I hated Bobby Heenan as a kid.
This is probably as controversial and surprising a statement as “Kate Upton has huge boobs” or “bacon is delicious”.
And I hated him for the same reason every 9 year old hated him at the time: he lived to destroy Hulkamania. That was akin to a war crime in my young mind. And he didn’t just stop there. He targeted The Ultimate Warrior. He kidnapped Matilda. He brainwashed Andre The Giant. He brought in some white-haired goof with a fake belt calling himself the REAL World Champion. There was nothing to like about him in the mind of a kid who whole-heartedly believed. In my young mind, it never occurred to me that being reviled was his job. No, he was just an awful excuse for a human being, doing everything he could to ruin the careers men who had worked hard for their station in life. Every time he got knocked off the apron or cold-cocked, I did a dance.
And yet, as he transitioned from manager to color commentary, I found myself chuckling at his one-liners and put-downs. I found myself entertained by his over-the-top histrionics at cheering on the heels (“It’s a SKIRT”!). And I found myself in tears from his work in the booth with Gorilla Monsoon. Soon, it dawned on me: Bobby Heenan was entertaining me. I was enjoying him. I couldn’t be entertained by someone with liking someone … right?
That’s when I realized that Bobby Heenan was the first heel I ever liked.
I think my favorite memory of Heenan is from his days in the booth, but surprisingly, it’s the WCW years. It was the Nitro after Bash At The Beach ’96. With WCW reeling in shock from the betrayal of Hulk Hogan, there was a feeling of mourning when Nitro came on the air. Eric Bischoff lacked his usual bombastic attitude. Tony Schiavone looked like someone had kidnapped his children. But there was Heenan. He was smug, obnoxious, full of himself. He looked like he had the world by the tail.
When Heenan finally spoke, it was to issue a massive (and massively pompous) “I told you so” to the WCW viewers. He went on about how for over a decade, he’d told the world about Hulk Hogan, and how he was a liar, a selfish manipulator, a fraud only out for himself. And how, for over a decade, nobody would listen. Schiavone would offer up a apology to Heenan for doubting him, but the look on Heenan’s face said it all. He was happy to finally have been proven right.
I love this moment for two reasons. First, I love how he maintained being a heel even in the position of having been proven right after all these years. He’d seen it coming, he’d warned us, and none of us listened, and he was loving that he could torment everyone as the only person who saw this coming.
But secondly, as you may have noticed during my tenure writing Rewriting The Book, I’m a sucker for continuity. I especially love it when wrestling angles use history from months, years, even decades prior to give the present more weight (Kevin Owens recently using Shane McMahon’s duplicitous history as a ref was a masterstroke). History is all too easily forgotten in wrestling; someone turns, and suddenly, they can pal around with people they were trying to bludgeon into a coma not a month ago, simply because their temperaments now align. When Heenan gave WCW fans that I-told-you-so, he used a decade’s worth of history to give Hogan’s sudden turn to the dark side some amazing context. Joining up with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall was now not just a shocking swerve, but looked like a shrewd move by a cagey politician who sensed that fortune’s wind wasn’t blowing in his direction anymore. And that it was a HEEL pointing this out made it all the more impactful; Bobby Heenan, king of the smarmy, self-serving, conniving jerks saw someone who was an even bigger jerk than him. I was long since smart to the business by then (Hall’s original invasion of Nitro happened on my 19th birthday!), but that extra oomph Heenan gave the angle a severe push in my mind. It used history and psychology to sell the product and put over this new stable. It did, for just a moment, that which all we adults long for since becoming smart.
For a brief, shining moment, Bobby Heenan made me believe again.
When I saw the news of his passing, I was sad, but not as torn as other deaths. Eddie Guerrero, Randy Savage, Elizabeth … those ones felt like cruel jokes. Horrible stabs in the heart, taking men and women in their prime. Bobby had earned his peaceful retirement, but it had been mired with health problems. I was more glad he was at peace than I was sad for wrestling’s loss. The suffering had taken away a lot which made Bobby Heenan so memorable, and thinking of him that way hurt my heart. That suffering is over now. We have memories and stories now, and judging by the outpouring of emotion, it seems like he was one of those rare universally beloved figures. In those stories and videos and memories, he is perfect. He is everything that we hated as kids, and came to love as adults. And he always will be. He got out with his legacy intact.
To Bobby’s family, I extend my deepest sorrows and sympathies. I’ll never understand your loss. To Bobby himself, I extend my eternal gratitude, for the years of entertainment you brought to my television screen. You were, are, and always will be irreplaceable. There have been other fantastic managers – Jimmy Hart, Slick, Jim Cornette, Paul Heyman, Larry Sweeney, James Vandenberg. But next to Bobby Heenan, they’re all ham-‘n’-eggers.
Thank you, Bobby. From all us humanoids down here, thank you for everything. Say hi to Gorilla for us.