Everyone loves the 1992 Royal Rumble for many different reasons. It’s pretty widely accepted as the greatest Rumble match of all time, and is easily Ric Flair’s crowning achievement in his WWE career. But pretty much everyone also agrees that Flair’s win wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable without the outstanding work put in by color commentator Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who turned in one of the greatest color commentary performances in pay-per-view history.
With the 2018 Royal Rumble coming up on Sunday, we would like to use this column as an opportunity to celebrate Heenan’s performance on that glorious, one-of-a-kind evening. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
As the camera cranes down on Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, the latter is already working on his masterpiece. He’s fidgeting while Gorilla drops the required spiels of a packed house. He looks nervous while Gorilla tells us what he always tells us: that this crowd is deafening. Then, Heenan’s first words are spoken.
“I’m still banking everything on Ric Flair coming out WWF Champion.”
The quickest of recaps here is that the WWF World Heavyweight Championship is vacant, and the winner of the 1992 Royal Rumble is the new champion, making this Rumble the one with the highest of stakes at the time, and of all time. Anyone could walk away with the title that has the big eagle on it, even Hercules. Even The Berserker!
The undercard here is formidable enough to keep us busy until the main event. The Orient Express (Heenan: “When you work for Fuji, you better be ready”) beat the New Foundation (“Well, I think the headband is a little too tight around Neidhart’s head”). It’s during this first bout that Bobby begins his gem of a broadcast.
“I’ll tell you. My hands are sweating. I am nervous. I am really, really nervous. Because I know in a few short minutes when Ric Flair walks down that aisle he’s gonna come back with the gold.” Brain isn’t sure what number Flair has, and when Monsoon implies that he should know because the drawing was held several hours ago, Heenan is offended because he had to hang out with Gorilla all day.
So, around the time of the first headlock of the first match, the seeds of doubt from Heenan are being planted. This is a game he would play all night long. Whether we’re supposed to believe The Brain knows Flair would eventually enter at No. 3 or not doesn’t matter. It’s making us wonder what’s going on; it’s forcing us to consider that what we don’t know is that Flair could have the worst or the best number.
After Heenan’s next mention, later in this same match (” … Is it possible for me to leave here? To go find out what number Flair has?”), we still don’t know how difficult Flair’s journey will be later the evening. But this many mentions this early in the event is a playful way of communicating we’re gonna see the Nature Boy at one extreme or the other. Monsoon wants him at No. 1 because this would be “fair”(?). Heenan thinks since he’s the real world champion, he shouldn’t even be in the match.
Later, in between shots of The Bushwhackers licking each other, Heenan asks if he can run to the bathroom. Gorilla says he’s being paranoid, then Brain shifts to just wanting to get Monsoon a diet drink, a popcorn, anything, and he gives his word that he’s not just trying to find out what number Flair has. “I know just how you like your hot dogs,” pleads Bobby. “Extra bun.”
(Let us all pause to picture Gorilla Monsoon being handed a hot dog placed inside of two buns which are the same size so they don’t stack on top of each other in a friendly way. Gorilla says “will you stop” while placing the double bun hot dog on the desk between the monitors, where it will remain unfazed, as this is not the Attitude Era.)
In retrospect, the amount of open space the commentary team gets here is really astounding. The Bushwackers and The Beverly Brothers farted around for several minutes while the primary narrative of Flair’s drawn Rumble slot was massaged. It’s as if the first half of the pay-per-view is a commercial for Ric Flair’s moment later in the night. A more recent comparison is Daniel Bryan’s journey to the title at WrestleMania 30, but commentary wasn’t deep-diving into the possibilities during Cena/Wyatt. They weren’t consumed by conspiracy theories during The Shield’s legends squash.
A tag team title match between The Legion of Doom and The Natural Disasters was just a parade of rest holds while tension built within the Brain. During the eleventh bear hug, Heenan “whispered” off camera to his “assistant” to go run to the back so he could find out where Flair would be entering. Gorilla feigned kicking the assistant out, called Heenan paranoid again, and then the match ended in a count-out (shout-out to the Natural Disasters and Jimmy Hart for not knowing the rules).
An interesting note is that since the WWE Network version of The Royal Rumble also contains, lucky us, the Coliseum Video backstage exclusives, Flair spills the beans on pulling No. 3. This is perhaps the most low-energy sad reveal on the entire Network, given that the previous 80 minutes were spent ramping up the mystery of Flair’s number. The one good takeaway here is that Flair ended his promo with “and that’s the bottom line,” and it’s pleasant to think of Stunning Steve Austin watching this from his condo in Georgia.
As the Fink explains the rules, Bobby Heenan lets out a few more last gasps of desperation. (“Oh my goodness. Oh my god. Ah”) When WWF President Jack Tunney fumbles through his explanation of the vacant title, Heenan is losing it. (“Come on let’s go. Yeah, yeah, yeah”) As Tunney exits the ring, Fink announces the first and second entrant, The British Bulldog and Ted DiBiase. Heenan’s off the hook — for now.
