The wrestling manager who boosted bad guys
Bobby Heenan managed some of the biggest names in professional wrestling in the 1980s and ’90s: Andre the Giant, Ric Flair, Ravishing Rick Rude, Big John Studd. Known as The Brain by his fans—and Weasel by his enemies— Heenan drummed up attention for his clients by trash-talking anyone and everything: his wrestlers’ opponents, their fans, the towns where the matches took place.
“Have you ever been to Glens Falls, N.Y.?” he once said. “The city limits signs are on the same post.” Hulk Hogan’s followers, he declared, were the kind of people who “wear a brown sock and a white sock and got a pair at home just like them.” Heenan’s ringside banter made him one of the most reviled, and popular, figures in the business. “I’m a legend in this sport,” he said. “If you don’t believe me, ask me.”
Born in Chicago to a railroad worker father and a hotel manager mother, Heenan “became enamored of wrestling as a child,” said The Washington Post. He dropped out of eighth grade to work at wrestling venues; when a performer didn’t show up one day, he put on a mask and entered the ring. By the mid-’60s he was wrestling under the name “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan and managing other wrestlers. Because most of his stable were villainous “heels,” Heenan would strut around the ring before and during matches, taunting the crowd. Some fans took the show seriously: Over the years, Heenan “escaped thrown chairs and attempted knifings and at least one shooting.” But he had to step back from the ring in 1983, said Deadspin.com, after his neck was broken by a Japanese wrestler’s “errant knee drop from the top rope.”
Following the injury, Heenan became an on-camera commentator in addition to his managing duties, said The New York Times. He formed a memorable TV partnership with former wrestler Gorilla Monsoon, and the pair often debated in-ring tactics. After Monsoon accused one of Heenan’s wrestlers of performing an illegal move, Heenan protested that “it was a legal move, it was a Greco-Roman Hair Pull!” Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002, Heenan was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame two years later. It was an honor, he said at the ceremony, to have brought his comedy “into a business that I often thought needed a kick in the pants and a couple of smiles.”