Thirteen years after his death, Curt Hennig remains ‘Perfect’
Perfection is rarely attained in life.
Unless you are “Mr. Perfect.”
Father’s Day is this Sunday, but for the thirteenth year, WWE superstar Curtis Axel will not share the day with his dad. Axel, whose real name is Joe Hennig, cannot call to say, “I love you.” All he has now of his father–the legendary Curt Hennig–is a headstone and memories.
“I think about my dad every time I step into the ring,” said the 36-year-old Axel. “People might not know this, but I pray to him before every match. Wrestling has actually been a way for me to heal after losing my father. It still feels like I’m with him.”
Curt Hennig passed away–far too soon, at the age of 44, in 2003. But the man behind the perfection made an indelible impact on the business, and Axel revealed that his career highlight is winning the Intercontinental title–which his father wore, proudly, twice – on Father’s Day in June of 2013.
“By far, that was the greatest moment of my career thus far,” said Axel. “When my dad won the IC title, he added a lot of prestige to the title. He’s one of the best IC champs of all time. So, for me, to win that on Father’s Day–of all days–made it even more special for me. That was something that meant so much to him, and it meant so much to me. When the referee handed me the title and I held it up, I couldn’t help but get emotional. I looked up at my father, almost in tears, and said, ‘Dad, I did it.’ My whole family was emotional over it back home, and it meant so much to me to hold the same title my dad held. That also put us in the history book together. Unfortunately, I can’t walk down to the ring with my dad. I can’t be in a storyline with my dad, and I don’t have him around to help or guide me. But I have something no other generational kid has–I held the same title as my father.”
In Bret Hart’s estimation, Hennig is one of the best to ever enter the squared circle.
“Curt Hennig was one of the greatest athletes to ever put on a pair of wrestling boots,” said Hart, who wrestled Hennig in one of the greatest matches of all time at the 1991 SummerSlam. “You could wake me up at four in the morning and I could wrestle Curt Hennig for an hour and have a five star match. He was so safe in his matches, and logical. He didn’t waste a lot of moves. Every move made sense. There was a reason why he did it, and it fit into the theme of the whole storyline. A lot of wrestlers would be better off today if they watched Curt Hennig. It’s not about what you do, it’s how you do it.”
Hennig also had his own methods for bringing together a locker room and adding joy to the monotony of the everyday travels in pro wrestling.
“I’m sure he had some s---- days like we all do, but I never saw Curt Hennig in a bad mood,” said “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. “He always had a smile on his face. I respected his work and he was a hell of a guy to be around.”
Austin immediately broke into laughter recalling one of Hennig’s signature moves.
“Any time anybody ever passed Curt Hennig in the airport, he’d say, ‘Oh man, we have to do a shot of Jack Daniels,’” said Austin. “And you’d go to the nearest airport bar to drink that shot. But when you did the shot, you had to gargle it like he did. That was his gimmick. Goddamn, I hate doing shots of Jack, but man, I loved Curt Hennig. So if Curt Hennig says you’ve got to do a shot of Jack, then you’ve got to do a shot of Jack.”
Axel comes from an incredible lineage. In addition to his father, who is a WWE Hall of Famer, his grandfather is wrestling legend Larry “The Axe” Hennig.
After a brief stint as a “Paul Heyman Guy” and then a run in red and yellow with “Axelmania,” Axel is currently working with Heath Slater and Bo Dallas as a member of the Social Outcasts. He remains grateful to earn his living in the same business as his father.
“This is how he busted his ass to provide for our family,” said Axel, “so it’s an amazing feeling to think I’m doing what my dad did for 25 years. I’ll walk around a locker room and think my father has been here hundreds of times. My father could really capture people’s attention. He did that in and out of the ring.”
The legend of Curt Hennig grows by the year. In addition to his athleticism and superb wrestling skill, Hennig also holds a spot as one the premiere ribbers–wrestling’s term for pranksters–in the history of the business.
“There was a WWF flight from Hawaii and we were all going to Japan,” said Hart. “A lot of the wrestlers were up in first class, and Mr. Perfect leaned over and asked Yokozuna if he wanted a little chocolate.”
