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TORCH FLASHBACK - Curt Hennig dies 10 years ago today (PWTorch Newsletter Cover Story)

Feb 10, 2013 - 12:44:29 AM
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The following is the Pro Wrestling Torch Cover Story on the death of Curt Hennig ten years ago today (February 10, 2003).

TORCH #745: COVER STORY
Curt Hennig: 1958-2003
By Wade Keller, Torch editor


Curt Hennig's wrestling career, despite a number of main event runs, always seemed to come up a step or two short of his perceived potential. Hennig began his career in 1979, and as the son of Larry "The Axe" Hennig, he was portrayed as the skinny underdog kid whom Dad had to save from the dastardly heels. One of his earliest feuds was against the late Adrian Adonis, who bullied him until Larry the Axe evened the odds.

During the '80s, besides some time in the small Portland, Ore. territory as a headliner, he worked primarily in the AWA working his way up the ranks. He held the AWA Tag Team Titles in 1986 with a green rookie Scott Hall. He won the AWA World Heavyweight Title from Nick Bockwinkel on May 2, 1987, and lost it to Jerry Lawler on May 9, 1988. He was the standout wrestler on a depleted roster, but seemed to have the athletic ability and look to perhaps be a standout in the WWF during his prime.

He entered the WWF in 1989 on the same night as Terry Taylor. Both Hennig and Taylor were considered "undersized" for the WWF (despite Hennig's stature at around 6-3), but both were standouts in their respective territories (Taylor's being the Mid-South territory). Both were given memorable gimmicks, but Hennig received the gimmick that would help him reach main events. While Taylor was stuck with the "Red Rooster" persona (including having his hair dyed red and spiked and a ring entrance that included bobbing his head like a rooster), Hennig became "Mr. Perfect." A series of memorable skits aired where he proved to be "perfect" at any athletic endeavor.

The Mr. Perfect persona would help him catch on with fans at a time when Vince McMahon seemed more open than ever to pushing someone of Hennig's size, who lacked the musculature of the typical WWF main eventer of the late-'80s, but had incredible bumping ability to make babyfaces look good. Hennig held the Intercontinental Title in the summer of 1990 (beating Tito Santana in a tournament final on Apr. 23 and losing to Kerry Von Erich on Aug. 27) and throughout most of 1991 (defeating Kerry Von Erich on Nov. 19, 1990 and losing to Bret Hart on Aug. 26, 1991).

He would end up suffering a back injury which would force him into early retirement just as he was entering his prime. He had taken out an insurance policy (something many of his fellow Minnesota-based wrestlers did) and lived well for years off of the payoff. He became a color commentator alongside Vince McMahon on the WWF's A-program at the time, the syndicated WWF Superstars show.

His career appeared to be over, but eventually he got medical clearance to return to the ring, and he did so. He ended up living off of his early '90s rep as Mr. Perfect, the king of big boasts behind the mic and exaggerated bumps in the ring. His best attribute as a wrestler also limited him in that his fantastic bumps tended to pigeonhole him as a bumping machine who made babyfaces look good rather than seeming to be a true offensive threat at the World Title level. He received a number of World Title shots in the WWF and eventually in WCW, but never won a World Title.

Although he was popular among many of the wrestlers for being the "life of the party," he wasn't a model wrestler from the promoters' perspectives. He enjoyed drinking and partying and wasn't always in the best shape. He always seemed a step too slow in the ring and a bit too clichŽd behind the mic to justify a consistent top level push. He wrestled for WCW for several years (including reigns as U.S. Champ in 1997 and WCW Tag Champ in 1999), and last year had a final stint with WWE that started promising but ended with a whimper.

Last year WWE's roster was suffering from the loss of well-known brand name stars, and Hennig was brought in as a possible stop-gap during a time of declining ratings. He was being groomed as a potential main event opponent for Steve Austin. He entered the Royal Rumble in great shape, but as the months went by, management began to lose faith in his reliability and dedication to being the best he could be. One of the final straws was an incident on a chartered flight back from a tour of Europe in which he got into a confrontation with buddy Brock Lesnar in mid-flight. It shook up a few people on the flight since their scuffle was near the door of the plane (even though physics would have prevented the door from opening no matter what happened between them).