Once Davey Boy Smith takes out Ted DiBiase, the pressure’s on because Heenan knows who’s coming down to the ring. (“How much more time do we have?”) After the ten second countdown, the star of the show arrives.
As The Nature Boy stomps determinedly down the aisle, Gorilla mocks The Brain (“You can kiss it goodbye”), and Brain responds with the longest period of silence he’s had the entire night. “That’s okay,” he finally says, as Flair locks up with The British Bulldog.
The next couple of entrants are non-threats (Jerry Sags, Haku, and Shawn Michaels fresh off his work with the barber shop window). Heenan works hard to distract himself. (“Tremendous camera work … gotta get my mind off this and talk about something else.”) Every time there’s the slightest break in action Bobby begs for Flair to take a breather while Monsoon teases that his meal ticket has no chance at winning.
After Flair delivers a low blow to the the British Bulldog Heenan claims “I’d do that to my grandmother if I had to,” which is extra funny because, well, you know. When the Barbarian enters, Heenan claims, “He doesn’t like anyone. He barely liked me when I managed him.” This is Bobby Heenan’s standup comedy special.
Heenan claims he’s been keeping a timer so he knows exactly how long Flair’s been in (around 16 minutes at this point). Then he says he had budgeted for no more than 30 minutes, which seems shortsighted. He figured he would get number 18 or 20 and everything would be alright. Monsoon reminds us that nobody has ever made it to the end after drawing numbers 1-5 and the way The Brain tells him to “Shutup, shutup” is the glorious next phase of his complete meltdown.
At this point Flair has taken multiple finishers, each one moving Heenan closer to losing his mind. When the one person who’s been in the ring longer than Flair, Davey Boy Smith, gets eliminated by Flair, Heenan pleads for his guy to “Get away from that country hick” (Big Boss Man) and get some rest. He ends up getting it after a bevy of eliminations leave Flair by himself.
Next up is Roddy Piper, who abuses Flair outside, gives him an airplane spin, then throws on his sleeper hold. Bobby is throwing in the proverbial towel now. (“Oh no. Oh no. Oh noooo. He doesn’t know where’s he’s at!”) It’s finally broken up by Jake Roberts, who the Brain thinks he can now trust — until Roberts clotheslines Flair, which isn’t fair, and we’re essentially back to where we started, as nothing is going right here for Bobby.
After Piper breaks up a DDT from Jake, Heenan apologizes for every time he called his kilt a skirt. “It’s a kilt, it’s not a skirt!” His new stance has the lifespan of a Bushwhacker in the Royal Rumble as he walks it back almost immediately once Piper breaks up Flair’s figure-four leglock on Roberts. “It’s a skirt!” barks Bobby. His masterpiece keeps adding layers. His shirt is soaking wet, and he tells us so.
Flair has been in the ring for so long now and cannot take much more, according to Heenan, who also can’t take much more, according to his colleague Gorilla Monsoon (who is, we should note, doing an excellent job working in tandem with The Brain). Bobby is beginning to wonder if the championship is even worth this much of a beating, as it could be career-threatening. He is setting up shop in the “depression” stage of grief. Up next is “acceptance.”
Around the time Flair was taking his hundredth double team, Virgil entered the Rumble at No. 23. Bobby accused Virgil of stealing not only the Million Dollar Championship, but also from the bags of everyone in the back who has already entered the match.
Heenan is working backwards through the stages of grief, as he’s now begging. After Hulk Hogan enters he says, “It doesn’t look good, Monsoon. Please let him win it. I’m sorry for everything I’ve ever done, everything I’ve ever said. I’ll never say anything bad again about anybody. Just let Flair win it. I’ll be a different person, I promise you.” When Hogan has him dangling over the top rope, the desperation in Brain’s voice is palpable.
After Ric Flair breaks Rick Martel’s record of longevity in the Royal Rumble, Brain suggests that’s good enough to win the title. Monsoon says he’s not giving him the title because of that, and I didn’t know Gorilla had the authority to do such a thing in the first place. Then Heenan begs the production crew to keep a wide shot at all times so he can see where his guy is. It’s been a long night in Albany, New York, and the commentary crew is all over the place.
When we’re down to the final three, Flair gets a spike of offense in as Heenan doesn’t change course at all. He’s a nervous wreck that’s still the same level of discomfort as he was when Flair revealed he was number three. Then, it happens. You know what happened, and how. You’ve seen it a hundred times.
Ric Flair wins the Royal Rumble. Bobby Heenan screams “Yes” a hundred times, claims he told us so a dozen more, then leaves his broadcast position to celebrate with Flair. The perfect end to a perfect night of commentary, and of wrestling. It will live on forever, thanks to Bobby Heenan and Ric Flair.