Unbeknownst to anyone but Hennig, the candy bar contained a laxative. The flight then took a drastic turn when Yokozuna–whose 500-pound frame was unable to fit in the first class bathroom–burst to the back of the plane.
“They took Yoko to the back of the airplane because they couldn’t fit him in the bathroom,” said Hart. “The Japanese stewardesses held up a bunch of sheets and he went to the bathroom on some newspaper. I was just so glad I was in first class.”
Sean Waltman explained that Hennig was even the godfather of the Kliq, long considered to be the most influential group of WWE wrestlers backstage, and included Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Waltman and Paul “Triple H” Levesque.
“Curt was the guy who took Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall under his wing and passed the knowledge down to those guys,” said Waltman. “This is a f----- up comparison, but you know how the religion of Judaism and Islam both come from Abraham? The Kliq, NWO, and DX all come from Curt. You can credit Curt Hennig with a lot of that. His legacy will live on forever.”
Hennig learned from the late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper the importance of passing on the knowledge that was given to him.
“Curt would always talk about how Roddy shared his knowledge,” said Waltman. “Scott Hall will be the first to tell you that there were a lot of guys who were very stingy with their knowledge. It’s a very competitive business, especially before there were any guarantees and everyone was going territory to territory. Curt was different–he thought it was his duty, and he took a lot of guys–including Brock Lesnar–under his wing.”
The harsh reality about perfection is that no one is perfect. Curt Hennig was six weeks away from his 45th birthday when he died tragically due to acute cocaine intoxication. He is missed everyday by those who knew him.
“Curt had the whole package,” said Curt’s father, Larry “The Axe” Hennig, from his home in St. Cloud, Minnesota. “He trained and worked out from the time he was six years old. Wrestling, in our family, started when I was a sophomore in high school and took third in the state. That was my first year in amateur wrestling. I was state champion in Minnesota and was inducted into the Minnesota State Wrestling Hall of Fame, so wrestling is in our blood. I have five children, twenty-five grandchildren, but Curt was one of those athletes who could do it all. Playing golf, football–he was unbelievable. Wrestling always came first, of course. He was a natural and loved wrestling, and he was a great man and a great family man.”
Hennig played another role in addition to “Mr. Perfect”–he was the perfect father.
“Every child is in awe of their father, and I was no different,” said Axel, who is the oldest of Curt’s four children. “My father and I were best friends. He was my hero and I just wanted to be around him all the time. I thought it was cool that he was a pro wrestler, but he was just an awesome dad.
“He really was the perfect dad. People thought it must have been hard with my dad on the road, but it never seemed like he was gone 300 days a year. He still found a way to go to my football games and my baseball games. When he was home, we were either playing catch or doing something. Even when I get home from the road and I’m dragging ass, I make it a point to be there and play with my boys, help them with their homework, and keep their curiosity running wild. My dad taught me everything.”
Waltman recalls the importance of fatherhood to Hennig.
“Curt always told the guys, ‘I don’t care how f------ tired you are, when you get home, you’ve got to be there for your kids,’” said Waltman. “He was ‘Super Dad,’ and he learned from the best. Curt looked up to and loved his dad more than anyone I’ve ever known–what an amazing father-son relationship.”
Hennig and Hart delivered a memorable promo before their match at the 1993 King of the Ring where the two Hall of Famers debated who was tougher–the legendary Stu Hart or the legendary Larry “The Axe” Hennig.
“We did two takes on that,” said Hart. “The first one was exactly the same, but there was some kind of background noise. Then we did it again, and it was so natural and we had fun with it. He’d say something about my dad, then I’d say something about his. There was a gap of quite a few years between his dad and my dad, so they really wouldn’t have been fighting each other, but it sounded funny to say, ‘My dad is tougher than your dad.’ I love that interview for that match–it was very sincere and very real. Everyone there was smiling and laughing about it.”
Axel is always compared to his father, but measuring up to a legend is never easy.
