Wrestling Observer Newsletter
PO Box 1228, Campbell, CA 95009-1228 ISSN10839593 September 25, 2017
Bobby Heenan, the greatest wrestling manager of all-time and one of the best all-around talents in the history of the industry passed away on 9/17 from organ failure after nearly 16 years of constant health problems that started with throat cancer.
Heenan was 72 at the time of his death.
Born Raymond Louis Heenan in Chicago, he is the single most quick-witted and funniest person I have ever met.
Before the cancer ruined his ability to talk, a phone call to Heenan was essentially the same as the old dial-a-joke, except instead of one joke, the jokes came after every sentence you finished as long as the phone call went. In person, whether it was making fun of somebody, or the situation, or of people in wrestling, or the world itself, he seemed to always be on.
Yes, at the same time, he had the knack during his career as a manager, which lasted more than two decades, to take a quality that most would consider positive, and use it in an obnoxious and arrogant enough fashion that people would hate him.
Wherever he went, whether it was against The Crusher in the AWA, Dick the Bruiser in Indiana, Hulk Hogan in WWF or Dusty Rhodes in Georgia, Heenan was the heat behind the key foil for the area’s top babyface.
Later, he became a heel color commentator, following in the big footsteps of Jesse Ventura, who was also quick-witted. The two were very different, and it could have come across like a major dropoff since Ventura was the guy who didn’t invent the position, but did put the position on the map permanently. But Heenan followed, and his timing with partner Gorilla Monsoon was, because of his greater range, even superior to that of Ventura.
As a manager, Heenan often carried the heel side in the different territories he worked. While others often did so, none did so as long and at as high a level in so many places. He was excellent on interviews, but he was equally adept at physical comedy as he was at verbal comedy. His ability to get over the weasel suit gimmick, or take pins from midgets, or miss weight in his challenges for the light heavyweight title, were done far more frequently than should have worked. Plus, Heenan could and did take bloody beatings, particularly from Bruiser, far more than any manager should while still being able to maintain his heat.
Once, in Chicago, a fan fired several shots at him.
Because of that, Heenan was also quick to argue with people who would say that the old days were better, noting he made more money with far less danger as time went on.
Still, shortly before his death, and he was well aware it was coming, at a time he really couldn’t even communicate any longer, in his last visit to Las Vegas, to see relatives and the Tenay family (Bobby and wife Cindy Heenan were very close to Mike & Karen Tenay), he and Mike spent their last time together watching old Chicago YouTube footage of wrestling when he was a teenager, falling in love with the business. He noted that was the wrestling he loved the best, even if he once remarked after the Shawn Michaels vs. Kurt Angle WrestleMania match that it was the best match he had ever seen.
While at the time of his death, some said that Heenan was also one of the greatest in-ring wrestlers of all-time to go along with his managerial and commentary skills, that would be an exaggeration.
Heenan as a wrestler had excellent timing of when to do what and was a good entertainer. He was great in the role of the coward heel and a tremendous seller and bump taker, but he wasn’t someone who really could do a classic match in a singles main event. He lacked the physical credibility needed to be a singles main event heel, which made him even better because it enabled him to get heat cheating for and hiding behind the heels he was in the corner with.
While it was his late 60s and early 70s pairing with Blackjack Lanza that really put him on the map, it was his 1974 to 1984 association with Nick Bockwinkel that may have been the best wrestler/manager duo in the history of the business, and certainly the best when it comes to a world championship level pairing.
With his role in managing Bockwinkel as AWA champion for years, in and out of the AWA, as well as managing tag team champions including Bockwinkel & Ray Stevens, Stevens & Pat Patterson, and Lanza & Bobby Duncum, he would have to rank along with Hulk Hogan, Crusher, Mad Dog Vachon, Bockwinkel and Verne Gagne as the six most valuable performers in the history of the promotion.
He was tremendous in playing off the announcers, and not just Monsoon, but people like Gene Okerlund, Vince McMahon and Marty O’Neill among others.
Heenan was born on November 1, 1944, in Chicago. His father, the real Bobby Heenan, was a railroad worker. He went to his first match in 1955 at the Marigold Arena in Chicago, and dropped out of school in the eighth grade and started working on getting in to wrestling.
He started as a wrestler working for Dick the Bruiser in Indiana in 1965 as Pretty Boy Bobby Heenan. Bruiser switched him to being a manager for tag teams like Angelo Poffo & Chris Markoff and a version of The Assassins that consisted of John Hill, who at the time used the name Guy Mitchell and was later Jerry Valiant, The Stomper and a half dozen other people, and Joe Tommaso. He also formed a brother tag team with Hill, who at the time used the name Guy Heenan.
