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A Look at the Career of “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig (1958-2003)
by Todd Martin

The passing of “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig yesterday at the young age of 44 is quite the revelation. Death has come way too young for an entire generation of wrestlers. For those who are quick to dismiss this trend as anything less than an epidemic, the passing of Curt Hennig should be quite a shock. While other wrestlers’ deaths were foreshadowed by drug problems, steroid abuse and poor physical conditioning, Hennig in his prime symbolized physical “perfection.” That isn’t to say he didn’t have his demons, or that he didn’t experiment with steroids. However, the enduring memory most fans will have of him is of health and vitality. It feels wrong that Mr. Perfect shouldn’t even live to see his 45th birthday.

Curt Hennig was born on March 28, 1958. He grew up in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. He attended Robbinsdale High School, graduating the same year as Brady Boone, Tom Zenk and Rick Rude, and shortly before John Nord, Nikita Koloff and Barry Darsow. Hennig was best friends with Rude during that period, and they maintained their friendship for many years. Rude managed Hennig in his last major stint in pro wrestling, and Rude’s passing was said to have affected Hennig very seriously. As close as Rude and Hennig were, it is almost fitting they will be joined together again posthumously.

Curt was the son of Larry “The Axe” Hennig, a 60s and 70s star who held the AWA tag team championship with Harley Race on three separate occasions. The Axe was a major influence on Curt growing up, and Hennig later said it was his father who influenced him to enter into professional wrestling. His diverse athletic skill would later be used as part of his WWF gimmick, when he would do vignettes demonstrating his ability in a wide range of sports, from basketball and baseball to golf and pool. The gimmick was that Hennig was the “perfect” athlete, better than you at any possible competition. After graduating from high school, he was trained by Verne Gagne to be a professional wrestler.

Hennig made his in-ring debut in 1980. He worked for the WWF as a jobber for a short period, and jobbed to the likes of then WWF champion Bob Backlund. He would then enter the AWA, where he would first make a name for himself. He occupied a low spot on the card for many years while refining his craft and becoming a solid in-ring performer. His first big break came in 1986, when along with partner Scott Hall, he won the AWA Tag Team Titles from Jimmy Garvin and Steve Regal (no relation to current WWE performer). Hall and Hennig at that point were both viewed as young stars with tremendous potential. While both would go on to great stardom, neither would fully realize that potential.

In 1987, the AWA was admittedly in a very precarious situation. It had lost most of its stars, and was putting out consistently awful programming. Verne Gagne saw stardom written all over Curt Hennig, and he elevated him to AWA champion. On May 2, 1987, Hennig pinned the legendary Nick Bockwinkel to win the AWA Title. Hennig held the title for just over a year, defending it against the likes of Bockwinkel, Greg Gagne and Wahoo McDaniel. He dropped the belt to Jerry “The King” Lawler in May of 1988.

Hennig, like most everyone within the wrestling business at the time, did not particularly care for the Gagnes. After losing the AWA belt, he left for the WWF and never looked back. In later interviews, he would not conceal his disdain for the Gagnes, who made Hennig less of a star in a year with their world title than Hennig would become in just a few months with the WWF.

Curt Hennig entered the WWF in late 1988, and was given one of wrestling’s classic gimmicks, Mr. Perfect. Hennig was, no pun intended, perfect for the part, and he would go on to become better known as Mr. Perfect than Curt Hennig. He was initially billed as Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig, but the WWF eventually dropped the Curt Hennig name for all intents and purposes. Hennig debuted with simple wrestling gear, but he eventually started wearing Olympic style tights that would be his trademark.

Hennig was given the money gimmick of Mr. Perfect, and the rest was history. It’s interesting to speculate how things would have turned out had they switched roles. That’s a question Taylor likely wouldn’t care to consider.

The Mr. Perfect persona was very cleverly rounded out. The WWF emphasized his cardiovascular conditioning and athletic ability. They had him chew gum in interviews and talk about being “absolutely perfect.” Finally, he used the Perfect Plex as his finishing hold, which became as associated with him as any move is associated with a wrestler. At that point the move was known as a cradle suplex, and now it is known as a fisherman suplex. Hennig would almost always win on television, and would almost always win with the Perfect Plex. However, it became a joke as for years announcers would claim nobody had ever kicked out of the Perfect Plex, when the list of men that had kicked out of the Perfect Plex had actually grown to be quite long.

