Some of the earliest memories I have were of pro-wrestling on television. Historians will tell you some of the earliest television broadcasts at television’s inception were of professional wrestling matches. In 1967 and 1968 – I was five or six years old at the time – Dad would tune our small black and white television to the UHF channel broadcasting pro-wrestling and get up and go to the washroom. Mom would say watching me watch two guys beat the snot out of each other, “If that’s scary, turn it off.” It was not only the first of times I can remember something other than cartoons being on t.v., but too, being scared. These guys had busted open wounds on each other’s foreheads and their faces were beaten bloody. Not so dramatic in black and white but I was already using my imagination and knew that the color was red and it was blood inside my well-protected, well-insulated head.
I also knew if I switched the station on the television Dad might get angry. Another gender specific thought I had at the time was, “This is what boys watch.” The more this type of programming was on our television, the more my Dad, brother, cousin Joe and his Dad, my Uncle Joe seemed to watch, the more, perhaps I was compelled to watch too. They all would tell me what I was watching, what THEY were watching wasn’t real. I couldn’t blink my eyes and make it go away nor did I want to. Nor did I understand how this type of thing could be faked. Not yet. It took many iterations and variations of the, “it’s not really real” conversation to take place between myself and any other the other four guys – together or separate – to realize or come close to realizing that this was different than boxing.
I began to see and watch, discern or dawn upon the the artistry and acting involved in how bad guy versus good guy played out in each competition. Each match. The flagrant cheating of the bad guys behind the referee’s back, the interference of the trainer or manager and how it was always done so that the fairness figurehead – the referee – always seemed to miss what was truly happening inside that ring. What was truly going on always seem to elude the referee. Then I kind of knew. Sort of.
Enter manager / pro-wrestler, Bobby Heenan.
In Chicago, we received Minneapolis pro-wrestling territory television broadcasting from a league known as the AWA and another – a subsidiary – but not in the strictest sense of the word – from Indianapolis called the WWA. The owner, Verne Gagne promoted up north and for us – in Chicago – Bob Luce produced the AWA product and it had his handiwork all over it – and also in the WWA. Week after week, the UHF channels (26, 44) here televised these David versus Goliath scenarios played, acted and fought out inside the squared circle. This, under the guise of pro-wrestling. An anomaly. The red-headed step-child of sports. Sometimes more entertainment and theatrics than sport. The Bob Luce produced segments on the local segments of the Minneapolis-sent pro-wrestling show were not formatted like back stage interviews. They were constructed like a talk show. There was cross-promotion between the two leagues, the AWA and the WWA – and the Luce talk show segments were shown in between the matches.
This was entertainment. Sports entertainment before you had to admit to the public that this indeed was NOT legitimate sports competition but a hybrid. Something else. Something that – if my Dad, Uncle Joe, cousin Joe and brother were right – could be faked. Or could it? Wrestlers sometimes attacking one another on the, “talk” segments. Before Jerry Springer. before Geraldo Rivera. The talk segments also showcased promotional stunts (In the early to mid-seventies, Pepper Gomez had a Volkswagen Beetle rolled across this stomach muscles on the talk show as he was challenged the week before to prove he was the wrestler with the, “cast-iron stomach.”) to get people to come out to the house shows. And of course, Bobby Heenan.
Heenan was the best guest on that show – whether answering questions about the wrestlers he managed, being confronted by good guy wrestlers whom he MIGHT wrestle (as he did some of that, too), or just simply, creating, “heat.” He’d light the talk show up with his boastful banter about his bad guy stable of wrestlers, When the good guys got their hands on Heenan, he instantly became this acrobatic, flip-flop of a punching bag / acrobat, not unlike a fish out of water. The retribution almost always happened in the ring but sometimes, too, on the Luce talk / chat portion of the show. If Heenan actually wrestled – usually in a singlet – he was the quintessential bad guy getting his head beaten open all the time in his matches. The pro-wrestling magazines at the time always had photos of Heenan getting busted open by the Bruiser and Crusher or Billy Robinson or some babyface, good-guy wrestler.
Fast forward 1984.
After territory wrestling leagues buckled and began folding in the wake of the rise and popularity of the WWE (WWF) on pay-cable television, Heenan gained even more fame and recognition working for both the WWE and much later still in the competition league, the WCW (owned at the time by Atlanta-based millionaire, Ted Turner, who owned TBS, TNT and CNN) until leaving the business altogether after a throat cancer scare in 2002. Heenan will be best known by two nicknames: the, “Weasel” and, the, “Brain.” He never gave a bad interview – in the thirty plus years I watched him on television – always cracked some of the funniest wise as a commentator and will always remain as one of pro-wrestling’s best and wittiest evil doers or characters whom you loved to love and loved to hate. You could NOT take your eyes off of him!
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(Not only is his WWE Hall of Fame speech one of the funniest things I have ever seen Bobby Heenan say or do but upon watching this very speech you begin to realize what his reach within the scope of the pro-wrestling business actually was. From all these memories some of my fondest are of me and my brother watching my father as he watched pro-wrestling on television for his reactions and comments to what was happening on screen – some of the most priceless memories of my life.)