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On this day in Memphis wrestling history: King at last! Jerry Lawler dethrones Curt Hennig for AWA World championship

May 9th, 2012 1 comment

King of the Canvas: Lawler is crowned on May 9, 1988.

In 1978, Memphis wrestling territory owner/promoter Jerry Jarrett made a gamble that would pay off 10 years later. Despite gaining the support of NWA promoters in his infamous battle to take the Memphis territory from longtime promoter Nick Gulas following a dispute, Jarrett in 1978 had become disgruntled in his dealings with the Alliance and their reluctance to put the NWA World title on his rising star, native Memphian Jerry Lawler.

Four years earlier, Jarrett booked a long program, the Quest for the Title, which was designed to get Lawler over in the fans’ eyes as a serious contender for the NWA World championship, held at that time by the late Jack Brisco. The roots of the program can be traced to Jarrett’s teenage years, when he was worked a part-time job at wrestling matches at the Hippodrome Arena in Nashville.

“I was a 14- or 15 year-old kid sitting in front of the arena tearing tickets as folks walked in. Lou Thesz was the World heavyweight champion. Most of the wrestlers would pull up behind the building and go in the side door and duck into the side dressing room. But Lou pulled up in a taxi in front of the building. I was tearing tickets at the matches. He would walk up those steps to the Hippodrome, and literally, goosebumps would jump on my arms and the hair on the back of neck would stand on end. You knew he was the champion–even if you’d never seen wrestling–just from the way he carried himself. Lou Thesz was an inspiration to me. I was so impressed with Lou that I had this reverence for the World title and still do. It signifies that you have achieved the very top in this profession. So Jerry Lawler was very talented, and I knew that he deserved to be the champion, so I developed the Quest for the Title for him.”

Jarrett called some of his closest friends in the wrestling business, including the late Eddie Graham, who had a tremendous influence on the young promoter, to get dates on some of the biggest stars in the business. Jarrett billed them as the top 10 contenders that Lawler had to defeat to get a shot at the 10 pounds of gold.

One by one over a period of months, Lawler knocked them off…whether the stars agreed to lose or not. When the Sheik (Ed Farhat) and Dick the Bruiser refused to do a job for Lawler after arriving at the Coliseum, Jarrett simply filmed a false finish and then turned the cameras off when the bout later ended inconclusively via a disqualification or count-out. Lawler and his manager Sam Bass would then come out the following Saturday morning, airing only the footage of the false finish but claiming victory nonetheless.

“He [Bass] would say, ‘Jerry Lawler beat the stew out of the Sheik and beat him 1, 2, 3.’ Because their credibility was important, Lance and Dave would try to dispute it saying, ‘Oh, c’mon, Jerry.’ So Lawler would scream, ‘Play the tape if you don’t believe me!’ And then we’d show the false finish with Lawler appearing to beat him for a three count. Lawler would then proceed to talk about next week’s challenge, as Lance just shook his head. So, in that sense, Lawler effectively beat everyone in the nation as part of the Quest for the Title–if not by pinfall, then with a little creativity.”

The program culminated on Sept. 16, 1974, with more than 10,125 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum on hand for the title showdown. Lawler appeared to defeat Brisco for the belt but the decision was overturned when the referee discovered that the King had used a chain to knock out the champion. Backstage, two men watched with tears in their eyes. 

”Eddie Graham and I stood at the back of the Mid-South Coliseum…we were both very emotional,” says Jarrett. “Brisco was Eddie’s man, he loved him, he groomed him and he nurtured him to become the World champion. Lawler was my man. That night, it almost felt like our sons were out there really fighting for the World title. That was such a fun time of my life.”

Of course, in a sense, the Quest for the Title was really just beginning, as the promotion continued to return to the storyline for the next several years as Lawler always fell heartbreakingly short of bringing the World championship home to Memphis. And without the benefit of a professional sports team in our city at the time, Lawler was the home sports team for my friends and me growing.

“I campaigned unsuccessfully for years to get the NWA title for Jerry,” Jarrett says. “But some people on the NWA board felt that he wasn’t tough enough. I was always saying, ‘Tough?’ What do you mean ‘tough’? This is show business.”

