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The Adventures of the Half-Nelson Family

Curtis Hennig arrived at Saguaro High in Scottsdale midway during his junior year, a transfer student from Minnesota who quickly made it known he wanted to play football, wrestle and raise hell. He is remembered by his athlete friends as a friendly, fun-loving kid who loved to roughhouse.

When your dad is a pro wrestler nicknamed "The Ax" and you've got a full-scale wrestling ring parked in your garage at home, personality probably comes with the territory. "He was everybody's friend," says Scott Troilo, an offensive end who worked out opposite Hennig during football practice. "If he was there for a couple of years, he could've been class president."

Bob Jenkins, a running back on the football team and state champion wrestler, was Hennig's practice partner in the wrestling room. "I remember he would drive around the parking lot like a maniac," Jenkins says. "He had little regard for whatever was in his way. His life was reckless abandon." Steve Smith played linebacker behind Hennig's defensive end on the Sabercat football team. "He always wanted to body-slam people," Smith says. "Every second you were around the guy, he wanted to body-slam you."

After prom and graduation, Hennig moved back to the Midwest. His friends lost touch. Troilo, Jenkins, and Smith went on to college and careers. Hennig went on to wrestle Hulk Hogan.

In the years since the Saguaro High Class of '76 broke up, Curt Hennig has become Mr. Perfect, one of the stars of the World Wrestling Federation. A "heel" in pro-wrestling parlance, he is a frequent opponent of WWF champion and genuine pop superstar Hogan, and one of the federation's biggest draws.

Like the rest of the new breed of pro wrestlers, Mr. Perfect doesn't look like a beer-bellied, ex-truck driver in tights. His shtick is the ultimate jock bully. He's a tanned, strutting stud in long curly blond hair. Mr. Perfect is known to millions of wrestling fans, and disliked by most of them. THE HENNIG FAMILY moved to Scottsdale from Minnesota in 1975. Curt's dad, Larry "The Ax" Hennig, was a pro wrestler who wanted to mine the Arizona market for wrestling dollars. It was his hope that Phoenix could be made a regular stop on a regional wrestling circuit, and that local matches would sell to local TV. Though still wrestling, The Ax wanted to get further into the promotion end of things. "I thought it would be a good place to do it," says The Ax from the office of Larry Hennig Realty in Elk River, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. "But the people who were there before I got there hadn't paid their bills. I tried to get on the independent channel there, Channel 5, but never made it. "I think the interest was there, but I couldn't get the exposure. We had it up on some religious channel on UHF, which wasn't being used very much. I couldn't get it out to enough homes."

After a couple of years, Larry gave up on the Valley and left to wrestle elsewhere. The family moved back to Minnesota, where Curt played junior college football well enough to get a scholarship offer from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. When a knee injury ended Curt's gridiron career, he set out as a wrestler. In several different regions, Curt and his father had success as a father-son tag team. According to Larry, the duo held the Pacific Coast Tag-Team Championship--whatever that is--for a time. "We drew a lot of money together," Larry says. "It was good."

As a solo act, Curt Hennig bounced around the small-time wrestling world, gradually making a name for himself, though it would be years before that name would be Mr. Perfect. Eventually he made his way to the American Wrestling Association, a promotional organization now considered to be positioned one very long step below the WWF in prestige. Hennig became champion of that league, then accepted an offer to join the WWF. THE WORLD WRESTLING Federation, ruled by Vince McMahon, rules professional wrestling. In the early 1980s, McMahon raided smaller, regional wrestling alliances to form his first stable of WWF wrestlers. McMahon made Hulk Hogan his first major star. Hogan has since made McMahon a very major amount of money. WWF broadcasts are carried on cable, independent and network television outlets. The touring WWF wrestling cards draw thousands to arenas like Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, where a wrestling show was held last month. By consolidating the best talent and sharpening the athletes' already cartoon-like characters, McMahon made pro wrestling into one of the runaway promotional success stories of the decade. By the time Curt Hennig joined the WWF in 1988, McMahon was already staging semiannual wrestling events on closed-circuit TV, marketing video cassettes of the matches, selling tee shirts, headbands and dolls. The Mr. Perfect character was introduced to wrestling fans over the period of about a year. One week, Hennig would be shown whipping an opponent at Ping-Pong. The next week he'd be seen swishing three-pointers on a basketball court. The next he'd be running a rack of balls on a pool table. He could do it all. Curt Hennig was, well, Mr. Perfect. Plus, he could wrestle. "There are several hundred wrestlers in the country, and they all have certain talents, certain things they're good at," says Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, an unauthorized-by-the-WWF journal that covers the pro-wrestling business. "Most wrestlers would rate Curt as one of the best--many would say the best--in wrestling."

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Dave Walker