I knew this day would come sooner rather than later, but it still hit me like a ton of bricks. Bobby "The Brain" Heenan passed away Sunday at the age of 73. In some ways his passing is made less shocking because, tragically, his voice has been gone for years after a battle with cancer left him speechless and in need of a number of major surgeries that permanently altered his appearance.
He had not looked or sounded like the Bobby Heenan I had watched as a child for many years. But still, when I watched him on the WWE Network, I was comforted by the fact that he was still here. Almost everyone I watched him manage was gone, but Bobby was still here, somewhere -- undoubtedly thinking the smartest of smartass comments imaginable.
I don't remember if I actually loved Bobby Heenan when I was a kid. How could anyone love the man who was always deriding Hulk Hogan, Tito Santana, Koko B. Ware and all of the other good guys? But as I got older and started truly studying this art form, I realized something very important.
Bobby Heenan was not only the greatest manager and commentator in WWE history. He was the greatest BAD GUY in WWE history. No other talent, wrestler or otherwise, was as consistently hated for as long as Heenan was. Even if you can find someone who you could put close to him in length of tenure, I dare you to say they elicited a better reaction from a live audience than Heenan.
When an aging legend named Harley Race, by then somewhat limited physically, finally came to WWE, what did they do? They put him with Heenan. When it was unclear whether Ric Flair would resonate with the WWE audience after spending his whole career down South working for the NWA? They put him with Heenan. When there was an amazing in-ring tough guy named Haku that wasn't a talker, he became a viable main eventer with Heenan by his side.
But the best example of just how impactful Bobby could be came in 1987. Andre the Giant was the most popular wrestler in history. How could you possibly make the crowd boo him? Easy -- they put him with Heenan. That's all it took.
Once Hulk Hogan saw Andre with Heenan, he knew he had lost his friend and mentor. Go back and watch Andre and Heenan's entrance at WrestleMania III and appreciate the level of hate and vitriol they get from the crowd, complete with flying garbage and debris.
Andre the Giant was not Hulk Hogan's greatest foe, kids. Bobby Heenan was.
Heenan was the yin to Hogan's yang. When Hogan feuded with Paul Orndorff, Heenan was there. King Kong Bundy? Heenan was there. The list goes on and on. For as long as Hogan was on top, Heenan was right there giving the people a reason to root for the Hulkster.
But that's just one part of the equation. Heenan wasn't just a master at interfering in matches like many managers of the time. He was also brilliant on commentary, where he constantly pushed his bad-guy agenda. In doing so, though, he was so damn funny. Heenan truly operated on multiple levels. If you were a little kid, he was the foil to your hero. As an adult, you look back and appreciate just how much of a comedic genius he was.
That comedy came through most when he was next to his longtime partner and real-life friend Gorilla Monsoon. Spend some time with "Prime Time Wrestling" on the WWE Network. They were an incredible comedy duo in the truest sense of the word. Gorilla also deserves his due as the perfect straight man for Heenan. They were great separately but at their best together.
When The Brain got his comeuppance during any given feud, it was always so satisfying because he was willing to do anything a wrestler would do, because, of course, he had been a wrestler too. He could wrestle a match or wear a weasel costume or do whatever it took to leave the fans feeling something. And he'd do it all.
When his time at WWE came to an end, The Brain moved on to WCW, where he did a 180 with some underrated babyface work for several years next to Tony Schiavone. When Hulk Hogan eventually turned heel and had a brilliant run as "Hollywood" Hogan, guess who was there to be the babyface on commentary who could condemn the now-evil Hogan? Of course it was Bobby.
In an amazing twist, Heenan was able to basically say an "I told you so" to all the fans, acknowledging subtly that in another time and place, the old Heenan had always been right about his nemesis Hogan, even if now they were on totally different sides of the universe.
Almost a year ago, I realized a childhood dream and started doing work for WWE. My first day on the job was hosting a PTI-like talk show called "Bring it to the Table." I started that show and the five subsequent episodes by saying "... and I'm your host, Peter Rosenberg," a play on Heenan's first words of nearly every episode of "Prime Time" (which was even more hilarious when Heenan did it, as Monsoon was clearly the host of the show).
During WrestleMania weekend this past year, my first with the WWE, I ended up stopping by Wrestle-Con, a Comic-Con-like event where superfans can meet indy wrestlers and stars of yesteryear.
I was just watching my friends geek out when someone mentioned in passing that Bobby Heenan was there. I instantly bolted in search of The Brain. I had emailed with his wife months earlier about a possible Heenan feature article for ESPN, but it had never come together.
I spotted Bobby and was instantly taken aback by how little he resembled the man I had studied and emulated. It was tough to see. I beelined for him and immediately leaned over the table in front of him and explained to Bobby and his wife that I was the person who had been emailing. I knew from everything I had heard that Bobby would be tough to understand unless you had been around him a lot, so I kept it simple.
"Mr. Heenan," I said, "I just wanted to tell you that I believe you're the greatest entertainer ever. I'm a broadcaster and I work for WWE now and I constantly try to pay homage to you. I say '... and I'm your host Peter Rosenberg' every time I start my show."
Though he couldn't say a word, his eyes told me that Bobby the Brain still loved the adulation.
At this point, everything became a blur. I chatted some about my WWE Network boss, Chris Chambers, who spent some time as Heenan's producer on "Prime Time." He nodded affirmatively. Within a couple of minutes, I had poured my heart out, thanked him and said goodbye.
As I walked away from Bobby I was overwhelmed with emotion. Tears filled my eyes, and I grabbed my phone in an attempt to call my wife and tell her what had just happened. Only she could understand what this meant. I was able to tell my hero what he meant to me. It was more than that, though. In some ways I had felt that Bobby had already been gone for years, but in this moment I was able to see his eyes react when I told him that he was the greatest. It truly felt like I had been given a gift.
I went back to my hotel and realized that while I paid respects to Bobby, I didn't buy one of the shirts he had for sale. I immediately called my friend Frank, who was still at the event, and told him to go buy me one. Frank later told me that when he told Bobby the shirt was for me, he grabbed it, pretended to blow his nose in it, and tossed the shirt back to Frank. Classic Bobby.
SummerSlam weekend came, and my agent/closest confidant Bryan Diperstein told me he had a serious gift for me. I had no idea what he meant, but I hate the pressure of pretending a gift is as great as the giver believes it to be. My other agent/friend Courtny held the iPhone as the aforementioned Diperstein handed me the bag. I reached inside and prepared to put on the performance of a lifetime when I was inevitably disappointed.
Then I pulled out a jacket custom-made to the exact specifications of one of Bobby "The Brain" Heenan's most memorable garments, with my initials in place of his classic "BH" on the front and my name in place of "Heenan" on the back. I instantly decided that this jacket would be what I would wear to only the biggest WWE events that I work -- an homage to The Brain.
Often when we lose someone, we become hyperbolic in the moment, overwhelmed with the loss. There is no description of Bobby Heenan's career that is exaggerated. He was absolutely one of the most talented people ever in the wrestling business. He never wasted a moment on television and he made every talent around him better.
The most memorable line that Gorilla Monsoon used toward Bobby Heenan in his moments of faux frustration was "Will you stop?!"
I think I speak for every wrestling fan in the world when I say that I wish he never did.