genuinely seemed to hate Hogan so much and brought all these men against him, in particular his “best friend” Andre. Wrestlemania III was the biggest event ever and that main event was the most important match up to that point (and might be still), and Heenan was there, in the ring, living out the most memorable moment in pro-wrestling Managing history.

Comparing Heenan and Heyman is almost like trying to compare Jordan and LeBron in 2017. While LeBron seems to be cementing a stronger case year-after-year for being the best basketball player of all time, it’s just never going to be enough to unseat Jordan from that spot in the critical eye of fans everywhere. Bobby Heenan is the scale from which all Managers will be measured – and you can’t measure a ruler with another ruler. So while Heyman might get a perfect score once he’s finished his career, it’ll have to be graded on the Heenan rubric.

Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, we lost you way too early, but we hope you know – wherever you are – that forever you will be the 411mania 3-Way Dance – and all of professional wrestling’s – Best Manager of All Time. RIP.