This past week, the wrestling world lost the iconic Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan. This Sunday, in our Sunday Sermon, we’ll have a fulsome tribute to ‘The Brain’. Remembered fondly as a commentator, Heenan was also a top manager leading the ‘Heenan Family’ through various promotions. In this latest ‘Remembering‘ piece, we look at the first incarnation of that grouping in Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association.
Many wrestling fans will remember the iconic ‘Heenan Family’ from the 1980s as a result of the war they waged against Hulk Hogan and other top babyfaces in the World Wrestling Federation. Hall of Famers like Andre the Giant, Mr. Perfect, Harley Race, Arn Anderson, Ric Flair and Rick Rude all fell under the tutelage of ‘The Brain’ during his managerial heyday from the 80s into the early 90s.
But it wasn’t in the WWF that wrestling fans first clapped eyes on his ‘family’. In fact, it was back in Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA) where his stable was first born.
After a spell in the Indianapolis-based WWA promotion, both as wrestler and manager, Heenan moved to the AWA in 1974, adopted the moniker ‘The Brain’ and began managing future WWE Hall of Famer Nick Bokwinkel and his partner Ray Stevens. The following year, with the addition of Bobby Duncum and Blackjack Lanza, another WWE Hall of Famer, the ‘Heenan Family’ was born.
It wouldn’t take Heenan’s charges to grab success as that same year Bockwinkel, with ‘The Brain’ in his corner, ended Verne Gagne’s 7-year title reign to capture the AWA world heavyweight championship. The following year, in July 1976, he led Bobby Duncum and Blackjack Lanza as they defeated Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher to capture the AWA tag team titles. This made ‘The Brain’ the first manager in history to simultaneously manage both a major promotion’s singles and tag team champions.
The team of The Crusher and Dick the Bruiser would end up playing an important long-term part in the future of Bobby Heenan. It was while Bockwinkel and Stevens previously feuded with The Crusher and Dick the Bruiser that Bruiser referred to Heenan as a “Weasel”. This would be a moniker that stuck with him throughout his wrestling career, both inside and out, and would lead to many iconic moments including numerous weasel suit matches.
Other than a one-year stint in Georgia Championship Wrestling – that tenure led to a deep hatred from him towards Ole Anderson – Heenan would remain with the AWA until 1984. By this time, many of the organisation’s top stars had seen the writing on the wall and left for the WWF, often in the middle of programmes. Heenan, though, was different. He saw out the rest of his contract, something that massively impressed Vince McMahon, before he was storyline suspended indefinitely from the AWA as a manager and wrestler by AWA President Stanley Blackburn.
Bockwinkel would hold the title for the best part of five years before trading it, first, back and forth with Verne Gagne then a certain Hulk Hogan. He would last hold that world title until May, 2, 1987 when he would drop it to Curt Hennig, the future Mr. Perfect. At the time of losing that title, Bockwinkel was a sprightly 52. That same year he would retire from the squared circle. In 2007, he would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by Bobby Heenan. In that same class was the man who ended his final AWA title reign: Curt Hennig, who was inducted posthumously.
Despite triple heart bypass surgery in 2007, he continued to make public appearances until 2015 but his wife began to scale down his appearances as a result of heart issues and his dementia. Bockwinkel died from undisclosed causes on the evening of November 14, 2015. He was survived by his wife, his two children from his first marriage, two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Lanza and Duncum would hold the tag titles for the best part of a year before dropping them to The High Flyers (Jim Brunzell & Greg Gagne). After leaving the AWA, Lanza would join the WWF where he would form The Blackjacks with Blackjack Mulligan. The two went on to defeat Dominic DeNucci and Pat Barrett for the WWWF World Tag Team Championship, a set of titles they held only once. Although Lanza would earn a world title shot, no other success was forthcoming. In 2004, Lanza inducted Bobby Heenan into the WWE Hall of Fame. Two years later, Heenan returned the favour and inducted The Blackjacks. Still alive to this day, Lanza spent decades working for the company after his career ended and would see his nephew John Bradshaw Layfield gain success in the company.
Duncum would have less success than others in the Family. His final match was on November 16, 1986 in Clarksburg, West Virginia in a victorious effort against a team featuring the future Shane Douglas. Aged 73, Duncum survives to this day but tragically saw his son Bobby Duncum Jr. die as a result of an overdose in 2000.
Ray Stevens would go on to capture the AWA tag team titles along with a new partner in Pat Patterson but that would prove to be his last run with those titles. After leaving the AWA in 1977, Stevens would move to the WWF and would feud with Jimmy Snuka, amongst others. But the toll of a long career soon started to impact on his abilities and he would begin commentating alongside Vince McMahon. He would return to the AWA shortly afterwards but the promotion was on its knees by then. In 1992, after a 42-year career, Stevens retired from active competition. On May 3, 1996, Stevens died from a heart attack in his sleep at his home in Fremont, California. He was survived by five children
You can read all previous ‘Remembering’ pieces here.