Perfect timing: Remembering Curt Hennig
Nearly four years after his childhood friend Rick Rude (Richard Rood) died of heart failure at the age of 40, Curt Hennig, 44, was found dead in a Tampa hotel room on Monday, February 10, 2003–seven years ago today. Later that night, WWE’s RAW program opened with a photo and graphic announcing his death, a sad ritual that the promotion continues to do to this day with each untimely death of the wrestling fraternity.
With the sudden appearance in 1982 of Fritz Von Erich’s World Class Championship Wrestling and, later, Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling on a local independent channel in Memphis, which eventually aired back-to-back in the two hours preceding the Jarrett/Lawler live show from WMC-TV 5, I found myself with new heroes to cheer and villains to jeer. A dream come true, really: a marathon of three and half hours of arguably the best TV wrestling in the country. (The addition of Watts’s Mid-South Wrestling — and the attention of classmate Lisa Wilks — would have made my 11-year-old life complete.)
While the King remained my favorite wrestler in the early ’80s, I couldn’t help but become fascinated with Ric Flair, Roddy Piper, Kerry Von Erich and the Freebirds. Months later, my parents finally ponied up for the exciting technology known as “cable TV” in 1983, so I was exposed to Georgia’s World Championship Wrestling on WTBS (which had at that point had already started its downhill slide) and the WWF, both of which I found pretty disappointing compared to Memphis, World Class and MACW.
By 1985, Flair had become my favorite wrestler, as my understanding of the business began to evolve. By then, there was more wrestling than ever on TV, with Crockett having taken over the WTBS slot in March 1985. With Memphis struggling a bit talent-wise in 1985 (but still being quite creative, mind you), the Saturday-afternoon Crockett show eclipsed Memphis as the show I enjoyed most. I started tape trading with a guy who had access to VHS cassettes of footage from the few promotions I didn’t have access to, including Championship Wrestling from Florida, Continental (Alabama/Pensacola) and All Japan and New Japan. I saw tons of Flair’s matches from all over the world, and admired his ability to have long, physical, outstanding bouts with just about anybody — granted, they often seemed like the same bout, but….
By late 1985, a young wrestler on Verne Gagne’s AWA Championship Wrestling on ESPN began to remind me a bit of Flair, in that he was always sharp and did a great job of hiding the inadequacies of his green tag-team partner, Scott Hall: second-generation grappler Curt Hennig, son of Larry “the Ax.” Actually, Curt was more reminiscent of longtime AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel, in that in he was a little more versatile and offered more mat wrestling and far less showmanship than Flair.
It was apparent that Hennig was developing into Bockwinkel’s heir apparent for the AWA throne — a thought that picked up more steam following their classic 60-minute draw from Las Vegas on November 11, 1986, which aired on New Year’s Eve on ESPN. (Ahem … not that I was home watching wrestling on New Year’s. OK, OK, I might have been.)
I watched that hourlong Broadway recently as part of the 2008 WWE DVD release, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MR. PERFECT. While today’s fans wouldn’t have the patience for such a bout, I still appreciate the performance of both men. Bockwinkel was in amazing shape for his age (a few weeks short of 52) at the time, and he set a remarkable pace for the bout, with Hennig doing a great job of keeping up with him. (Unfortunately, we don’t get much insight from Greg Gagne into this match or Hennig’s AWA stint on the documentary portion of the DVD, as he pulls an Arn Anderson, speaking mostly in kayfabe.)
The two were smooth in the early going, brilliantly exchanging holds to make it appear as if an actual wrestling match were taking place. To show you how out of touch Verne Gagne was at the time, he had Lord James Blears sitting ringside with announcer Rod Tronguard. Moments after the bell sounds, Tronguard gives away the finish, blurting out “Are you ready to go 60 minutes?!” Amazing. Blears then proceeds to tell a long story about a letter he received from a boy who injured his brother after watching AWA Wrestling on ESPN and warning others not to do the same — oblivious to the match. Blears later offers a lengthy roll call of Bockwinkel’s classic opponents and then later rattles off the wrestlers in heaven who are watching the match from that great ring in the sky. Excruciating. Tronguard even thanks the entire video crew, reciting the name of each cameraman.
Anyway, this bout from the Showboat Pavilion in Las Vegas really helped get Hennig over as a title contender, a masterful job by Bockwinkel. Both men got color (bled) with about 10 minutes left, with Curt hitting a gusher. The desperate Bockwinkel repeatedly asked, “How much time?” In reality, it was Curt who was worried, as he panicked when he saw how much blood he’d lost, according to Bockwinkel. “He panicked a little….I just told him not to worry and to keep going. We went the distance because he was a trooper and understood what the business was,” Nick told Dave Meltzer. Curt had Bockwinkel locked in a submission hold when the time limit expired — it was a stunning visual with blood streaming down Hennig’s face as the cut champion struggled to hang on. Even AWA ref Gary DeRusha seemed exhausted after it was over.
