Two days prior to Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s death, I’d searched for some vintage Shawn Michaels via the WWE Network at my eldest son’s request. I settled on HBK’s Intercontinental Championship defense against Tatanka at the notorious outdoor boondoggle that was WrestleMania IX in Paradise, Nevada. My boy, who’s not yet five but has seen his share of Raw, Ring of Honor, New Japan et al alongside his man-child father, was enthralled by the clear stakes and constant movement. He’d all but tuned out the competing voices of Jim Ross and Randy “Macho Man Savage” as down-the-middle play-by-play man and baby-faced analyst, respectively, and probably paid no mind to third man Heenan’s off-color commentary. Nor did I appreciate the Brain’s droll contrast to his overeager counterparts as a kid tuning in to Superstars on Saturday mornings.
Though as the two of us watched Michaels and Tatanka put on the proverbial clinic, it occurred to me that – then and now – his high wire act of winking at the absurdity of it all while still flashing total recall of technique from his own in-ring days (perhaps only his one-time managerial client Andre the Giant wore a one-shoulder singlet finer) kept many a PPV from floating away on hot air. As he told Pro Wrestling Radio several years ago, “I wasn’t a great announcer, I wasn’t a broadcast journalist, I was just a guy that could talk, and I had a gimmick of the Brain. If I screwed up, it didn’t matter, because people expected me to.” But it was Heenan’s unpredictability that kept the era’s stale formula from landing like dead air. (See: ad-libs in the aforementioned Mania bout like demeaning Tatanka as “Chief Running Chicken” and deadpanning that Michaels’ monstrous valet Luna Vachon came out victorious in a Miss Ontario contest that “usually nobody wins.”)
And it was largely Heenan who kept the circa-late 1980s, mixed-format cable hour Prime Time Wrestling – patched together as it was with squash matches, in-studio analysis by he and perennial partner/foil Gorilla Monsoon and wrap-ups of ongoing storylines – humming long enough to serve as place-setter and ostensible precursor for what would become Monday Night Raw. He and Monsoon’s pre-taped, travelogue-style segments at tour stops real and imagined were like experimental wrestling theater that helped focus WWE on how it could both redefine broadcast-booth dynamic and pad primetime programming with more ambitious personality driven entertainment. Without Heenan and Monsoon’s vaudeville shtick behind and away from the desk, there is no “Fashion Files” 30 years later. The duo’s love/hate, high-road/low-road complementariness, on Prime Time as well as calling hundreds of cards, raised the bar for onscreen rapport. Its influence has been evident across decades of subsequent, good-naturedly antagonistic pairings, from J.R. and Jerry Lawler to JBL and Michael Cole. As Ross once noted in a 2012 column of Heenan, who helped welcome him into the WWE family in 1993, “Bobby did what every announcer should strive to do, and that is to make talent bigger stars than they are and to embellish every talent’s TV persona.”
Heenan – also lovingly dubbed “The Weasel” for his heelish antics – certainly did just that while observing and lampooning the action from a distance, but his biggest impact on a generation of fans was front-and-center managing and getting over iconic and up-and-coming performers. There’s never been a WWE competitor with Andre the Giant’s mystique, yet the 7-plus-footer’s legacy is impossible to discuss without mention of Heenan at hip’s length as a motormouth promoter and sometimes willful shield. The two of them – Andre in his signature Tarzan tights and Heenan, totally self-serious in an all-white tux – being carted to the ring on a motorized model ring is as indelible an image from WrestleMania III‘s main event as Hulk Hogan’s subsequent body slam heard round the world. Paul Heyman (who has acknowledged Heenan as a quintessential managerial presence) and Brock Lesnar owe a debt.
Part of the fun of growing up during Bobby’s heyday was tearing your hair out over whatever unfair edge he might provide clients (frequently assembled as part of a namesake Heenan Family) like King Kong Bundy, Ravishing Rick Rude or Mr. Perfect in their efforts to upstate prefab fan favorites including Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. Entitled rages, referee diversion or even just the blinding, bedazzled, glorified track outfits he’d don down the ramp were all fair game in his quest to keep fans engaged and everyone watching compelled to believe that anyone he represented was someone who had to be seen. He gave 100 percent of himself to the magic of pro wrestling, at the expense of universal appreciation for how adroitly he satisfied the requirements of being known as not merely a, but The Brain.
The official cause of death is still unclear for now, but it’s been public knowledge for some time that Heenan has suffered the effects of cancer in his throat and tongue, and that those ailments, in turn, necessitated various surgical procedures that rendered him tragically unable to replicate his signature bluster. They also had a deteriorating impact, making it physically hard to identify Heenan as a famously portly provocateur. None of which diminishes the fact that his voice and presence were as instrumental in wrestling finding a wider audience as the sound of 24-inch pythons slamming 530 pounds on the mat.