But he made a big name for himself when linked with Lanza. Lanza and Bruiser had a big program both in Indiana and on top at the shows in Chicago. Sam Muchnick, who hated the idea of wrestling managers and had a rule against using them, was convinced by Bruiser to make an exception to the rule and let Heenan work with Lanza.
The Heenan & Lanza pairing was a significant main event success in St. Louis. Still, Muchnick saw Heenan as the exception to the rule, as he was the only manager ever to work on a Muchnick-promoted show.
The Lanza & Heenan act was strong enough that it worked multiple territories including the AWA. Heenan, with his bleached blonde hair, landed on the cover and all over the wrestling magazines because he bled heavy and often for Bruiser, Crusher and other faces that were programmed with Lanza.
Still, he was always bitter at Bruiser, noting that Bruiser was a bully, and talked about how when he worked for Bruiser and would be promised $100, Bruiser would pay him $90, and it was just the principle that Bruiser would do that for no good reason that he hated.
Crusher, on the other hand, he loved. He called Crusher the goose that laid the golden eggs for promoter Gagne. Crusher was long past his physical prime and couldn’t do much in the ring by the time he and Heenan were adversaries. But Heenan always insisted that even though Bruiser was co-owner and always protected himself in Chicago on top, that Crusher was more over. He was also not a fan of Billy Robinson, who he considered a bully, and would joke when people would note how great Robinson was in the ring, saying, “Nobody wanted to see Crusher wrestle like Billy Robinson. Really, nobody wanted to see Billy Robinson wrestle like Billy Robinson.”
He was very pragmatic and opinionated, with his humor often being used as a way to make points. Wrestling was about drawing money, which he believed was all about a superstar babyface on top, and a group of heels who made sure to protect and accentuate him.
The last great babyface that Heenan made, not as a manager, but as a broadcaster was Bill Goldberg in WCW in 1998.
Heenan saw early on, and put forth his best efforts in getting Goldberg over, calling him “Da Man,” and putting over his spear, jackhammer and winning streak, and making people think it was something special.
In late 1998, when the big talk was about who would break Goldberg’s streak, while at the same time live event business was through the roof, Heenan would constantly ask why. When people would ask how long could it still go, Heenan would say why ever beat him. Clearly, there was a time and a way to do it. The Bruiser lost on occasion, but only when necessary, and Crusher was the same. Hogan, who replaced Crusher as the AWA’s top star, never lost. When they went to the WWF, Hogan once again didn’t lose via pin from 1984 through a gimmick finish in early 1988, and didn’t really lose until 1990.
Heenan saw the incompetence in WCW. And Heenan had his own issues at the time with drinking, often while doing commentary, which got worse as the promotion got worse and as he enjoyed working for the promotion less. On the night Goldberg lost at Starrcade 1998 to Kevin Nash, he, Tenay and Tony Schiavone, who traveled together, were talking about it. Tenay and especially Heenan talked about what a huge mistake the company had made. While WCW was still drawing well, it was losing the TV ratings war after being on top, and the momentum was all the other way. It was really Goldberg who kept the business so strong while the rest of the booking would have otherwise put the company down the tubes. Heenan was talking about how stupid it was to beat Goldberg and the company was going to go down, and Tenay echoed those comments, while Schiavone thought both were overreacting.
The name Bobby the Brain came in 1974, when Heenan came to the AWA full-time to manage Stevens & Bockwinkel. Stevens & Bockwinkel had already established themselves as the top tag team in wrestling over the prior two years. With both being top talents inside the ring, and excellent promos, especially because they were so different, they were the last people one would think would need a manager. But Heenan was a positive addition to any act.
Larry Hennig for years had been called “Pretty Boy Larry Hennig,” dating back to the 60s when he teamed with Harley Race, then called “Handsome Harley Race,” allowing Bruiser & Crusher to call the two The Dolly Sisters.
So Gagne wouldn’t allow another Pretty Boy, and Heenan became “The Brain,” and did interviews talking about himself as the smartest man in wrestling. His other nickname, “The Weasel,” came from a Bruiser interview and it stuck, particularly when Okerlund started handling interviews and would tease calling him the Weasel, and Heenan would deny he was a weasel. He’d deny being a weasel for so long until he would be tricked into signing a match with one of the top babyfaces in Weasel Suit matches, where they’d bring out a suit and if Heenan lost, as he always did with that stipulation, he’d have to put on the Weasel Suit. The idea was the hind paws on the suit were so slippery that when the suit was forced on him, he’d stand up, lose his footing and constantly fall down.
