------------------------------------------------------------------- Life's work puts wrestling legend 'The Axe' in Hall of Fame By Frank Rajkowski firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: February 12. 2006 6:00AM --
Visitors to the home just south of St. Cloud where Larry Hennig and his wife Irene have lived for almost 12 years are instantly aware that this is a man who has lived an extraordinary life.
The bearded Hennig — known to professional wrestling fans as "The Axe" during his quarter-century in the sport — leads the way to a memorabilia-covered wall opposite windows that overlook the frozen shore of Long Lake.
There are photographs of Hennig with his various title belts ... old newspaper clippings ... pictures with him alongside celebrities as varied as Bronko Nagurski and Jay Leno.
There also are plenty of reminders of Hennig's life as a family man: His five children and 18 grandchildren are well represented.
"I've been lucky enough to see a lot of places and meet a lot of different people," said Hennig, who just turned 70.
He still runs Larry Hennig Auction and Realty, a real estate career that began in the 1950s and continued through the years in which he was traveling the world as a professional wrestler.
It hasn't all been smiles, of course. There was a serious car accident on the eve of his first professional match, and a knee injury in 1967 that kept him out of action for almost two years.
There also was the tragic death of his son Curt, 44 — a professional wrestling superstar in his own right — in a Florida hotel room in February 2003.
"There are times that we still both just sit here and weep," said Hennig, glancing at Irene. They have been married since before his wrestling career began. "We can't help it. Until you've lost a child, you'll never understand how difficult it really is."
But through it all, Hennig has persevered. And this summer, his life's accomplishments will be celebrated July 14-15 when he is inducted into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, Iowa.
Mike Chapman, the facility's executive director, said Hennig was chosen both for his professional accomplishments and for his amateur wrestling success. That included a 1954 state title in the heavyweight division for Robbinsdale High School.
"We look for people who have had a strong amateur background and have gone on to success in the pro ranks," Chapman said. "Larry certainly fits that description. He was a very worthy candidate."
"It's a big honor for us," Hennig said. "We went down there last year when Harley Race was inducted because he was an old tag-team partner of mine, and I did a little testimonial for him.
"The head of the board of regents came over to Irene and I as we were walking into the building. He said, 'Can I talk to you for a minute?' Then he told Irene she was standing next to the newest Hall of Fame inductee.
"We were overwhelmed by that. Then he told us the voting was unanimous and that doesn't happen very often. So that made me feel really good."
After a successful prep career at Robbinsdale, Hennig accepted a football scholarship to the University of Minnesota. But with a new wife to support, his collegiate career lasted only a year.
Instead, Hennig got involved in real estate. At the same time, he began to train for a professional wrestling career under the direction of a Minnesota wrestler named Joe Pazandak.
"I thought I could do it because I certainly had all the tools," said the 6-foot-1 Hennig, who wrestled at 275 pounds. "I was big enough, strong enough and I had a good amateur background."
Hennig was influenced by the career of fellow Robbinsdale graduate Verne Gagne, who excelled collegiately at the University of Minnesota before going on to a long and successful career as a wrestler and promoter.
Through time, their relationship would sour because of business differences, and they no longer speak. But back then, Hennig said Gagne inspired him.
"He was 10 years ahead of me, but he had come to see some of my matches in high school," Hennig said. "When he walked in, everybody's head would turn. There was really a charisma about being a pro. And they made money. That was the bottom line for me."
Hennig began refereeing matches to get a feel for the business. He was booked to wrestle his first match in January 1957, but an auto accident put his professional debut on hold.
"I got a call that he was supposed to go someplace for a match, then the next call I get was that he had been in an accident and a truck had rolled over on him," Irene Hennig recalled.
"The accident cut off part of my ear, and I had to get something like 28 stitches," Hennig said. "Right away, they weren't sure if I was going to make it. I'm lucky I was in good shape or I might not have."
Hennig recovered, and in April 1957, his first match took place in Mankato. He won, and his career took off from there.
Then, as now, professional wrestling was a mix of stagecraft, showmanship and athleticism — a mix that Hennig was quick to grasp.
"It just came to me," he said. "People wanted to see action. They didn't want to see a guy lying around in one hold for 20 minutes or a half-hour. You had to put some color into it.
"You were building characters," Hennig said. "People like characters — The Crusher, Mad Dog Vachon, Billy Robinson, Larry 'The Axe' Hennig. People like to be able to relate in some way to the people they're seeing."
