By Mike Mooneyham
Feb. 16, 2003
He may not have been perfect, but he wasn’t far from it.
For a stretch during the late 1980s and early 90s, there was no better worker in the wrestling business than Curt Hennig, whose Mr. Perfect character fit the consummate grappler to a tee. A second-generation star, he had all the tools – a solid background in the sport, great skills and outstanding mic ability. Moreover, he possessed that one intangible, but essential, ingredient – charisma.
His death last week at the age of 44 leaves behind a wife and four children, and a wrestling world in mourning. Although his better days in the ring had been far behind him, he remained a sought-after figure on the independent wrestling scene and recently had worked for Jerry Jarrett’s NWA-TNA promotion in Nashville.
Hennig was in Tampa last Monday for an independent show promoted by Jimmy Hart when he was found dead in a hotel room. A spokesman for the Hillsborough County Examiner said that autopsy results won’t be released for six to eight weeks, so no official cause of death will be known until then. Deputies said his death was not a suicide, nor do they suspect foul play.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]The Minnesota native reportedly had complained of stomach pains during dinner the previous evening, and had declined an offer for an early-morning breakfast on Monday. Several hours later, at approximately 1:30 p.m., a housekeeper at the hotel was summoned to open the door to his room where Hennig was found dead. He had been scheduled to perform several miles away at the Florida State Fair later that evening as part of Hart’s All-Star Wrestling show, which went on with Hennig honored with a 10-bell salute in front of about 400 fans.
“We lost one of our fraternity brothers,” Hart told the Tampa Tribune. “He’s a major star. It’s unbelievable. Everyone is in shock … He always kept himself in the best condition. He always looked great, like he’s never aged.”
Former American Wrestling Association champion Nick Bockwinkel, with whom Hennig fought many classic battles over the AWA title during the mid-’80s, told the Winnipeg Sun that he began to cry when he called Hennig’s parents to express his condolences.
“I left a message and I started to cry,” Bockwinkel said. “It’s so sad.” “It’s a crying shame. I have been working with him in Nashville. I loved him like a brother,” said William Moody, better known in wrestling circles as Percy Pringle and Paul Bearer.
Brian Knobbs, formerly of the Nasty Boys, told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times: “I have been best friends with him for 17 years. It’s almost like Dale Earnhardt when he passed away. You want to cry. You never know when your last day is. You just give thanks (each day) … He was Mr. Perfect.”
Hennig, son of the legendary Larry “The Axe” Hennig, was born into the business, but had said on many occasions that he never felt pressured to follow his father into the profession. Hennig said he never really thought about becoming a wrestler until he fell into the industry after hurting his knee while playing football at the University of Minnesota. He continued to be a Golden Gopher fan long after he left the school, and sometimes attended Gopher amateur wrestling meets, which is where he met current WWE star Brock Lesnar.
“I’ve known him for five years,” Lesnar told the WWE’s Web site last week. “I met him in 97. We were buddies. I only lived 20 minutes from him. I saw him last week. We went to the gym. We were supposed to go fishing next week. I just can’t believe he’s gone … I kind of looked up to him because he helped me out quite a bit. He was just always joking. When I would call him he would answer the phone as Minnesota’s Greatest Athlete.'”
While rehabbing his knee during the late 70s, Hennig decided to attend Verne Gagne’s wrestling camp. As it turned out, Henning, along with Olympic wrestler Brad Rheingans, were the only two out of a class of 110 to “graduate” to the next level. He was a natural, and would later say that the business was “custom-made for a guy like Curt Hennig.”
“I love to travel, I love to meet people,” said Hennig. “I love to be on the move. I love to be athletic. I love the fact that I get to release all of my tension, and I love the fact that I get to beat people up.”
Although he held a number of regional titles during the mid-80s, it wasn’t until WWE owner Vince McMahon approached him with the idea for a gimmick in 1987 that Hennig reached his pinnacle.
As Mr. Perfect, Hennig portrayed the “perfect” athlete, one who was supposedly unbeatable in wrestling and flawless in other sports as well. To drive the point home, Hennig was featured in some vintage vignettes showing his perfection at various sports – hitting home runs, throwing touchdowns, sinking holes-in-one, swishing baskets from half court.
In reality, he was one of the company’s finest mat technicians and bump-takers over a period of several years. If there was a drawback, it was that the 6-2, 240-pound Hennig’s prime coincided with McMahon’s emphasis on muscle, bulk and steroid-inflated monsters rather than solid in-ring performers that he ironically would be forced to turn to only a short time later. A serious back injury in 1991 that he aggravated in 1993, though, would end Hennig’s days as one of wrestling’s premier workers.
“The first time I got to see Curt live was his first go-around in WWE,” Arn Anderson told the WWE Web site last week. “Being a guy who’s not really easily impressed – I’ve seen so many great athletes, great workers and big stars over the years – Curt was one of those guys who grabbed you right away. He was special. Everything he did was different than everybody else. I would venture to say that up until that time, the matches he had with Bret Hart were the most awe-inspiring things I had seen. It was just incredible because it was completely different.”
“There’s one thing that I will always remember about Curt, and that is he always made me laugh,” 16-time world champion Ric Flair told The Post and Courier. “He was always happy, and you couldn’t help but laugh being around him.”
A free spirit whose passion for the business and for life was his calling card, he made himself special by a combination of humor and talent. Hennig, however, may be more remembered by his colleagues for being a relentless prankster.
