Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, a legendary professional wrestling manager who also made a name for himself as a wrestler and color commentator, has died at the age of 73, WWE confirmed on Sunday.
Heenan had suffered from health issues beginning with a 2002 bout with throat cancer. Since that time, he had endured a series of physical hardships, including reconstructive jaw surgery and multiple falls resulting in injuries to his hips and shoulder.
A dominant personality in pro wrestling for more than three decades, Heenan possessed a sharp wit and an uncanny knack for timing -- both dramatic and comedic. He was also one of the most versatile high-level performers in wrestling history, adept at stirring fans into fits of laughter, anger or concern at will, as either a manager, TV host or in-ring competitor.
Heenan is probably best remembered as the wise-cracking, sneering manager of villains in the WWF (now WWE), and prior to that, the AWA and other territories. His radiant charisma instantly helped anyone he managed become a bigger name. The wrestlers he managed often landed in the main event picture, benefitting from Heenan's incredible knack for talking on interviews to help drum up fan interest.
The "Heenan Family," as his stable of wrestlers was often known, included a who's who of big-name heels (bad guys) over the years. Heenan managed The Blackjacks, Ray Stevens and world champion Nick Bockwinkel in the AWA. In the WWF, he did the dirty work of Andre the Giant, Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, Ken Patera, "Ravishing" Rick Rude, "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig, Tully Blanchard, Arn Anderson, Haku, The Barbarian, Hercules and Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff. And that's a short list.
Heenan was a central player in numerous all-time classic wrestling storylines.
When the beloved Andre the Giant turned heel to challenge Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III in 1987, it was Heenan who convinced Andre to turn to the dark side. A year earlier, when Orndorff betrayed Hogan, it was Heenan who became his manager, culminating in a Hogan vs. Orndorff grudge match at the Big Event in Toronto. That match took place in front of one of wrestling's largest live crowds in the days before WrestleMania was held in football stadiums.
When NWA world champion Ric Flair jumped ship to the WWF in 1991, Heenan broke the news to viewers in dramatic fashion, boasting that he had brought "the real world champion" to the WWF, shockingly displaying Flair's NWA title on a WWF television program. And when Flair won the WWF title at the 1992 Royal Rumble, Heenan gave one of the most memorable color commentary performances in history, completely beside himself with panic each time Flair was in danger during the match.
Heenan's fame extended beyond pro wrestling on occasion. He was friendly with many big names in sports and entertainment. One year, he was even named an honorary member of John Madden's All-Madden Team.
From the time he debuted in wrestling in 1966 using his real name, Ray, Heenan split time between wrestling and managing, eventually gravitating toward a primarily outside-the-ring role. He started out in Dick the Bruiser's Indianapolis-based World Wrestling Association, managing the likes of the Assassins, Chris Markoff and Angelo Poffo (whose sons Lanny and Randy would one day become famous as The Genius and Randy "Macho Man" Savage).
Heenan would use his wit and his arrogant attitude to make fans root for his men to get beat. Frequently, feuds involving Heenan's wrestlers would culminate in Heenan stepping into the ring himself -- sometimes as a prize of sorts to the babyface, who would earn the right to get Heenan in the ring by beating the men he managed. Once he stepped into the ring to pay off a feud, Heenan often gave gutsy and selfless performances in order to send the fans home happy with his comeuppance.
Sometimes, particularly in the 1970s, that meant bleeding profusely from the face to pay for his misdeeds. Heenan's crimson-drenched mug adorned the cover of many wrestling magazines in those days. In later years, he favored comedic humiliation, like being stuffed into a weasel suit by Greg Gagne or the Ultimate Warrior in a nod to the nickname fans often chanted at him.
No wrestling manager in history could take a flying bump over the top rope like Bobby Heenan. Whether it was Hogan throwing him over the top or Heenan voluntarily taking a flying leap to escape a beating, Heenan could propel himself out of the ring in such wild fashion that it became a cornerstone of his act.
As impressive as Heenan was as a manager, his transition to television hosting in the WWF made perfect use of his quick wit and his knack for improv. As co-host of WWF Prime Time Wrestling with Gorilla Monsoon, Heenan shamelessly hyped up the men he managed and wisecracked about jobbers or babyface wrestlers he disliked.
Monsoon and Heenan had incredible chemistry on screen with Heenan rattling off one-liners as an exasperated Monsoon begged, "Will you be serious?" Heenan would later acknowledge that his chemistry with Monsoon was due to them being very close friends behind the scenes.
In late 1993, Heenan ended his run in the WWF due to his desire to slow down and heal old injuries, particularly a broken neck suffered years prior. As it turned out, World Championship Wrestling made him an offer too good to pass up, so Heenan changed his plans. He went to work for WCW in 1994, spending six years as a commentator on shows such as WCW Monday Nitro, WCW Saturday Night and Clash of the Champions.
His next appearance in WWE wouldn't come until the WrestleMania X-7 gimmick battle royal in 2001, shortly after WWE purchased WCW, where Heenan reunited with "Mean" Gene Okerlund to do commentary for the match.
Heenan was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. Despite having increased difficulty speaking due to his battle with cancer, Heenan was in rare form, zinging wrestlers in the audience and clearly enjoying his first chance to entertain friends and fans since his health had declined. In a touching moment, he ended his speech with a heartfelt statement. "There's only one thing missing," he said. "I wish Monsoon was here."
Heenan's legacy in the wrestling business is rock solid. Numerous performers point to him as the greatest manager in history. His one-liners and pratfalls live on in wrestling lore. There will truly never be another like him.