Hennig worked his way up through the ranks in what became known as the American Wrestling Association. He won his first tag-team title in 1964.
But his biggest break may have come when he hooked up with Harley Race. The two immediately hit it off, and "Handsome" Harley Race and "Pretty Boy" Larry Hennig, as they brashly billed themselves, would go on to win the Minnesota-based AWA's tag team titles on several occasions.
"Harley was from Missouri, but he had come up here to wrestle," Hennig said. "It was just for a TV match, but somehow the two of us hit it off together.
"The more we talked about ourselves, the more people got upset. They didn't think I was so pretty, and they didn't think he was so handsome.
"See, if you were sitting at home watching this, we had to get you out of your seat in your house and down to the auditorium because that was how we made our money," Hennig said. "So it was like anything else: You had to give people an incentive to go."
While wrestling in a tag-team match with Race in Winnipeg in November 1967, Hennig tore cartilage and tendons in his knee. The injury required surgery and kept Hennig out of the ring for more than 20 months.
"You have to remember we were all self-employed," said Hennig, whose knee still bears the scars. "There were no benefits, no nothing. So you can imagine that it was very difficult trying to survive with a large family on top of that.
"In fact, I probably went back too early. Because after I got started back again, I reinjured it," he said. "There's a Cauliflower Club that a lot of ex-wrestlers belong to ... and when I go there now and walk down the hallway, it's amazing. Everybody's knees are bad."
The injury reminded Hennig that his wrestling career wouldn't last forever and underscored his determination to remain involved in real estate.
"I always maintained my license," Hennig said. "The money then wasn't like it is today. So my thought was always that I had to have something I could fall back on — because when it was over, it was over."
It was the real estate business that brought Hennig to the St. Cloud area.
"I had known people up here from selling bars and restaurants, and I had a business up here," he said. "It turned out to be the best move we ever made. We just love St. Cloud."
After Hennig recovered enough to begin competing again, he decided to head east. There, he went to work for the World Wide Wrestling Federation — the predecessor of today's WWE.
"I wanted to move on and I thought New York would be the place to go," Hennig said. "I had many matches in Madison Square Garden, and in all the big auditoriums out east. It was just a much bigger agenda than it was here and that's what I was looking for.
"I did click out there. I had a lot of main events with people like Bruno Samartino and Pedro Morales, people like that."
It was while he was with the WWWF that Hennig changed his moniker from "Pretty Boy" to "The Axe."
"I hit a guy on TV with my elbow and the announcer said it looks like the guy got hit with an axe," Hennig said. "And when I got ready to come back here, I was no longer 'Pretty Boy.' I was 'The Axe.'"
"The Axe" made a big impression when he returned to the AWA, where he was paired against Verne Gagne's son Greg and his partner Jim Brunzell — a tag team known as the High Flyers.
"I came back with a different attitude," Hennig said. "I was stronger and I was more confident in what I was doing.
"That really got big then. 'The Axe' was back and 'The Axe' was back to stay."
Hennig's wrestling career took him to locations worldwide.
"I went to Puerto Rico," Hennig said. "I wrestled in Japan, in England, in Canada, in South America, in Johannesburg, South Africa. I did a lot of traveling."
That wasn't always easy for a married man with five children. Wrestling fans knew Hennig from his growling interviews on television. But his wife and children knew the real man.
"I remember one time we had company over and Larry came on TV," Irene Hennig said. "The people watching were wondering if that's what he was like at home. But that was just for television."
The Hennig family included sons Randy, Curt and Jesse and daughters Sandy and Sue. All were athletic, but it was Curt who seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps. He excelled in athletics, first in Robbinsdale, then at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"He could have played football. He could have done anything," Hennig said. "He was just one of those special athletes that come along every once in a while."
Curt eventually decided to follow his father into pro wrestling. The two worked as a tag team for a while, and Curt constantly sought his father's advice.
"He'd call me every night," Hennig said. "We talked every day."
Curt won the AWA heavyweight title in the 1980s, then moved on to the then-WWF and gained greater fame wrestling as "Mr. Perfect." He later went on to star in World Championship Wrestling as well.
But while wrestling on the independent circuit in 2003, Curt Hennig was found dead in his hotel room in Florida. The news was devastating to the Hennig family.
