His Mr. Perfect persona appeared arrogant on camera. Outside of the ring, however, Curt Hennig was a different person. Here’s the story of an extraordinary life that ended tragically.
Curt Hennig – The Man Behind Mr. Perfect
Curt Hennig was the embodiment of perfection. He was an AWA Heavyweight Champion, an AWA Tag Team Champion with Scott Hall, and arguably the greatest WWE Intercontinental Champion of all time.
He could play golf. He could bowl. He could play darts, football, basketball, amateur wrestling. He could do magic tricks on morning talk shows; you name it – he was a natural at everything he did. When those cameras were rolling, he was arrogant, and he backed up his Mr. Perfect moniker in and out of the ring.
Behind the scenes, Curt Hennig was a family man. Despite being on the road 300+ days a year, he never once missed the birth of his four children. Curtis Axel, real name Joe Hennig, mentioned in the 2008 WWE documentary "Life and Times of Mr. Perfect" that it never felt like his father was away as he was always there for every sporting event that he had when he was growing up. Curt was a friend to everyone in the back and had a knack for making people laugh.
With extended hours on the road, he kept the mood light with ribs and practical jokes. If you ask anyone who knew Curt Hennig, they have a story to share about this. He had a great beginning and middle in life, but sadly, his life did not end in the most perfect of circumstances. He battled his demons, which ultimately took its toll in the end.
Early Wrestling Career
Curt Hennig started his career in the AWA territory on January 30th, 1980, under the name "Cool" Curt Hennig. He wasn’t wrestling for more than two years before he stepped foot into the ring at Madison Square Garden, something he once reflected on by saying, "Nothing could ever top that!"
By 1982, he left for his first stint in New York, where he had the opportunity to wrestle greats such as ‘Playboy’ Buddy Rose and Harley Race and returned to the AWA in 1984 through 1988 to become one of the promotion’s top stars.
On May 2nd, 1987, he defeated the legendary Nick Bockwinkel to become the AWA World Heavyweight Champion. He would hold this belt for 53 consecutive weeks before losing the title to Jerry Lawler on May 9th, 1988. This was when Curt left to join the WWF once again.
Becoming Mr. Perfect
Leonice Hennig, Curt’s wife, shared a funny story of when the two of them were at Vince McMahon’s house just after Curt signed a deal with the company. They were asked to come up with a name for Hennig to use in the WWF.
Thinking his name had to be an alliteration, they came up with names such as "Hurricane" Hennig, "Heroic" Hennig, and King Curtis! They struggled to come up with something catchy, so Vince asked him, "What do you like to do?" Curt replied, "I like to hunt, fish, play basketball, golf- I love just about everything."
From there, Vince inquired further, "So of these, what’s your best sport?" to which Curt responded, "I’m great at everything!" From there, the name Mr. Perfect was born. Not long later, some of the most memorable vignettes hyping Mr. Perfect’s arrival to the WWF were aired on television.
As talented as Curt was in these vignettes, Bruce Prichard pulled back the curtain by saying that every time the cameras started rolling, Curt would miss every shot he took! He got a bit camera shy.
To get around this, Bruce told the cameramen to keep the cameras rolling. This way, Curt didn’t know the cameras were on, and he would be more relaxed while taking his shots. Everything was then spliced together nicely in post-production.
In the ring, though, he was one of the best. He had the perfect dropkick, the perfect suplex, the perfect clothesline, and of course, the Perfect-plex. Everything he did was smooth in the ring, and he made anyone who stepped into the ring with him look like a million bucks.
He matched his Perfect moniker brilliantly, and he did it all with cocky arrogance. He would spit his gum out during his ring entrances and slap it with his hand in the air. He never missed it once! And on one memorable occasion, Mr. Perfect threw his gym towel behind his back, and without even looking, manager Bobby Heenan caught it behind his back. What a perfect pair!
After Ultimate Warrior vacated the Intercontinental Championship upon winning the WWF Championship at WrestleMania VI, a tournament for the IC title was held. Hennig defeated Jimmy Snuka in the quarterfinals, followed by two-time Intercontinental Champion Tito Santana in the finals.
This began a memorable Intercontinental Championship run that many consider being the best in the belt’s coveted history.
But before his time as champion, Mr. Perfect enlisted the help of a particular genius of fame and renown.
Curt Hennig, "The Genius," and the Regis Philbin Incident
In 1989, "The Genius" Lanny Poffo served as "executive consultant" (and occasional tag team partner) to Mr. Perfect. In a recent episode of The Genius Cast podcast, Lanny opened up about their pairing, how it came about, and what their relationship was like off-camera. You can hear this episode below or by subscribing to The Genius Cast on your favorite podcast app.
