Younger fans may know him as Curt Hennig’s dad, or Curtis Axel’s grandfather, but old-school fans know him as The Axe.
Larry Hennig was one of the toughest men in professional wrestling, known for his physical brutality and muscular neck, which to this day, measures 22 inches.
With a stellar amateur background and long professional career, Hennig is a true legend, bashing and bloodying the likes of Ray Stevens, Verne Gagne, and the Road Warriors throughout the AWA and around the world, winning numerous singles and tag team championships.
That’s why Hennig will be presented the prestigious Iron Mike Mazurki Award, the highest honour in the professional wrestling business, at the Cauliflower Alley Club’s 50th reunion in Las Vegas, April 12-15.
SLAM! Wrestling recently caught up with The Axe to chat at length about his legacy, his family, and success outside of wrestling.
SLAM! Wrestling: How are you feeling about being honoured with the Iron Mike Award at the upcoming Cauliflower Alley Club banquet?
Larry Hennig: How am I feeling? Overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed with this honour and all the exciting things happening right now, like my grandson Joe (Curtis Axel). Joe just signed another four-year contract with WWE, and they don’t do that with a lot of people. There’s a lot of them who didn’t get a new contract. So what they’re telling me is, and what they’re of course telling Joe, is that he’s wanted and there’s going be spot for him moving forward. It’s just a matter of time.
SLAM! Wrestling: Then let’s start off by talking about your grandson, who’s currently riding the wave of “AxelMania.” Do you see much of yourself in him?
Larry Hennig: I see more of Curt in him than me. Joe’s got great agility, he’s got a lot of Curt’s skills, and then once in a while he throws in one of my moves, which is fine, but things have changed. Vince McMahon owns the ferris wheel and he owns all the seats on there, and just to get on the ferris wheel nowadays is very difficult because the competition is so hard — so it’s really great that he’s there.
And you’ve got to be tough in a lot of ways to be with the WWE because there’s so much traveling involved. People don’t realize that six days in a row you’re on an airplane and in a hotel. It’s like we did back in the territorial days but now it’s always on a much bigger scale. So to answer your question, Joe’s got a little bit of Curt in him and a little bit of me, and I guess that’s why he’s Curtis Axel.
Like I did, Joe is getting to go to a lot of places and see a lot of things. So I’ve been reflecting on that and feeling very privileged for the life I had in wrestling.
SLAM! Wrestling: Then take us back to the beginning, when you first won the Minnesota State High School Heavyweight Championship in 1954.
Larry Hennig: Yeah, I was an amateur wrestler and wrestled in high school and was a state champion, and then I had a scholarship to Minnesota for football and wrestling. But at an early age I found I had to get out and make some money, and that’s when I hooked up with Verne Gagne, of course, and an oldtimer named Joe Pazandak. And they’re the ones who started training me.
The first match that I had was with Billy Wicks in Mankato, Minnesota, and I was excited and overwhelmed that I was going to get my first professional match. But when it was over it was like a big load off my mind because I knew right then, that’s what I wanted to do. This is going to work.
And Verne Gagne, as he did then and up to the time when Vince bought him out, Verne was money motivated. And he was starting a new territory (AWA) here with Wally Karbo. So he was looking at the future too. He was looking at getting young local guys who could draw money, and would be a credit to the business, and I was able to fill those shoes for him, I guess.
SLAM! Wrestling: Early on, you had a short tag team championship reign with Duke Hoffman in the AWA. Tell us about Duke Hoffman.
Larry Hennig: Duke was a good wrestler, he was a good amateur wrestler and he became a good mechanic in the ring. But I had a lot of great partners after that, I had Jos Leduc, Dusty Rhodes, and Lars Anderson (Larry Heiniemi). But none of them clicked like Harley Race and I did. That was a special, special time, teaming with Harley.
SLAM! Wrestling: How did you and Harley Race become a tag team?
Larry Hennig: I think I had been in the business for a couple years and had wrestled in Texas for a bit, when Harley Race came up from Kansas City to wrestle on TV. Promoters were always looking for fresh bodies and new wrestlers that they haven’t seen before, so Harley wandered in here and wrestled on TV, and I was in the studio.
And I don’t know what happened exactly, but I figure it was meant to be. We started talking and one thing led to another, and pretty soon we were a tag team and we became tag team champions. We must have had 460 or 480 title matches on and off. So we just clicked and to this day we’re still good friends. We’ve never had a bad word with each other, even though after that I had my knee blown out in Winnipeg, and he went along his way and then all the success he had in the NWA. So we went our different ways but we’re still friends today.
But me and Harley, that was special. Against Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher, we sold out the Amphitheater in Chicago, we sold out Milwaukee, Winnipeg, Colorado, Nebraska, wherever they put that match up it was a sellout.
SLAM! Wrestling: What was it like teaming with Jos LeDuc?
