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The Self-Made Man: Bobby “The Brain” Heenan

We all had a good chuckle at Ross Perot last week, but it’s time to restore the class and dignity this column demands by talking about pro wrestling. While few men in professional wrestling became rich, the ones who did were often self-made, using their athletic ability and natural flair (no pun intended) for showmanship to strike it rich. Then, being wrestlers, they pissed all their money away on drugs and messy divorces.

The Brain

But Bobby ?The Brain? Heenan managed to avoid that end, and while he’s certainly had his struggles, he can’t be called anything less than successful. And on top of that, he’s a Self-Made Man.

Heenan, whose real first name was Ray, was born in Chicago in 1944. His father died young, so Bobby had to drop out of school to support his mother and grandmother, which he did by washing and parking cars at a local dealership. Bobby was also a huge wrestling fan who wanted to break into the business, and spent a few years carrying ring jackets and selling refreshments at wrestling events before being given a shot in Indianapolis as ?Pretty Boy? Bobby Heenan.

Bobby was a manager, which, in pro wrestling terms, means that he helped the villains cheat to win their matches and hyped them up in interviews. The goal is to get fans so angry at the villains that they will pay to see good guys beat him up (UFC uses similar principles to promote their legitimate fights ? the 2009 Lesnar/Mir fight is but one example of putting a guy we like and a guy we hate on trajectories leading to a showdown). There weren’t many people better at riling up fans than Bobby Heenan, and he developed a reputation in wrestling as a guy who could literally talk fans into the seats. One such fan actually shot at him in Chicago, so that gift was also a curse at times.

Heenan could entertain in the ring, too. He was on the same 300-day road schedule as the rest of the guys driving from town to town to fake-fight in civic arenas and stadiums, and he got tossed around like a rag doll by the good guys because it made the fans ? who, let’s keep in mind, would occasionally try to murder him ? happy. That kind of ethic was rare among managers (hell, a lot of wrestlers didn’t put themselves through that grind), and it didn’t go unnoticed.

In 1984, Heenan signed with the World Wrestling Federation just as it was taking pop culture by storm, and the wrestlers he managed (i.e. spoke for) were often the nemeses of Hulk Hogan. Heenan had also changed his nickname to ?the Brain? by then, and his character was that of a scheming, tough-talking coward who always out-thought himself in the end.

Heenan would also manage Andre the Giant in his legendary match against Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III, which drew over 70,000 people to Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome. Heenan, portrayed as the evil bastard who convinced Andre to challenge his long-time friend, had as much to do with drawing that crowd as anyone else involved by going out on television and telling fans that he and Andre were personally going to kill Hulkamania.

Now, we all know that wrestling is bogus. It’s Shakespeare in bib overalls, and always has been. But here’s a guy with an eighth grade education who helped get 70,000 people to go see it, and he probably convinced a few of them that it was real. Either way, his six-figure paycheck from that night set him up financially for the rest of his life. He continued working after that, of course, and became a color commentator later in his career (and he was awesome at it), but WrestleMania III was his peak as a performer.

Heenan always had respect for wrestling fans (despite their attempts on his life) after seeing some of them pay for their tickets with change. He understood that because he was one of them; a guy with little schooling who had a family to feed. And sure, there’s luck involved in how his career turned out, but there’s no denying that he got noticed because he was good and worked harder than the devil himself to make sure he was the best.

That same work ethic is still there ? Heenan’s recent battles with throat and jaw cancer would have killed anyone else, but he’s still making public appearances and interacting with the people whose money fed his wife and daughter. On that note, I’ll end with a clip of Bobby Heenan doing what he does best: talking.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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