"I met Curt when he first came to WWF," Lanny begins. "I had a position as ‘Leaping’ Lanny; whenever a great heel was brought in, and they were being built up to work Hulk Hogan or someone like this, they would put them with me. So I wrestled Curt Hennig in every single town.
"It must have been thirty matches. And let me tell you, he may have been the very best worker I ever touched. He was very, very great. He made me great."
Lanny admitted, "I’m not great; I was great when he was there. [Curt] always thanked me, he never hurt me, he always made me look good, and I always sold his finish like I was dead. We cooperated, and he was a really nice man. You never had to worry when working with a wrestler like Curt Hennig. He was a consummate professional, and to tell you the truth, I still love him and miss him."
On this Mr. Perfect episode of The Genius Cast, Lanny shared a story of the time the two of them were invited to the Regis Philbin Show the morning Curt Hennig was set to face Hulk Hogan at Madison Square Garden for the WWF Heavyweight Championship. As Lanny explains, Curt wasn’t exactly in the best of moods before the interview took place.
"There was a lot of pressure on us. We were going to try to do our best, and it was very early in the morning. Maybe he wasn’t a morning person; maybe he got off on the wrong side of the bed. I really loved Mr. Perfect, but here was the problem- he never really wanted me to be his manager. He wanted Bobby Heenan. I don’t blame him because Heenan was the better man."
"When we got to the Regis Philbin show, a couple of things happened.
"Mr. Perfect said, ‘Just do the poem to introduce me, and I’ll take it from there.’
"So I said, ‘Well if they ask me a question, I’m going to answer it.’
"And he says, ‘I said, just do the poem, and I will take it from there!’
"I said, ‘And I said, if they ask me a question, I’m going to answer it.’
"I wasn’t going to just sit there and not respond if they asked me a question. I thought this was a ridiculous thing to tell me. I mean, I liked Mr. Perfect, but this was going to be a problem. He was in a bad mood or something.
"So, I was in the backstage area, but I was off by myself when Regis Philbin comes up to me and says, ‘Lanny, what’s the matter with your guy?’
"I said, ‘What’s the matter?’
"He said, ‘We’re going to do bowling. I’m going to bowl, and he’s going to bowl, and since Curt Hennig bowled a 300 game in his vignettes, we’re going to do this. But tell me, how come he doesn’t want to do it? I have half a mind to throw you guys out of here! We don’t need this crap!’
"Regis said worse. So I told him, ‘Well, first of all, he’s not my guy. This is somebody that they threw together with me. Secondly, I think I know why he doesn’t want to do it. He bowled a 300 game with twelve edits!’
"Now if Curt was to go on live television and not throw a strike, he’s not going to look like Mr. Perfect before his big match against Hulk Hogan at Madison Square Garden. So Regis responds, ‘Well, I don’t give a blank and blank and blank and blank! I’ve been trying to get wrestlers on this show for some time, and sometimes you guys are good, and sometimes you guys just suck! I’m tired of this bullshit!’
"Regis was terrible, but I don’t blame him because when you’re on the Regis show, you do what Regis wants!
"I said, ‘Look, I’ll bowl with ya, but I don’t think Mr. Perfect will be happy.’
"He said, ‘I’m sick of this shit! This has got to stop!’
"So then, we go out there, and in the first segment, Regis goes, ‘Wait a minute, it was The Genius who went out there and beat Hulk Hogan on Saturday Night’s Main Event!’ so that’s where I took the ball. He was looking right at me. And then during the commercial break, Mr. Perfect says, ‘I told you not to say anything.’
"And I said, ‘He asked me a question!’
"So now we have a little confrontation between Curt Hennig and I."
Watch the tense moments of Curt Hennig Mr. Perfect and "The Genius" Lanny Poffo on The Regis Philbin Show below:
"When we came back from the break," Lanny explained, "I never said another word. But nobody asked me any questions either. But if they had, I would have answered because if I throw you the ball, you catch the ball, and then you throw it back to me. That’s how it’s done. That’s how a conversation works. You listen, I’ll talk. You talk, and I’ll listen. Otherwise, you’re a poor conversationalist, and I’m not about to become a poor conversationalist on the Regis Philbin show!
"After the show, Mr. Perfect was very upset, and he thought that I had upstaged him or tried to."
Despite Curt telling Regis backstage that he didn’t want to bowl, Regis attempted to bait him into bowling on the show, but Curt deviated. "I’ve already been on national television and bowled a perfect game," Mr. Perfect explained in front of the live televised audience.
