Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Wrestlers of Yore: Mr. Perfect

Ask any wrestling fan who the greatest (North American) technical wrestler of all time is, and you'll generally get one of three answers. One of them was a pink-wearing Canadian crybaby who still complains more than ten years later about being "screwed" by Vince McMahon. Another was a steroid-addled psychopath who killed his wife and kid before hanging himself. But the third exhibited such grace, such athleticism and such masterful work in the ring that he can be described with only one word: Perfect.

Curt Hennig was born to be a wrestler. He was the son of Larry "The Axe" Hennig, a longtime AWA wrestler and owner of one of the greatest nicknames in history. He went to Robbinsdale High School in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, graduating in the same class as "Ravishing" Rick Rude and Tom Zenk, a year ahead of John "The Barbarian" Nord, Steve "Nikita Koloff" Simpson and two years ahead of Barry "Demolition Smash/Repo Man" Darsow. Hennig, who claimed to “have lettered in more sports than anyone in Minnesota history,” eventually accepted a football scholarship to the University of Minnesota.

An injury quickly ended Hennig's football career however, and he turned to wrestling at the age of 21, training under the legendary Verne Gagne. After paying his dues across the country, Henning won his first title belt in Gagne's AWA while partnering with Scott Hall's mustache:Yes, that Selleck-esque giant is the same Scott Hall who would later become Razor Ramon and eventually kill WCW. Hall had a great build at the time but was a painfully bad wrestler (he made Sid look like Chris Benoit), so they paired him with Hennig, who was highly skilled but didn’t have Hall’s “look.” ESPN Classic has started airing the AWA television broadcasts from this time, so I can tell you with certainty that this tag team was AWESOME. Hennig would fly all around the ring dropkicking motherfuckers, and then Hall would pick people up and throw them in various directions. Between them and the Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Janetty – so named because they partied until…Midnight!) the AWA’s tag team division in the mid-80s was unspeakably awesome. Which, of course, meant that Hennig and Hall were split up by 1987, and Hennig was given a singles push. Curt’s hard work paid off when the AWA higher-ups decided to let him enter the singles ranks and win the AWA Heavyweight Championship over the 83933-year-old Nick Bockwinkel in 1987.

Unfortunately, being the AWA Champion in 1987 was like being the most well-hung gentleman in County Cork – it didn’t really mean much on a grand scale. The AWA for years had been hemorrhaging its stars for years, including Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura an Hulk Hogan. Hennig received his WWF offer in 1988, and decided to jump ship.

Now, when the WWF wants to promote an incoming wrestler, they generally herald the wrestler's arrival with a series of promotional videos, or "vignettes. " These vignettes highlight an aspect of that wrestler's character that the company wants to play up. In Hennig's case, the WWF decided to rechristen him "Mr. Perfect," with the idea that the ultra-talented Hennig could perform any and all tasks perfectly. What ensued was the greatest series of vignettes in wrestling history:

Others would show Mr. Perfect exhibiting perfection in bowling, baseball (starring Wade Boggs), hockey (with Mike Modano), basketball (with the immortal Felton Spencer), diving, golf, ping-pong, pool, and even horseshoes. As a six-year-old, these videos were cooler than dinosaurs, ice cream and Huffy bicycles COMBINED.

Hennig (paired with cap-and-gown adorned poet Lanny "The Genius" Poffo, who only spoke in poetic verse) eventually debuted and embarked on a long winning streak, defeating such greats as Jimmy Snuka and the Blue Blazer, as well as countless WWF jobbers like Iron Mike Sharpe and the Duke of Dorchester. Henning also beat Terry "Red Rooster" Taylor, pictured here without his dignity:After working his way through the WWF's job squad, Mr. Perfect was ready for the big time. Now, logic would dictate that a fresh, talented new wrestler with an awesome gimmick and fantastic crowd reactions would be given a championship belt over an aging, stale wrestler who missed half his shows filming such movies as "No Holds Barred" and "Suburban Commando." Logic however would be wrong, as the insecure Hogan refused to cede his title to the talented Hennig, citing "creative control." Hennig and Hogan feuded for much of 1989 (including one memorable instance where Hennig and Lanny Poffo smashed Hogan's belt with a hammer), but Hennig never received the belt, and soon ended up suffering his first loss to Hogan lackey Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake at Wrestlemania VI.

Hennig was soon given the lower-regarded Intercontinental Title, winning it from Tito Santana in 1990. Hennig would lose that belt a few months later to Texas Tornado Kerry Von Erich, but regained it when WWF officials realized they couldn't trust Von Erich to not take cocaine for five minutes. Hennig would hold the Intercontinental title for the next 280 days, but suffered a debilitating back injury while doing so. A nearly-crippled Mr. Perfect dropped the belt to Bret Hart at Summerslam 1991 in what is considered one of the greatest matches in wrestling history.Hennig’s back injury would limit him for the rest of his career, and forced him to take the next year off, in which he served as a color commentator for TV broadcasts and serving as the “Executive Consultant” to Ric Flair in his short-lived WWF run. Before returning to wrestling, Hennig took out a large insurance policy with Lloyds of London, which he soon collected on after an inexperienced Lex Luger re-injured Mr. Perfect's back in a 1993 match. Hennig wouldn’t wrestle again until 1997, and resumed a full-time schedule upon signing with WCW in 1997.

Hennig’s matches in WCW weren’t especially memorable, as injury and years away from the ring led to Henning being a shell of what he once was as a wrestler. He however did leave one lasting WCW legacy in his tenure, which came in the company’s waning months. Hennig had joined a group called the “West Texas Rednecks,” who feuded with members of Master P’s No Limit Soliders (seriously, this happened). Hennig and his cohorts recorded a song during this time that got serious country music radio airplay, entitled “Rap is Crap.”

After WCW folded, Hennig had a short-lived WWF stint in 2002, which ended after he tried to beat up Brock Lesnar on an airplane. Hennig was found dead in a Tampa hotel room of a cocaine-induced heart attack less than a year later. He was 44, and is survived by a wife of 20 years and four children, two of whom have recently signed WWE developmental contracts. Hennig was posthumously inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007 by longtime friend Wade Boggs.

(look, a Boston sports connection!)

Some may call him another wrestling statistic, dead long before his time. Others may look at his injury-riddled career and brand him a waste of talent and potential. Most of us however remember the Curt Hennig whose football, basketball, bowling, horseshoes and wrestling skill could be summed up in only one word: Perfect.


Hazel Maes Landing Strip said...

I figured Hennig died after Lesnar ate him, see you learn new things every day.

A Pimp Named DaveR said...

Saying Scott Hall "was" a painfully bad wrestler implies that at some point he became a non-painfully bad wrestler.....

Okay, I guess he wasn't painfully bad later on, but hey -- even I'd look comparatively excellent if I was wrestling next to Hulk and Diesel.

Sean said...

I hit the Perfect Plex on my little brother in an actual fight. I am not ashamed to say it was, and still is, the proudest moment of my life.

Anonymous said...

Lex Luger wasnt inexperienced, he was just a lousy no-skills wrestler, worse than the aforementioned Scott Hall.

Great, hilarious biography by the way!

Rob The Man said...

After watching the 1985 three way tag team bout with Hall Henning and someone else i decided to look it up and found this. I can't believe how Scott transformed from a almost 70's porn star to a greezy latino who was my favorite in the 90's!

I was young once and similar to Sean, My friend put me in a firemans carrie in roller blades during street hockey... Needless to say No Balance caused my only epic wrestling defeat to the hands of a BACK SUPLEX. Yes its real and surprisingly i survived.