Despite the consistent success of the territory, Jarrett claims the NWA made it clear that Memphis would most likely never see a title change, even a quickie (similar to Tommy Rich in Georgia and Dusty in Tampa). In addition, the perennial NWA champ in the ’70s and early ’80s, Harley Race, disliked Lawler and Jarrett because the promotion had made it appear that the King had pinned all of his challengers during the Quest for the Title run when in fact most of the wins came via disqualification or countout.

Race claims he was so ticked off about the King’s apparent conquering of “the entire NWA and Andre the Giant” that he challenged Lawler to a shoot prior to a scheduled title defense. Luckily for Lawler, cooler heads prevailed. Race’s last appearance as NWA champ in Memphis was in December 1977 when his bout with Lawler was stopped when “Handsom” Jimmy Valiant busted a Coke bottle (which had been baked in an over for 2 hours to soften it) over Lawler’s head.

King for a night: Lawler wins the AWA World title from Bockwinkel in 1982 but the decision is overturned.

In August 1978, Jarrett began working with Verne Gagne, who owned the successful American Wrestling Association territory, and booking AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel instead of NWA kingpin Race. Jarrett also changed all the area titles to AWA affiiation, including the NWA Southern title to the AWA Southern title.

With his regal demeanor and arrogance, Beverly Hills’ Bockwinkel played the role of the rich playboy champion to perfection, some would argue much more effectively than NWA World champion Ric Flair. (Not only that, but it was also cheaper and easier to get dates on the AWA champion, whose schedule wasn’t nearly as hectic as his NWA counterpart.) You practically needed a dictionary on hand when watching a Bockwinkel promo. And, man, could he work. Lawler and Nick had some of the bouts of the King’s career–amazing chemistry that had the fans on the edge of their seats.

“Well, not only was he a great wrestler, but Nick was also an articulate, decent man,” Jarrett says. “I really cared for Nick, and I counted myself lucky that I knew Nick Bockwinkel. And the politics of it…let’s just say that the NWA was beginning to slide a bit. Also, I was not successful at getting Lawler a run with the NWA title, and I figured I’d have much better luck talking to Verne Gagne–one man–as opposed to an entire board, so that played a big part in it. Verne also had some really stellar talent besides Nick that would help us draw money.”

Lance Russell describes the nights of World title matches at the Mid-South Coliseum as “magic.”

“The atmosphere was charged by the fans,” Lance says. “You couldn’t help but feed off the fans. The fans were so excited, ‘Tonight’s the night. This is the one we’ve been waiting for. Jerry’s had the champion on the ropes before and this could be the night he takes it!’ The enthusiasm was just unbelievable.”

I attended several bouts in which Lawler came up just short in his bid to become World champion, most notably a 60-minute draw with Bockwinkel in August 1979; a 40-minute-plus DQ win over Nick on Jan. 1, 1984; and a DQ loss to Flair in a forgettable bout on Sept. 30, 1985. During Lawler’s title bout with Hennig, on Aug. 11, 1987, an old drunken man sitting next to me at the Coliseum was in tears as confessed to me that he’d “do anything–even give up a month’s pay–to see Lawler win the World belt” in his lifetime. That’s how much it meant to Memphis fans.

Unable to negotiate a title change with Gagne intially, Jarrett created his own World title, the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) championship in 1979. To give the title credibility, Jarrett brought in Superstar Graham, who two years earlier had been all over the Apter mags as WWWF champion, to dethrone journeyman Pat McGinniss in Memphis. Graham, of course, dropped the belt to Lawler a short time later in Lexington.

After Lawler broke his leg, the CWA title bounced around to guys like Bill Dundee to Austin Idol to Billy Robinson before it was finally forgotten. When Lawler returned from a broken leg in December 1980, the chase for a true World title was back on.

Today, Memphis; tomorrow, the world.

With the AWA crumbling in 1988 and champion Curt Hennig, probably the top worker in the business at that time, finally accepting a WWF offer to come in with the perfect gimmick, Gagne finally agreed to put his World championship belt on Memphis’s number-one son.

Although the magic of the original Quest for the Title had waned a bit, along with the luster of the AWA and NWA championships, Jarrett booked the title switch on May 9, 1988, which was actually deemed “Jerry Lawler Day” in the city of Memphis by then Mayor Dick Hackett, who even sat ringside for the bout. (Tensions were running so high during the bout–Lawler had vowed to retire if he lost–that a huge fight broke out in the main event, directly in the seating row behind of Mayor Hackett, who had to scramble for cover.)