The timing of setting up the suit would be a babyface knocking him out, where it was the Crusher’s bolo punch or Verne or Greg Gagne using the sleeper. Heenan would be out, the suit would be put on him, and he’s wake up, freak out, and slip and slide all over the ring.
He mostly worked in the AWA, with occasional shots in St. Louis and Indianapolis, from 1974 to 1978, until he felt he’d been there for too long and took a job with Ole Anderson and Georgia Championship Wrestling, which put him on national television. They did an angle where Wally Karbo suspended him, and he went with Lanza to Georgia.
The Heenan family included Lanza, Ernie Ladd, Masked Superstar and Killer Karl Kox in 1979. He was bitter about that period because he said that Anderson told him he had a permanent job there and could set up residence, and then a few weeks later, decided to fire him and put him in a loser leaves town situation.
Heenan returned to the AWA to manage Bockwinkel as AWA champion as well as Stevens & Patterson as tag team champions. He also managed Ken Patera, and was a key figure in the Hogan-led 1981-83 run where the AWA did the biggest business in its history.
In 1984, he was offered a job with the WWF several months after WWF went national. Vince McMahon took particular delight in stripping Gagne of talent after Gagne turned down McMahon’s ridiculous low offer to buy the company from him. He took announcers like Rodger Kent and Rod Tronguard who had no business by that point in working for a national promotion. While many of the signings had no purpose, Heenan was a different story.
Unlike most, who were encouraged to skip town and not do business on the way out, Heenan told Gagne about leaving, and Gagne was furious at him for leaving for the opposition after all the years he’d employed him. It was a somewhat ugly parting of the ways, but Heenan never knocked Gagne, and he would never publicly knock McMahon when McMahon cut him at the end of 1993 because Heenan’s contract would have escalated from $275,000 per year to $350,000 the next year.
Heenan and Gagne created a storyline for his departure, doing a television angle where Stanley Blackburn suspended him.
When McMahon cut Heenan’s contract, publicly, Heenan portrayed it that he was having neck problems, and WCW offered him a job that included health insurance, something he never had in WWF. But in reality, it was McMahon feeling that Heenan and Gene Okerlund were getting big money, but he felt they were too old in what he considered a youth oriented business, and let them go. Heenan could have just left, but wanted to do what he considered the right thing for business.
While adversaries on television, Heenan loved Monsoon, and went with the idea that if he was going to leave, that Monsoon should be the one to kick him out of the promotion, which he did on the December 6, 1993, edition of Raw from White Plains, NY. Heenan said that after the show, he and Monsoon went to the hotel room and cried for an hour on each others’ shoulders because they weren’t going to be working together any longer.
Unlike almost everyone else who left the WWF for WCW in that era, Heenan would never say anything negative about WWF or McMahon on television, even when greatly encouraged to do so.
The irony, and he was bitter about this, was after he was let go by WCW in 2000, shortly before the company folded, he was never offered a job by WWE. He did appear a few times doing guest shots, but he was mad seeing guys who tried to bury WWF on television, in public, and even guys who tried to put the company out of business get jobs while he never did.
Heenan’s career wrestling slowed down after suffering a broken neck in a match with Atsushi Onita in Japan in 1983. While he did wrestle as late as 1991, in a series of grudge matches with Ray “Big Bossman” Traylor, and others, they were kept very short, he had to pick his spots after that point.
Heenan came to the WWF in 1984 to manage Jesse Ventura, and when Ventura had health issues, he was switched to managing John Studd.
Unlike in other promotions where the Heenan family had only a few members, in WWF, Heenan was made the top manager from his arrival in late 1984 through 1987, when some of the steam was taken off of him. His highest profile role came as the manager of Andre the Giant, who he later said was the least fun of anyone he ever managed, for his WrestleMania III match with Hulk Hogan at the Pontiac Silverdome, which can be strongly argued was the biggest match ever held in the U.S.
He started announcing in 1986, and combined managing and announcing until 1991. He asked to be taken off the road because his neck was bothering him so much that he felt he couldn’t do the job at ringside. Still, when Ric Flair left WCW in 1991, Heenan came out of retirement to manage Flair. Heenan would refer to Flair, Stevens and Curt Hennig as the three best wrestlers he ever managed, with Patterson fourth and Bockwinkel fifth.
But the touring with Flair was short-lived, and Hennig, as Mr. Perfect, who was collecting on an insurance disability claim due to a bad back that he claimed ended his career, was transitioned to being Flair’s manager.
We’ll have more on Heenan in next week’s issue.