Bobby “The Brain” Heenan vs. The Ultimate Warrior (6/25/88)

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Bobby “The Brain” Heenan is almost unquestionably the best manager of all time. He’s almost unquestionably the best color commentator of all time. He was never much of a wrestler, but he was so good at the other two roles that the audience clamored for his comeuppance in the ring. The role of the manager in the WWF was somewhat different than in the gritty, southern NWA—Slick, Jimmy Hart, Mr. Fuji, Kim Chee, Harvey Whippleman, The Coach, and the rest of the WWF’s ringside talent got involved with their words, their ability to distract others, and their tendency to employ the cheap shot during a match, but in the N.W.A., James J. Dillon, Paul Ellering, and James E. Cornette were sometimes forced to step into the ring, fight within the confines of a steel cage, or to scale an intimidatingly high scaffold, where, it was virtually promised, justice would be served. It was this difference that made Bobby Heenan’s rare in-ring excursions so exciting to WWF fans. Sure, Heenan had experience as the third tag team partner of The Blackjacks in the NWA, and in the WWF as the third man in a Heenan Family trio that included King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd, who warred against The Machines (Andre the Giant, Blackjack Mulligan, and/or Demolition Ax, under masks and managed by Captain Lou Albano) in 1986. But his series of “Weasel Suit” matches against The Ultimate Warrior in 1988 took the manager vs. wrestler trope one step further. Heenan worked alone in these contests, a set-up that promised fans the complete and utter destruction of The Brain, who unquestionably has it coming.

This is the best iteration of the Weasel Suit Match I’ve seen, and a lot of that has to do with how much offense Heenan gets in before Warrior ultimately puts him to sleep. For years, Heenan had been offering his unsolicited advice to cheat on commentary, often to Gorilla Monsoon’s outraged reply of “Will you stop?” Here, The Brain actually employs every dirty trick he’s ever learned. He pulls a Pearl Harbor job on the Warrior. He stalls for time by ducking in and out of the ring. He has a concealed foreign object that he makes a show of hiding from the referee. It’s Wrestling 101, but Heenan’s theatricality is unsurpassable. Listen to the crowd when Warrior shrugs off Heenan’s early blows. When he sneaks around the ring to surprise a retreating Brain. When he blocks Heenan’s foreign object. Not only is every effort made to ensure that Heenan’s offense is as realistic as possible (even an Ultimate Warrior needs to breathe), but the fact that Heenan is cheating only gets the crowd more involved into Warrior’s big comeback.

The most surprising thing about this match is how it ends, with the Warrior employing an uncharacteristic sleeper hold to secure the victory instead of his traditional gorilla press slam/running splash combo. Of course, the sleeper was used so Warrior could dress the unconscious Heenan in the weasel suit, but it’s little psychological elements like this that makes the match so compelling, and was a large part of the success of the Heenan Family’s prolonged feud with Warrior. A guy like Rick Rude could beat Warrior because he was his equal in terms of physique and, with Heenan at ringside, his better when it came to the mental aspects of the human game of chess. Heenan on his own, however, was too pudgy, too old, too rusty. The only person who didn’t know that was Heenan himself, who, of course, had beaten some other Ham ‘n Egger (Koko B. Ware, who was hardly a garden variety jobber, but that’s another story) the night before. Full of confidence and having refused to waive the match, Heenan’s initial bravery gave way to his cowardice every time. It was a formula, believe it or not, that could sell a building out.

The WWE often tries to revisit the Warrior/Heenan dynamic, but normally the good guy comes across like a bullying jerk. Ricardo Rodriguez, Alberto Del Rio’s personal ring announcer, has been a slight thorn in the side of World Heavyweight Champion Sheamus, which justifies his not being remorseful about an accidental kick to the face, but not his making fun of the poor manservant’s broken neck. When John Cena took on the evil, fun governing John Laurinaitis, the fact that Cena took Johnny Ace on without the pretense of rules didn’t mean as much because Laurinaitis was a goon whose biggest sin was his inability to emote. He’d only terrorized the WWE Universe for a few months compared to Heenan’s two years, and considering that his big power play was to bring back a former WWE Champion in the afterglow of his UFC successes, his offenses against the fans were nothing compared to forcing Jack Tunney to suspend Andre the Giant, turning Andre against Hulk Hogan, or outsmarting the Ultimate Warrior.

Of course, the nature of TV has changed plenty, and Johnny Ace’s meteoric rise and fall was made necessary by that change. A wrestling fanbase immersed in social media cannot stand for an endless feud between a winking Cena and the stoic robot Johnny Ace. In 1988, when only the really smart fans knew that Warrior and Heenan were putting on Weasel Suit Matches elsewhere because news traveled via syndicated television tailored specifically for each market, a feud like this one could, and did, last for the course of years, given new wrinkles and the occasional new Warrior opponent. Heenan is my favorite of the bunch, though, as nobody better accentuated the Warrior’s considerable strengths as a combatant while exploiting his weaknesses.

Psychology isn’t something usually attributed to an Ultimate Warrior match, but Heenan and plenty of the wrestlers he managed at the time were masters of it, could force it upon a given Warrior match. Once Warrior won the WWF Title from Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VI and settled his score with Heenan and Rick Rude at SummerSlam, Warrior finally became the comic book character his face paint and musculature destined him to be. The only man who could bring him back down to earth was Randy Savage, but rather than coming out of the retirement match at WrestleMania VII as a man who’d accomplished a Herculean feat, he was an outsized lunatic with no realistic equal, a man obscured sometimes literally by smoke and mirrors. He had a way of raising fan expectations every time he deemed wrestling worthy of his time, but it was virtually impossible to guarantee a payoff half as good as the one here.

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