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wrestling / Columns

Shining a Spotlight 01.06.11: Bobby Heenan

January 6, 2011 | Posted by Michael Weyer

WWE’s DVDs may have slumped a bit in the production (and I don’t get why all of a sudden they’re not giving us that little paper telling the contents of each disc in the sets) but they can still provide some great entertainment for wrestling fans. Their latest release certainly provides that, a terrific set dedicated to one of the best characters wrestling has ever known. A man who made being a heel glorious to watch with his wild style, brilliant voice work and a smart mind that pulled you into whatever he was involved with.

Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.

Anynone who grew up with WWF as it rose in the mid-80’s knew Heenan by sight. That blonde hair, those black sequined outfits and of course, that obnoxious voice. Combine that with a stable of wrestlers always at the top of things in WWF and you had a guy who always knew how to entertain you. He proved even better as an announcer, bringing his great style to the mic with calling the action and pushing the guys via his commentary. So in recognition if that new DVD, a look at what made the Brain so big.

Rise to fame

Bobby Heenan was one of those guys born for wrestling. Growing up as a fan in Chicago and Indianapolis, he started off doing backstage jobs and selling refreshments before breaking out as Beautiful Bobby Heenan in 1965. It was clear he was okay in the ring but his true magic was as a manager. He just had a gift for riling up crowds with his interference for his charges and great promos. He began work for the AWA in 1968, managing the Blackjacks and an occasional wrestler. In 1973, former tag team champions Nick Bockwinkel and Ray Stevens, claiming they were tired of promoters screwing them over, introduced Heenan as their manager with Heenan proclaiming his intelligence and claiming they could call him “the Brain.” He helped the duo regain the tag team championships before Stevens turned on Bockwinkel during a “Manger of the Year” presentation to Heenan. Heenan would soon lead Bockwinkel to the AWA World title and also helped the Blackjacks win the tag belts, making him the first manager in history to manage two champions at once. It was during a feud against Dick the Bruiser that Heenan was first labeled with the “Weasel” moniker.

Heenan left the AWA in 1979 (with the explanation of being suspended) and spent time in Georgia but returned to help Bockwinkel regain the AWA title. Heenan made it clear that his wrestlers were to be referred to as “the Family,” saying he hated the term “stable.” He and Greg Gagne had some matches with Heenan stuffed into a Weasel suit afterward. When Hulk Hogan began his rise to fame, Heenan made it clear he didn’t like Hogan at all, constantly interfering in matches against Bockwinkel and Hogan would manage to get his licks in on Heenan.

WWF

In 1984, Heenan followed the exodus of AWA guys for Vince McMahon (on the AWA DVD, it’s stated that Heenan was one of the few who actually completed his dates for Verne Gagne first before leaving). He soon took on his iconic all-black outfits with sequins as he started off managing Jesse Ventura briefly. He soon began to build up the family with Big John Studd and King Kong Bundy and quickly made destroying Hulk Hogan his life’s mission. First, he managed Bundy in the cage match against Hogan at Wrestlemania 2, then helped the newly heel Paul Orndorff in his epic feud with Hogan. His big moment came in 1987 when he shockingly convinced Andre the Giant to turn on Hogan for their Wrestlemania III match. He also managed Harley Race in his time as “King” in the WWF along with Rick Rude and when Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson jumped ship in 1988, they were paired with Heenan and renamed “The Brainbusters.” He even had the likes of The Brooklyn Brawler and Terry Taylor as the Red Rooster on board along with the Islanders, Hercules and the Barbarian.

Heenan had all the ingredients needed for a heel manager: A loud mouth, a boisterous style on the mic, always interfering and riling up the crowds, making his charges seem even bigger than they were. In interviews, he would brag openly of his amazing skills and strength but then run from danger. Unlike other heel managers, Heenan was more than willing to take his lumps as well, knowing that would be a great payoff for the crowd. When Hogan beat Bundy in the cage at Mania 2, he also slammed Heenan into the cage walls and gave him a big atomic drop. At Wrestlemania IV, Heenan teamed with the Islanders against the British Bulldogs, wearing a full-scale protection suit against the Bulldogs mascot, Matilda. Later that year, he repeated the “weasel suit” matches against the Ultimate Warrior. Every time, the fans adored seeing Heenan finally getting his just deserts.

