Like in many tight-knit clans, Curtis Axel decided to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by going into the family business. In this case, however, the family business happens to involve kicking much ass inside a wrestling ring.
The 33-year-old WWE superstar, who's real name is Joe Hennig, is the progeny of professional wrestling royalty. Both his pops (the late Curt "Mr. Perfect" Hennig) and grandpa (Larry "The Axe" Hennig) are widely considered to be legends in the business. It's certainly given Axel some big boots to fill, a fact that we discussed with him during a recent phone interview promoting WWE Raw's upcoming appearance at US Airways Center next month.
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Axel says that he hopes to both escape the epic shadows cast by his dad and granddad while honoring the family's legacy and earning his own esteem in the business. And last month, he took a first step toward doing so after winning WWE's Intercontinental Championship, a title that was won by his dad back in the day. Hence, the victory had great significance to the wrestler and (perfectly enough) happened on Father's Day.
Axel told us that he'd love to bring prestige back to the secondary title as a fighting champion while becoming the WWE's latest breakout character. On Sunday night, Axel's character lived up to his claim by successfully defending the belt at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. Axel plans to do more than just that in order to succeed at his goal, including picking the brain of his onscreen manager (and esteemed wrestling guru) Paul Heyman and even getting ideas for cutting interviews and promos from country music (!).
Oh, and by the way, he'd prefer it if WWE fans would completely forget about his previous ring name, Michael McGillicutty.
You won the WWE's Intercontinental title last month at Payback. How did it feel to win a championship that's most commonly associated with your dad during his heyday as Mr. Perfect? I'll tell you what: I wasn't even supposed to be in that match. It was supposed to be Fandango. He unfortunately got a concussion so I was his replacement. And the whole week leading up to that match at Payback, that was going through my mind: being the first father and son ever to hold the Intercontinental Championship and just the emotions that were probably going to go with it if I were to win.
The week leading up to that was pretty crazy, and when I finally did win it, there were a plethora of emotions there. I know that my dad was smiling down at me. And knowing that, unfortunately, I never got to stand in the ring with him, but now I have a chance to stand in the record books with him.
Plus, it's the old school Intercontinental belt design that he wore. Yeah. It's white [leather], but it's the same design, not the circle thing they had before.
Did he ever bring home the title belt and let you wear it? Oh, yeah. I was trying to rummage up some pictures. I know I have one somewhere of me with that same title holding it around my waist. He'd bring it home and I got to wear it. I have two boys and they're doing the same thing. It's starting all over again.
Do you hope to bring back some prestige to the title? Many have said it's just become more like a prop over the years. I do, man, I do. That title in that day was like a stepping-stone for a superstar to get to the next level, to get to the WWE Championship. And I think that's gotten lost. And you kind of forget who was the Intercontinental champion as of late, so I hope to get it more recognized and treated as the major title, which it should be here in the WWE. But, yeah, it definitely needs to be more prestigious than it was in the past and I plan on bringing that prestige back.
Do find it hard to live in your dad's shadow? To tell you the truth, it's hard for any second or third generation wrestler to follow in their father's footsteps in this company's business, actually. Having a Hall of Fame father, especially one that's been Mr. Perfect, it's tough. And ever since I started down [with] Harley Race in '07, I've always just wanted to do my own [thing] and just give it the best I could and that's all I ask for.
And that's what my father wanted me to do anyway, to do it the best I can. I just kept plugging away. And hopefully I can step out of that shadow which I think I'm doing a pretty job of doing and making a name for myself. And we're going to have three separate entities, my grandpa, my father and then me. So everybody's got their own deal going. It's tough, but I think I'm doing a pretty good job so far. But I'm just beginning.
Your grandfather recently stated that while you're "no overnight sensation," you've been busting ass the last five years. What's your reaction to those comments and the struggles you've had in WWE? I think he's right. I was brought up in a situation through NXT, which was a really tough show and not many people saw. They also billed me as Michael McGillicutty, which, for one, is not a good name. And for two, it was tough. I had to start off on my own without getting any foot in a situation to succeed, so to say.
So I had to do what my grandfather just said: working hard, fighting through all that, and turning heads. Going a different route and just working matches. Every time I had a match I'd bust my ass. And like I said, I'd turn heads and finally over the years it's gotten noticed. Finally decided that they needed to do something with me. And here I am today.
