Democracy Dies in Darkness

Obituaries

Bobby Heenan, quick-witted promoter of the bad boys of wrestling, dies at 72

By Matt Schudel

September 19, 2017 at 8:31 PM

Bobby “The Brain” Heenan with wrestler Andre the Giant in 1987. (WWE/WWE)

Bobby Heenan, whose quick-witted insults and promotional antics as a pro wrestling manager, commentator and occasional grappler in the ring made him one of the most reviled — and, therefore, popular — figures in his business, died Sept. 17 at his home in Largo, Fla. He was 72.

His death was announced by the WWE entertainment company. He had complications from throat cancer.

Mr. Heenan was a so-so wrestler at best, but as a promoter — particularly of heels, or the designated villains in pro wrestling contests — he had few equals, fashioning outlandish methods to gain attention for his wrestlers and their bouts.

"I'm a legend in this sport," Mr. Heenan said. "If you don't believe me, ask me."

Sporting a blond pompadour and sequined jackets with his monogram, Mr. Heenan passed himself off as a dandy who lived up to his nickname as "The Brain." He appeared to take offense to his less-generous moniker, "The Weasel," as he insulted opposing wrestlers, fans and the cities where the matches took place: "Are there any swamps in Oklahoma? Yes, there is. It's called Tulsa."

Pro wrestling manager and commentator Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. (WWE/WWE)

It was all a calculated effort to generate "heat," or the drummed-up animus that would draw people to the arena. Wrestling fans were so caught up in the rivalries and bombast stoked by Mr. ­Heenan that his life was sometimes in actual danger. He escaped thrown chairs and attempted knifings and at least one shooting, in which several spectators were wounded.

"People don't come to see someone win," wrestling journalist and historian Steven Johnson said in an interview. "They come out to see someone get whipped."

Mr. Heenan began his career in wrestling when it was an almost underground enterprise, built on rawboned sinew and fast-paced patter. Later, as part of the World Wrestling Federation and its subsequent incarnations, he helped build pro wrestling into a huge spectacle, filling arenas and TV screens and making its most celebrated performers stars in the legitimate entertainment world.

Over the years, Mr. Heenan worked with many of the biggest names (and bodies) in the industry, including Andre the Giant, Ric Flair, Ravishing Rick Rude, Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff, Big John Studd and the tag team of Blackjack Mulligan and Blackjack Lanza.

In the 1980s, Mr. Heenan helped promote the wildly popular WrestleMania events of WWE's predecessor, the WWF. WrestleMania III drew an announced crowd of 93,173 to the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan to watch Hulk Hogan defend his title against Andre the Giant.

Mr. Heenan's hype-filled pre-match interviews were often as entertaining as the matches themselves. Speaking to announcer "Mean" Gene Okerlund, Mr. Heenan likened the Andre-Hogan match to a cat lurking inside a bird cage with a canary. (As if there were any doubt, Mr. Heenan's client, Andre, was the cat, leaving a trail of the Hulkster's feathers behind.)

"I wonder if we could talk wrestling here, instead of canaries," Okerlund said.

"Sure, we can talk about whatever you want to talk about," Mr. Heenan replied, "but don't talk to me about it."

In some ways, Mr. Heenan could be called the Don Rickles of pro wrestling, full of bluster and rapid-fire insults, only to cower in mock fear at the first threatening glance.

"In wrestling, Heenan was peerless," commentator David Bixenspan wrote on the sports website Deadspin.com, "easily the most gifted comic mind in the history of the business."

As a manager of heels, Mr. Heenan strutted around the ring before and during matches, drawing the crowd's ire. Even though the wrestlers he promoted were typically the losers, Mr. Heenan was often the main attraction, if only as a target of the crowd's frenzy.

His verbal agility also helped him become a popular TV commentator, frequently paired with a former wrestler named Gorilla Monsoon. Their act was a form of verbal sparring, with one baiting the other, sometimes with Mr. Heenan carrying on angry, one-sided phone conversations. On other occasions, he and Monsoon disputed whether the tactics of Mr. Heenan's wrestlers were legal.

Gorilla: "That was an illegal move!"

The Brain: "No, it wasn't."

Gorilla: "Yes, it was!"

The Brain: "No, it was a legal move, it was a Greco-Roman Hair Pull!"

Raymond Louis Heenan was born Nov. 1, 1944, in Chicago. His father worked for the railroad, and his mother was a hotel manager.

He became enamored of wrestling as a child and left school in the eighth grade to work as an assistant at wrestling venues in Chicago and later in Indianapolis, where he moved with his mother.

He called himself "Pretty Boy" Bobby Heenan when he started wrestling in his teens. By 21, he was managing other wrestlers, bestowing the name "The Brain" on himself, as he promoted the careers of such stars as Nick Bockwinkel, "Superstar" Billy Graham and Ray "The Crippler" Stevens.

Mr. Heenan often referred to his wrestlers as "the family," resisting the common term of "stable."

"A stable is where you find fly-infested horses," he told Bob Costas in 1989. "I have a family."

Mr. Heenan continued to appear in the ring, often bloodied in battle (the blood, at least, was real), until breaking his neck in Japan in 1983. His later role as manager was hardly a desk job. In addition to enduring catcalls and curses, he was sometimes pulled into the ring during bouts, tossed across the floor and subjected to ritual humiliation before being rescued by his brawny brethren.

Survivors include his wife of 39 years, the former Cynthia Perrett of Largo; a daughter; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Heenan's career came to an end after his cancer diagnosis in 2002 and subsequent surgeries that left his voice thin and raspy and his face disfigured.

When he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, Mr. Heenan delivered a 20-minute acceptance speech drawn from years of memories, jokes and insults — and the outlandish ring names adopted by wrestlers.

"You want to talk about wildlife?" Mr. Heenan said. "They had the Junkyard Dog, Mad Dog, two Bulldogs . . . you had insects, the two Killer Bees, you had serpents, you had a guy with a snake, you had a Hawaiian guy with a lizard and — you ready for this? — and to top it off, the Weasel doing commentary with the Gorilla!"

"To be able to work and do prime time," he said, "and to be allowed to express myself and bring my comedy into a business that I thought needed a kick in the pants and a couple of smiles, rather than a guy blowing his nose and belching and spitting. I mean, if you want to see that, come to my room. And that's just my wife!"

Read more Washington Post obituaries

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Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.

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