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Bobby "The Brain" Heenan (1943-2017)



Wrestling magnifies. The seven-foot monsters are probably six-foot-ten. Most of the super heavyweights don’t really weigh half a ton. They don’t really find savages in the wilderness and tame them enough to step into the ring. It’s all about exaggeration in the aid of suspending disbelief: from physical attributes to emotional outbursts, to the nuances that create a wrestling story. Everything in wrestling is larger than life, from bodies to bickering—and even brainpower.

On that last one, no one was bigger than Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.

*****

The career of Bobby Heenan lasted for almost 60 years, covering era upon era of pro wrestling. He started out in the 1960s as a wrestler-slash-manager, but eventually transitioned—and embraced his role—into one of the greatest managers in the history of professional wrestling. Wrestling in the 1980s and the early 1990s always had The Brain in the spotlight: almost always playing the role of the bombastic big-mouthed blowhard who always got his comeuppance. Many of Heenan’s storyline feuds are now a staple of wrestling storytelling: manager takes his charge to the title, starts getting them into trouble, and eventually—as is the case with many who count themselves as proud alumni of the Heenan Family—turn on “The Weasel,” and win the adulation and adoration of the fans.

One can argue that the 1980s wrestling boom was the Heenan Era of wrestling. Between 1984 and 1993, Bobby Heenan was the consummate villain, the mind who brought into the ring some of wrestling’s most renowned and recognized brawn. The Brain was a manager to entire roster of legends and Hall of Famers: Ken Patera, The Islanders, Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, The Brain Busters, Mr. Perfect, “King” Harley Race, “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Ric Flair, and so on. Perhaps he was most famous for being the manager and cornerman of AndrĂ© the Giant, sending the stock of professional wrestling in modern mainstream culture skyrocketing.


What set Heenan apart was that despite the serious physicality brought about by the wrestlers he managed, he did his part with an unparalleled comedic flair. From ringside rants to weasel suit matches, Bobby Heenan magnified the comedic aspect of professional wrestling. His lengthy rants, sarcastic promos, and sequined jackets not only established him as a heel among heels, but also helped make the programs popular for serious and casual fans alike. His quick wit and rapier-like barbs that favor heels like him earned him a spot as a “broadcast journalist” in the announce table, forming perhaps the greatest commentary tandem in the history of wrestling with WWE Hall of Famer Gorilla Monsoon.


The Monsoon-Heenan era of pro wrestling brought wrestling to even greater heights than the wrestling ring. Talk shows, segments, and radio broadcasts of the time were pioneered by the duo, along with comedic banter that spawned some memorable catchphrases and exchanges. As soon as Heenan left the WWF in 1994, Heenan took on the same role in WCW, lending his years of managerial experience and view from the sidelines to what was once the world’s number one wrestling promotion.

As Heenan’s long career wound down, he made sporadic appearances in other wrestling promotions, proving that despite his dwindling health, he can still go. On the eve of WrestleMania XX, Bobby Heenan—perhaps the greatest heel manager in the history of the business, and one of the timeless voices of the announce table—was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

*****

Just this morning, we all woke up to the news that Bobby “The Brain” Heenan has passed on, after years of health issues. Many superstars past and present have all paid tribute to Heenan, and further solidified his status not only as a professional wrestling great, but as a pillar of sports entertainment as we know it. His was the voice that launched many Hall of Fame careers. He was the mouthpiece who amplified dozens of title reigns. He was the man behind so many of wrestling’s greatest moments, the guy who magnified ring psychology beyond the ropes and the canvas.

He is, for certain, the yardstick by which heel characters should be measured: not just as a man who elicits strong emotions, but also entertains in the process. Bobby Heenan is not only wrestling’s greatest manager, but also one of its most beloved characters.

Rest in peace, Brain.

Photos from WWE

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