The WWF billed Mr. Perfect as having a perfect record on top of his other accolades, but this was also a bit of a tall tale. He would at house shows from time to time, and quite frequently when feuding with the likes of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. Still, Perfect won as much as any heel would in the WWF at that time, and build up momentum as a sort of second coming of Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Man character. There is a valuable lesson to be learned from the Mr. Perfect character. The WWE these days seems intent on having new characters lose within a week or two of their debut, to make sure they don’t upset the order of the card. However, it is only through the emphasizing of a character as something special that the crowd gets behind them. It was audacious for the company to label a midcard heel “perfect,” but it also clearly established that he was worth carrying about. That allowed Perfect to draw against much bigger opponents when traditionally a guy his size would have been laughed off.

Hennig was pushed as an extraordinarily skilled grappler from the very beginning. At his PPV debut, Survivor Series 1988, he and Rick Rude were the sole survivors for their team. The two old friends were two of the WWF’s top heel prospects. Hennig was matched with the Blue Blazer, Owen Hart at WrestleMania 5. Going in, many were expecting the match to steal the show. Unfortunately, they were given only a few minutes, and they weren’t able to salvage an abysmal show in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Hennig beat the Red Rooster very quickly at SummerSlam 1989, in another match that was somewhat disappointing given the ability of both competitors. It was amazing how much the paths of Taylor and Hennig had diverged in just one short year. Hennig was on his way to the top, and Taylor was on his way to the very bottom.

Hennig would continue his PPV success at Survivor Series 1989, this year emerging as the sole survivor for his team. He would be the last man eliminated at the Royal Rumble, and he began to bulk up in weight to play a more major role in the WWF. Unfortunately, that added weight may have contributed to his later back injury that would end his ascent towards the top of the WWF.

At around this time, the WWF programmed Mr. Perfect into a headline feud with WWF champion Hulk Hogan. Perfect was one of Hogan’s smallest opponents during this period, and they drew well. The angle that precipitated that feud was the destruction of Hogan’s WWF championship by Hennig. That destroyed WWF Title would later reemerge as the WWF Hardcore Championship in 1998.

At WrestleMania 6, he lost his match to Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. This was his first WWF PPV loss, but it was a traditional setup to build for future title matches. Ultimate Warrior would beat Hulk Hogan to win the WWF Title at that same show, and he would subsequently have to drop the Intercontinental Championship. Mr. Perfect was chosen as the next IC champ. At the time, the Intercontinental Title was a stepping stone to greater success, and the next stage of Hennig’s career would begin with that win.

In the finals of the Intercontinental Title tournament, Perfect beat Tito Santana. He also would gain the services of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan as his manager, and join the Heenan family. He would become forever associated with the Intercontinental Title, holding it proudly for a very long time and having many great matches for the title. He is perhaps the greatest Intercontinental Champion of all time, in terms of what he brought to the belt, and what he made it mean. He also would become associated with Bobby Heenan for a long period of time. Hennig and Heenan got along well, and made a great pairing despite the fact Hennig didn’t really need a manager to talk for him. Sadly, Heenan has seen many of those most closely connected with him pass on, from Andre the Giant and Rick Rude to Curt Hennig and Gorilla Monsoon.

At SummerSlam 1990, Perfect’s scheduled opponent was Brutus Beefcake, to culminate their long 1990 feud. However, Beefcake was injured in his infamous parasailing accident prior to the match, and the WWF brought in Kerry Von Erich as the Texas Tornado to fill that vacancy. Vince McMahon had been enamored with Von Erich for many years, and in mid 1990 he finally brought him in, with large expectations. Tornado beat Perfect for the Intercontinental Title at SummerSlam. However, it became quickly apparent that Von Erich was not all there any more, and Hennig would win back the belt just after the Survivor Series, with help from Ted DiBiase. He would hold that belt from that point until SummerSlam of 1991.

His most important feud of 1991 was against the Big Bossman. After losing to Bossman at WrestleMania 7 via DQ, he would lose his title to Bret “Hitman” Hart at SummerSlam 1991. It was a fantastic match at Madison Square Garden, and it was the match that catapulted Hart into a key singles spot. Hennig would later label Hart his favorite opponent, and it is not hard to understand why with matches like that one. Unfortunately for Curt, that card brought about not only great success in the ring, but great problems outside of it. Hennig seriously injured his back, and would have to stop wrestling for over a year. After that point, Hennig would never truly be the same, and would go in and out of the WWF for the next 5 years.

