With My Mind on The Brain and The Brain on My Mind

The great Bobby “The Brain” Heenan has died, and as such I’m reflecting deeply on his life and exceptional professional wrestling career far earlier than I had ever wanted. As I type, I’m watching an astonishing amount of universally glowing tributes pour in across social media in Heenan’s honor—each one equally sincere and well-deserved—from a range of fans, friends, and former colleagues, past and present. In one sense, I feel sanguine in knowing The Brain’s life spanned more than seven decades, especially in an industry where the premature deaths of performers from Heenan’s era have been tragically commonplace. Adding in his more than 15 year feud with throat and tongue cancer—we fans and admirers helplessly watched the cruel, bitter process of The Brain physically losing forever the booming voice we all loved so much—and Heenan’s march toward his ultimate passing seemed inexorably, maddeningly straight. Yet despite the numerous reminders of his mortality, Bobby The Brain’s death has left me broken in a way I haven’t felt since the Macho Man Randy Savage passed away suddenly more than six years ago (which, incidentally, reignited my interest in wrestling after a decade away). I hope, therefore, that in this short space I can articulate how much Bobby Heenan meant to me as a wrestling fan who grew up in the 1980s, and how blessed we all were to experience and savor his best work.

The first key to understanding Bobby Heenan’s stunning successes in professional wrestling is to fully apprehend the generational-level comedic talent he possessed. Read any kind of instant analysis or hot-take these days on any subject, and the word “genius” tends to get thrown around a lot. We might read of a consultant who’s a “political genius” or a football offensive coordinator who’s an “offensive genius.” Yet in the case of Bobby Heenan, his self-ascribed moniker of “The Brain” stands as particularly apt, given that his brain housed one of the sharpest comedic minds of the 20th Century. In other words…genius. I believe that Bobby Heenan was a comic savant of the absolute highest order, who (through our incredible fortune as wrestling fans) happened to apply his elite comedic talents to the professional wrestling business. Had he chosen or otherwise been inclined, I am certain that Bobby Heenan could have reached the pinnacle of mainstream comedy. It is not difficult for me to imagine the name of Bobby Heenan spoken alongside with—and receiving the reverence and accolades typically reserved for—comic titans such as John Belushi, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin. Heenan’s talents were at least on par with these legends.

Beyond his undeniable comic genius, Bobby Heenan’s role in some of wrestling history’s most important moments secures his greatness. It’s impossible to provide an exhaustive retrospective on all of Heenan’s great moments; indeed, there are far too many. I’d like to instead highlight three angles in which Heenan’s outstanding work demonstrates his mastery of his chosen craft. The first is his contribution to the build of the main event of Wrestlemania III in the spring of 1987. For the previous year, the “Heenan Family” heel stable capably served as the main foil for the meteoric ascendance of Hulkamania. So as a 9-year old card-carrying Hulkamaniac, I was stunned to see Andre the Giant show up to Piper’s Pit along with Bobby The Brain to demand a title shot. My shock mirrored that of Hulk Hogan’s. It was there that Bobby Heenan delivered the greatest challenge in wrestling history: “You don’t believe this? Maybe you’ll believe this, Hogan!” as Andre the Giant tore the Hulkster’s beloved Crucifix from his neck and bloodied him in the process. Heenan’s unceasing antagonism in the build to the Wrestlemania III main event amplified the delicious comeuppance he received upon Andre’s defeat. As Bobby Heenan was carted away in the miniature, novelty-wrestling ring, his face buried in his hands, I delighted that cosmic, kayfabe justice was served. As a child, I reveled in this humiliation of the Weasel, which 30 years later stands as the largest compliment I could possibly pay to his phenomenal work in that angle.

Heenan’s next great moment happened as he transitioned from managing a stable of heel wrestlers to providing heel commentary with his partner (and shoot best friend) Gorilla Monsoon. Heenan and Monsoon were magical together, standing as the most beloved commentary duo in wrestling history. Their incredible chemistry was on full display during the 1992 Royal Rumble Match. This match featured the single greatest collection of hall of fame talent ever assembled—a who’s who of both established and rising stars that included the British Bulldog, Shawn Michaels, Roddy Piper, Jake “the Snake” Roberts, the Undertaker, Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, and of course “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Heenan’s call of the match represents the zenith of his creative powers, as he unapologetically shilled non-stop for eventual victor Ric Flair. His insinuation that he had bet a lot of money on Flair to win, alongside his palpable agony over each moment in which Flair was at risk of elimination were all pure delight. And the weasely joy he expressed for Flair’s win—churning out more YES’s than Daniel Bryan at his peak—served as the perfect complement to one of Nature Boy’s most famous victory promos: “With a tear in my eye, this is the greatest moment of my life.”

Bobby Heenan’s third iconic moment came during Hulk Hogan’s legendary heel turn and the formation of the NWO at WCW’s Bash at the Beach in 1996. The entire match was rife with anticipation of who would be revealed as the mysterious “third member” along with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall. Heenan sold this suspense exceptionally well. His stunned declaration that “HOGAN’S THE THIRD MEMBER” demonstrated Heenan’s commitment to a particular announcing philosophy, albeit one that has sadly fallen out of favor: that the commentator exists primarily to emphasize and magnify what’s happening inside the ring. Seeing someone known mainly for witty one-liners seamlessly pivot and communicate his abject shock at the Hogan heel turn underscored the magnitude of the moment, helping solidify WCW’s lead over WWF in the burgeoning Monday Night Wars.

I knew he was sick for a long time. And I knew deep down his time left was limited. I therefore privately resolved to one-day meet Bobby The Brain. Despite the fact that his legendary voice had long been since consumed by cancer, I wanted to wait in line, shake his hand, and say how much joy he and Gorilla Monsoon brought to me growing up. To tell him that he was the best, and that he always would be. I might even walk away with an autograph on a glossy 8×10 of The Brain wearing a pink-sequined tuxedo, pointing knowingly to his head. A few years ago, I started regularly looking out for his public appearances on the comic convention circuit. This consisted of just a quick Google News search every month or so. He didn’t make many appearances, and regrettably none of the ones he did aligned with what my work schedule allowed. I lost my last, best chance to meet him after he suffered a fall at home in 2016 that severely curtailed his subsequent public appearances. While I hoped and prayed that he’d recover enough to return in a small way to the public eye, his health challenges were becoming far too great. My dream of meeting Bobby Heenan, my all-time favorite professional wrestling personality, was not to be. In death, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan leaves behind a rich legacy in the professional wrestling business. Through his twin roles of manager and announcer, The Brain confirmed that sometimes wrestling’s best work happens outside the ring. The often-directionless WWE of 2017 would do well to remember these lessons.

During their countless verbal spars, Gorilla Monsoon’s favorite rejoinder to Heenan was “Will you stop?” Which he never would or did. Today I think I speak for most in saying that it’s finally OK for you to stop, Brain. And may you rest forever in peace.

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