"We don't have bad days — we have bad minutes," said Hennig, the pain still evident in his eyes. "We miss him a lot.
"We did a lot of praying and a lot of sticking together as a family. It hurts me even to talk about it. He was such a great athlete and we all loved him so much. I have stuff on video, all his accomplishments, that I never go back and look at.
"His wife still hasn't gotten over it. She still has the same Christmas tree up from three years ago. She hasn't taken it down because Curt helped her put it up."
The cause of death was listed as heart failure, and the coroner's report cited evidence of cocaine use. But Hennig said that would have been out of character for his son.
Hennig prefers to remember his son as he knew him in life.
"I knew him as a great family man and a great father," Hennig said. "He was a great son and I loved him. That's the way it is."
Curt Hennig is one of a group of pro wrestlers who have died at an early age in recent years.
"The business has a lot to do with it, I think," Hennig said. "Guys wrestle 300 times a year, and they're training in addition to that. You're constantly in a different town every night. It's a hard lifestyle, and it can be a drain on you."
'The Axe' today
Hennig sees professional wrestling far differently now than when he started out.
"People ask me about wrestling today and I can't explain it," Hennig said. "(WWE Chairman) Vince McMahon has taken this thing to another level. They've taken the wrestling out of wrestling in a way. He's moved forward with it. But it's just a different time."
Still, Hennig doesn't mind reminiscing.
"When you're talking about wrestling, you're talking about me," he said. "And when you're talking about me, you're talking about my real estate business. I've used it in a positive way. It's opened a lot of doors for me."
It also has gotten him into the Hall of Fame. A busload of Hennigs will be making the trip to Iowa for the induction weekend.
"We've got 18 grandchildren," Hennig said. "We're going to make it a family outing. It's a big event and it's going to be a really nice time."
The museum in Newton isn't bad. Its about 3/4ths amateur, with a pro wrestling room. They've got a few AWA and NWA title belts and some old boots and things like that. They also have a ring that you can climb in, but I'd estimate that its only about 10' x 10'.
Last evening, myself and the fiancee were out on the town with some friends enjoying some adult beverages. We were at out favorite place, sitting at the usual table, laughing and cavorting. I look up, and who walks by, but Larry "The Ax" Hennig. I bring it up to the missus and my bud, point him out, and of course the talk changes to old school wrestling. Larry, who was with his son, (Chuck, I think. OMG HAPPY DAYS~!), who is Curt's older brother, wind up sitting three tables away from us. Shawna (my fiancee) wants to go say hi to him, and after some prodding from myself and my bud, she DOES go over to him. This is how the conversation goes:
Shawna: Excuse me, but are you Larry Hennig?
The Ax: Why, yes I am, and who are you, by chance?
S: My name is Shawna. I saw you walk in and HAD to come up and tell you how big a fan I was of yours.
LH: Why thank you!
S: I DO have something to ask you,tho.
S: Would you piledrive me?
LH: *blank look*
S: No really. Will you piledrive me? *slight grin*
LH: Well, why don't you turn around? *starts to stand up*
S: *backs up a step* No, I was just joking. *laughing*
LH: No really, turn around. I have to check out wether you a worth piledriving. *laughing*
S: *laughs* No thank you. Have a great night! *shakes his hand and comes back to the table, relaying the story to us and we all have a laugh*
I went up to him later and introduced myself. I DID have a story for him about Curt. About 13 years ago, the band I ran lights for had a gig at this place in the Twin Cities that we played at once a month for a week long stretch. Curt was almost ALWAYS at our gigs, wore our shirt and everything. Really nice guy. (One time he brought Animal and Hawk in. Holy CRAP were they HUGE) Anywho, I told Larry that story and how nice a guy Curt was and that I was sorry for his loss. He was really, REALLY nice about that, and went on about how not a day goes by that he doesn't think about it and how hard it is, but did appreciate my condolences, and shook my hand.
There you go. --------------------------------------------------------
I also ran into him about 12 years ago when the band I was working with was playing a casino in Morton, MN. We were done for the evening and it's about 3 am and we're all hungry. We're going thru the buffet, and of course, I'm first in line. I start dishing up and look beside me to the person ahead of me in line, and there's Larry and his wife, dishing up the grub. I looked at his plate and groaned, hoping he'd leave some for me. He smiled and said, "Don't worry, there's plenty for you, too." We both chuckled and got full bellies.