Posted in: The Schoolhouse
(CF Special) Bobby Heenan: Requiem For A Weasel
By Mizfan
Sep 28, 2017 - 12:45:09 AM

This special edition, from the Columns Forum, is by one of the most renowned writers of this community, Mizfan. You can hear him each week on the WCW Legacy Series and read him each week in the CF, writing about Bobby Heenan. Sadly, he had to write this tribute piece much earlier than anyone anticipated.

Enjoy this gem of a column, the contents with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, the greatest pure performer in wrestling history and one of the most beloved, has died at the age of 73.

I found this out yesterday at dinner, courtesy of a text by my dear friend Shane, who does me the incalculable honor of introducing me each week as “Mizfan the Brain” on The Legacy Series (on LOP Radio). The bottom dropped out of my stomach immediately upon hearing the news. I was in the company of some friends who wouldn’t have understood, so I took my reaction, strong as it was, and locked it away in a box deep down inside myself. It’s 24 hours later and I’m still unpacking everything I put in that box.

I wondered if I might cry when it finally hit me. This is a performer who has greately affected me, after all. As of this writing I haven’t cried. I think the only tears I have left are for people I know, as I’ve cried the rest out during my life. This is not a member of my family, after all. But… I’ve been close a few times. I’ve spent hundreds of hours and hundreds of thousands of words on this man already, and I’m not done, so to say I’m deeply invested in the life and times of this great man is to put it lightly.

This is not a column that’s going to be full of pictures and quotes. There is all of that you could want and more in each regular edition of the series, which will continue all the way to completion. Now more than I ever, I feel the importance of that. It’s unfortunate that people often only look closely at a man, even a great one, until after his death, but at a time when people are looking it’s all the more important to stand up and say what we know of a man, the sum of his works and abilities, the good he did, the laughs he drew, the sacrifices he made.

I’m not proofing this or structuring it in any way. I barely have an outline. I just want to try to find the words, the words that rise above the other words I’ve already spoken and will continue speaking, and try to articulate what this man meant.

What Bobby Heenan meant… how can we talk about what any man means? Let alone a man like this, whose life overflowed the normal boundaries and so affected those around him, those who watched him, those who heard him.

To many, Bobby Heenan means the 1992 Royal Rumble. While I don’t remember exactly if this is where I first became aware of Heenan, it seems a very likely prospect. I’ve been an enormous fan of the Brain because of his incredible wit and dedication for as long as I can remember knowing about him. Curiously, the first time I actually saw the man was surely at Wrestlemania XX, where he appeared in a backstage cameo with Gene Okerlund, emerging disheveled from a back room with Mae Young and Fabulous Moolah in tow. Why I remember that with such clarity is a mystery, but I suppose you could say it started there, though I hardly knew what I was looking at at the time. What a strange beginning.

Now, of course, I know so much more. I’ve seen Heenan, colored only in blacks and whites, in his 20s, wearing a glove on one hand and calling himself “Pretty” Bobby Heenan. I’ve seen him lead The Blackjacks and others to the earliest versions of the Family. I’ve seen him bump like a madman for his employer, Dick the Bruiser, in the old Indianapolis WWA territory. I’ve seen Heenan depart that promotion without a backward glance when he realized he was not being compensated fairly for his work.

Bobby Heenan was a man who knew his worth, and never let anyone take it from him. That’s a lesson that even greats like Ric Flair weren’t always able to learn.

I’ve seen Bobby Heenan and Nick Bockwinkel join forces. Boy, have I ever seen that! The enormity of that pairing alone could fill volumes. I’ve watched them for a full decade terrorize and dominate one of the biggest promotions of the era, the AWA. I’ve seen the Heenan Family grow and change to include Ken Patera and Bobby Duncum Sr at the height of their ability, in the spectacularly named Black & Blue Express tag team. I’ve watched Blackjacks Lanza and Mulligan go in and out of his service and prove their worth ten times over. I’ve seen a frothing Ray Stevens break faith with the group, and spectacularly break a trophy over the head of the Brain. I’ve seen Heenan become the most hated man in wrestling, and still never fail to take care of and elevate his clients so that they shared in his heat.

Bobby Heenan was a man who understood wrestling, and all performing, is a team effort, and what helps the team helps the individual. His entire career is an application of that lesson.

I’ve seen Bobby Heenan wrestle. It’s not a part of his career that most people think about, but those people don’t know what they’re missing. This is a man who redefined bumping and stooging, who could rally the crowd into a frenzy even if his opponent was a complete nobody. Truly, the bumps I’ve seen this man take are insane. He never hit the corner the same way twice, and never once did he simply run back first into it. The man looked like he was made of superball at times, bouncing around like a madman in ways that hardly looked possible. He had this one move that he’d use when he was trying especially hard to put over his opponent. He would run at the ropes, leap over them like a hurdle, and land all the way out on the floor. How he didn’t blow his shins out every single time I have no idea, but he was amazing at it. He could even lay in simple but highly effective offense when it was needed. It’s not as easy as it sounds to throw a good punch in wrestling, and Heenan threw a great one, and was even known to come off the top rope at one point in his career. To be so good in every other area and a good wrestler too… can you imagne?

