Wrestling legend Bobby "the Brain" Heenan of Largo dies at 72

Bobby “the Brain” Heenan” of Largo was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002.
Bobby “the Brain” Heenan” of Largo was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002.
Published Sept. 19, 2017

Even in an industry known for its colorful and sometimes cartoonish characters, Bobby "the Brain" Heenan stands out as outlandish.

Working as a wrestler, on-screen manager for bad-guy grapplers and a color commentator for television broadcasts, Heenan drew boos, jeers and laughter like no one else from fans of professional wrestling.

Heenan, whose real name was Raymond Louis Heenan, died Sunday at 72.

Heenan was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002 and has been in remission since 2004, said his daughter, Jessica Solt, but he died from organ failures brought on by the disease.

"It was just his time," Solt said.

A Chicago native, Heenan had been living in Largo and called the Tampa Bay area home for over 30 years.

"Shoot, I miss him already," said Heenan's former wrestling colleague and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair of Tampa. "He was one of the best."

In the 1980s, when WWE — then known as the World Wrestling Federation — rose from a niche form of entertainment to pop culture phenomenon, Heenan was a driving force, often acting as manager for the top foes of star Hulk Hogan.

It was Heenan, for example, who managed King Kong Bundy against Hogan at WrestleMania II and then Andre the Giant in his match against Hogan at WrestleMania III.

While the monstrous bad guys provided the physical intimidation, it was Heenan as their mouthpiece who inspired hatred toward those he managed.

"Hulk Hogan got over because of my dad," Solt said.

Heenan's best-known insult was calling fans "ham and eggers," his term for a meaningless person.

"Andre the Giant was the most popular wrestler of the century," said retired grappler and Indian Rocks resident Lanny Poffo, whose father, Angelo Poffo, was one of the first wrestlers managed by Heenan.

"But put Andre with Bobby Heenan and he was hated. It was that simple."

Still, while Heenan drew boos for underhanded tactics during matches, he also used humor to get under the skin of his on-screen enemies.

Blair recalled when his tag team, the Killer Bees, was feuding with Heenan.

"He did an interview where he dressed up like a beekeeper and had one of those nets," Blair said with a laugh. "He was mocking us. It was creative."

That personality allowed Heenan to transition into the commentator's chair for the WWE and later for World Championship Wrestling.

Never embracing the good guys, Heenan would defend the evildoers and their actions or simply pretend he didn't see it.

"What happened there? My monitor went out," he would say when cheating occurred.

And he was never at a loss for zingers.

Among his daughter's favorites: "I know all about cheating. I've had six very successful marriages," and, "A friend in need is a pest."

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Still, Solt said, her father didn't practice in real life what he preached as a wrestling personality.

He remained loyal to his one and only wife, Cindy Heenan, for over 40 years and was always willing to help a friend. For example, Solt said, when her dad learned a high school buddy from Illinois — a man he hadn't seen in decades — had fallen on hard times, Heenan bought him a heater to keep him warm.

One thing that the real and fake Heenan had in common was a sense of mischief.

On airplanes, for instance, Heenan would stuff one end of a toilet paper strip into the back of his pants for the walk down the aisle back to his seat, pretending he was unaware the roll was unwinding behind him.

"He would later do that with my son," Solt said. "He'd put toilet paper down the back of my 18-month-old's pants and walk with him."

Heenan was also known to reach out to tourists at popular photo spots and offer to take their pictures — then frame the picture in a way that cut off their heads. And this was in era when you couldn't see photos until they were developed.

"That's just Bobby," Blair said. "He was the consummate jokester."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.