Funny, witty and entertaining, with a passion for fishing, hunting, golf and country music, the gum-slapping Hennig was known in the business as a “ribber,” a practical joker who would go to great lengths to provide locker-room humor – always at the expense of some unfortunate, unsuspecting soul. Many veterans considered him the modern-day equivalent of Johnny Valentine, who was universally regarded as the master ribber of all time. Hennig, though, wasn’t far behind. From such innocent acts as chaining wrestlers’ bags to benches in the locker room and spiking the backstage punch bowl with Ex-Lax, to much more sophisticated ribs whose description isn’t suitable for a family newspaper, Hennig was a terror on the road.
Flair chuckles when recalling an incident in which Hennig put a dead fish in then-WCW announcer Mark Madden’s suit several hours prior to a Nitro broadcast. When Madden went to put the suit on shortly before the show, he discovered not only the fish, but the terrible odor.
“I wish he could be remembered for the great worker he was,” said Flair. “But I think he’ll be remembered more as a prankster.”
“Curt was one of the guys where if someone fell asleep on the airplane, you’d wake up with your eyebrows shaved,” said Larry Zbyszko.
“The end result was whatever he said was funny as hell,” Anderson said on the WWE site. “Curt could make you laugh at yourself, and before the joke was done, you would be laughing at him … No one else will be like Curt Hennig, (and) no one has ever been like Curt Hennig. From the first time I met him, Curt was just special. There’s no other adjective I can use to describe him. If anyone is ever compared to Curt Hennig – in the dressing room or in the ring – it’d be a hell of a compliment.”
Hennig enjoyed successful heel runs at the top of the card in WWE (then WWF) with the likes of Hart, Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. His in-ring role was diminished after his back injury, but he still shined in classic TV moments with Flair and manager Bobby Heenan.
Later in WCW, he was a member of the Four Horsemen, the NWO and the West Texas Rednecks. A Vince Russo-inspired gimmick designed to get Hennig over as a major heel had the opposite effect when Hennig was given the role of a Texas redneck in a country music vs. rap feud. The angle resulted in The West Texas Rednecks, which consisted of Hennig, Bobby Duncum Jr., and Barry and Kendall Windham. Hennig, as always, was hilarious in his role, turning his “Rap Is Crap” ditty into a much-requested number.
Despite his commanding presence in front of a camera, Hennig was never an advocate of sports entertainment.
“I am a wrestler,” he once said. “I don’t care about gimmicks. I don’t care about ring entrance music. I just go out there and do what I do best. I wrestle.”
Over the years Hennig had drawn his share of heat. Some colleagues thought his old-school ribbing had gotten too far out of hand. McMahon, who once paid the balance of Hennig’s lucrative Lloyds of London policy to lure him back to wrestling, was stung when Hennig later walked out on the company without notice to jump to WCW.
He returned to WWE for a final run in January 2002, but was released four months later after being involved in a scuffle with Lesnar on a chartered flight returning from Europe, an incident later described by Jim Ross as “a schoolyard wrestling match that got out of hand.” Hennig had been beset by personal problems the past few years. A daughter was involved in a near-fatal skiing accident in early 2000. His best friend since the eighth grade, wrestler “Ravishing” Rick Rude (Richard Rood), died in April 1999 at the age of 40. The two had attended Robbinsdale (Minn.) High School together, graduating the same year as future wrestlers Brady Boone and Tom Zenk, and shortly before John Nord (The Berzerker), Nikita Koloff and Barry Darsow (Demolition Smash).
Rude’s death hit Hennig so hard that he would often talk about waking up at night and screaming.
Perhaps what many fans will most remember about Curtis Michael Hennig is that was always nice to them.
Countless followers have recounted how Hennig, despite his in-ring image as a heel, was never too busy to sign autographs or simply talk to them. He was also always willing to help with charitable causes.
Bill Murdock, executive director of the Eblen Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Asheville that assists families in western North Carolina deal with chronic illness and disabilities, related the following story about Hennig:
“Curt was in Asheville for the Eblen Celebrity Golf Classic, as he had been for a number of years. Each year, Curt would come a day or so early and visit local schools, radio stations, etc. One morning before the tournament, we visited a small elementary school. They held a special assembly for Curt and he talked to the students about wrestling, fitness, studying hard in school and doing the right things in general as they grew up.
“As we were leaving and walking past various classrooms, a teacher stepped into the hall and approached us. Are you Mr. Hennig?’ she asked. He assured her that he was. She explained to him that she taught a class of special needs children and she had one child in particular who was a wrestling fan and all he ever talks about is Mr. Perfect.’
“She went on to explain that he had some emotional difficulties and had been acting up in class and she told him repeatedly that if he did not behave, he would not be able to go to the assembly to see Mr. Perfect. As the morning went on, his behavior continued to be a problem and she had little choice but to make him remain in time out’ in the classroom while his classmates went to hear Curt speak.
“The teacher then asked if Curt had a moment to talk to the student and maybe encourage him. Curt walked into the small room that the child was in and sat down next to him at his desk. For the next 30 minutes or so, Sue Aitchison of the WWE and I waited in the hall as Curt spent time alone with the young man. The local television station, newspapers and other media had long been gone. Curt took his own time to talk with this student. No publicity, just a father talking to a child the same age as he had waiting back home in Minnesota. When he came out and we headed for the golf course, he spoke very little about what he and the student talked about, but he seemed to be very pleased.
“For that one morning, in that small elementary school in the mountains of western North Carolina, to one special young man, Curt Hennig was, indeed, Mr. Perfect.”
Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected]. He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” published by Crown. For more wrestling news, check out www.mikemooneyham.com.