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Chair Shots: Q-and-A with WWE Intercontinental Champion Curtis Axel

Chair Shots: Q-and-A with WWE Intercontinental Champion Curtis Axel
Third-generation grappler Curtis Axel will be among the WWE Superstars at the WWE live event in Washington, D.C. Sunday. (Courtesy WWE, Carroll County Times)

In the past, when Joe Hennig had to work WWE live events under the moniker Michael McGillicutty, he struggled to connect with the crowd because he wasn't featured much on WWE's top programs Raw and Smackdown. When the WWE returns to Washington, D.C., this Sunday for a live event at the Verizon Center, Hennig won't have that problem.

Now going by Curtis Axel -- a combination of his father WWE Hall of Famer Curt "Mr. Perfect" Hennig and his grandfather Larry "The Axe" Hennig's names -- he is the reigning WWE Intercontinental Champion, is managed by the notorious Paul Heyman, and is embroiled in a feud with one of WWE's top acts, the "Best in the World" CM Punk, who he is scheduled to defend his coveted championship against in a No Disqualification match Sunday in the Nation's Capital.

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Before doing so, Hennig spoke with the

Carroll County Times

before a Smackdown taping in Las Vegas about his career thus far, training with WWE stars like the Rock and Brock Lesnar, how he came up with his new ring name, how he became a Paul Heyman guy and one of his favorite subjects, fantasy football.

Usually, I ask folks how they decided to get into this business, but that seems pretty obvious for you.

I always kind of wanted to do it, especially in high school, I'd bring it up to my father, I want to try this out. He never really wanted me to do it for several reasons, but mainly, he wanted me to get an education. So he said if you go to college, I'll think about it. So I went and got a two year degree. I basically looked at a piece of paper and said, this looks like the easiest one, so I'll just go for this degree. So I got that and he said, OK, I'll let you know when Brad Rheingans' camp is starting back up. Unfortunately, my dad passed away and I was never able to go to his camp. But a couple years after that, Brad actually called me, approached me asking if I was still interested in being a professional wrestler and I said, yeah, I still have a desire to do this. He said we have a camp starting in about a month, so come on down. So I was like, cool, and I went there. It was about six months off and one training with Brad. Nothing really in the ring, mostly hardcore cardio work outs and chain wrestling and bumping in the ring and hitting the ropes. That was about it; no matches or doing any moves. So that eventually shut down, I wasn't able to go anywhere and didn't have any matches. Then I was actually approached by Harley Race when my daddy was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame at WrestleMania [23]. He's a good friend of my grandfather's, so he asked if I was still interested, and I said yes, I'd like to come down to your facility. So in June of '07 I drove down to Eldon, Missouri -- real tiny town -- and started training with Harley. Wrestled there, had my first match in July 2007, and then stayed at Harley's for about a year, then got signed by WWE, which was a blessing in disguise because my wife was about to have our first child. So I got down to Tampa, Fla., in June of '08 and trained there for a few years and got brought up to the WWE as Michael McGillicutty. And now I'm Curtis Axel, thank god.

Did you have an input on your current ring name, Curtis Axel?

When I became Michael McGillicutty, ever since that point, I was throwing hundreds of names at them. And I'm sure Axel Curtis or Curtis Axel was in there somewhere. I was talking with a guy that works for WWE, Joey Styles, he actually brought that name up as one of the possibilities. But they didn't want to go that route with me at first. They wanted to have me do my own thing and not even pay homage to anything to do with my family. Which, you know, is kind of nice, so I can try to do this on my own, and I tried to do the best I could with Michael McGillicutty without any TV time or whatever. But I'm sure that name was pitched as one of the hundreds I threw at them.

Any other memorable ones out of those hundreds you threw at them?

There were some ridiculous names. I just got sick of it. Most of them were Joe. Joe Able. Joe Mercer. Most of them were all Joe, you know? Able was one, I wanted to be Joe Able, like Cain and Abel, and try to do something with Kane. That was just one of them I kind of liked. I wasn't really sold on any of them, I just wanted to get rid of Michael McGillicutty. That was my one priority.

You debuted in the WWE as part of the Nexus and you and David Otunga were tag team champions for a while, and then it seemed like you kind of disappeared for a long while. What do you learn from that first go-round and how did that make you better when you came back?

I just learned to be more comfortable with what I was doing in the ring. You go to these live events and if you don't have much TV time, the audience doesn't really know who you are, it's hard to get them behind you or to not like you, in my case. I had to learn to do that without any recognition. And now that my face is getting shown on TV, the reactions are so much better as Curtis Axel than they were as Michael McGillicutty. I prided myself when I was Michael McGillicutty on getting some crowd reactions, because if they don't know me and I can get a reaction out of them, I must be doing something right, you know? Just becoming Curtis Axel it's so much better, it's so much easier, and so much more fun. You know, working with CM Punk, he's one of these fan favorites and people just love him and it makes them hate me even more. So my job is getting easier when I'm in the ring; it's great.

