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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
clearly established that he was worth carrying about. That allowed
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
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
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
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.
and Heenan got along well, and made a great pairing despite the fact
didn’t really need a manager to talk for him. Sadly, Heenan has seen
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
from Ted DiBiase. He would hold that belt from that point until
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
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.
that point, Hennig would never truly be the same, and would go in and
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
on getting Cornette and Fuji out of the ring. Luger shoved Perfect
and Perfect called for the disqualification, setting up a program
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
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
angle where he was “injured” by Helmsley, and Mero took Perfect’s spot
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
prime today, he would likely be one of WWE’s top stars. He was a
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.
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
muscle enhancing drugs, don’t forget about the dangers. You shouldn’t
for our entertainment. Too many have already. Rest in peace Curt Hennig
and take care of yourself, wrestling industry.
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