I’ve seen a weasel suit, a tool that would have simply been foolish in the hands of a lesser man but somehow a perfect fit for a man of Heenan’s talents. Being christened as “The Weasel” by the cigar chomping Crusher, the name stuck like glue and it was only a matter of time before it was turned to good use. Night after night Heenan would end up in that suit, for the benefit of a different city and a different crowd, and Heenan would stop at nothing to make a fool of himself and ensure the fans enjoyed themselves as much as possible. I’ve also seen pictures, not for the eyes of fans yet revealed decades later, of Heenan wearing the suit at home with his tiny daughter, wearing an identical suit all her own and having the time of her life.

And with that, I actually am tearing up. I’ve seen so much of this man’s life, of his spirit, how can I not?

I’ve seen Bobby Heenan go to Verne Gagne and give him notice before leaving for the WWF, an act that almost no wrestlers did as the WWF aggressively raided the territories to feed the machine of their massive expansion. I’ve seen Bobby Heenan go on a final “weasel suit tour”, hitting every major AWA city for an unspoken goodbye match to give the fans what they wanted one last time and show appreciation to Verne, who put his faith in Bockwinkel and Heenan above all others for 10 years and was never let down for it. I’ve seen an AWA impacted just as badly by the loss of the Weasael as they were by the loss of Hogan, and that’s no exaggeration. Just as a property needs a top face, they need a top heel, and though I hold Bockwinkel in incredible esteem, the key to putting it all together was Heenan, a man who drew deafening weasel chants night after night, year after year, and drove the people wild.

And Hulk Hogan! I have indeed seen Heenan and Hulk Hogan together. No story of Heenan’s life would be complete without his arch enemy. There’s a great deal of debate about Hogan’s chief rival during the golden wrestling boom, and I have long held it was in fact none other than the Weasel. Between Paul Orndorff, King Kong Bundy, and Andre the Giant, among others, Heenan provided Hogan some of his best drawing opponents, not to mention Hogan’s opponents for those first four overwhelmingly financially successful Wrestlemania events. From AWA to WWF and even to WCW, they never stopped opposing each other. Even when Hogan turned to the dark side, it was made all the sweeter by the fact that Heenan was finally proven right after so many years.

I mentioned Andre the Giant, and how could I not? I have recently watched through every moment of the Andre turn and the collision course he was set upon with Hogan at that all important Wrestlemania III main event. And I can say, without a doubt in my mind, it would have never worked on the level it did without Heenan playing a pivotal part. Andre the Giant was popular as HELL for basically his whole career up to this point. The dude was a megastar and people loved him. As popular as Hogan was, Andre probably wouldn’t have even gotten booed if all he did was step to Hogan by himself and pull on his shirt a little bit. But add in Heenan in the mix and, like magic, Andre becomes the most hated man in wrestling (with Heenan himself being the only exception). Fans felt betrayed that the Giant would walk into the camp of one of his most bitter enemies and sell out his values just for a shot at the championship. And let’s not forget, Andre barely says a word in the entire build up to the match. It’s Heenan, at every turn, being obnoxious, telling lies, smirking, running down Hogan and making the fans question their hero. In all of wrestling, Vince knew the only man who could be trusted to get Andre the Giant booed was the Weasel, and he was absolutely right.

Heenan had an amazing ability to be absurd and comical, and yet never lose his dangerous edge. One moment he could be flopping around inside a weasel suit, the next he could send the whole Heenan Family after his enemies and cackle as they were pulverized. Never have I seen someone with such ability to leap between the two worlds and bring them together so often. And god knows, was he ever funny! Most of the tributes I’ve seen today are stacks of comedic quotes or gifs of visual gags that he pulled through his amazing career. At one point it was said NBC was considering looking into making a sitcom for this man, but even if it’s true I don’t know if Heenan would have left wrestling. He could have pursued television or comedy at any time if he wanted to, but he was most at home in the wrestling industry.

Many of Heenan’s best remembered lines come out of the commentary booth. When the WWF first brought in Heenan, no thought was given to him as a commentator. They had their chief commentary heel in Jesse Ventura and there didn’t seem to be any desire to add to that department. But Ventura was always one to ride the wave of fame, and was soon taking time off to make films, such as the great Predator. And so it came to pass, at a random Saturday Night’s Main Event, Vince McMahon placed the Brain at his side as an experiment, and the rest is history. By the end of that year, Heenan was a permanent fixture on Wrestling Challenge and, despite his busy schedule as a manager for many additional years, until he finally retired in ’91 due to acculated injury and nerve damage in his neck, he was never out of the booth again for the rest of his wrestling career. The man was simply a natural, a perfect fit. One more thing for him to be unbelievably good at.

