R.I.P Curt Hennig, 1958-2003
Curt Hennig’s sudden departure is one of a recent long-line of passings of many well-known pro wrestlers, as well as not-so-known names. While the passing of such names as Lou Thesz and Wahoo McDaniel will not be met with as much shock, due to their respective ages, the likes of Dave Smith (the British Bulldog), Terry Gordy and Tom Petty (Rocco Rock) all died relatively young, and in good health. This disturbing trend, it seems, shows no signs of letting up.
Born into the pro wrestling industry on March 28th, 1958 in Robbinsdale, Minnesota Hennig’s father Larry ‘The Axe’ Hennig was a top-draw for the Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (from 1960 to 1970) promotion out-of California and held the AWA tag team titles on three occasions with Harley Race. After graduating high school with the likes of Tom Zenk and Rick Rude (his best friend for years in and out of the industry), Hennig was trained to wrestle by legendary Verne Gagne, and made his in-ring debut in 1980. Before debuting in the AWA however, Hennig worked for the then-WWF as a top-level jobber, even starring at the lights for WWF Heavyweight champion Bob Backlund. Hennig shortly returned to the AWA, and honed his skills for the next few years before, with his tag team partner Scot Hall, won the AWA tag team titles in 1986. Hennig (and Hall) showed great promise however the following year, the AWA was showing signs of drying-up (as most territories did at that time) show owner Verne Gagne took a gamble and thrust Hennig into the spotlight, giving the nod for Hennig to go over Nick Bockwinkel on May 2nd of 1987.
Hennig grew into the role in a short amount of time and had a solid year+ run with the gold, before finally dropping the title to Jerry Lawler in May (1988).
With the territory quickly drying up, and agreeing with most people’s sentiments about the Gagne’s (that they weren’t nice people to work with), Hennig left the AWA after he dropped the top title to Lawler, and joined the WWF. Upon his arrival in the WWF, he was donned with the ‘Mr Perfect’ gimmick, a cocky heel that claimed he was an all-round superior athlete, which reality wasn’t far from the truth. The role almost seemed destined to be Hennig’s, as he carried the gimmick as well as Kurt Angle has, and like Angle, Hennig wore amateur/Olympic/traditional wrestling tights which topped off the whole clean-cut athlete look. Winning 90% of his T.V and pay-per-view matches, Hennig got over to a great extent and was one of the top three WWF heels by 1990. Hennig was then given the nod to hold the WWF Intercontinental title after the then title holder Ultimate Warrior went over Hogan for the WWF Heavyweight title. Hennig went over Tito Santana in late 1990 in a tournament to capture the vacant I.C title, and went on a legendary run putting on great matches with many.
Hennig was booked to drop the I.C title to Ed Leslie AKA Brutus Beefcake at Summerslam ’90, but Beefcake was injured and out of commission so WWF management brought in Kerry Von Erich as the Texas Tornado to fill the spot. However Von Erich didn’t grow into the role as management had hoped, and so the week after the 1990 Survivor Series Hennig went over the I.C champion to win the title back (with help from Ted DiBiase). Hennig would hold onto the title until Summerslam ’91, where he dropped the title to up-and-comer Bret Hart in one of the top five Summerslam matches ever, and one of the WWF’s best matches of the decade. As good as the match was, it was a bitter/sweet situation for Hennig as he suffered a back/neck injury during the match and would be forced to sit-out most of the next calendar year.
Hennig was kept in the mix however, being billed as Ric Flair’s ‘executive consultant’ for Flair’s program with Randy Savage over Miss Elizabeth culminating with Savage going over Flair for the top strap at WrestleMania 8. Survivor Series ’92 was scheduled to be Savage/Warrior versus Razor Ramon/Flair, however Warrior fell out of favour with management, so Hennig was picked to turn face on Flair (and Bobby Heenan who was Flair’s manager) and team with Savage to go over Flair and Ramon via disqualification in a great-heated main event. Training diligently, Hennig would make a fulltime comeback shortly after and was scheduled to work a program with Flair, but Flair soon upped and left for WCW, but not before being asked to put Hennig over with Flair starring at the lights for Hennig in a ‘loser leaves the WWF’ match on an episode of Raw Is War in early 1993.
Over the next three years Hennig would slowly be phased down, putting over other workers like Lex Luger, Brett Hart and Shawn Michaels, and was booked to work a match at Survivor Series ’93 that never came fruition as Hennig’s back/neck injury started to flame-up again, so the match was off.
A babyface Hennig returned at WrestleMania 10 to referee a tournament match between Yokozuna and Lex Luger, only to disqualify Luger and turn heel.
Leaving television screens again shortly after, Hennig’s working relationship with WWF management took somewhat of a nosedive and was kept mainly out of the spotlight for the rest of his first WWF tenure, before leaving in 1996 after a nothing program with Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Marc Mero. Like many, in 1997, he soon joined WCW and debuted in July (as a face) and teamed with Diamond Dallas Page to face Scott Hall and Randy Savage. Mid-way through the match Hennig ditched his partner and headed to the locker room, as the seeds of a heel turn were planted. Hennig was offered a spot in the Four Horsemen soon after, but instead joined heel faction n.W.o, joining at 1997’s Fall Brawl War Games match after slamming the cage door on Ric Flair’s head. Going over Steve McMicheal for the WCW U.S title the following night on Monday Nitro, Hennig had an average-at-best three months stint before dropping the title.
The rest of his WCW run was unremarkable, with the only notable role being a member of the unexpectedly over West Texas Rednecks with Kendal and Barry Windham and Bobby Duncum Jr. In late 1999 Vince Russo jumped to the promotion and made it clear Hennig wasn’t going to be used and was released from his WCW contract in mid-2000. Working independents for the rest of 2000, Hennig joined up-start promotion XWF and touted as one of it’s top stars, which is assumed as the reason the WWF (re)hired him in early 2002, slated to make his comeback at the 2002 Royal Rumble, which he did. However, clearly lacking what it took to be a “sports entertainer”, Hennig was going nowhere fast, and coupled with the now-infamous ‘plane ride from hell’, in which Hennig shoot-challenged Brock Lesnar to a amateur match, Hennig was given his marching orders again. Wrestling independents and working a few matches for NWA:TNA, Hennig was doubtless in the final stages of a great career until he was found unconscious on Monday afternoon, just a few hours prior to a show promoted by Jimmy Hart.
Curt Hennig passed before his time, but leaves a legacy that will stand the toughest test of all, time.
R.I.P Curt Hennig, 1958-2003