Jim Ross on Bobby Heenan, Gorilla Monsoon
Good Ol' J.R. returns to the broadcast booth in his latest column to recall his days calling the action alongside WWE Hall of Famers Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan.
When I first arrived in WWE after having a somewhat high profile on-air role in WCW, it was WrestleMania season. In a way, I was perceived to be the voice of WCW after the Ted Turner/TBS buyout of Jim Crockett Promotions. That “claim to fame” did not endear me to many WWE personnel.
So, the first day that I arrived at the WWE TV studio to begin my new job, let’s just say that I wasn’t greeted so warmly by many WWE staff members and a few of on-air talents. Think horrific halitosis, spinach on teeth, etc.
Two men that did treat me well from day one were Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon. Thanks to them being old pros and having the class of a pair of WWE Hall of Famers and true gentlemen, I was given a chance to prove myself to them as a human being. Essentially, “The Brain” and Gorilla welcomed me into the territory.
I have no issue to this very day in saying that I love both men and that they will always hold a special place in my heart. Both were old school and from a different generation that judged a man on how he treated them and did not base their relationship on someone competing for their spot, having to share their TV time, or where one previously worked.
My first WWE experience is generally thought of as broadcasting at WrestleMania IX in Las Vegas, and it was my first live broadcast. Yes, my first day on the job while working without a net was at WWE’s biggest event of the year, outdoors at Caesar’s Palace.
However, prior to flying to Vegas from Connecticut, on the preceding Thursday, I did Wrestling Challenge voiceovers with Heenan that aired after WrestleMania IX. We immediately had chemistry. He was a brilliant, old school antagonist who I had been taught to always allow the last word and generally Bobby’s last word was pure gold.
“The Weasel” — or “Wease” as we called him — had as good natural timing as any performer with which I’ve ever worked. He was naturally funny (never took a note, by the way) and enhanced every single talent, including the heroes, even though Bobby did not support the fan favorites as the bad guy announcer. Bobby Heenan did what every announcer should strive to do and that is to make talent bigger stars than they are and to embellish every talent’s TV persona.
Bobby was SO funny that many times during taped, voiceover segments he would make me laugh so hard that we would have to stop rolling so that I could get regain my composure. He loved doing that because he knew that if it entertained me then it would likely be entertaining to the viewer. There is no doubt in my mind that if Bobby had chosen to be a standup comedian or a comedic actor that he would have been tremendous. But the kid who used to buy mice and milk for Dick the Bruiser’s reptiles in Indianapolis blessed the wresting business by being in it.
Bobby and I jelled on Wrestling Challenge broadcasts and, for those that remember those days, let me assure you that they were some of the most entertaining times of my life. The Brain truly helped me become better at my on-air role and he entertained me as much as he did his fans. I will forever consider it a huge honor to have been paired with Bobby Heenan and I think about him daily as he battles a stiffly dealt hand with health issues.
There is always the ongoing argument as to who the greatest performer in the history of the business is and there will never be a definitive answer because the question is too subjective. However, for my money, as an in-ring talent, a manager, an interviewer, and a broadcaster NO ONE has done it all BETTER than Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. I can make a valid argument that Bobby Heenan is pro wrestling’s great performer.
Gorilla Monsoon was like a father figure to me. The WWE Hall of Famer was as respected within WWE as any man that I was ever associated with, past or present. He cast a large shadow both literally and figuratively. Gorilla saw that I was a respectful veteran of 19 years in the business when I got to WWE and he couldn't have cared less from where I came. Again, with old school values, Gorilla Monsoon judged me on how I treated him and the WWE brand. Obviously, I treated both with great reverence and respect.
When fellow broadcasters like "Macho Man" Randy Savage and Lord Alfred Hayes gave me the proverbial cold shoulder when I first arrived in WWE, Gorilla vocally — and with authority — intervened to get both individuals to give me a chance to prove myself to them and not to prejudge me. Lord Alfred came around first. "Macho Man" took a little more time, but he eventually did as well.
The WWE television crew loved Gorilla as he was a father figure to them, too. Thanks to “The Big Ape’s” encouragement, I quickly became part of the WWE TV facility family and I proudly remain so to this very day.
Many of us still recall when young, fledgling, self-professed “hot shot” broadcasters would introduce themselves to Gorilla and he would turn to me and say for everyone to hear, “Don’t commit that kid’s name to memory.” Or he would tell said “hot shots,” “If I were you, I’d consider renting for a while. In other words, don’t buy any property.”
Gorilla taught me so much about the culture of the company and about the general philosophy of the business. He was old school through and through and could be harsh on talents whose bouts we broadcast in voiceover sessions for Wrestling Challenge and a litany of other programs. He could be so stiff that I would ask to stop rolling tape so that we could take a break and go sit at a picnic table behind the TV facility where Gorilla could vent to me about the talents that he thought were “phoning it in.” Then, with it out of his system, we would resume voiceovers and get our work done in a professional manner.
I’m relatively sure that if Gino, as many of us called Monsoon, had not been ill at WrestleMania IX that I would have never debuted at that major event.
There’s honestly not a day that goes by that I don’t think of one of the greatest influences and mentors in my professional life. A little of Gino died the day that his son and former WWE referee Joey Marella was killed in a tragic car accident at the tender age of 30. Gorilla Monsoon was never able to “kick out” of that devastating situation.
It saddens me that Gorilla’s twin grandsons, named Gino and Joey, never truly got to know their grandfather. The man born Robert Marella was a magnificent human being, friend and standup man of character and integrity.
I miss our football bets, the many Italian dinners we used to enjoy in Stamford, Conn., his advice and him always being in my corner when less than advantageous hands were dealt to me.
The Good Lord broke the mold when he made both Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon and I’m so pleased that on my journey in this genre that they came into my life and played such important roles. Coming to WWE in 1993, after 19 years in the business, was an amazing professional accomplishment, but calling Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon dear friends is perhaps the greatest blessing of them all.
Next time…Vince McMahon.