Area king crowned.

Although not one of Lawler’s best bouts, the May 9 title switch was pretty damn good, with Lawler juicing heavily over his eye, putting the fear in the fans’ hearts that maybe father-figure Fargo would stop the bout to prevent permanent injury. Of course Hennig, one of the best bump takers in the biz, did his part to make Lawler look tremendous, which he didn’t have to do.

When special-ref Jackie Fargo counted to four (by accident), the pop from the nearly 9,000 fans in attendance at the Mid-South Coliseum was about as amazing as you might expect, as the bloody King of Memphis was finally crowned heavyweight champion of the world. Prior to the bout, in a rather tacky money-making venture, the promotion had set up a 900 number, enabling the fans to vote for either Fargo or Curt’s father, Larry “the Ax” Hennig, as the official. Even worse, Lawler claimed on the air that Hennig had posted the number in Minneapolis and that the voting was dead even a week heading into the Monday night showdown. Thankfully, “a hometown surge” carried Fargo to victory. (I believe Jarrett and Lawler each made $5,000 from the 900 “voting.”)

To celebrate the monumental end of the chase, my friend and I scooped up dozens of complimentary Jerry Lawler posters, which had been distributed to the fans in attendance by a tobacco company. We arrived early at our high school Tuesday morning to tape the posters all over the campus, along with a huge sign in the cafeteria congratulating the new King of the World. I’ll never forget the reaction of my appalled English teacher, Mr. Scates: “That horrid man’s face is all over the school!”

In reality (and I use that term loosely when discussing the business), Lawler defended the title against a pretty impressive group of challengers: Hennig, Kerry Von Erich, Eddie Gilbert, Austin Idol, Tatsumi Fujinami, Dutch Mantell,  Buddy Landel and Wahoo McDaniel. The feud with Von Erich was initiated to create a new chase, this time for the World Class championship, which Lawler won at the AWA’s SuperClash III in Chicago. Even though I’d pretty much stopped buying the Apter mags at that point, which I used to check regularly as a kid to see where Lawler was ranked in the AWA ratings, it was nice to see the King get recognition as a legit World champion. Maybe that’s because Lawler’s chase for the title was my chase–my dream–as well.

I wonder if today’s fans feel that same connection when John Cena goes after his 13th WWE heavyweight/World championship in the near future.

Special note: If you like the portrait of the King above, check out the Kickstarter campaign of Rob Schamberer, an artist and longtime Kansas City wrestling fan, who wants to paint a portrait of every world heavyweight champion.

Says Rob: “I’m going to start with the NWA, AWA, ECW, WCW, WCWA/USWA, TNA, ROH and WWWF/WWF/WWE. I’m a guy from the Midwest with a lifelong dream of being a full-time artist. I’ve had my work featured in many shows and I have worked as a comic-book writer and artist as well as a freelance illustrator. I want to take it to the next level and focus all of my energies on my art, and with your help I can do this! My style is a mix of influences like street art, comic books, and mid-century illustration, which I feel creates a vibrant and energetic approach to this subject. The art created around professional wrestling has always seemed to lack something. Either it’s too real, or it’s too cartoonish. It’s too polished or too amateurish. I want to be honest to the wrestlers while also bringing that kinetic energy they deliver to their fans. I’m going to do this with a mix of mediums, mostly consisting of acrylics, oils, and spray paint. I’m an experimenter, though, and I’m sure to try new approaches and media as I go. What is the money going towards, you ask? Twenty grand’s a lot of money. I want to get real studio space that can also serve as a gallery. I think it would be great for people to be able to come see the paintings in person. Paying for all of these supplies to make the art is costly to boot. For reals, I’m going to need to buy wood and supplies for around 250 paintings!”

I’ve personally sponsored this endeavor with a $25 pledge. Click here if you’d like to contribute…and pick up a cool collectible while you’re at it. But hurry–only a few days remain.

For more on this project, check out this YouTube clip:

Perfect timing: Remembering Curt Hennig

February 10th, 2010 3 comments

Perfectly rude

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….

Ax Men: Larry Hennig and his son Curt.

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.

Diamonds in the rough: DDP and Hennig before they found stardom in WCW and WWF, respectively.

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?”

Colorful champion: The gimmick and the IC belt were a perfect fit for Hennig.

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.