During this hiatus from the ring, Perfect occupied himself as a commentator for the WWF, a host of Prime Time Wrestling, and the “executive consultant” for Ric Flair. He would play a key role in Flair’s classic 1992 feud with Randy “Macho Man” Savage over Savage’s wife Elizabeth. Prior to the Survivor Series 1992, Ultimate Warrior had one of his recurrent fallouts with the WWF, and he left the promotion. That left a serious void in the Savage and Warrior vs. Flair and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) feud. The WWF turned to Hennig, who turned face, poured a pitcher of water on Bobby Heenan, and accepted Savage’s invitation to team with him. A bloated Perfect teamed with Savage at that show to beat Flair and Ramon via disqualification. Hennig would return to the ring full time after that, and would quickly get back into better shape.

The natural feud for Perfect in his return was against Flair. Luckily for him, Flair was in the midst of leaving WWF to return to WCW. Vince McMahon let Flair go on the condition that he put Hennig over on the way out. Thus, Hennig got to eliminate Flair at the Royal Rumble, and he beat Flair in a loser leaves WWF match on Raw. That was the first important storyline match in the history of Raw. Unfortunately for Curt, while the momentum from that feud would not be used for him, but would be transferred to other stars.

Throughout 1993, the WWF used Curt Hennig as someone to get over the company’s heels. He lost to Lex Luger at WrestleMania 9, lost to Bret Hart in the semifinals of the King of the Ring 1993, and lost to Shawn Michaels via DQ at SummerSlam 1993. Perfect was scheduled to wrestle at Survivor Series 1993, but due to either a contract dispute or injury, he didn’t appear and was replaced by Savage. Perfect would not return to the WWF for a number of months.

Perfect was scheduled to return in 1994, and the WWF had big plans for him. He was the referee at WrestleMania 10 for the Yokozuna-Lex Luger title match. He came out as a face, but turned heel on Luger. Luger knocked out Yokozuna, beat up Jim Cornette and Mr. Fuji, and had Yoko pinned. Perfect refused to count, instead focusing on getting Cornette and Fuji out of the ring. Luger shoved Perfect and Perfect called for the disqualification, setting up a program between the two. The WWF had even begun announcing him for the “WrestleMania Revenge Tour” when it became apparent Perfect wasn’t going to return to action. The WWF had to instead clumsily turn to Crush (Brian Adams) for a forgettable summer feud with Luger. Hennig went on another hiatus from the WWF at that point, and relations between the two sides never seemed to be the same.

Perfect returned to the WWF to do color commentary at Survivor Series 1995. Over the next year in the WWF, he didn’t seem to know whether he was a face or a heel. At the end of 1996, WWF was planning for Perfect to return to the ring. They even announced his return one week, setting up a match with him against Triple H. However, they did an angle where he was “injured” by Helmsley, and Mero took Perfect’s spot in the match. Perfect would then turn on Mero and help win Triple H his first major WWF singles title. Everything was set up for Hennig’s return, but he created a bidding war for his new wrestling contract between WWF and WCW. He made both sides feel they had him at different points, but ultimately left WWF for WCW on less than amicable terms. Due to his WWF contract, he couldn’t wrestle in WCW until mid 1997. He would never be the wrestler he once was while in WCW, and appeared to be largely there to cash a paycheck.

Curt Hennig debuted the same night for WCW as Raven, as a pair of surprises in July of 1997. His wrestling debut was at the Bash of the Beach 1997, where he was Diamond Dallas Page’s mystery partner against Randy Savage and Scott Hall. He walked out on DDP during the match. They teased that Perfect would join the Horsemen given his connection with Flair. Arn Anderson’s notorious “my spot” speech was directed towards giving Hennig his spot. Of course, in another attempt to undermine Flair, the Horsemen, and anyone that traditional WCW fans believed in, Hennig quickly turned on the Horsemen, making Arn, Flair and company look like utter fools. Hennig walked out on the Horsemen at Fall Brawl 1997’s War Games to join the NWO, and then slammed the steel door on Ric Flair’s head.

