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Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, the Ultimate Pro Wrestling Manager, Dies at 73

Bobby Heenan

The best villain of the 1980s was Darth Vader. The second best villain of the 1980s was Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, the iconic professional wrestling manager and announcer who was the unremovable thorn in Hulk Hogan’s side for years. Heenan, a mainstay in the World Wrestling Federation (later WWE) and World Championship Wrestling for decades, passed away Sunday. He was 73 years old.

According to the Wrestling Observer, Heenan grew up a wrestling fan in Chicago. He got his start in the business in the 1960s as “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan, but he became internationally famous as Bobby “The Brain,” a smart-alecky know-it-all at the head of his “Heenan Family” stable of heels, first in the AWA and then the WWF.

As Hulk Hogan became the biggest star in the history of the wrestling business, he squared off with a parade of monstrous bad guys, including King Kong Bundy and Andre the Giant. Hogan’s opponents came and went; the constant was Heenan as their manager. He was the ideal antagonist for the Hulkster’s virtuous, all-American do-gooder. The Brain (or “the Weasel” to his enemies) was ruthless, conniving, and cowardly. He was the brilliant schemer and the cackling anarchist; the Joker and Lex Luthor all rolled into one.

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Any ’80s wrestling fan will tell you: You feared Hulk Hogan’s opponents, but you hated Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. That was his job, and he was very good at it. He drove viewers crazy with his antics and taunts, particularly when he referred to fans as “humanoids” and insulted their taste, intelligence, and looks. But with the wisdom of hindsight (and knowing now that “The Brain” was a character), it’s clear that Heenan was one of his generation’s great performers. Nobody ever pushed a crowd’s buttons better than Bobby Heenan. And while he was best known as a manager, he could work (and take a butt-kicking) better than a lot of full-time wrestlers. His physical comedy skills rivaled any professional comic; watch his reaction here to being forced into a weasel suit by the Ultimate Warrior. These are epic, majestic pratfalls.

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Heenan was as quick on his feet as he was light on them; at the WWF he became a color commentator as well as a manager, and he soon became one of the best who’d ever done that as well. He had a legendary partnership with Gorilla Monsoon hosting Prime Time Wrestling; Gorilla as the good guy cheering on the babyfaces, with Heenan always finding some reason or another to root for the heels. His improvisations were hilarious and inspired. Listen for his line just after Shawn Michaels shoves his soon-to-be-ex-partner Marty Jannetty through a plate-glass window, breaking up the beloved tag team the Rockers:

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“Jannetty tried to dive through the window to escape!” Nobody else would have said it, and nobody else could have sold it. That was the Brain’s gift.

In 1993, Heenan left the WWF for WCW, and became the company’s flagship announcer until the year 2000. A few years later, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He battled various illness and injuries for the last 15 years, losing what should have been many more years of performing. Even though his retirement came far too soon, decades after his prime Heenan remains the template for a wrestling manager, one that’s yet to be equaled. Rest in peace Bobby, from this grateful humanoid. Thanks for being so good at being so bad.

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