We all know that pro wrestling is predetermined and more of an entertainment production than a legit sporting event. However, along with the superb athletes, larger-than-life characters and great story-telling (well, sometimes), the play-by-play announcers providing the running commentary on the action in the ring is a vital component to the overall viewing experience. Bad commentating can severely reduce the impact of a great match. Entertaining and engaging commentating can retain the interest of the viewer even if the action in the ring is poor or mediocre.
For me, pro wrestling’s greatest commentary team will always be the late Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.
I started watching wrestling in late 1991 and my earliest memories of it are watching the PPV events on video. I immediately found the commentary duo of Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse “The Body” Ventura entertaining. Their input was vital to complementing the action in the ring. This was when I first became familiar with the now classic concept of “babyface” and “heel” announcers. Monsoon believed in fair play and championed the heroes like Hogan and Warrior, Ventura had the old adage that it was “only cheating if you get caught” and supported the “baddies” like Rick Rude and Andre The Giant.
However, when I watched my first event featuring Monsoon and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan on commentary, suddenly the announcing became a big deal to me. It was probably the 1992 Royal Rumble, which my cousin had very kindly taped for me off Sky. As we all know, it was won by Ric Flair. He also won the vacated WWF Championship. It was truly a career performance for Flair, lasting an hour in the Rumble match after drawing an early number and going on to win the damn thing.
But it was a standout performance from Bobby Heenan as well. A former manager and now full-time “Broadcast Journalist”, Heenan also served as an advisor to Flair in his quest to be recognised as the “Real World’s Champion”. The infamous on-air bickering between Heenan and Monsoon was first-rate during the Rumble; Heenan’s reaction when Flair won was hilarious, it was as if his very existence depended on Flair winning that match!
“The Brain” always pushed Monsoon’s buttons, to the point were Gorilla would say: “Will You Stop?” or “I’ll have you taken out of here in a minute”. A classic line at WrestleMania 8 had Heenan say to Monsoon when Hulk Hogan’s friendship with Brutus Beefcake was brought up: “Friendship’s cheap”, to which Gorilla replied, “You should know that, you’re the cheapest guy I know!”
WrestleMania 8 was also the event where Flair lost his WWF Championship to Randy Savage. Gorilla wasted no time in gloating about this to Heenan, who again convinced everyone with his commentary that he was really distraught and angry over the title change!
It was clear early on to me that this was classic “double-act”. Monsoon trying to play the “straight man” to Heenan’s bumbling “weasel” character. Both played off one another brilliantly (case in point: my mum has never been a wrestling fan, but even she had a chuckle when Monsoon and Heenan were doing the commentary). It was natural and ad-libbed and you sensed that away from the cameras, both were having a good laugh about their “hatred” for one another. (This proved to be the case: Monsoon and Heenan were best friends in real life).
In 1993, the WWF began to phase out Gorilla Monsoon as a PPV commentator and opted for a 3-man commentary team of Jim Ross, Heenan and Randy Savage. Later that year, Heenan left the WWF and in storyline parlance, it was only fitting that his long-time on-screen enemy Gorilla Monsoon was the guy to literally throw him out of the company, sending him from the arena with a few measly possessions on Monday Night Raw. This officially marked the end of the “Monsoon/ Heenan Era”.
“The Brain” headed to WCW where he resumed play-by-play duties. He started off as his normal witty and entertaining self but like many people towards the end of the company’s run, lost interest and motivation in the cause.
Monsoon remained with the WWF but tragedy struck in July 1994 when his son, Referee Joey Marella died in a car accident. Monsoon later suffered from health problems and eventually had to step down from his role of on-screen WWF President. He later returned to the company to provide play-by-play on WWF Superstars.
Gorilla Monsoon passed away aged 62 on October 6, 1999 of heart failure caused by complications relating to diabetes. His death devastated Heenan, who paid tribute to him on Monday Nitro and upon Heenan’s own induction into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2004, tearfully said, “I wish Monsoon was here”.
Heenan himself suffered his share of setbacks, announcing in 2002 that was battling throat cancer. Thankfully, he’s largely recovered, although in the process, his appearance has altered dramatically. The cancer has cost him his infamous “play-by-play” voice and he’s lost a scary amount of weight over the years. He’s been through a lot, but it’s simply not in Heenan’s nature to give up or quit on anything.
In my opinion, Monsoon and Heenan deserve to be called wrestling’s “best double-act”. These days, especially in WWE, the commentary is too controlled, too structured. Monsoon and Heenan were fun, entertaining, hilarious and unpredictable. And the most charming thing of all is that they both had just as much fun doing it as we had listening to it.