“I would try so hard to compete with him, but he was good at everything,” said Axel. “We’d be out on the boat, and he’d be the only person to catch fish after fish. We’d play basketball in the front yard, and he’d make these one-handed baskets. He was an awesome golfer, he hit homeruns in baseball, he was a great amateur wrestler and football player in high school and college.
“He was even a hell of a ping pong player. When I got a little older, me and my buddies would be downstairs in the house at two in the morning playing cards. My father would come down from bed in his underwear and take all our money–my friends would be furious with me, but he was legitimately good at everything.”
Axel is constantly asked if it was easier to break into wrestling with such an established last name, or if it is a burden trying to fill his father’s shoes. The answer, he explained, is a combination of both.
“It’s a cursed blessing,” said Axel. “It isn’t easy trying to live up to what my father accomplished–for Christ’s sake, my dad’s name was ‘Mr. Perfect.’ We’re constantly compared, and I couldn’t be prouder to be his son, but I’m not trying to be my father. It’s a common misconception, because my father is a Hall of Famer and a major star in this business, that the path was paved for me. But that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Some generational guys start their training on the WWE payroll, but I didn’t.”
Axel joined the business in 2007, four years after his father passed away, and trained under Harley Race–but the third generation star never sought an easy route to success.
“I asked my father when I was in high school if I could wrestle,” said Axel. “I was really into WCW, but he said he didn’t want me to do it. Finally there reached a point when he was wrestling Randy Orton at live events. Randy is my age, and my father asked if I was still serious about doing this. He wanted me to get my college degree so I’d have something to fall back on, and then I could start training.
“So I went to college–I finally found the library at the smallest college and earned the degree with the lowest amount of credits that I could–business management and computer systems–at a community college in the town right next to me in Minnesota. Then, unfortunately, my dad passed away.”
Hennig’s final lesson to his son was, if you want something, then go out and get it.
“I went to learn at Harley Race’s, making fifty dollars a show,” said Axel. “My dad wanted me to achieve my own success. He’d be happy I went to Harley’s and didn’t skip steps. I was so overwhelmed–almost broke with a baby on the way and didn’t know where I was heading. I’m proud of the way I worked to get where I am. Doing this on my own made my sense of achievement so much greater, but I do feel my dad was with me every step of the way.”
Underneath the black-and-white “Social Outcasts” actually lies a whole lot of perfection. Axel will never be his father, but therein lies the problem–while Curt Hennig played the perfect heel, Curtis Axel is far better suited to win over the crowd.
“I never wanted to be my dad,” said Hennig. “I want to be myself. That was my whole thing, way back to when I started at Harley Race’s wrestling camp. I just wanted to be me and do this on my own. I want to figure this out for myself, which is what my dad wanted me to do when I told him I wanted to be a wrestler. I want to make it on my own.”
Some of Hennig’s greatest value has been behind the scenes, as he trained extensively with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Brock Lesnar before each of their comebacks to the ring.
Unbeknownst to the fans watching on television, Hennig also played a key role in the development of some future stars–including Steve Austin, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall.
“When I first came to the WWF, my first day at Monday Night Raw, we ran into each other,” said Austin. “We were always at different companies, but I knew Curt Hennig. Of course I knew who Curt Hennig was because he was Mr. Perfect. I was an up-and-coming kid and he respected my work. I had a long way to go but he knew who I was.
“So anyway he goes to me, ‘Steve, come with me. I want to introduce you to somebody.’ He takes me in the producer’s truck and introduces me to Kevin Dunn. He goes, ‘You need to have a relationship with this guy because he can really help you out.’ And I shook hands with Kevin Dunn, all because Curt Hennig went out of his way to help this new guy–who was another hand, and potentially another threat as far as spots in the ring–and he had no reason to do that other than he wanted to help me.”
Nash credits Hennig with inspiring his work in the ring.
“Our style is basically the Mr. Perfect style of work,” explained Nash. “Get the other guy over. Take everything he has, kick out of everything, and have a hell of a match.
“That’s one thing he taught us. I didn’t do the Warlord. I could have Warlord’d my way up to mid-card mediocrity. Curt said, ‘You can bump and make money, or you can be a big guy–it’s your call.’ So I bumped.”