"Everything I’ve ever done in my life has been absolutely perfect. For me to come out here today and bowl would be senseless. Number one, you don’t even have the right kind of bowling alley, and I’ve got the biggest match of my life tonight. I didn’t come out here to bowl."
Instead of bowling, Mr. Perfect asked for a deck of cards to pull off a magic trick, but to add insult to injury, Regis misremembered the card he pulled. It was a bit of a tense moment, but everyone got through the interview, and the live audience and viewers at home would never have picked up on any of this had it not been for Lanny lifting the veil on this awkward situation.
"Eventually, everything worked out in the end," Lanny remembers.
"The thing is, Curt was a really good guy. What he was worried about was not important. It would have been better had he gone out there on live TV and thrown a six instead of nothing at all, but that’s not important now.
"I loved Curt Hennig, my brother loved him, everybody loved him, and my experience with him was ninety-nine percent great."
Practical Jokes and Ribs!
We can’t have a piece on Curt Hennig without bringing up his notoriety for pulling practical jokes and ribs. He was a faithful ribber, and he always had a way of keeping the mood light when people were tired from the road.
Calling his friends after putting shaving cream on the end of their landline telephone, putting hot mustard and lighter fluid in the crotchal region of someone’s underwear, and cutting holes at the top of people’s beer cans so that when they took a sip, it would spill all over them were all pranks Curt has been known to pull.
One time in a battle royal, Curt brought a little plastic eye-dropper bottle to the ring. As the match went on, he squirted a little, here, and a little there. Before you know it, everybody started moving away from one another, looking around until somebody indiscreetly shouted, "WHO SHIT THEIR PANTS?" It was no mystery who the culprit was after seeing Curt off to the side of the ring laughing his head off!
In one amusing instance, Gene Okerlund remembers a time when Joe Laurinaitis, Animal from the Road Warriors, was throwing a Christmas party with some of the boys in attendance at his house.
Joe, at the time, had a child who was about two or two-and-a-half years old, and he and his wife had a little potty they used for training his son up in the upstairs bathroom. At some point during the evening, Curt shuffled upstairs to use the facilities when he couldn’t help but notice the little trinket in the corner of the bathroom.
Naturally, Curt made a little deposit in there, shut the lid, and left the scene. Not long after, Joe went upstairs, saw what was in the potty, and shouted downstairs real proud to his wife, "LOOK WHAT THIS KID HAS DONE AT TWO YEARS OLD!"
When Curt walked into a dressing room and noticed that everyone was tired and worn out, he would find a way to perk things up and light up the room. That was just the kind of guy that he was.
Curt Hennig Leaves for WCW
Unfortunately, Curt suffered a bad back injury against the British Bulldog in 1991. This, coupled with a bulging disc and broken tailbone, led to his transition to a WWF commentator role.
Here is where he got to show his sense of humor throughout each show. As he healed up, he began transitioning back to the ring, which he wanted to do, but his back problems flared up again, forcing him back to the commentating booth.
Curt had various on-screen roles for the years to come, and he hadn’t had a match from November 1993 until he was allowed to join WCW in the middle of 1997 after his contract with WWE was up.
There was no bad blood when leaving the company, but, according to Curt’s father Larry, it was more of a matter of economics. Eric Bischoff said that Curt Hennig was brought to WCW to utilize what he was really good at- wrestling and giving interviews. He was clearly still very much a good worker.
During one memorable moment in September of ’97, just two months after returning after almost four years out of the ring, Curt Hennig gave the now-dubbed Hennig-plex to a young Big Show, aka The Giant.
This is a feat that astounds many still to this day.
In one of our favorite moments from Curt’s time in WCW, he was in the stable known as the West Texas Rednecks, where he sang the song "Rap is Crap." In fact, this was one of the best things we have ever seen in wrestling!
During this time in his career, he was having a lot of fun and making a lot of money, and he didn’t have the pressure of needing to be "the guy."
Curt Hennig Return to WWE Shortlived Following "Plane Ride From Hell" Incident at 30,000 Feet
Curt Hennig returned home to the WWE as a surprise entrant at the 2002 Royal Rumble pay-per-view. He came back, kicked ass, and was the third to last person eliminated from the match. He was in great shape, hadn’t missed a step in the ring, and seemed to be on his way to making a huge impact in WWE once again.
His return at the Rumble was meant to be a one-off appearance, but he impressed everyone in the office, which opened up the doors for another run with Vince and company.
They started airing fun vignettes of Mr. Perfect again, and he got to wrestle many of the greats who were hot at the time, including Brock Lesnar, Edge, Stone Cold, RVD, Jeff and Matt Hardy, Rikishi, you name it. But this homecoming was shortlived. On May 5th, 2002, just a few months after joining back up in New York, World Wrestling Entertainment came to terms on his release.