And speaking of perfect fits, I could never, ever think of Bobby Heenan without thinking of his dearest friend and greatest foil, Gorilla Monsoon. Make no mistake, Gene Okerlund also has a wonderful chemistry with the Brain, honed by years together in AWA, but it was always Monsoon who was the Abbott to the Brain’s Costello. Once Heenan and Monsoon were paired on Wrestling Challenge their partnership became an obvious hit, and the two forged an incredible friendship which would last the rest of their lives. Before long, Ventura was once again in need of replacement due to his busy schedule, this time as Monsoon’s co-host on a program known as Prime Time Wrestling. Monsoon’s pull within the company was strong, and he had no trouble at all securing Heenan as his new partner. At first billed as a temporary replacement, the quality of the program skyrocketed and the partnership was made permanent once and for all. Ask a fan from that era, and they’ll tell you Prime Time was worth watching just to see the interaction between the two hosts. Some of the greatest and most memorable moments of the era came out of that program, and the partnership remained solid gold right to the end. How very fitting that when Heenan was ready to call it quits, it was Monsoon who finally ejected him from the company on screen, paying off years of antagonism.

How beautiful a thing, to exit in a way so perfectly suited for your character. Heenan never let his persona drop for an instant, and never could have or should have received any kind of kayfabe breaking salute from the company at the time. His utter dedication to his character was one of the things that made him so great. It was complete and often downright instinctual, as he and Monsoon would frequently improvise and adlib until their interaction was complete perfection.

When Heenan left the WWF, the story goes that only one wrestler came up to him and said he was sad to see him go. That person was Owen Hart, perhaps the nicest person in wrestling history, but I always found that story heartbreaking. He shouldn’t have been able to get out the door for people thanking him and showing gratitude and respect for everything he had done for each and every one of them, for the company, for the industry. But the story goes Heenan and Monsoon went back to their hotel alone, and cried together in their room.

It hurts to think about now. People who bring that much joy shouldn’t have to feel that kind of pain.

The pain was not over for Heenan. Lured back to the booth by a big money contract from WCW and a chance to live near his beloved daughter, Heenan sat next to the man known as Tony Schiavone and proceeded to spend 6 more years announcing, and sadly for many of these years the Brain was by all accounts quite unhappy. The story goes early in his tenure, he would bring ideas to the table and pitch possible stories or gags the company could consider, only to be told he was not hired to contribute in that way. A highly creative individual who always looked to work in cooperation with those around him, Heenan found himself isolated and without any outlet for the bulk of his abilities. For years he sat by Schiavone, a man who for whatever reason never seemed to know how to interact with Heenan, frequently ignoring or walking over his attempts to interact with the rest of the booth. His inability to form any kind of rapport with Heenan is frankly rather amazing in and of itself, but the way he would attempt to shut up the Brain at times was flatly disgusting, scolding him like a child on air or even screaming at him to shut up at times. And yet, Heenan still found moments to show his ability. There are many humorous moments buried in that WCW career, not nearly as many as in WWF, but he was still Bobby Heenan, and he did not give up.

Heenan was let go before the collapse of WCW became complete, and was able to return to make a special appearance at Wrestlemania X-Seven to put a much more appealing punctuation mark on his great career. What follows after that is, to put it plainly, very unfair. First diagnosed with cancer in 2002, for 15 years the Brain fought the good fight and hung on, and I’m sure he had many happy days left in that time. But in time he was ravaged, his voice taken, his face disfigured.

I can’t write anything more about that period. I can’t do it. It’s over now, and Heenan has joined his dear friend Monsoon on the other side of the pearly gates.

And now we are left with only a legacy, but what a legacy it is. This is a man whom you never hear a bad word about. In an industry with fans as volatile as wrestling fan are, he is one of the few points virtually everyone can agree on. He didn’t invent managing, or commentary, or bumping, or comedy in wrestling, but he had a very real influence on everyone who came after him in every area he touched.

Most of all, he left behind a legacy of selflessness. He made an entire career out of making himself the fool, of making those around him look better than he was, smarter, tougher, stronger. He would do anything to get over his partners, his clients, his opponents, his co-hosts. He gave, and he gave, and he gave.

And he’s finally done giving. We can’t ask for anything more, because he gave more of himself than anyone I can think of in wrestling.

I don’t know what this column looks like. I don’t think I can bear right now to go back and read it. I know I can’t have done justice to everything about Bobby Heenan that deserves justice, but I’m not sure anybody can. I don’t know what I want you to take away from it. The shock is hitting me harder right now than ever before. This is a tough one to bear, and the fact that something like this was expected for quite some time isn’t helping as much as I thought it would.

Cherish your heroes while you have them. Because someday you won’t.

Please leave your favorite memories and tributes to Heenan below if you like, and let’s celebrate one of the greatest figures the wrestling business has ever seen.