Larry Hennig: Jos was a kind-hearted good guy, and I think we made for a strong team with our rugged style of wrestling. We did a deal in Minnesota where he pulled a bus down the main street. That was before a lot of people were doing it, but he pulled that bus down the street all by himself. They had it on TV and it really got a lot of attention and people remember that. I liked Jos — in fact he got married here in Minneapolis. Then he went on his way. I saw him a couple times after that, and then I heard that he died. So it was a sad time for sure.
SLAM! Wrestling: You wrestled all over the world, including Japan, New Zealand, and Australia…
Larry Hennig: Australia was great. It was Harley’s and my first time and we had fun. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the long flight over there. In those days we had to stop in Fiji or somewhere along the line, there were no direct flights then. But I liked Australia. The first time I went there, it was exciting to see all the landmarks and I wrestled over there and Harley and I made some money. And the food was good and the people were good, so it was a nice package.
SLAM! Wrestling: Did you enjoy your time in the Portland territory in the mid-’80s, where you and Curt won the NWA Pacific Northwest Tag Team Championship?
Larry Hennig: I sure did. When I went there, Curt was already out there and established. So I took the rest of the family on the Amtrak from St. Cloud to Portland. It was a great experience and I really liked the way of life out there. It was a small territory and you didn’t have to spend a lot of time on the road.
We went salmon fishing, and we did some hunting. So to me it was almost like a paid vacation. And yes, Curt and I, we did win the tag team belts out there, father and son, and I was very excited about that, of course. That was a great and memorable time in my career.
SLAM! Wrestling: Tell us about Curt.
Larry Hennig: Curt was a special athlete. From the time he started school, there wasn’t anything Curt couldn’t do. He was good at wrestling, he was good at basketball, he was good at golf, he was good at bowling, he was good at throwing darts. It didn’t make any difference, he always was good at it. And he was very agile and he had a way of doing things that just came absolutely natural to him.
SLAM! Wrestling: Who do think was Curt’s greatest opponent?
Larry Hennig: Curt had so many opponents that he matched up so well with, both in singles competition and tag teams. His matches against Nick Bockwinkel were classics. But I’ll say this, when Curt passed away, Bret Hart came to his funeral in Minnesota and he brought me the tape of that match where he had wrestled Curt in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. And he handed it to me, and he said, “Listen Larry, this is the greatest match I’ve ever had in wrestling, and it was with Curt.” It was an incredible match and I felt good about that. You get two guys like that in the ring, and they’re great athletes and they have good attitudes, and they were money matches because once they put them on, people are still talking about them today.
SLAM! Wrestling: As a tag team, you and Curt had both power and speed.
Larry Hennig: Yes we did. I weighed about 320 pounds or more and I had a good amateur background, so I never ran from anybody, including Andre the Giant. I always went in and did my best. I remember, Curt and I wrestled the Road Warriors in New York one time and we got in the ring and I said to Hawk and Animal, “You know what? You guys are going to have a problem. I’m the original Road Warrior and you can’t catch him,” as I pointed to Curt. So you can imagine, Curt and I against the Road Warriors was quite a contest for sure.
SLAM! Wrestling: What was your first experience like working for the WWWF?
Larry Hennig: When I went to New York, my first trip there, I came back to Minnesota as “The Axe.” I went up to work for Vince and his dad, mostly his dad at that time. I can tell you one thing about the McMahons, if they said they were going to do stuff, they did it. If they said you were going to make so much money, they did it. Everything the McMahon people told me — and I’m not saying this because Curtis Axel is there or not — they followed through. And I wrestled for a lot of promoters who said they were going to do this or that, and they didn’t do it. You following me? The McMahons did it. Their word was their word.
SLAM! Wrestling: And you wrestled Bruno Sammartino in Madison Square Garden, right?
Larry Hennig: I wrestled Bruno at Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden and Philadelphia. That whole circle there, and Puerto Rico as well.
Bruno, he was a good mechanic. He wasn’t gifted, but he didn’t have to be. He was a strong guy, and he looked good and out east with all those Italians, he was big, big money. Every time I wrestled Bruno I made big money. And like I said, the McMahons were great promoters, obviously.
SLAM! Wrestling: After you retired, you stayed involved in wrestling as a promoter for many years.
Larry Hennig: Yeah, I did promotional work in Minnesota, and I followed the money. So we did the casinos and those little tug-of-war things with the police department and the fire department, and of course a lot of stuff for charities.
SLAM! Wrestling: What advice do you have for aspiring young wrestlers?
Larry Hennig: Wrestling is no different than working for a big corporation. You’ve got to be there, you’ve got to be good, and you’ve got to look for advancement, of course. And everything’s the same structure, only but in a different way. And then you got to work hard and keep at it. Then one of these days you get a good break, and there you are.
