Before Bobby Heenan was ‘The Brain,’ or was considered the greatest pro wrestling manager and commentator ever, he was starting out at the bottom of a promotion in Indianpolis, where he became friends with local wrestling legend Les Thatcher.
Thatcher was a star wrestler out of Cincinnati who promoted shows out of Dayton for years. Thatcher worked the various wrestling territories and became a top announcer and commentator in the 1970s. After Ric Flair recovered from a plane crash in the middle of the decade, it was Thatcher among others behind the camera as a , helping Flair develop his ‘Nature Boy’ persona along with dozens of others.
Thatcher, who worked as a trainer for WCW and WWE during the late 1990s wrestling boom, and still hosts training seminars for eager young wrestlers, repeated others in saying Heenan was the greatest manager and commentator in pro wrestling, but said he was also one of his greatest friends.
“If he was your friend, he was your friend for life,” Thatcher said.
Heenandied Sunday at the age of 73 after battling complications from throat cancer for over a decade .
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Heenan and Thatcher met in the WWA, a promotion owned by old school wrestler “Dick the Bruiser,” and based out of Heenan’s hometown of Indianapolis. Heenan started in 1963 by getting jackets from wrestlers at ringside and taking them to the back. He was wrestling matches himself by 1965.
“I would tease him later,” Thatcher said. “I told him I’d remember when he worked at a Ford dealership, but now he owned it.”
Heenan played the villain nearly his entire career, but to the people he knew he was devoutly loyal.
When Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation began raiding other promotions for talent, Heenan couldn’t get the American Wrestling Association to match their offer, but he refused to leave Verne Gagne’s AWA until his contract was up. In a documentary about the AWA’s war with the WWF, Gagne’s son Greg said Heenan was the only person out of dozens who honored their contract before jumping to McMahon’s company.
“When he was in WCW, (WCW VP) Eric Bischoff would knock (WWE’s) Vince McMahon and Bobby just wouldn’t do it,” Thatcher said. “He said he was treated right when he worked there, and he wasn’t going to say anything negative about them. It was just his personality. He was a good person.”
McMahon noticed Heenan’s talent when he immediately came to the company. The WWF started the “Bobby Heenan Show” which aired as part of the company’s prime time show wrestling hour on USA Network. A parody of late night talk shows, only four segments aired but has had a devout cult following for 30 years.
While the WWF in the 1980s was filled with heroes like Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior and others, almost all its villains were managed by Heenan. Some pay-per-views he would manage nearly every match. He’s the only manager in the history of the wrestling business to earn a six-figure paycheck for one show.
After leaving the WWF, he went to WCW to replace the disgruntled Jesse Ventura. He had a natural chemistry with WCW announcer Tony Schiavone when calling matches in the early years, mainly commentating straight before he would return to his bad guy personality soon after.
He left WCW in 2000, unhappy with the company and feeling uninspired. He had issues with his former broadcast partner Tony Schiavone over what Heenan felt was a lack of loyalty. WCW was out of business less than a year later. Two years later he had throat cancer, which cost him his famous voice. During this period he wrote two memoirs in two years.
To put Heenan’s status into perspective, pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer was asked during his radio show if he ever felt fear being in the presence of wrestlers or at a wrestling event.
He said only once, when he was booked for the same radio show as Heenan when the pro wrestling business was much more secretive. Heenan and Meltzer were in the same room waiting to go on the air with Heenan, who wasn’t humored. It only took one look from Heenan before Meltzer asked that he not be on the air as the same time as “The Brain,” and have to possibly go against him live on the air.
“He had what Jim Cornette or Jerry Lawler had - it’s something you can’t teach, it’s just there. Just things coming off the top of your head and out your mouth. he was a genius at it.
“He was so talented,” Thatcher said. “He didn’t have to try to be funny, and that’s a problem for a lot of guys these days, they try to be funny but they don’t have it.”
Heenan was a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fans and often made trips to Southwest Ohio as a youngster and as an adult. During an early 2000s appearance on the Dayton-baseed “The Wrestling Guys” radio show, Heenan spoke of Indianapolis being a farm team for the Reds, and how he many members of the Big Red Machine before they became major leaguers. He sais trips to Ohio were often major memories of his childhood.
His health issues continued to deterioriate after his initial diagnosis, he eventually had surgery to remove parts of his jaw. In the last years of his life he was hurt after multiple falls at his home. He also wore a neck brace, similar to Roger Ebert, and was nearly unrecognizable, and could only speak a few words before becoming exhausted.
This didn’t stop Heenan from going out in public or attending autograph signings or wrestling events.
“The amazing thing was, after everything that happened to him, he had the same spirit and personality.”
Thatcher last saw Heenan in 2013 at a convention the weekend of Wrestlemania in New Jersey at Giants Stadium.
“The event was so huge, you couldn’t see everyone. Then someone asked if I saw Bobby Heenan. I said I didn’t feel right leaving without doing that. I was able to give him a hug and tell him I loved him.
“The amazing thing was, after everything that happened to him, he had the same spirit.”