Hennig chased Bockwinkel into the following year, slowly planting the seeds of a heel turn, which culminated with him accepting a roll of nickels from Larry Zbyszko, which he used to turn out the lights on Tricky Nick’s last title reign on May 2, 1987. Gagne had promised the belt to Hennig months earlier after the WWF came calling hoping to sign the rising star.
Curt made his first Memphis AWA title defense on August 11, 1987, against Jerry Lawler, breathing new life into the King’s quest for the World championship. While memorable, the Lawler vs. Bockwinkel series had run its course, with most fans slowly catching on that the King would never overthrow the AWA kingpin. But maybe, maybe, the wily veteran Lawler could unseat this young cocky punk. It was something different. I had to be there.
I remember thinking that I was impressed that the no-frills Hennig walked to the ring carrying a small white towel in his hand — a homage of sorts to longtime champion Bockwinkel, who did the same and came off like a different breed of wrestler (i.e., downright regal). I always loved how Bockwinkel left the towel hanging in the corner, just in case sweat built up on his brow. Like Bockwinkel, Hennig had no gimmick, except for excellence. No peacock-like robes a la Flair. No cape. In fact, none of Hennig’s attire was spectacular — unless you consider the working shoes he brought with him on this night — and, really, pretty much every night I saw him.
That is to say, even in 1987 Hennig had cemented his rep as one of the best workers in the business.
In that sense, Hennig was a throwback of sorts to the classic NWA champs like Dory Funk Jr., Jack Brisco and Harley Race. He had the ability to carry most to a decent bout, which would come in handy later in his career when was unfortunately stuck in WWE WRESTLEMANIA bouts with the likes of Brutus Beefcake and the Big Bossman.
Even on this night with Lawler, he was already displaying a few spots that would become a staple of his repertoire years later. Similar to Flair’s bump off the top rope, or the trademark flip over the turnbuckle, Curt pegged his opponent’s big comeback to start with a series of kicks that would see the AWA champ take a series of crazy flips and bumps against the ring ropes. When Lawler pulled the strap on this night–the traditional start of the King’s comeback (like Popeye with his spinach), Hennig was sent reeling with a series of punches. When he collapsed against the ring ropes, Lawler went for the legs. Hennig was sent for a loop at least three times with the crowd popping huge each time. And even though I’d seen the spot already in a couple of bouts on the AWA’s TV program on ESPN, at age 15 and seated in the third row, I cheered like I hadn’t before.
Like so many times before, however, Lawler didn’t win the big one. In an ill-fated attempt to get over a new heel who would be Lawler’s opponent in the weeks to come, Brickhouse Brown hit the ring in drag to the surprise of no one in the ringside area. Brown had been pointed out several times by fans earlier in the night and finally had to be escorted to the back by police to avoid being attacked by the ever-loyal drunken ringside regulars. Hard to disguise a chiseled 220-pound man as a woman. As a guy who was starting to grasp what was good booking (e.g., most of Lawler and Jerry Jarrett’s stuff) and what wasn’t (e.g., the Randy Hales era), I couldn’t understand why they didn’t change that finish after Brown’s cover was blown. A drag indeed.
And like the previous programs with Bockwinkel, the AWA champ reappeared over the next year or so, with a variety of stipulations added to the title bouts. In one, Curt’s dad, Larry, was in his corner. Now this finish, I did pop for: I’m not sure if the referee was distracted or knocked senseless (more likely), but as Lawler lay prone on the middle ring rope, Larry caught Lawler with the dreaded “Ax,” his finisher from days gone by. Lawler, who rarely did a pinfall job for any World champ, sold it like as if he’d been hit with a Triple H sledgehammer. Curt got the pinfall, and earned major Southern heat in the process. An old man sitting near me got in Curt’s face as he was leaving the ring and shouted, “Yeah, you needed your daddy to beat Lawler!” Curt simply smirked.
