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by Marty Goldstein on 2003-02-11

The death of Curt Hennig is another in a series of shocks over the past few years to those of us who are of his generation. Hennig was one of the most respected and popular in-ring performers of his time, a second-generation superstar who was part of a group from Minnesota that came unto the scene in the 1980's and with their charisma and size became key players in the dying days of the territories and in-demand talent when the war for survival between WWF and WCW started. That group included the Road Warriors, Nikita Koloff, Barry Darsow, Tom Zenk and Hennig's best friend, the late Rick Rude.

This death has affected me and my friends a little more because we saw Hennig throughout his career, as cable and VCR's replaced magazines as a viable way to follow the industry. From his early enhancement days in the AWA and WWF, Curt's natural athleticism was augmented by great timing, and he grew into a lead star for Don Owen in Portland in 1984 before returning to the AWA for it's final big run. Here are a few memories of Curt Hennig.

* When the AWA began bleeding talent to WWF, Curt became a key player. Greg Gagne did a TV interview where he wouldn't even call Jim Brunzell by name, slamming his former partner for abandoning him and thanking Hennig for stepping into the breach and saving Gagne from a beating. Hennig, who was not strong on interviews till then, got the rub from the established High Flyer and the fans accepted him as a worthy opponent to Mr. Saito and Nick Bockwinkel. This was fortunate because at the time, the AWA TV tapings in Winnipeg were beginning to show the signs of change, as the fans stopped accepting being programmed by Verne Gagne's outdated concepts.

With teams like the Road Warriors and Freebirds kicking the crap out of the jobbers and characters like Jimmy Garvin and Larry Zbyszko around, the heels were not being booed. In fact the babyfaces were heavily derided, especially Greg Gagne and champion Rick Martel, (except for Steve Olsonoski and referee Eddie Sharkey). Rather they would pop like mad for perennial world champ Bockwinkel entering the ring, and scream for Saito to "torture him" when the chops rained down on the traps of hapless jobbers like Jimmy Doo.

So one day Hennig comes out to face, I believe it was Earthquake Ferris. The fans booed young Hennig and cheered the ref. He had a look of surprise and obviously had not seen this scenerio before, but he knew what had to be done. A few minutes in, he lifted and seperated the legs of Ferris who was laying face first on the mat, and forced him to push up- kind of like the old wheelbarrow race when we were kids. Hennig then punted Ferris between the legs, and with Ferris pushed up his agony was apparant for all to see. The school gym went nuts. Massive cheers for the "babyface". In the old days that was completely wrong. In the new world, Hennig had turned the crowd by, not just cheating, but cheating dirty. His smirk and the laughter of Sharkey at the spot was very entertaining.

* After a program with his dad, AWA legend Larry "The Axe" Hennig chasing the Roadies, Hennig and new partner Scott Hall won the AWA tag titles from the team that beat Animal and Hawk, Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin and Steve Regal, with their valet Precious. After dropping the belts Hennig began a chase for Bockwinkel's newly regained singles title. A classic 60 minute draw was aired on New Year's Eve 1986 on ESPN with Hennig covered in blood, locking the figure four leg on the screaming champ as the bell rang and the Las Vegas crowd went crazy.

That match made Hennig a national star, and a few months later in San Francisco he won the AWA title and turned heel all in one move, when Larry Zbyszko passed Hennig brass knuckles to drop Bockwinkle and win the belt. Suddenly Hennig was "Cool Curt", hid behind Zbyszko and came with Madusa Micelli to the ring. His title bouts on ESPN with Greg Gagne and Wahoo McDaniel were classics as Hennig became recognized as a bump machine and while ususally covered in a crimson mask, he always retained his crown. In 1988 he became the man who finally made Jerry Lawler a world champ and the capacity crowd in Memphis finally got what they had long wanted. (It was also the beginning of the end for the AWA title as Lawler and Verne Gagne did not get along too well and eventually the King walked out as champ, forever and finally damaging the credibility of the AWA.)

Even Hennig's bouts with jobbers were entertaining. One time a very new Jonny Stewart and Hennig were in the ring, the bell rang, but there was no ref. Hennig looked around ringside trying not to laugh at the gaffe, and had a hell of a match when the ref Gary Derusha ran out to Hennig's scornful glare. Some of the jobbers were horrible but Hennig always made them look like wrestlers, instead of eating them alive.

* After dropping the belt Hennig headed into the WWF as Mr. Perfect and enjoyed a long undefeated streak until losing to Hulk Hogan. It was in this period that I met Hennig and saw a more personal side of him. After a WWF show in Winnipeg a number of us, including Playboy Doug McColl and Mike Phillips, went to the Polo Park Inn. Phillips had headlined in BC as JR Bundy, and had retired and undergone the old stomach-stapling route to reduce his sizeable girth.

We mingled around the bar. Me comparing Bob Geigel stories with others who had gone through the Kansas City territory like the Warlord and Marty Janetty ("Geigel didn't stiff you on your pay? Sean, get this guy a drink!"), and McColl cracking stories with Ted Dibiase while Virgil did what Virgil did best- stand there. Koko B Ware and a few others were around. And then I saw Mr. Perfect come over to Phillips. Despite the weight loss and new hairstyle, Curt Hennig recognized him from his 1985 stint as a TV taping punching bag. "Hey, aren't you that kid Stan Hanson broke the ring with?". They stood together, smoking constantly- I was surprised that a guy who had such great in-ring conditioning like Hennig chain-smoked -and talked about Phillips new career outside the ring and Hennig's new persona. Phillips introduced me to Curt as the guy who managed him in his last match, and Curt said something to the effect that if only Phillips had Bobby Heenan instead of me...

Thereafter Hennig won and lost the Intercontinental title in a program with the late Kerry Von Erich, retired and unretired and retired again with back problems, and went to WCW to become part of the NWO in an angle that ended the legacy of the Four Horseman. For much of his career he was booked in angles with the elite like Bockwinkel, Hogan and Ric Flair.

But that brief meeting in 1989 was the only time I saw Hennig outside of the ring. It spoke volumes about his class and character. He didn't have to pursue that glimmer of recognition. He didn't have to engage a jobber he hardly worked with, who was now out of the business claiming he would never return (of course Phillips did, as Sgt. Steele for various Winnipeg indys in the mid-90's), in conversation. He didn't have to make me feel welcome by ribbing me. But he did.

To me Curt Hennig was a class human being and a consumate performer, and his passing is very sad as he still had a lot to give the fans. Moreso he had a wife and 4 children, and that is the greater tragedy of his passing so young.

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