Many feel that Curt’s release resulted from the unbelievable chaos that ensued on the fateful flight, which has since been passed into wrestling folklore as the Plane Ride From Hell. On the day Curt was released, WWE had just finished its tour of Britain with the taping of the Insurrextion pay per view in London.
After the event, WWE chartered a private flight for all of its employees, including an open bar. Given you had a bunch of tired employees who just had finished a successful run of dates overseas, you can only imagine the debauchery that took place.
Now, if you haven’t read about the Plane Ride from Hell, you seriously need to. We break down every detail from this flight, which includes an orgy of excess, violence, and sexual misconduct by the Nature Boy Ric Flair, where at one point he was strutting down the aisle on the flight in nothing but his robe on, junk flying everywhere, going up to the stewardesses saying, "COME ON SWEETHEART, WOOO!!" as he opens up his robe to them.
Despite the misconduct that took place on the "Plane Ride From Hell," WWE management felt Curt’s actions were worth terminating his contract over.
Curt and Brock Lesnar were close friends who traveled on the road together, and they both hailed from Minnesota. But during this long flight, they got restless, leading to what started as a friendly amateur wrestling-style take-down tussle after Curt insisted he was a better grappler than the younger Brock. It then escalated.
Sean "X-Pac" Waltman and Justin Credible were spectators to what occurred on that flight. Here they are breaking down what went down between Brock and Curt:
WALTMAN: "Curt Hennig was always really competitive, you know? Him and Brock…we all hung out because we all lived in Minnesota…"
CREDIBLE: "They weren’t fighting…at first. But they’re very competitive, so they’re just scraping along, like messing around – then something happened where it got serious. It didn’t come to blows – but you know the opening they have on planes – those openings are the emergency exit rows.
Now Brock’s a wrestling shooter – and Curt’s a shooter kinda too – so they took it seriously. They didn’t wanna give in to each other. They went at it so hard [Lesnar shot in and drove Hennig so hard into the side] that they almost popped open the emergency exit – twenty-five, thirty thousand feet in the air…people [among them: Dave Finley, Triple H, and Paul Heyman] had to separate them."
WALTMAN: "Obviously [WWE management] made a big deal out of it…the fuckin’ door – it’s impossible for it to open at that altitude. So it was real stupid. [The flight before] Vince and Kurt Angle had a take-down tournament in the aisle – but as soon as it happened with [Hennig and Lesnar], they made a big deal out of it…"
Here you had WWE CEO Vince McMahon and Kurt Angle having a tussle on a flight, and nothing happens, yet Mr. Perfect and Brock Lesnar had a scrap, and Mr. Perfect gets fired. And to think, even Ric Flair kept his job after all that.
The Final Days of Curt Hennig
Unfortunately, life took a turn for Curt Hennig after being released from WWE. He took a few independent bookings after. However, n the morning of February 10th, 2003, Curt Hennig was found dead in a hotel room in Tampa, Florida, due to acute cocaine intoxication. He was 44-years-old.
This came as a shock to many, especially to his friends and family.
In WWE’s Life and Times of Mr. Perfect documentary, Ric Flair somberly recalls his friend’s death. "It just caught me off guard. It was just one of those things that I never imagined would happen, as I never felt sorry for Curt. I never saw Curt as having anything wrong. I just thought he was on top of the world."
Joe Hennig, Curtis Axel, had this to say on his father’s passing. "February 10th, 2003, was the worst day of my life. He wasn’t always my dad; he was like a brother. He was my hero, but most of all, he was my best friend. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. I have dreams about him all the time that he’s still here. Sometimes I just sit there and cry; I wish he were still here."
The fans feel the same way. It was a massive loss to wrestling, and one can only imagine how much valuable input Curt Hennig would be able to be giving right now to the next batch of talent had he still been around. For a man who represented perfection, he sadly died in the most imperfect of ways.
It came as a massive shock to fans who grew up watching him wrestle. I don’t think I watched a match more as a kid than his match against Bret Hart at SummerSlam 1991. To put it simply, he was special.
On March 31st, 2007, Curt Hennig was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by his good friend, baseball legend Wade Boggs. Through outlets like the WWE Network, through his son Curtis Axel, and hopefully through pieces like this one, Mr. Perfect’s memory and legacy will live on for generations to come.
Listen below to the song "Perfect Friend" rapped by Macho Man Randy Savage and initially written by Lanny Poffo for their friend, Curt Hennig:
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