But some people, their whole life they never get that break, or if they get a chance and they’re not prepared, then the opportunity is gone. So you’ve got to have the whole package. You’ve got to look good, you’ve got to be able to talk, you’ve got to be able to wrestle, you’ve got to do PR work, along with the charity work and all the other things combined. To be a professional wrestler, you have to have the whole package.
SLAM! Wrestling: Can you share some fun insights into some of the previous winners of the Iron Mike Award from your era, starting with Stu Hart?
Larry Hennig: The Harts, they’re a little different, y’know? When I was very young I drove from Minneapolis to Calgary, and in those days there was nothin’ open on Sundays, but Stu Hart was good to work for. I went down on that mat there in his basement where he likes to take guys and beat ’em up. He kind of got into a different league when he asked me to go down there, though, and took a different approach with me than the guys he stretched. Like I said, I was big and thick and had a good amateur background.
SLAM! Wrestling: Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer?
Larry Hennig: I did a deal at this fundraiser some place and Dick would be in the bathroom, in the kitchen, on the street, in the cab, in the hallway, and he had his mask on and wore it everywhere. So I got up at this fundraiser and said, “Dick, will you stand up please?” So he did and I go, “It’s over, they know who you are, Dick. You can take off that goddamn mask!” (laughs)
SLAM! Wrestling: Terry Funk?
Larry Hennig: I wrestled Terry and his brother Dory in Amarillo. I spent time down there and that was a great time in my life also. I didn’t make much money but it was steady and it was a fun territory, with Wahoo McDaniel and the Funks. And I could go on and on, we’d wrestle, have a few beers, shoot some rabbits on the way home, and we just had a riot. It was really enjoyable and nice people. They say if you wear out a pair of shoes in Amarillo, you never leave.
SLAM! Wrestling: Nick Bockwinkel?
Larry Hennig: Nick is a very meticulous guy, y’know, and he tells a lot of stories. But sometimes he talks a lot and he starts to get boring. So the story I like to tell about Nick is, that people don’t know he had a job working at a prison, and his job was to take people from the cell to the electric chair. So Nick’s telling this guy a story as he’s walking him to the electric chair, and the guy stops and says, “Can we hurry this up a little bit?” (laughs)
SLAM! Wrestling: And lastly, Jesse Ventura?
Larry Hennig: I’ve got a picture of me wrestling Jesse and I’ve got him in the corner and I’ve got him by the back of the hair and the back of the head. My left hand is pointing right at him right they snapped that picture, and then I implanted in there: “This is the way to the governor’s office.” And I got that classic picture in my home.
Jesse has had a great career in politics, in film and television and writing, as everybody knows, and I really admire that.
SLAM! Wrestling: You too have had a successful career outside of wrestling in real estate.
Larry Hennig: Well, when I started wrestling and I’d see some of these older guys, they’d come and go, and I had five children and I got hurt along the line where I couldn’t wrestle. And I just figured I’d get something for back up. So I decided to get a real estate license in 1957. And 15 years ago I got an auctioneer’s license, so the name of my company is Larry Hennig Realty & Auction Company, so I’m pretty well established here now. It worked out really good for me, because you know, in wrestling you don’t have a retirement. You’re only as good as your last match and when you go down there is no one there to help you.
|2015 CAULIFLOWER ALLEY CLUB HONOUREES|
Almighty Sheik (Joseph Cabibbo)
Diamond Dallas Page
Lisa Marie Varon
“The Grappler” Len Denton
The Romero Family
When you got obligations and a big family, I got 25 grandkids. And you know what, I don’t remember their names so I give them numbers. (laughs) I say, “Hey Six, come over here I want to talk to you! Now where did Number Nine go?”
SLAM! Wrestling: What inspired you to venture into auctioneering?
Larry Hennig: In real estate here in Minnesota, you got to have an attorney or a real estate guy at your auction, if you’re doing a real estate auction. Well, this guy double-crossed me and I got pissed off, so I decided to go back to school and spent a couple weeks to get my license and I’m glad I did because I’m still using it. It’s a good business and a good way to make money.
And I still enjoy working and staying active. I’m 79 and I’ve had my knees replaced. When I talk to people my age, that’s all they talk about is their health, so I don’t do things like that. I’m still moving around good and I’ve got grandkids wrestling, three of them wrestling in grade school and in high school, so we spend a lot of time doing that, and that’s good.
SLAM! Wrestling: It must be highly rewarding then to celebrate this upcoming honour with your family, receiving the Iron Mike Award at the 50th anniversary of the CAC.
Larry Hennig: Oh yeah, that’s a great award. Are you kidding, of course I’m overwhelmed by it. And I pat myself on the back, we worked hard, the wife and I. We raised our family and we’ve gone through the good times and the bad times, I’m talking about Curt, but we’re survivors and to get this award at this point in my life, it’s very special.
Anytime I get an award I just wonder why sometimes. Why me? But it wasn’t me who picked me. So I’ll do the best job I can do. That’s all I can do.