Leave it to Lawler’s Fargo-figure to even the score. In the weeks leading up to the match, the Memphis wrestling show promoted a 900-number (1-900-YOU-MARK, if I recall) to decide the special referee for what was billed as “quite possibly” the King’s last shot at the throne: Memphis legend Jackie Fargo or Larry Hennig. In a scheme that would even make 900-carny-extraordinaire “Mean” Gene Okerlund embarrassed, the promotion claimed that the shrewd World champion had “posted the number in Minneapolis” and was spending thousands of dollars of his own money to skew the voting. Lawler even went so far as to imply that the voting was so tight that it was up to the Memphis fans to pull down the proverbial strap and shell out some out some money to ensure the King at least had a fair shot in his court. After all, this has been OUR quest for the belt, hasn’t it? Amazingly enough, in a script even a member of the RAW writing team could have written, Fargo was elected by the slimmest of margins in a late “Memphis surge.” Whew.
In a pretty damn good bout, with Hennig bouncing all over the place for Lawler’s repeated right hands, the Memphis native finally became King of the World on May 9, 1988. The winning move: A slingshot maneuver (which Lance Russell referred to as a “catapult”) that sent Hennig headfirst into the ringpost, knocking him out. No wonder Fargo was able to (mistakenly) count to four to seal the win. Lawler has since called it his favorite match.
Weeks later, following the leads of far-crazier heels like Randy Savage and Terry Funk, Hennig showed up (for his first and only live appearance) in the WMC-TV studio and proceeded to rip the set apart.
A short time after Hennig redesigned the Memphis TV set, he signed with Vince McMahon’s gimmick machine in 1988. Billed as Mr. Perfect, the consummate athlete, Hennig debuted in a series of vignettes displaying his obvious perfection at various sports: sinking a hole-in-one, swishing a basket from mid-court, nailing the flawless dive, pulling off trick billiard shots, etc. Hey, even Ted DiBiase–generally acknowledged as one of the best ever–had to get over in Vince’s circus via the Million-Dollar-Man bits. At the time, some speculated that the Mr. Perfect and Million-Dollar-Man characters were Vince’s ideal visions of himself.
Hennig could have done far worse to be repackaged in Vince’s image. Another highly touted star made his WWE debut around that time, with disastrous results. I even remember telling a friend of mine in 1989 that Terry Taylor –Vince’s Lil Red Rooster–would’ve been a better choice for the Mr. Perfect gimmick. I couldn’t have been more wrong. On the WWE’s DVD, Mick Foley tells Michael Cole in the new commentary recorded for the Hennig vs. Taylor bout at 1989′s WRESTLEFEST that Terry was indeed under consideration for the Mr. P spot that eventually went to Hennig. Foley goes on to say that he asked Michael Hayes (today a creative bigwig on SMACKDOWN!) for his opinion on how Taylor would have done in the role, to which the former Freebird replied, “Why settle for a double when you can hit a home run?”
Indeed, Hennig did knock it out of the park, figuratively and literally. When shooting the softball vignettes for the Mr. P character, Bobby Heenan contacted legendary slugger Wade Boggs and asked him to drop by just in case they needed to simulate Hennig’s hitting prowess. On the DVD, Boggs explains that he was impressed with Curt’s athleticism, marveling that Hennig was able to drill a ball over the fence with ease. While I knew that Hennig and Boggs had become friends during the filming of the segment, I didn’t realize how close they were until his speech inducting Mr. Perfect into the WWE HALL OF FAME in 2007.
A fun piece of the LIFE AND TIMES documentary includes the producer of many of the Perfect vignettes introducing outtakes, which reveal that Hennig was anything but flawless in the sports he claimed to master. Hilarious stuff with Curt mugging at the camera saying, “Perfect!” as a basketball clangs off the rim, similar to the Charlie Haas skit that aired on Monday’s RAW. (If you haven’t seen it, the DVD is worth picking up for the Mr. P skits alone. I’m sure I’ll bring myself to someday watch the first match on the Perfect DVD, a 1982 bout between Hennig and my old friend Eddie Gilbert from Madison Square Garden, a grim reminder of the price many young stars of the ’80s paid for wrestling stardom.)
Hennig’s bump-happy style eventually led to a severe back injury (which I believe he blamed on a faulty turnbuckle), causing Perfect to drop the IC title to Bret Hart at the 1991 SUMMERSLAM, a bout that helped get the Hitman over as a singles star. In incredible pain, Hennig reportedly asked Vince prior to the bout if he could pull an HBK and forfeit the strap. Realizing that Hart needed that extra push to get him over as singles star after years as a tag-team with Jim Neidhart, Vince asked Hennig to get through it. Not only did he gut it out, but Hennig and Hart also had one of the best matches on the card (not that difficult with Hulk Hogan and Warrior headlining as a tag-team) and one of the finest of the year. Bret’s never forgotten what Curt did him for that night, often getting emotional when speaking of his old friend and rival.
