Larry Hennig

Larry Hennig with grandson Curtis Axel (Joe Hennig). WWE Photo

One of the nicest guys outside the ring. One of the toughest guys inside it.

That was Larry “The Axe” Hennig, who seemed aptly nicknamed because the grizzled grappler could have just as easily passed for a powerful lumberjack.

Better known to more recent fans as the father of the late WWE Hall of Famer “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig and the grandfather of current WWE performer Joe Hennig (aka Curtis Axel; his ring name refers to his father and grandfather’s monikers), Larry Hennig passed away Dec. 6 at the age of 82.

Hennig had suffered from a lengthy illness as well as kidney failure. He had been plagued by knee problems since early in his career, stemming from a 1967 tag-team bout in Winnipeg, Canada, against Johnny Powers and Verne Gagne in which cartilage and tendons were torn in his leg.

Known for his toughness, Hennig finished that match anyway, refusing to go to the hospital. Instead, he and partner Harley Race drove hours back to Minnesota before he would even see a doctor.

Over the course of his career, Hennig would break ribs, collar bones, ankles and have both knees replaced. The mounting injuries would eventually force his final retirement in 1986. But his full-time ring days had ended nearly a decade earlier as he concentrated on other business interests, including running a St. Cloud-based real estate company with his wife and working the auction circuit.

Hennig’s athletic credentials were solid before he entered the pro wrestling ranks. As a senior, he was the heavyweight state champion in wrestling at Robbinsdale High School in 1954. “I went undefeated that season,” said Hennig. “The first year I went out for wrestling (1952), I took third place in state. Try that sometime. It ain’t easy.”

Because of his accomplishments on the mat and gridiron, he received a scholarship to the University of Minnesota to wrestle and play football. But, with a wife and young child to support, he was unable to finish his academic career because of family responsibilities. “I had a family to think about, mouths to feed,” said Hennig. “I needed a job.”

A bull of a man standing 6-3 and weighing nearly 300 pounds, Hennig was a star everywhere he went, but nowhere was he more revered than in his home state of Minnesota, the heartland of the old American Wrestling Association (AWA), where he was a four-time tag team champion.

During the ‘60s, Hennig formed one of the top heel teams in the business with Race, who was six years older but recognized that his younger partner was destined for success. Their bloody feud with The Bruiser (William Afflis) and The Crusher (Reggie Lisowski) sold out arenas throughout the Midwest, and put them solidly on the wrestling map.

Curiously nicknamed “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig and “Handsome” Harley Race, the cocky twosome drew the ire of their brawling, beer-guzzling rivals, who hilariously dubbed them “The Dolly Sisters” and even wore blonde wigs and women’s clothes in interviews to mock them even more.

A consummate “bad guy,” Hennig would routinely open TV interviews with the line, “We have the bodies of Hercules, the minds of Einstein and the faces of the Goddess of Love,’ further enraging fans and viewers.

Hennig and Race also gained acclaim internationally, touring Japan, New Zealand and Australia, where they won the first World Championship Wrestling tag-team title in the Land Down Under.

Hennig, who made his pro debut in 1956, had his first AWA world tag-team title run with partner Duke Hoffman (Bob Leiper) in 1962 after defeating three teams, including Ivan and Nikita Kalmikoff in the finals of a one-night tournament.

The hulking powerhouse also enjoyed a lengthy singles run as one of the territory’s top villains, feuding with his trainer and owner of the promotion, Verne Gagne.

Nearly 50 years later, Hennig and Gagne would be the inaugural members of the Minnesota Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Hennig also enjoyed tag-team runs with Lars Anderson (Larry Heiniemi), Bob Windham (before he became Blackjack Mulligan) and Dusty Rhodes before venturing to the WWWF for title shots with Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales at Madison Square Garden. It was during his stint in New York that he would be christened “The Axe” as a result of his finishing maneuver, a lariat he called the axe.

Perfect bond

Toward the end of his career, Hennig got the chance to team with son Curt, winning the Pacific Northwest tag-team championship in 1982. It would be his last title.

It also was a highlight of the veteran’s career, as son Curt would soon be signed to a WWE contract and become one its biggest stars as “Mr. Perfect.” Sadly Curt died from what was ruled acute cocaine intoxication in 2003, six weeks shy of his 45th birthday.

It was a tragedy, say friends and those closest to Larry, that he never really got over.

“Curt had the whole package,” Larry told Sports Illustrated in a 2016 interview. “He trained and worked out from the time he was six years old … I have five children, 25 grandchildren, but Curt was one of those athletes who could do it all. Playing golf, football — he was unbelievable. Wrestling always came first, of course. He was a natural and loved wrestling, and he was a great man and a great family man.”