Surprisingly, it took five years after his entrance into WWF before Heenan finally got some gold into his family. At Wrestlemania V, he cheated to help Rick Rude beat the Warrior for the Intercontinental title. A few months later, the Brain Busters beat Demolition to win the tag team belts. Both the former champs would regain the gold but Heenan would close out ’89 by leading Andre and Haku to the tag titles. They would lose the belts at Wrestlemania VI, after which an irate Heenan would make the mistake of slapping Andre and getting hammered as a result. In April, Heenan bounced back by helping Mr. Perfect to the IC belt. By early 1991, all those beatings were taking a toll on Heenan’s neck and he moved away from managing. However, he did make a big deal over helping “negotiate” Ric Flair’s entrance into the WWF and carrying around the big gold belt as proof of how Flair was “the real World Champion.”

By this point, Heenan had been making a name for himself as an announcer, usually on the weekend WWF shows, always backing up the heels and boasting of his own greatness. It was fun listening to him take shots at other managers with backhanded comments of “he’s good, not as good as me but…” He and Gorilla Monsoon were also paired on USA’s primetime wrestling show, hosting segments and having a terrific banter between them. They’d do some goofy stuff like visiting Busch Gardens together and Heenan having some pranks pulled on him but livening up the segments with his talk. He briefly had his own segment, The Bobby Heenan Show where he would mock the talk show format with overly weight women and have nerdy sidekick Jamison around. Heenan was great on the mic, backing the heels and making smart remarks all over the place. SummerSlam ’91 had him doing great work with Monsoon and Roddy Piper, aggravating them with his comments. His shining moment as announcer was the 1992 Royal Rumble, on the disc in full. As a major Flair supporter, Heenan was screaming when Flair came out at number 3. It’s wonderful listening as Heenan goes from confident to worried to pessimistic to outright suicidal as the match goes on and Flair is beaten down. His joy when Flair won the Rumble and the WWF title was the magnificent pay-off to the best Rumble ever. Heenan still did great announce work for the next few years, helping RAW become a big deal and pushed the Undertaker with his howls of “the man is not human!” whenever UT would shake off a beating.

WCW and Afterward

In late 1993, Heenan decided to leave WWF. The reasons are a bit up in the air, from money to the longer working hours. So they did a bit with Gorilla Monsoon literally throwing Heenan out of an arena and out of the WWF. It was Heenan’s idea, feeling it only right Monsoon be the one to toss him out after all the abuse he’d piled on Gorilla over the years. At first planning to enjoy retirement, Heenan was soon talked into joining WCW with its lighter work load and promised health insurance, not to mention it was based out of Atlanta, where his daughter attended school.

While it seemed a good match, Heenan soured quickly on WCW, never as inspired as he was in the WWF. In his first book, Mick Foley said that his impetus for leaving WCW was when Vader hit him with a power-bomb on the concrete floor and Heenan simply no-sold it on commentary with a dull “that’ll give you Excedrin headache number nine.” Heenan himself mentioned afterward that he wasn’t happy with how haphazard the backstage atmosphere of WCW was. During his “loose cannon” act, Brian Pillman unexpectedly grabbed at Heenan’s bad neck, causing Bobby to blurt “what the fuck are you doing?” on live television. He did get some good stuff when the New World Order began as he was able to say “I told you so” to everyone about Hogan’s heel turn. Heenan also had a good emotional moment in late 1999, doing an on-air tribute to the recently deceased Monsoon, making it clear how he was always friends with the man. That did not extend to Tony Schiavone, the two men never getting along backstage.

Heenan grew more uncomfortable as WCW became more insane in 1999. He was soon replaced on “Nitro,” doing commentary for just “Thunder,” leaving the company a few months before it went out of business. He made a return to WWF at Wrestlemania X-7, doing commentary for the Gimmick battle royal. But by this time, Heenan had been diagnosed with throat cancer, undergoing operations that rendered his once amazing voice a grating rasp. In 2004, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, paying tribute to Monsoon in his speech. He began to be a familiar face for WWE DVD’s; he had his own chapter on the “Greatest Stars of the ‘80’s” set; he was a highlight of the Ultimate Warrior disc as he ripped into the man big-time; he was the final feature on the “Wrestling’s Greatest Managers” set; and he had some good insight for the AWA DVD. He also had a brief feud with Jim Cornette in Ring of Honor and a brief stint in TNA which didn’t last long.

Summation

Heenan was a man who knew how to play a crowd brilliantly. His mannerisms, his ego, his hilarious talk, it made you want to nail him one and yet keep watching all the same. He was even better as a commentator, smart and insightful but still pushing that ego, he and Gorilla Monsoon a brilliant act. It’s sad that his once-great voice is gone but the man himself still hasn’t changed, still the same figure speaking his mind. It’s terrific for WWE to finally give a full DVD to one of the best managers of his time, to remind fans now and forever that, whether Brain or Weasel, Bobby Heenan was one of a kind and we’re all grateful for that.

For this week, the spotlight is off.

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Michael Weyer
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