Hennig won the WCW United States Title from Steve McMichael the next night on Nitro, and defended the belt for three months prior to losing it at Starrcade 1997. After a number of wrestlers dropped out of the card, his match with DDP was third from the top on that card which featured the financially lucrative and politically intriguing Sting-Hogan match. This would be his highest point in WCW. He was hampered by injuries for the next three years. He did very little of note in 1998, but did achieve some success with the West Texas Rednecks in 1999.

Curt Hennig, Barry Windham, Bobby Duncum Jr. and Kendall Windham weren’t supposed to be babyfaces as the West Texas Rednecks, but they caught on mainly due to the inept booking of their opponents, the No Limit Soldiers. After Eric Bischoff had the vision to bring in Master P to WCW, he created the Rednecks as a heel opposition group. However, week after week the Rednecks would find themselves fighting overwhelming odds against the gigantic posse that was the No Limit Soldiers. Moreover, they would often emerge victorious. Thus, the Rednecks became a hot gimmick and their “Rap is Crap” song became quite popular with wrestling fans. WCW didn’t capitalize on this success, and they quickly faded out.

When Vince Russo arrived in late 1999, it was the beginning of the end for Hennig. Russo didn’t like older stars and he treated Hennig poorly. He also recognized correctly that Hennig wasn’t justifying his large contract. At WCW Mayhem of 1999, Hennig lost a “retirement” match in Toronto. The warm reaction of applause and appreciation he received after the match was very telling. There was no reason for those fans to believe Hennig was actually going to retire. It was one of those inane Russo stipulations that did nothing but bury future stipulation matches. Hennig in fact returned the next night. The smart fans of Toronto likely knew all this, but they gave Curt Hennig a standing ovation out of appreciation for his work over the years anyway. The image of Hennig walking to the back, clearly touched by that reception is one to remember.

Hennig had a short feud with Sean Stasiak in 2000 prior to being released by WCW. He bounced around the independents for the next year and a half, including wrestling Dennis Rodman in Australia. He was a key player in the XWF, and this was likely a major reason that the WWF signed him back in early 2002. He returned to the WWF at the Royal Rumble 2002. He got a pretty good push, lasting until the end of the Rumble. From there, he wasn’t as anything special. He didn’t look very good in the ring and mainly lost. He lost his job in the infamous Plane Ride from Hell, highlighted by his shoot challenge directed at Brock Lesnar. After his WWE release, he wrestled briefly in NWA TNA, but didn’t care particularly for their direction. He was still wrestling on the independent circuit prior to his death on Monday.

Curt Hennig’s career was marked by tremendous highs and lows. He was involved with numerous successful feuds, angles and matches, but he never was able to get over that hump, like a Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels. Newer fans likely don’t have an appreciation for just how good Hennig was in the ring from 1987-1993. He was a very important part in the WWF’s renewed emphasis on having great matches. He was also a solid talker and had a real charisma about him. If Curt Hennig were in his prime today, he would likely be one of WWE’s top stars. He was a fantastic wrestler and had every intangible you could possibly hope for. He will be remembered as a fine representative of professional wrestling, and on a personal level, as one of my all time favorites.

Everyone in the wrestling business should take a moment to reflect on the fact Curt Hennig is dead at 44. The body count in 2002 for young wrestlers was the worst in years, and I sure hope that 2003 isn’t going to outdo it. Promotions like WWE need to focus on providing a work environment that does not reward steroid use, and does not necessitate pain killer use. The combination of the two can do damage in any sized dosage. The WWF constantly pushed Curt Hennig to get bigger, whether subliminally or overtly. The injuries suffered in WWF rings very likely could have caused painkiller abuse in Hennig. His career parallels Brian Pillman in a lot of ways, and it’s possible if not likely that the causes of their deaths are very similar. Everyone in wrestling needs to remember that it is not normal for large segments of any population to die in their 30s and 40s!

Wrestlers also should take time to reflect on this sad event. There are a lot of people Hennig has associated with that have all the markings to be pro wrestling’s next victim. You all need to take care of themselves! Don’t push yourselves too hard. If you’re having trouble with pain, take some time off. If you’re taking risks with muscle enhancing drugs, don’t forget about the dangers. You shouldn’t die for our entertainment. Too many have already. Rest in peace Curt Hennig and take care of yourself, wrestling industry.



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