Bobby Heenan was quick to inform viewers of his brilliance, his superior mental acumen, and of an intellect that shared no equal.
“I’m a legend in this sport,” Heenan once exclaimed on a World Wrestling Federation broadcast. “If you don’t believe me, ask me!”
The self-proclaimed broadcast journalist was, after all, known throughout wrestling as “The Brain”.
The quick-witted, sharp-tongued Heenan did not believe in on-air modesty or humility, but rather embraced his status as the smartest man on the broadcast.
Heenan passed away yesterday at the age of 73 after a courageous 15-year battle with throat cancer. Yet, his passing does not signal the end of his legacy.
“You can’t kill a memory,” said legendary manager “Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart. “That goes for all the wrestling fans and all the wrestlers, because in this business, you cannot kill a memory. We’ll always cherish our memories of Bobby Heenan.”
Heenan, who entered the wrestling business in 1961, debuted in the WWF in 1984 as the manager for “Big” John Studd in his pursuit of Hogan’s world title. Hart joined the company a year later in ‘85.
“I’ll always remember the dressing room when we were on the road,” recalled Hart. “You had Andre the Giant in one corner playing cards with Arnold Skaaland. You’d have Honky Tonk tuning his guitar, Jake Roberts with Damien, the Bulldogs feeding Matilda, Mr. Fuji playing tricks on people, and, in the middle of it all, there was Bobby Heenan keeping the whole dressing room laughing with his one-liners.”
Heenan made wrestling fun for those who refused to simply cheer for the good guy. His lifelong mission, he claimed, was to end Hulkamania. Years later in WCW, Heenan was the first to proclaim he was right all along after Hogan turned “Hollywood” and formed the New World Order. Instead of cheering for Hogan, who was finally a villain, Heenan instead reminded audiences that he always knew Hogan was a liar and a cheat.
“Bobby left something that’s going to be remembered forever,” said Hart. “I can’t wait to see the video package they air on Raw on the life and times of Bobby. People are going to see how good this guy really was.”
The two most memorable parts of Heenan’s career–managing Andre the Giant and then later replacing Jesse “The Body” Ventura as the lead color commentator for the WWF–were both monumental tasks. McMahon took a significant risk in turning the massively popular Andre into a heel, especially considering he would be largely dependent in interviews on a mouthpiece. Ventura was a larger-than-life star who had just broke into Hollywood when Heenan effectively replaced him in the broadcast booth on every pay per view.
“That would have been tough for anyone else, but not for Bobby Heenan,” said Bruce Prichard, who was Brother Love on WWF television and a producer who worked directly with Heenan. “You’d just tell Bobby, ‘Hey, this is where we need to go,’ and then Bobby would get you there. He knew how to get heat on his people, but didn’t steal the heat from them. Bobby was the perfect talent.”
Prichard, whose Brother Love character was first introduced on television by Heenan, was only 25 years old when he produced Heenan and Monsoon on Wrestling Challenge.
“The first time I really got to know Bobby was when I worked for Vince,” said Prichard. “I was just a kid, and they threw me in to produce Bobby and Gino [Gorilla]. I usually produced the shows he was on, which was easy to do because he was just so damn good.”
An emotional Prichard was flooded with memories as he discussed his time spent with Heenan.
“We became fast friends,” Prichard explained. “We traveled together, we hung out together. We were in Stamford, Connecticut one night having dinner, and Bobby was making me laugh throughout the entire meal. The waitress walked over to us, looked at the both of us, pointed at me and asked Bobby, ‘Is that your son?’ From that point on, Bobby was ‘Dad’ and I was ‘Son’.
“Bobby called his wife, Cyndi, later that night and said, ‘Honey, we’ve got another child.’ Cyndi asked if he’d gotten another woman pregnant, and Bobby said, ‘No! It’s Bruce!’”
Heenan’s health deteriorated in recent years, but Prichard still recalled their last in-depth meeting.
“The last time I got to sit down and talk with him was in Houston when I introduced him to my daughter, Amber, who was 17,” said Prichard. “His reaction to meeting my daughter was almost like he was meeting his granddaughter. That was the relationship we had. He’d make me laugh so hard I’d cry. I loved him to death.”
Heenan was involved in memorable angles throughout his three-plus decades in wrestling. He introduced the “Real World’s Champion” Ric Flair into the WWF, and was actually slated to manage Flair before conceding that he could not keep up with the raucous nightlife of the “Nature Boy”. Heenan also built memorable rivalries with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and the Ultimate Warrior, as well as served as the perfect antagonist to “Mean” Gene Okerlund and longtime broadcast partner Gorilla Monsoon.
When Monsoon passed away in 1999, Heenan offered a tribute on the air during Nitro. Heenan noted that the pearly gates of heaven would then be known as the “Gorilla Position”. If St. Peter ever asked Monsoon to serve as the keeper of the keys to the kingdom, you can rest assured that Heenan is now beside him, forever arguing with Monsoon over who receives entry at the gate.
The loss of Heenan marks a sad day for professional wrestling.
Still, it is comforting to know that no one can ever take away the memories.