That love for “Mr. Perfect” would be passed down to Larry’s grandson Joe, the oldest of Curt’s four children.

“Every child is in awe of their father, and I was no different,” Joe said in the 2016 SI interview. “My father and I were best friends. He was my hero and I just wanted to be around him all the time. I thought it was cool that he was a pro wrestler, but he was just an awesome dad.

“He really was the perfect dad. People thought it must have been hard with my dad on the road, but it never seemed like he was gone 300 days a year. He still found a way to go to my football games and my baseball games. When he was home, we were either playing catch or doing something. Even when I get home from the road and I’m dragging (butt), I make it a point to be there and play with my boys, help them with their homework, and keep their curiosity running wild. My dad taught me everything.”

“Curt looked up to and loved his dad more than anyone I’ve ever known — what an amazing father-son relationship,” added former WWE and WCW star Sean Waltman.

“I remember when Curt died and Larry and I were sitting there and Larry was crying, saying, ‘A son should never leave before a father,”’ recalled Joe Laurinaitis (aka Road Warrior Animal) in a recent interview on Hannibal TV. “All of the guys from the Robbinsdale High School area in Minnesota, and even if you weren’t from that high school, we all worked out together at the same gym, so he was like all of our dads.”

“Every one of us loved Larry ‘The Axe’ Hennig and then I got to get in the ring with him and wrestle him a few times and man, let me tell you something, he was probably the original Road Warrior,” said Laurinaitis, recounting the pain he felt after taking one of Hennig’s double axe handles.

Curt Hennig would earn a posthumous induction into WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2007, four years after his death. Larry Hennig was among the family’s representatives on stage to formally accept his son’s induction.

“No one has had a bigger impact on my wrestling career than my Pappa Axe,” Joe Hennig posted on social media following his grandfather’s passing. “He’s been my biggest supporter since day one! Another father when I lost mine. Never thought I'd see this day. But he’s with my Dad now so everything will be OK. Love you Pappa Axe! You rest assured, the Hennig name will live on forever!”

Class act

His colleagues and those in the business also held “The Axe” in high esteem.

Sixteen-time world champion Ric Flair recalled one of his first pro matches against Hennig.

“I first met Larry in 1972, and before my match with him, he looked at me and said, ‘Pretend like you are riding on a Greyhound bus and leave the driving to me.’ He was a great man and legend in our business,” said Flair.

“There aren’t many from that generation of wrestlers who you hear nothing bad about. But I’ve never heard a negative word about Larry Hennig. Ever. Super nice guy in my own limited interaction with him, as well. Losing Curt clearly broke his heart, and I hope he’s at peace now,” wrote wrestling journalist David Bixenspan.

Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer recalled his toughness with one of Hennig’s favorite stories: “The 10 toughest guys in the world every year send each other Christmas cards. And every year, I get nine Christmas cards.”

That was Larry Hennig to a tee.

Hennig continued to attend wrestling-related events in later years. He was inducted into the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005, was honored with the Cauliflower Alley Club’s highest honor, the Iron Mike Award, in 2015, and was named to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame along with Race in 2017. He was enshrined in the Minnesota Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2015.

Just last month, Robbinsdale’s Wicked Wort Brewery launched a beer named in honor of “Robbinsdale's Favorite Son” called “The Axe is Back.”

Longtime AWA announcer Mick Karch remembered his friend on social media as a larger-than-life figure who “filled a room with his presence, towering above everyone else in physical size and personality.”

“Larry Hennig was one of those guys you thought would be around forever,” wrote Karch. “Even as he grew older, there was no denying his physical stature and strength. You could walk into a crowded room and immediately spot him. As big and tough as he was (many wrestlers over the years tried to ‘test’ Larry, and it didn't end well for them), outside the ring he was as nice a guy as you could meet, down to earth, intelligent and outgoing.

“Whether he was entertaining a crowd with his tuneful rendition of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ or barking a hundred times a minute as he engaged in one of his favorite pastimes as an auctioneer, Larry lit up the room. Over the past couple years, he was clearly in physical decline. The last time I saw him was a few months back and it was evident he was winding down. Still, his passing was a like a sledgehammer to my heart.”

True legend.

Class act.

Devoted family man, married to high school sweetheart Irene for 63 years, and an all-around good guy. Father of five with 28 grandkids, so many he once joked, that he had no choice but to assign then numbers because he’d never be able to remember all their names.

A quick, razor-sharp wit. And always with a good story to tell.

That’s the Larry Hennig we will remember.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.