Hennig ended up being released from WWE a few weeks later without further explanation. He told people he was going to be brought back later in the year, but whether or not he really believed that, the call never came. He ended up working some independent shows, and most prominently showed up for a few NWA-TNA PPVs. Lately he was in poor physical shape; he seemed to be intent on using his time in TNA to build heat with Brock Lesnar, playing off of the highly publicized plane incident, hoping WWE would then rehire him.

He died the afternoon before a scheduled wrestling appearance in Tampa, Fla. on an indy show being promoted by Jimmy Hart. No cause of death is known at this time, although colleagues observed that Hennig had put his body through a lot of chemical abuse over the last decade that could have contributed to his death. An autotopsy is being conducted and results will be released probably next week.

Besides being known as Mr. Perfect, he will also be remembered by fans for his memorable, if not poorly utilized, "Rap is Crap" routine with the late Bobby Duncum Jr. and Curly Joe (a/k/a Virgil, Mike Jones). Hennig, a big country music fan, got laughs from the crowd with his "Rap is Crap" song (see pg. 7 for Pat McNeill's reflections on that gimmick). That song was scheduled to be his entrance music on Monday night in Tampa.

Hennig will be best remembered by wrestlers as a master prankster. Usually, but not always, a good-spirited ribber, he'd often shave people's eyebrows while they slept on planes or after passing out from partying. Other times he'd padlock colleagues' bags to lockers so they couldn't get to their street clothes. To those he didn't like, ribs were a bit less innocent.

"Curt Hennig could light up even the most dismal locker room," said Sean Waltman in a guest article he wrote for PWTorch.com this week. "He was perhaps the funniest person I knew. He and Owen (Hart) had a lot in common that way, two of the funniest people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing... (Curt) was the kind of guy who could Ôhold court' anywhere. He was always laughing, and I will tell you that Curt Hennig enjoyed LIFE! He made sure no matter how shitty things were, he was damn sure gonna create some fun."

Hennig is also respected among his peers for passing along knowledge from years of experience to younger wrestlers, a trait that isn't common among top wrestlers. "Curt took me under his wing when I was 20 years old and just entering the WWF," wrote Waltman. "He instilled many of the values I have in understanding the wrestling business, and that it is our responsibility to pass down the knowledge as it was passed to us."

Hennig also had a marriage that lasted throughout his wrestling career, a rarity in the industry. He married his high school sweetheart Leonice and had four children with her. Two sons, Jack (about 22) and Curtis "Hank" Henry (11), with two daughters in between, Amy and Kate. They lived in Champlin, Minn. not far from where he grew up in Robbinsdale, Minn. Hennig was close to his father, Larry "The Axe" Hennig, who was not quoted in any media stories covering Hennig's death.

The Tampa Tribune reported that Hennig's sisters had histories of heart problems, but otherwise he had no known health concerns in his life. No foul play is suspected. The night before his death, during dinner with friends, he had a case of the hiccups that wouldn't go away no matter what he tried. Otherwise, there were no signs of any health problems or physical ailments.

Hennig's death received considerable media attention, especially in Tampa where he died and in Minnesota where he lived with his family. The Associated Press, New York Newsday, CNN, and Fox News Channel were among the many national outlets to mention his death.

Hennig's death adds to the list of wrestlers who died prematurely while still active wrestlers, including most recently Bobby Duncum Jr., one of his tag partners in the West Texas Rednecks in WCW, and Rick Rude, one of his best friends in wrestling who was also a Robbinsdale High School graduate. Autopsy results may or may not confirm what many suspect, that his heavy drinking and use of pain pills for years - an all-too-common trait among pro wrestlers - may have prompted his death in some way.

WWE acknowledged his death with a brief graphic at the start of Raw this week. It also dedicated an article on its website to wrestlers' memories of Hennig. The Jimmy Hart event Monday night began with a ten bell salute.

[Torch photo credit Wade Keller (c) PWTorch.com]


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