Hennig also had a profound impact on Scott Hall when the two worked together from 1985-88 in the AWA.
“We were very close,” said Hall. “When I got my first national break and started working with the AWA, they liked me as a babyface. I had a look they liked but I was really inexperienced. The business was changing then–it was more about television, more about merchandise, and kids were more of the targeted audience. So even though the guy with the beer gut smoking cigars was the better worker, the little kids wanted to see the muscle guy beat the old guys. I had the look they liked, but I was inexperienced. At that time there was no guaranteed money, and Curt was a babyface and I was a babyface, so technically we were competing for the same job as top babyface. But Curt was so unselfish that he didn’t care. He’d talk to me on the way to the show and on the way back from the show, and told me what to do and what not to do. He’d start the matches–wrestle, wrestle, wrestle–then I’d come in and beat the guys up. He sells, tags me in, and I’d pin them. Everything was catered to me by Curt.”
Hall was also grateful to be able to contribute to Hennig’s success.
“Curt taught me how to wrestle, but I taught him about diet and nutrition and working out,” said Hall. “If you look at pictures of Hennig and Hall from back in the day, then look at Mr. Perfect, you can see my influence–he got a really good body. He was always a great performer, but he just didn’t have the look.”
While the wrestler was laways quick to help, some of Hennig’s pranks could be vicious.
“Curt was always like a little kid,” said Hart. “Chief Jay Strongbow used to call him ‘Dennis the Menace.’ It was a fitting name for him–Curt always had something going on in the locker. He was a guy who bridged a lot of generations. He’d be playing crib with Andre, then pull a joke on some new guy in the dressing room.”
Nash and Waltman both could not help but laugh when discussing Hennig’s playful personality.
“I never saw Curt in my life and made eye contact with him and didn’t smile,” said Nash.
“You could walk into the worst vibe locker room you could possibly imagine,” added Waltman, “but when Curt Hennig walked in, it would light the whole place up. Owen Hart and Curt were two of the best ribbers, but they were very different kinds of ribbers.”
“Owen would rib himself to get you,” explained Nash.
“Owen was a mind-f--- ribber,” continued Waltman. “Curt would drop a turd in your bag or put a padlock on your luggage.”
“Or,” Nash added, “cut a leg off your tuxedo pants. Shave an eyebrow.”
Bret Hart admitted that he still thinks of Hennig often, and fondly reminisces about the way his friend added to the business of professional wrestling.
“When I look back on it now, Curt Hennig’s joy was in the wrestling ring and the dressing room,” said Hart. “He loved the fun and the harmony and all the drama and pranks in the dressing room–and then going out and having a few beers with his crew from Minnesota after the matches. He was a happy guy on the road, he loved the business, he loved the wrestlers and he loved to give a good match. He was first-rate all the way around. He was good in every way, and I always tell people–if I could have one match with any one guy–Curt Hennig and my brother Owen would be the first two guys. You could wrestle Curt anytime, anywhere and have a great match.”
Hennig’s lasting legacy in the ring is his son. If you look closely, you can see the same fire burning in Axel’s eyes that once burned in his father’s.
“I watched him while I was growing up,” said Axel. “As a little kid, obviously oblivious to how this business works, I was always nervous he was going to get hurt. I kind of figured out the whole win-loss thing. My dad would always say it isn't about winning or losing, it’s about how the match flows, the technique and the psychology. Now that I’m a wrestler, I’m even more in awe of how good–I mean, ‘perfect’–he was in the ring.”
Axel still watches his father’s matches, trying to glean from the matches what he wishes he could ask over the phone.
“He could capture people’s attention, and he did that in and out of the ring,” said Axel. “His matches with Bret Hart were art. They were an inspiration to wrestlers growing up and looking to get in the business, and that SummerSlam match with Bret Hart is always brought up. It’s the greatest Intercontinental title match of all time.”
Hennig worked the SummerSlam classic with Hart despite having not yet recovered from a broken tailbone and bulged discs in his back. He did not wrestle again after the match for over a year. Hennig’s first match back was at the 1992 Survivor Series in a tag match with the “Macho Man” Randy Savage against Ric Flair and Scott Hall.
