Art by John McKeon
Evan McGarvey lays it down.
An old man stands in front of his peers in New York in 2004. It’s the end of his career, and he’s accepting an award from the gargantuan company that’s swallowed and standardized the craft of vaudeville plus combat sport plus perpetual improvisation that we call professional wrestling.
He talks about his childhood: “I’ve been in this business since 1954, I was ten years old and I went to the Marigold Arena in Chicago and I was hooked. Just like that. And when you’re hooked you’re in this business whether you like it or not. I remember watching the heels come out. He’d tell the people to shut up and they got louder. And every time he told them something they wouldn’t do it. They ignored him. I said, you know, I can do this for a living! It’s like being at home!”
His audience roars with laughter.
Bobby Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 72. We will never see anyone like him again.
Wrestling lifers and wrestling fans have spent the week in a haze of nostalgia and reverence. Joy for Heenan’s work, awe at his life, and more than a little gratitude for an end that avoided so many of the tragically conventional trappings of other wrestling deaths.
The Heenan remembrances that I’ve heard have been sepia-toned: Heenan playing pranks in forgotten regional airports; Heenan moving a promo from off-the-cuff jokes to savage, uncomfortable digs in seconds; and Heenan transforming a promising talent into a true star. He embodied the absurdity of an older era in wrestling in which you’d begin each month not knowing where you were working, with whom you were working, or what, exactly, you’d be doing.
On his podcast this week, Jim Ross, the greatest wrestling commentator of all time, lingered on the levity that Heenan brought to a business in which you left your home for months on end. Jim Cornette, who belongs alongside Heenan on the Mt. Rushmore of wrestling managers, talked about how Heenan could have been an amazing stand-up comedian or actor if he had wanted to do that instead. When TMZ caught Triple H outside LAX, he reminded us that Heenan was an outstanding wrestler in his first decade in the business, a man who bumped like a maniac and got nearly the amount of heat he’d get as a manager and announcer. The most successful people in multiple wrestling generations knew Heenan was the best in about a dozen different ways.
If you needed to recreate the entirety of professional wrestling from scratch, you’d need megastars, a line that might run from Andre the Giant to John Cena. You’d need workers, the cadre of technical craftsmen like Ricky Steamboat and AJ Styles. Talkers? The guys who can move tickets and fans with timing, attention to language, and the sheer force of personality? You don’t need anyone else besides Bobby Heenan. He’s the Straight Outta Compton and the Revolver of pro wrestling personalities. Heenan imbued every moment he was involved in, from grand to mundane, with an impossible blend of the impish and the sage.
Take his on camera “interview” with Bob Costas in 1989:
Costas: “No less an expert than John Madden said you’re the smartest man in all of sports.”
Heenan: “You can say that again if you like!”
Costas: “The smartest man in all of sports!”
Heenan nods and leans back in his chair, steepling his fingers like a boss. Is he working us? Earning a moment? Who knows? Who cares? It works. Later, after Heenan names the wrestlers he’s currently managing, Costas remarks:
“It’s an incredible stable, isn’t it?”
Heenan: “No! A stable is a place you find fly-infested horses. I have a family!”
He served as wrestling’s Don Rickles, Red Auerbach, and Dr. Dre all in the same segment. No single remembrance can cover a tenth of Heenan’s highlight reel. We wrestling fans each have our own.
In my personal mosaic: Heenan in the AWA, still wrestling as he managed, playing an inimitable coward against Mad Dog Vachon; Heenan managing Andre the Giant in the build up to Wrestlemania III, calling Hulk Hogan a selfish fraud to his face, blurring truth and theater, going so hard it’s iconoclasm; Heenan on a golf course, looking like the missing link in the Trump family, pretending to let Mean Gene Okerlund teach him how to swing a sand wedge; Heenan dressed in a weasel costume, letting the Ultimate Warrior ragdoll him; Mr. Perfect tossing his towel over his shoulder and Heenan, in a glittering black and gold jacket, catching it every time.
Heenan’s magnum opus was the Royal Rumble in 1992. Paired with Gorilla Monsoon on commentary—the greatest commentary pair in history, another “greatest” for Heenan’s halo—Heenan gives one of the finest one-hour verbal performances I’ve heard in any medium.
Riffing on each of the thirty wrestlers in the match, keeping the viewer attuned to the storylines at play in the ring, stumping for his client and eventual winner Ric Flair, barking “it’s not fair to Flair!” at each setback, lying to us, cajoling Monsoon, changing his tune, tossing off taunts and machine-worked jokes each minute, Heenan is transcendent. Royal Rumble 92 may have been the match in which the grimy territory era of wrestling merged with the glitz and cinematic storytelling of Vince McMahon’s world beating WWF. And the match’s brilliance is inseparable from Heenan’s.
That Heenan, the one who warps pathos into logic, the guy who lies right to your face about who tripped whom and who the hero really is, that guy is wrestling. Exasperated, ecstatic, savvy, childish, chatty, sullen, manipulative, goofy, brilliant, scene-stealer, and audience surrogate dressed up as a chubby blonde trickster god. That was Bobby Heenan. He used to belong to us. Now he belongs to history.