The Crusher bought himself a Jack in the Box windup toy and brought it with him for TV interviews promoting upcoming AWA wrestling cards. He would sing “Pop Goes the Weasel’’ until it popped out of the box, and then say that was Bobby Heenan, the evil manager for the Heenan Family in the mid-‘70s.
The crowds for the TV matches would bring posters defaming Heenan as “Bobby the Weasel,’’ rather than his preferred “Bobby the Brain,’’ and he would demean those poster-waving fans in return.
“Bobby would be sure to say in his interviews, ‘And I don’t want to see any of those posters in the arena on Saturday night,’ ‘’ said George Schire, the premier historian of the AWA’s wonderful history. “Of course, the man selling the posters and making the money from them was Bobby.’’
The heroes and the villains of the AWA’s golden age continue to depart this vale of tears, and Heenan became the latest on Sunday, passing away in Florida at age 73 after a long and gruesome battle with throat and mouth cancer.
He was a kid in Indianapolis, a high school dropout because of a need to support his mother. One job was mowing lawns in the neighborhood, including for Bill Afflis, a former pro football player but better known as “Dick the Bruiser’’ of wrestling fame.
Dick the Bruiser was the promoter in Indianapolis, and he started taking Heenan to the matches. Bobby (real name Raymond) started off carrying the wrestlers’ jackets back to the dressing room, after they were introduced.
He was always quick of wit, a prankster in real life and around the ring, and used that to become one of the sport’s most notorious villains, as the condescending, rules-breaking manager – a wrestling weasel in the truest sense.
After he was done as manager, he set a new standard as the match analyst for what’s now the WWE, always seeming to spot a way in which the bad guy was noble and the hero was a cheat.
Jim Brunzell and his partner, Greg Gagne, spent the most-glorious wrestling days as the force for good taking on the evil partnerships of the Heenan Family. And on Sunday, Brunzell was among those saddened by the loss of a dear friend.
Brunzell described Heenan as a “self-taught genius,’’ and in an e-mail, called Bobby the “driving force for the success of AWA and WWF [now WWE] promotions. He managed the cream of the crop of wrestling talent – Bockwinkel, Stevens, Duncum, Lanza, Andre the Giant, Curt Hennig, Ricky Rude, Haku … ‘’
Heenan first appeared in the Twin Cities in 1967, where he briefly was the manager for Larry Hennig (Curt’s father) and Harley Race. He left for 18 months or so, then came back in 1969 as the manager for Black Jack Lanza.
His most-famous tag team was Nick Bockwinkel and Ray (The Crippler) Stevens. As they traveled the circuit, if Nick or The Crippler was not available, Heenan would get in the ring.
“Bobby was a good athlete – flipping over the ropes, he could do it all,’’ Schire said. “And whether it was as the manager or as a wrestler, he could get the crowd going as well as anyone.’’
The story angle entering the ‘80s became that Greg Gagne had become so upset with Heenan’s constant interference in tag team matches that he insisted on getting him in the ring for a solo match.
“I had gone to [promoter] Wally Karbo and said, ‘We have to get a weasel suit,’ ‘’ Gagne said. “Wally said, ‘A weasel suit?’ I said, ‘Yeah, a tail, paws, ears,’ and Wally found someone to make the suit for him.’ ‘’
And that became the promotion for Aug. 17, 1980, in the St. Paul Civic Center: The card was headlined by The Crusher vs. Jerry Blackwell in a ‘’Lights Out’’ match, with Gagne vs. Heenan in a special main event. And it read right there on the official lineup of matches, “Loser Must Wear Weasel Suit.’’
My late, great friend Dark Star, a Twins devotee, always claimed that those victorious Game 7s in the 1987 and 1991 World Series were tied for second as the greatest sports events that he had witnessed.
Number one? “The Weasel Suit match in St. Paul,’’ the Dark Man would say.
“That was about as wound up as any wrestling crowd I’ve seen in Minnesota,’’ Gagne said. “When I pinned him, Wally brought out the weasel suit, and the whole crowd was chanting ‘Weasel, Weasel,’ and then Heenan wouldn’t put it on, of course.’’
So, Greg did what the Gagnes always did to put away a reluctant opponent: He put the sleeper hold on Heenan, and splat went Bobby the Brain, out in the middle of the ring.
Gagne and the referee tugged and pulled – which looked more like a pink rabbit suit than a weasel – and finally had the suit on Heenan. Then, Greg slapped him awake, and Heenan stumbled to his feet, and saw that his hands were paws, and he had a tail, and his staggering across the ring, taking futile swings, was wrestling pantomime at its best.
“Stephanie McMahon [WWE executive] called me last night, and said she had just got done watching the weasel suit match,’’ Gagne said. “She told me it was one of the greatest wrestling moments of all-time.’’
The weasel suit series also was played out that month on AWA cards in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Peoria, Ill. Years later, the match was reprised in Madison Square Garden for the WWF, with the Ultimate Warrior as Heenan’s foil.
“They went nuts for it in New York, just as the fans did in St. Paul,’’ said Mean Gene Okerlund, the legendary TV interviewer for wrestling.
Heenan had to be in your top five for interviews, I said to Mean Gene on Monday. “Top three at least, and I’m not sure who was better,’’ Okerlund said. “You always had to be careful with him. He was always up to something.
“Early on, Marty [O’Neill] was doing an interview with Heenan and Bobby came out with this big portfolio,’’ Okerlund said. “He said, ‘Marty, this is my plan for Nick Bockwinkel to defeat Verne Gagne and win the title.’ And he opened it and held it in front of Marty, and inside the portfolio was a Playboy centerfold.
“Marty was wearing those sunglasses, of course, and he paused briefly, and said, ‘That’s a very interesting plan, Bobby.’ ‘’