Pro wrestling legend Bobby Heenan died Sunday at 72 years of age, the end of a long battle with throat cancer. In the days since his passing, the outpouring from the most hardcore of wrestling fans; those who tuned out long ago; talent from within the industry; and even those in the worlds of sports and entertainment offered their memories of “The Brain.”
Even at the height of its popularity — which Bobby Heenan contributed to, both in the late 1980s and late ’90s — wrestling is a niche form of entertainment. The medium’s greatest legends are those who transcend the genre, like action star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; larger-than-life Andre The Giant; and Ric Flair, whose signature lines play over PAs at sporting events nationwide.
This week’s tributes demonstrate the similar crossover appeal The Brain brought to wrestling. He’s the most recognized manager to ever do it, bringing the right mix of over-the-top arrogance and cowardice that helped make his clients that much more hateable — and their rivals all the more sympathetic.
Such is the dance of professional wrestling storytelling; striking the balance that invokes emotion in the audience. There was no ambiguity about Bobby Heenan’s persona. When Andre The Giant signed with The Heenan Family in 1987, the longtime crowd favorite made it clear what his intentions were, only adding to the drama of what may be the most important match in WWE history, the main event of WrestleMania III.
And when Andre slapped The Brain three years later at WrestleMania VI, it was the perfect hero’s send-off, giving the villain his comeuppance.
From Nick Bockwinkel to Mr. Perfect, to have Bobby Heenan in your corner was to have an instant level of bad-guy credibility. Think of it like a 5-star prospect signing to play for Coach K at Duke.
Even Ric Flair, one of the most established names in wrestling, benefited from Heenan’s association. The Brain’s call of the 1992 Royal Rumble — the match in which Flair won his first WWE Championship — transformed an excellent bout into one of the greatest ever held on American soil.
Take Al McGuire’s “Holy mackerel!,” add a dash of “We will see you tomorrow night!” and blend with “Invincible!,” and you’ve got Bobby Heenan’s call of the ’92 Rumble.
Consensus in opinions are incredibly rare among wrestling fans, one of the more contentious niches in entertainment. Yet, Heenan’s remembered as both one of, if not the best heel manager ever, as well as one of, if not the best heel commentator ever.
The ’92 Rumble marked his full-fledged transition into heel commentary, and he was just as excellent in that role as we was performing as a manager. Predecessor Jesse Ventura may have introduced the heel commentator to a wide audience, but The Brain perfected the role.
Heenan was part of the exodus to WCW in the mid-1990s. Of the former WWE talent who turned the regional promotion into a legitimate rival to Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire, The Brain played one of the most important roles.
See, wrestling has a tendency to treat its audience as though it has a memory like a sieve. Backstories are retconned with zero acknowledgement, plots are presented as though they occur in a vacuum. And as for federations acknowledging history from other promotions, it was once verboten.
However, Bobby Heenan’s decade-long feud with Hulk Hogan was built around Heenan’s distrust of the squeaky clean image the Hulkster presented. That came into play during one of the most important angles in the history of the genre.
The Brain was proven correct — and did so without dropping the know-it-all shtick that made him oh-so-contemptible.
He was truly a master of his craft. For wrestling fans, Bobby Heenan built a legacy of villainy comparable to Emperor Palpatine, Johnny Ringo, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and became a voice for the genre akin to Brent Musburger or Keith Jackson.