Bobby Heenan, greatest pro wrestling manager of all-time, dead at age 72 after long battle with throat cancer

By Wade Keller, PWTorch editor

Bobby Heenan and Nick Bockwinkel (photo credit Mike Lano © PWTorch)

Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, whom fans and rivals taunted with chants of “Weasel! Weasel!”, died on Sunday at age 72. Heenan had long battled throat cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2002. Despite valiant push-back against the disease and having lost portions of his jaw to surgeries, among other ailments and injuries, he made a number of public appearances in recent years at fan conventions and loved staying in touch with fans and former colleagues. He died of organ failure related to his disease. He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Cindy, and his daughter Jessica Solt.

Widely considered the best heel manager in pro wrestling history, he gained his greatest fame during the WWF’s expansion years in the late 1980s and later as a color commentator for the WWF’s wide-spanning syndicated network and popular Monday night USA Network program “Prime Time Wrestling,” which pre-dated Monday Night Raw. His best work was in the AWA where he spent the bulk of his years as a manager.

Although he was born to play the role of an obnoxious, abrasive, energetic (and hilarious) agitator who talked fans into arenas across the country who desired to see him get what he had coming, he could also wrestle. He wasn’t known for his wrestling or ever hired primarily as a wrestler, but he was considered a good worker when called upon, sometimes as a substitute when one of the wrestlers he managed no-showed an event or was injured.

What puts Heenan decisively ahead of any of the other great managers of his time or since – Lou Albano, Jimmy Hart, Gary Hart, Jim Cornette, Paul Heyman – is his ability to not just cut entertaining interviews, but also take tremendous bumps. “Bobby was a good athlete – flipping over the ropes, he could do it all,’’ George Schire told the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Pat Reusse. “And whether it was as the manager or as a wrestler, he could get the crowd going as well as anyone.’’

Heenan and the wrestlers he managed were known as The Bobby Heenan Family. (He lashed out at anyone who referred to his group as a “stable,” yelling that his athletes weren’t animals!) Heenan managed many wrestlers over the years, but no one he managed meant more to his career than Nick Bockwinkel, among the all-time greats of his generation who headlined the AWA as the top heel rival to lead babyface Verne Gagne. Gagne and Bockwinkel battled over the AWA World Hvt. Title for years.

Billed from Beverly Hills, Calif., the bombastic Heenan and the more measured and intellectual Bockwinkel gave off an aura of superiority that fans flocked to arenas to boo. There may have never been a more effective or entertaining manager/wrestler combo in pro wrestling history. Heenan wrote in his 2002 autobiography that he had the most fun managing Baron Von Raschke and Blackjack Lanza. Bockwinkel wasn’t much for the night life. Heenan also managed Ray Stevens, Blackjack Mulligan, Ken Patera, Bobby Duncum, and several other big names during his years in the AWA.

Heenan jumped to the WWF during Vincent K. McMahon’s aggressive spending period in the mid-1980s expansion years, and no exodus from the AWA was more damaging to the AWA promotion – at the time one of the “Big Three” promotions along with the NWA and the WWF – than Heenan, with the possible exception of Hulk Hogan. Hogan hadn’t been in the AWA as long, so Heenan’s leaving especially stung because he felt so synonymous with the AWA brand.

Although he spent most of the 1970s and early 1980s in the AWA, he spent about a year in Georgia in 1979 working under booker Ole Anderson. Lanza encouraged him to join him there, but Heenan was unhappy with the pay and didn’t like working for Anderson. His brief stay in Georgia may have changed the course of wrestling history and had ramifications on the rest of his career because it’s where he first met Hulk Hogan, then wrestling as Sterling Golden.

Heenan actually teamed with Hogan in Marietta, Ga. Heenan wrote in his autobiography that when he returned to the AWA, he recommened to Verne Gagne that he hire Hogan. “When I left Georgia in 1979 and returned to Minneapolis, I told Verne about this guy. I said, ‘He’s huge, has a hell of a body, and people look at him in awe. He’s a little green, but he can get better.” Heenan’s daughter told Tampa Bay times that her dad had a huge influence on Hogan’s success. “Hulk Hogan got over because of my dad,” Solt said.

Heenan’s war with Hogan in the AWA carried over to the WWF where Heenan managed one wrestler after another who tried to take the WWF Title from Hogan, including King Kong Bundy (at WrestleMania II), Andre the Giant (at WrestleMania III), Big John Studd, Paul Orndorff, Harley Race, Curt Hennig, Rick Rude, Hercules, and Ric Flair, among others. He also managed The Brainbusters (Arn Anderson & Tully Blanchard) to the WWF Tag Team Titles.

Heenan also did commentary during most of his time in the WWF. He eventually moved exclusively to the commentary booth where the next phase of his Hall of Fame career kicked in. He and Gorilla Monsoon were to a generation of fans the most beloved duo and the voices of their childhood pro wrestling memories. Their bickering and the dynamic between them was among the most iconic of any announce team, including their contemporaries Vince McMahon & Jesse Ventura. Heenan’s quick wit was a huge part of his effectiveness as a heel manager, but it took center stage when he held court for an hour or two of commentary on pro wrestling shows.

Heenan ended up leaving the WWF and joining WCW in 1994 as one of the major signings made by Ted Turner/Turner Broadcasting during the mid-1990s spending spree. Heenan would team with announcer Tony Schiavone as the lead commentary team on WCW Nitro (with whom he did not get along well). Another generation of fans were introduced to Heenan’s quick wit during this phase of his career. Heenan wasn’t at his best at this point, but was still among the most entertaining personalities on the airwaves.

