Heenan was one-of-a-kind performer in a crazy industry

Nick Bockwinkel could always talk.

The joke, as I first heard in a newsletter written by pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, was that if you asked Bockwinkel what time it was, he’d tell you how to make a watch.

But in a DVD release on the American Wrestling Association, put out by WWE, the former heavyweight champion was giving insight on the greatest pro wrestling manager of all time, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.

Bockwinkel had been managed by Heenan for much of his AWA run. Their alliance began in the 1970s when Bockwinkel was a tag champion with the legendary Ray Stevens.

“Bobby was a great wrestler,” Bockwinkel said. “Everyone thinks of him as a manager. Bobby could replace me on a (show), and the crowd would be wild. Bobby could replace Ray, and the place would be just as wild. But I couldn’t do what Bobby did, and Ray couldn’t do what Bobby did.”

That’s because throughout his pro wrestling career, which spanned decades, Heenan did it all.

A wrestler, manager, broadcaster, and comedic foil for anyone who came in contact with him.

Most around here probably remember Heenan — who died a week ago at 72 — for his run in the World Wrestling Federation, when he managed stars like Andre the Giant, “Ravishing” Rick Rude and “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig. Or maybe the younger wrestling fans remember him as one of the commentators for World Championship Wrestling, during the “Monday Night Wars.”

If you read an obituary on Heenan, you probably read a quote from someone — Hulk Hogan, Vince McMahon, someone — that said he was the greatest wrestling manager of all time.

That’s true. Among pro wrestling fans and historians (yes, they do exist), there’s shockingly little debate about Heenan’s managing prowess.

Of course, if you’re not a wrestling fan, you probably wouldn’t understand what that meant. Isn’t the manager just the guy who’s in the corner of the bad guy, who occasionally gets beat up at the end of the match?

Well, yes and no. In today’s industry, few wrestlers have managers anymore. The only current star who has an “advisor” is Brock Lesner, who is seconded by the much-heralded Paul Heyman.

But up until the early 90s, managers were an integral part of the business. And Heenan had no peer.

Heenan was different. He played a clumsy crown prince, but his gimmick (“The Brain”) was that he was very intelligent, often manipulating wrestlers to do his bidding.

Heenan’s job would be to talk for his wrestler. Lay out the points of the match, talk about his man’s motivation, and basically tell the viewer that his charge’s opponent — whoever it was — had no chance.

An example of this was at WrestleMania III, when about an hour before the much-hyped main event between Hogan and Andre the Giant, Heenan stood next to Andre and let loose.

“In 15 years,” Heenan bellowed, “Andre is undefeated. No one can defeat this man. No one can come CLOSE to defeating this man. And Hogan, I know what’s happening to you right now, because it’s happening to me. The butterflies are in my stomach. I’m gonna manage the champion of the world.”

Of course, at its core, wrestling is a con. Andre wasn’t undefeated. Heenan knew his man was losing. He knew Hogan — who he was close friends with, despite their on-screen rivalry — was winning.

But darn if he didn’t make you believe he thought otherwise. I’ve seen the Hogan-Andre Wrestlemania III match about 100 times. It’s awful. The 78,000 people in the Silverdome that day helped create an electric atmosphere, but by that time in his life, Andre was limited physically. And after you’ve seen Hogan slam Andre a few times, seeing it again is nothing special.

But every time I watch the Heenan interview, I want to watch the match.

He was that good.

Heenan had remarkable physical timing, flopping around the ring for his wrestler’s opponents, and delighting the fans. He was such a strong character that he was put with wrestlers who had no trouble talking — Bockwinkel and Ric Flair, for instance — because his mere presence would add to their act.

But I must admit, my favorite Heenan moments didn’t come in the ring. They came from the announcer’s headset.

Teamed with straight-man Bob “Gorilla Monsoon” Marella, Heenan was at his best.

Once, before a big battle royal, WWF’s fictional president, Jack Tunney, was introduced.

Heenan, whose character always felt Tunney had it in for him and his wrestlers, referred to the figurehead as Jack “on the take” Tunney, and then deadpanned that Tunney had been “the best president since (Manuel) Noriega.”

Another time, Heenan was calling a title match with Marella.

“I remember when I was champion, Monsoon,” Heenan said.

“Champion of what?,” Marella asked, incredulous.

“The neighborhood,” Heenan said.

Heenan’s wit was legendary.

I knew Heenan had a gift when, during a serious interview, the former grappler said one wrestling promotion would be bad for the industry.

“One girl in a bar is the prettiest girl in the room,” Heenan said.

My father, who hates wrestling, started laughing.

Heenan had fought throat cancer for more than a decade. The cancer limited his ability to talk, but even in later interviews, he never lost his wit.

“Billy Crystal always spoke so highly of Andre the Giant. What was he like?,” asked comedian Dennis Miller on his program when Heenan was a guest.

“Oh, Billy Crystal, I don’t know,” Heenan said.

Miller erupted with laughter.

“You don’t have cancer of the timing,” Miller told him. “You’re knocking these out of the park.”

Heenan stopped wrestling in the late 80s, stopped managing in the early 90s, and stopped being a regular wrestling announcer in the early 2000s.

But his death still feels like a major loss for the industry. He saw so many of his friends and contemporaries — Andre, Rude, Hennig, Stevens, Bockwinkel, Marella, to name a few — go before him. But Heenan’s death feels different.

Maybe it’s because he was a piece of my childhood. Maybe it’s because I think he could have been a prominent comedian had he chosen that career.

Or maybe it’s because wrestling, today, still needs someone like Bobby Heenan.

And that’s the problem.

There will never be another like him.

Zach Baker is the sports editor at The Advertiser-Tribune.

Contact him at:

zbaker@advertiser-tribune.com or on Twitter @Zachthewriter