He's absolutely right. I was no overnight sensation like some of these guys that come up with vignettes. It took me a while and I had to prove myself.
Let's be clear. You hated the ring name Michael McGillicutty? Let me ask you a question. Would you like it if your name was Michael McGillicutty?
Maybe if I was an Irishman. The thing is, I'm not Irish. When I first heard about it, it was actually through text back when I was down wrestling with FCW through NXT and they said they were changing my name to Michael McGillicutty. And I thought they were just playing a joke on me. But no. I found out it was reality when I started my season at NXT and it kind of broke my heart, but I was excited to get to the main roster. That's all that mattered to me.
I still would get embarrassed when people say, "You're a wrestler?" And then they'd ask what my stage name was and I was pretty embarrassed when I had to say "Michael McGillicutty." I didn't really like the name, but I'm glad that's gone and I'll never do that again.
Curtis Axel is a powerful-sounding ring name, I'll give you that. And it references both your father and grandfather. I love it. You could have named me anything as long as I'm not Michael McGillicutty anymore. Yeah, Curtis Axel is pretty badass.
When The Rock first debuted, he was Rocky Maivia, which combined his father's and grandfather's names. So you're in good company. Heck yeah. I mean, he stepped out of his father's and grandfather's shadows, so it's always a plus to be compared to someone like The Rock. Hopefully, I can work on it enough to get to the same level. It's pretty cool that I get that kind of comparisons.
You've been criticized for having poor mic skills. Have you been working on those recently? I don't know where that comes from. I just never really have a chance to talk. Now that I'm shown more on TV, I'll have more of an opportunity. People say what they want just from one little rumor, so I don't pay attention to any of that crap, what people say about me. I just do my thing and I know what I can do and I do well, and I don't let that stuff worry me.
Besides appearing on camera as your manager, has Paul Heyman also been helpful or given you advice? Of course. Ever since we started this thing together, I've been riding with him up and down the road. And, yeah, he's got not only good advice, the guy has a wealth of knowledge. He's been around this business for years and I've been picking his brain. But he also has great stories of things that have happened in the past that I never knew about. The relationships that he had with my father and my grandfather that I didn't really know either. He's been great so far. It's been an awesome experience.
How much time do spend gearing up for or practicing promos? I'm a fan of country/western music, so I listen to a lot of those songs and they shoot me one-liners that I like to incorporate. It's random, not too much. Some days are better than others.
You got that win a few months ago over Triple H. Are you disappointed that it didn't lead to a larger program with him? Actually, that would have been a lot of fun to run a program with Triple H, but I can always say that I have a victory over Triple H. And then, I also wrestled him again and then Vince McMahon came down stopped the match a couple of times. So I have bragging rights there. The odds of me having a victory over him if we were to run a long program are rare. So I'm happy with it. I got a victory and down the road maybe we'll run into that situation again.
Who would you love to work a program with? Someone asked me this question before [and] there's two guys that came to my mind right away. And the two guys are actually not around at the moment. They're off on the sidelines with injuries, the first being Kofi Kingston. I've always had good chemistry with him, really competitive matches, so I look forward to his return and hopefully letting the world see what we can do. Also, I've had good chemistry and good matches with Tyson Kidd. He's been on the sideline with a knee injury. I'm not sure when they're both coming back but I look forward to their return and I look forward to getting in the ring with them again.
You and Kidd would be cool, since it would renew the Hennig/Hart family rivalry. Yeah, man. Totally.
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So you'll be coming to Phoenix in August when Raw visits the US Aiways Center. How much effort do you put into appearing on Raw every week? That's not up to me. I show up and figure out what I'm doing. And I would obviously like to be on as many segments that I can, but there's a lot of talent around here and they've got spots to fill and I just hope to be on more than less.
Do you ever get disappointed if something doesn't come off right or you aren't on a show as much as you'd like? Or is it just part of the wrestling business? It's just a part of it. You obviously feel if something doesn't go the way you want it to, you're upset about it. But that's the passion of the business. A lot of it has to do with stories, if you're just out there to tell that part of the story for the day, that's all that matters. Whatever it is that makes you get across the best. I just do my job, show up every day, take whatever they give me, and make it work the best I can.
WWE Raw will take place at US Airways Center on Monday, August 26. Tickets are $20-$95.