Aging in general, and a neck injury in particular, led to Heenan cutting the physical aspects out of his act. Until then, Heenan’s selling – either by taking a bump when punched or just scurrying away when threatened – was better than any other manager.

The first and lesser known chapter of Heenan’s career was in the World Wrestling Association based out of Indianapolis, Ind. He grew up in Indianapolis, and started by carrying wrestlers robes back to the locker room for promoter Dick the Bruiser. He worked for both the AWA and WWA for stretches of time during the early 1970s.

Heenan was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. In his acceptance speech, he confessed in his opening line to the shame he felt for betting on pro wrestling. Pete Rose was in the crowd, shunned from the Pro Baseball Hall of Fame due to his betting on baseball games while he was a manager. Rose laughed heartily at Heenan’s quip.

One of Heenan’s most famous matches was against Greg Gagne, the son of AWA promoter Verne Gagne, on Aug. 17, 1980. “That was about as wound up as any wrestling crowd I’ve seen in Minnesota,’’ Greg Gagne told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “When I pinned him, Wally brought out the weasel suit, and the whole crowd was chanting ‘Weasel, Weasel,’ and then Heenan wouldn’t put it on, of course.’’ So Gagne put Heenan in the Gagne sleeper, put him in the “weasel suit,” and woke Heenan up. Heenan freaked out as only Heenan could. “Stephanie McMahon [WWE executive] called me last night, and said she had just got done watching the weasel suit match,’’ Gagne said. “She told me it was one of the greatest wrestling moments of all-time.’’

Many comedians admired Heenan’s quick wit, including David Letterman who watched Heenan with his family as a kid in the Indianapolis-based WWA.

(PWTorch VIP members can hear hours of new audio shows recorded this week about Bobby Heenan including Keller’s interviews with WWF announcer Sean Mooney, AWA announcer Ken Resnick, and AWA historian George Shire. Plus, a special Bruce Mitchell Audio Show dedicated to him.) ###

(Note: PWTorch will be producing many podcasts this week with special guests talking about Bobby Heenan’s career. Check back throughout the week for announcements and links.)

7 Comments on Bobby Heenan, greatest pro wrestling manager of all-time, dead at age 72 after long battle with throat cancer

  1. Bobby Heenan would elevate any talent or promotion he was associated with through his provocateur persona and underlying understanding of wrestling psychology.

    He built the heels up, making them more disliked, which further encouraged the fans to watch the faces give them their comeuppance in the big matches. In many cases, he also got his comeuppance, which was a key part of the dynamic — the heckling agitator who finally has to face his target. And yet sometimes, he would wriggle off the hook at the end of the day, and help his protégé do the same. You couldn’t be sure which way it would go.

    As an announcer, he toned things down somewhat, demonstrating an understanding that what worked in short segments or in the early days of wrestling, couldn’t, and in some cases shouldn’t, be continued.

    That he continued to perform, with different promotions, and in changing operating environments, for over three decades, speaks to his adaptability.

    It is sobering to think about the health challenges he faced in recent years. That he never gave up, and continued to try to get out to events to meet fans and his peers, speaks to his tenacity and commitment.

    My condolences to his family at this time.

    Mark

    • Can’t think of a better tribute. For as cowardly as his on-screen persona was when he faced trouble and had to pay the price for his comments, he was sure a warrior when faced with an opponent far more formidable than — and with no disrespect intended — a Hulk Hogan or a Roddy Piper or an Andre the Giant could ever pose: cancer.

      He might have lost the ability to speak, or in the very least had great difficulty communicating verbally, but from all accounts he was still of very sound mind until the end. His desire to go to fan conventions just to speak to his fans and share memories of their childhoods watching him on TV speaks volumes.

      I think of my aunt, who died two years ago to thyroid cancer, and then a beloved coach from my hometown who lost a courageous battle to prostate cancer. Yes, cancer sucks. But I think of them going peacefully, perhaps in their sleep, and having their families at their side in their respective final moments. From what I read and believe, that’s how “the Brain” went as well … resting peacefully, ready to go, family at his side … maybe awake for just a brief moment to give a loving glance at his wife and daughter, as though to say, “I’m alright, it’ll be alright, I love you.” Probably the best way to go.

      RIP.

  2. it’s too bad this article didn’t mention Heenan working for Georgia Championship Wrestling. Georgia Championship Wrestling (1979)[edit]

    In GCW, Heenan formed his second version of Heenan Family, where Blackjack Lanza remained in the stable, while Heenan received new members in Masked Superstar, Killer Karl Kox, Professor Toru Tanaka, and Ernie Ladd. He also led this version to numerous title reigns before he left GCW.

    • Georgia Championship Wrestling. 🙂 Probably my first memories of any sort of wrestling show. Thank you for bringing that up, it brings back some great memories of Henan. He was certainly one of the best ever and he could cover so many roles. If I remember correctly back then GCW was under the NWA banner? That gives him considerable time and successful runs in the AWA, WWF/WWE, NWA and WCW. I realize WCW was an offshoot off the NWA, but he had several runs that covered at least 3 decades.

      There will never be another Bobby The brain. 🙂

    • I thought so, I started watch GCW in the early 80’s, I remember finding it on a Saturday morning and preferring it to cartoons when I was really young. Ole Anderson may have been promoting back then. I do remember when Crockett swooped in and things changed. I miss the old territory days of wrestling, maybe it’s because I was just a kid, but something about that time in wrestling seemed better than the choices now. Then again, maybe everything played itself out too, and not a lot of new ideas. I dunno, for some reason I keep watching though.

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