The world of wrestling fandom was hit hard over the weekend by the saddening news of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s passing on. Reviled (In a positive way) by fans for decades, Heenan will always be remembered as one of the greatest managers in the history of professional wrestling.
In conjunction with being a fantastic manager, Heenan also found himself with a second career when he moved from ringside into the announcing booth following a severe neck injury. Always renowned for his sharp wit and verbal skills as a manager, Heenan was able to translate those attributes to the commentary desk with aplomb and went on to become a celebrated colour commentator.
Writing this as I am on Monday evening UK time, having only just heard the sad news on Monday morning, I’ve decided to chuck out my originally planned column and spend a few moments down memory lane. Heenan was not just part of some very famous moments whilst behind the microphone, but he also had some regular running gags that he brought to the table whilst calling the action in the ring.
Today, I will be looking at five of my personal favourite commentary moments and recurring punchlines from Heenan’s time as a broadcast journalist. These aren’t in a particular order and nor is this an exhaustive list, it’s just selected examples of some of the many reasons why Heenan’s commentary enriched my life as a fan of the grapple game.
Always Getting Mikey Whipwreck’s Name Wrong
This one is so simple yet also so brilliant. Whipwreck debuted in World Championship Wrestling in 1999 after defecting from the cult favourite promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling. Mikey had a less than impressive physique, but he had enjoyed popularity in ECW thanks to his character as the ultimate underdog. Mikey didn’t even get an offensive manoeuvre in during the early months of his career. In fact, when he finally managed to hit an atomic drop at Hostile City Showdown 1994, it was treated by commentator Joey Styles like he’d just won the All Japan Triple Crown!
However, once taken out of the protective booking and cult environment of ECW, Whipwreck looked ordinary, even though he was capable enough in the ring as his debut match with Billy Kidman highlighted. Deciding to try and do something to make Mikey stand out a bit, Heenan took it upon himself to start pronouncing his name wrong incessantly. Thus began a series of bizarre mistakes such as “Shipwreck”, “Whipneck” and “Sheepdeep”
Did Mikey have a problem with this? Of course not! Mikey has gone on record numerous times that he had zero problem with it, and even considered it one of the highlights of his career to even meet Heenan, let alone have Heenan make fun of him on commentary. As a young fan at the time, I certainly enjoyed the gag and many others did too.
Native American Superstar Tatanka was a big part of the World Wrestling Federation’s mid-card during the 90’s and was a genuine babyface attraction during 1992-1994, enjoying a house show run with then WWF Champion Yokozuna that actually did rather well at the box office.
Being of Native American descent obviously left him rife for snide jabs from Heenan, who regularly mocked him, most notably by stumbling all over his name. The skill of Heenan however was that the insults always made himself look stupider, as opposed to taking any of the lustre off Tatanka himself. This highlighted not only Heenan’s great mind for wrestling but also his complete lack of giving a figs end when it came to making himself look stupid in order to try and get others over.
Having the mountainous former wrestler Gorilla Monsoon on play-by-play commentary also helped, as he would regularly put Heenan in his place if he crossed the line with a boisterous “WILL YOU BE SERIOUS?!?!”, something he had to break out quite a lot when Ta-Ta-Ta-Ta-Ta-Tatanka was competing in the ring.
Mocking Stu Hart
This was an area not solely limited to Heenan, as mocking Bret and Owen Hart’s elderly father was also something that fellow colour commentator Jerry “The King” Lawler often indulged in also. However, Heenan went about it in his own special way, and it was usually always hilarious. For instance, as Bret Hart took on Mr. Perfect at Summerslam 1991 for the WWF Intercontinental Championship, the camera would cut away regularly to show Stu and Martha Hart looking on as their son battled for the gold.
During a moment where Bret was on the defensive, the camera cut to a shot of Stu and Martha both looking worried at their son’s plight. However, Heenan instead declared that they looked so worried because they’d actually snuck into the building without paying for tickets, something which earned him the consternation of fellow commentators Gorilla Monsoon and Roddy Piper.
On another occasion where Stu sat in the crowd, Heenan decided to mock his advanced age by constantly yelling “Stu!” at him, in a way not dissimilar to Alan Partridge shouting at his pal Dan in a car park. I can’t describe how funny I still find this one even to this day. It’s Heenan at his disrespectful and hilarious best.
When Ric Flair debuted in the WWF in 1991, he brought along with him the “Big Gold Belt” of NWA/WCW fame and declared himself to be “The REAL World’s Champion”. Flair’s claims were backed up by a simpering Heenan on commentary, as it was common knowledge that “The Brain” had long been a rival of then WWF Champion Hulk Hogan.
Along with having Heenan as part of his entourage, Flair was also joined by former Heenan charge Mr. Perfect, now retired from the ring as an “Executive Consultant”. Going into the Survivor Series of 1992, Flair was due to team up with Razor Ramon to take on “Macho Man” Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior.
However, Warrior had one of his regular flake outs, and this meant that Savage now didn’t have a partner for the big match. Told he could pick a replacement, Savage decided to think outside the box and selected Mr. Perfect! Perfect at first laughed off Savage’s request, but in the WWF Prime Time studios he found himself getting goaded by both host Vince McMahon and the babyface of panel of Jim Duggan and Hillbilly Jim about whether he was scared of facing Flair.
As the situation continued to play out, Flair, Ramon and Heenan made some unintentional remarks suggesting that Perfect was just a manager now and wouldn’t be able to hang in the ring with Flair and Ramon. Perturbed at this, Perfect decided that he would indeed accept Savage’s offer and would see him at Survivor Series!
An infuriated Heenan lambasted Perfect and then made the cardinal mistake of slapping him. Flipping immediately from fiery disgruntlement to pleading for his health, Heenan went so far as to get on his knees and beg Perfect not to abandon Team Flair. Unimpressed with his now ex-associate, Perfect chewed out the cowering Heenan before dumping a jug of water over him in disgust.
This is a brilliant piece of business, and I wish that WWE would put this episode of Prime Time Wrestling up on the WWE Network, because it really is compelling viewing. Heenan going from overbearing bully to begging suck up in the space of a second is outrageously entertaining and once again highlighted why he was such an amazing talent.
THAT’S NOT FAIR TO FLAIR!!!
During his time as professional cheerleader for Ric Flair, Heenan coined the iconic phrase “Fair to Flair” whenever he saw what he thought was a potential slight towards his beloved meal ticket. Whenever the question of a possible contender to Flair’s title was brought up, Heenan was always insistent that everything be fair to Flair at all times.
Even when Flair battled in the ring, Heenan would decry anything that he thought was unfairly stacking the odds against “The Nature Boy”, with the 1992 Royal Rumble Match being possibly the best example. Coming in at #3, Flair was faced with the unenviable task of having to last almost a whole hour to make it to the bouts conclusion.
Horrified to see Flair enter so early, Heenan spent most of the match freaking out at every elimination tease and bargaining with the Wrestling God’s to allow Flair to survive. He would send platitudes towards wrestlers who would inadvertently assist Flair, only to then scorn them mere seconds later if they then dared to hit him!
The 1992 Royal Rumble may possibly be Heenan’s greatest ever hour at the commentary desk, just as it may be for Flair in the ring.
I’d like to take this moment to thank you for joining me as I took a look at a mere snippet of the brilliance that Bobby Heenan was capable of. I’d also like to send my sincere condolences to Mr. Heenan’s friends and family at this sad time.
Thanks for reading, and thank you Bobby.