As Hart wrote on his Web site, “With Curt Hennig, I was able to do slick moves that I wouldn’t think of doing with most other guys. He was my all-time favorite. When I look back to our incredible matches, they sort of remind me of those ‘Spy vs. Spy’ cartoons in Mad Magazine. We were similar in age, size and background and we had a similar look, except that Curt wore a mane of long, blonde curly hair.” Hart and Hennig had a chemistry dating back to 1989, shortly after Mr. Perfect came to be, in a bout taped in Wheeling, W.V., which aired on PRIMETIME WRESTLING, the precursor to MONDAY NIGHT RAW. The two were super smooth in the ring on that night in Wheeling, putting a together a brilliant match that I must have watched dozens of times on VHS. For the finish, Curt reversed a rollup and held onto the Hitman’s tights for the win. Incidentally, this was the only Mr. Perfect bout in which I saw Hennig’s gum-slap misfire. To further illustrate his perfection, Hennig would saunter to the ring smacking gum, which he would spit out and, in a quick motion, slap into the audience with disdain. Just after the bell rang to start the bout with Hart in Wheeling, with the Hitman and Perfect facing off ready to lock up, Hennig spat the gum and swatted…but missed, with the gum landing at Mr. P’s right boot. For a split second, Hart and Perfect shared a sly smile before Curt kicked the gum from the ring. A nice little moment.
Kevin Lawler and I practiced for days until we perfected the chewing-gum ritual. (Yep, we were the perfect marks.) And I still love Perfect’s theme music to this day — in fact, it’s been my ringtone for the last four years, much to my wife’s chagrin. In fact, when I was watching the Perfect DVD last year, Hayley stopped mid-route to the kitchen and exclaimed, “Oh … my … God! That’s your bloody annoying ringtone!” (Hayley obviously knows perfection when she sees it but not always when she hears it.) Needless to say, she’s very impressed when I perform the gum-slap. (The first time she saw it: “What the hell was that?”)
Hennig appeared to live the Mr. Perfect gimmick. In some ways, it hurts to look back at his physical transformation into the character. When Hennig debuted in the WWF in 1989 for the second time (he worked there previously as a rookie in the early ’80s), he looked much like the same guy who was pinned by Lawler months earlier. In a conservative estimate, by the time he won his first WWE Intercontinental title in a 1990 tournament final over Tito Santana in Houston, he had put on at least 15 pounds of muscle. His new build, combined with his consistent execution in the ring (especially when TV cameras were rolling) made Hennig easily of the top five performers in the business at that time. For a while, most fans, including the OBSERVER’S Meltzer, interchanged Curt’s surname between “Hennig” and “Perfect” without a second thought.
The trouble with being perfect, though, is that it’s impossible to live up to that standard as the years go on. After the crazy bumps caught up with Perfect, he sat on the sideline collecting a nice living for nearly two years through a Lloyd’s of London Insurance policy. McMahon was so high on Hennig at that point that he moved Perfect into the announcer’s booth, hoping that his backstage humor and personality would shine through in his commentary. Perfect for years was known as a real cutup backstage — quite literally. A legendary ribber (prankster) among his peers, Hennig often put padlocks on lockers and luggage, or used scissors to cut the street clothes of his colleagues to ribbons. He and McMahon clicked together, reminiscent of Junior’s chemistry years earlier with Jesse “the Body” Ventura.
Eventually, Mr. Perfect reappeared in the ring for emergency duty to save the 1992 SURVIVOR SERIES PPV after McMahon suspended the Ultimate Warrior for suspected HGH use. Though Hennig appeared to be heavier and a step off his game, he still went on to have great bouts with Shawn Michaels and a near classic with Hart at the 1993 KING OF THE RING PPV.
Like others did when Ted Turner expanded his WCW rasslin’ kingdom in the late ’90s, Hennig took the money and jumped ship. After stints as a member of the Four Horsemen, the New World Order and the West Texas Rednecks, Hennig eventually returned to the independent scene, working dates in Memphis and Tampa.
But then Vince came calling again, looking to spruce up the lineup for the 2002 Royal Rumble. After Hennig’s decent showing, which was initially thought to be a one-time shot, he was signed to a WWE contract. He was later fired after an incident in which he reportedly goaded Brock Lesnar into a fight during the infamous “flight from hell” trip back from Europe.
Shortly before his death, Hennig finished up a stint with TNA, where he feuded with another second-generation star, Jeff Jarrett, over the reborn NWA title. Although that perfect timing was long gone due to his nagging back injury and advancing age, Hennig was still a professional and, according to the boys, one of the best human beings in the business. Not quite perfect anymore. But damn near close.