“It was supposed to be Flair and me against Macho and Warrior,” said Hall. “Vince was a mark for Warrior, that’s how I’d describe it. And that’s the best thing–if your boss, the guy paying you, is a mark for you, you’re set. But Warrior had held Vince up for money, like he was known to, and Vince wasn’t having it, so he brought Perfect back.”
Although Hennig was still active with the WWF as the ‘Perfect Consultant’ for Ric Flair, fans missed his work in the ring. Axel, however, relished the extra time at home with his father.
“I have two younger sisters and a younger brother, and when he was back home, our dad was always messing with us,” said Axel. “He’d take me fishing and hunting when he was home, and he’d slap me across the chest when I’d fall asleep in the car. He was probably a little stiff, but he had a way of making people forget about the hardships and being on the road. It’s hard to be away from your family. Shawn Michaels told a story during my dad’s funeral and said, ‘Curt reminded us to have fun.’ You need somebody in the locker room to make it fun. That’s one of the main reasons he was brought back to WWE in 2000–he could light up the locker room. He made people laugh.
“The matches I remember most of his were with Bret Hart, Piper and Hogan. There’s one match of his with Rowdy Roddy Piper. I wish that match was on his DVD. His matches with Flair, when he turned on the Horsemen and was all heeled up in WCW, were amazing. I still watch those matches. If I’m wrestling a bigger guy, I’ll find one of his matches against a big opponent for ideas.
Axel, the rare third generation star, has a couple of dream matches in mind if his father and grandfather could have ever joined him in the squared circle.
“It would be really cool to go back in time and tag with my father against the Road Warriors,” said Axel. “I’d probably get my butt kicked against those crazy guys, but it would be worth it. I’m a big fan of psychology and a storyline in a match, which can lead to a lot of excitement, so I’d like us to fight the Brain Busters, the Hart Foundation, the Bulldogs, and the Rockers. Those matches would be amazing. My grandfather was more of a brawler, but I try to use both my dad’s technical style and my grandfather’s brawling style and combine them. My father and I could have awesome matches against those guys.”
Although Axel is a WWE superstar with a worldwide audience every time he appears on Raw, he is also a young man who desperately misses his father. If they could have one last conversation together, he would not hesitate on what he would say first.
“I would thank him,” said Axel. “I always knew he worked hard, but now that I’m out on the road, I know what it’s all about. He provided for our family. The schedule is grueling, but after being gone 300-plus days, I now know how grueling the travel is. But you get to travel the world, and that’s pretty cool. I’d never even heard of Abu Dhabi, and now I’ve been there twice. So it would be cool to hear his take on life on the road. The stuff that he witnessed was crazy.”
Life, as Axel can attest, has a way of coming full circle. In the eyes of his three boys, Axel is their “Mr. Perfect.”
“They have all the action figures, and I never lose,” said Axel. “Maybe we should tell Vince that.”
Axel wants to cement his own legacy, but that does not take away from the fact he is bursting with pride to be Curt Hennig’s son every time he hops over the ropes.
“My father’s legacy will forever be sketched in history as one of the greatest performers in not only the WWE, but also the whole world,” said Axel. “He is in the WWE Hall of Fame. He could not only talk the talk, but he could walk the walk through his look, athletic ability, and attitude. He had more love for this business than anyone. Even though he’s gone from the world of wrestling, he’ll never be forgotten.
“People will talk about Mr. Perfect for hundreds of years, and, as for me, his legacy continues as a mentor, teacher and someone I could go to, whether it was good or bad. He was my hero, my best friend and the best goddamn dad a son could ask for. I continue to miss him every day of my life. On a final note, when you watch me on Smackdown or watch me on Raw as Curtis Axel–a name that's combined together to represent both my grandfather and my father, know this: my dad, ‘Mr. Perfect’ Curt Hennig, lives with me every day of my life. He’s driving me, not only in the ring, but also out of it. And he truly was perfect.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter@JustinBarrasso.