Right before you came back as Curtis Axel, there was a picture that the Rock tweeted earlier this year, mentioning you were his workout partner when he was getting ready to face CM Punk and then I heard that you trained with Brock Lesnar before WrestleMania too. How did you end up working with them and what did you learn working with all-time greats like that?

The WWE office, they know they could trust me taking care of those guys. I was so honored. They flied me out to go train with the Rock and that guy is awesome. Training with him, he pays attention to every little detail and crowd reaction. The way he does his moves and he works, it's so fluid. It's amazing the way he thinks and the way he works. And just picking his brain, he actually spent time with me and asked me what I did in the ring and different moves that I did, where I could place them to get more reaction from the people and all this kind of stuff. Just picking that guy's brain, for me, was just unbelievable. I was so honored to be picked to go up there and train with him. And then Brock Lesnar, my god, that guy is a beast. I actually, I've known him for many years because he started with Brad Rheingans also, in Minnesota training with my dad, so him and my dad were close friends and all that stuff, so I kind of knew him anyway, so he could trust me and he knew he could help me because my dad helped him, and he likes to give back. He's been up and down on this road back in the WWE for a little bit now. He's been in my head, and he's a Paul Heyman guy, and it's cool to spend time and have him critique little things that I'm still doing and give me some advice. So it's pretty sweet dude.

You mention you're both Paul Heyman guys. How's it been working with Paul Heyman? Do you guys travel on the road together and talk shop often?

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Oh yeah. He's a genius man. He's been around the business for years and he's like an encyclopedia. He tells me stories, like AWA stories when he was with my dad. That's actually how we kind of got talking because there was a pitch out where he was actually going to manage my dad in AWA but it never went through, so I'm like, "well, why don't you start with me?" And he was like, "yeah, yeah." He's like Brock Lesnar and the Rock you know, I can pick his brain and the guy is unbelievable on the microphone and he's unbelievable when it comes to the ring psychology. He's an evil genius and I couldn't ask for a better guy to travel with and just pick his brain.

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So you pitching the idea to him, is that how this partnership got started?

We were talking about it and I brought it up to him, what do you think about this, us being together? Brock's part-time and CM Punk was hurt at the time and I was like, Paul, WWE needs Paul Heyman on television. So that was my pitch to him. But before that, before I was even with him, he would be at the live events and this Raw and Smackdown TVs and he would come up and give me advice. So I was like, man, if this guy wants to take time out of his busy day and help me out, I would approach him with everything I had and he'd help me out, and then I approached him with this pitch and he liked it. We would talk more about it; I think he might've brought it up to the higher-ups in WWE and here we are.

When you debuted as Curtis Axel, you were thrown into matches and angles right away with top guys like Triple H and John Cena. Did you feel a lot of pressure those first few weeks?

Oh man, the first day ... first I find out I'm changing my name to Curtis Axel, then I find out I'm going to be a Paul Heyman guy. I'm fist-pumpin', I was so pumped, and then Vince [McMahon, WWE owner] says you're wrestling Triple H in the main event. I'm like, to-tonight? And he's like, yeah, yup. And I'm like, oh my God, I'm going crazy, I was pacing, not even in the locker room, but in the hallways. I've got my gear on and no one knew who the Paul Heyman guy was going to be. I'm pacing, but I'm fired up. I'm nervous as heck. But after I got that first match out of the way with Triple H, everything was fine after that. My second match with him I wasn't nearly as nervous, same with Cena, and now I'm feeling more and more comfortable working with guys like Punk and I'm more confident in the ring now. But at first, yeah dude, it was pretty nerve-wracking.

Obviously, the Intercontinental Championship is a very prestigious title, one that your dad wore quite a few times and you had a very emotional response when you won it at Payback. What does it mean to you to be the IC champion?

Dude, it's unbelievable. When I got put into that Triple Threat match at Payback, that was the first thing that crossed my mind -- that I had an opportunity to win the title that my father made famous in the '90s, the Intercontinental Championship. And if I were to win it, we'd be the first father-son duo to ever hold that title. So that whole week building up to the pay-per-view, that's all I could think about. My grandpa was like, if you win this, it's going to be crazy. So when I did win it, it was pretty emotional. My dad was the first thing I could think of when I grabbed that thing and I held it up. I called home afterward and talked to my wife and my grandfather and I had my whole family at my house, and I guess from what they were saying everybody was crying. It was very emotional just because of how much that meant to me to hold the same title my father held.

Can you talk a little bit about this program you're in with CM Punk right now? It seems like you're a bit of a third wheel at the moment, just because Punk and Heyman are such huge personalities. Do you view this more as an opportunity to make people take notice of you?

Of course, yeah. I'm in the ring with Paul Heyman and CM Punk, two of the most recognized faces in the industry. Working with them can only elevate me. If I can beat Punk, that's going to elevate me even more to main stage matches, championship matches, where I want to be anyway. So I know maybe it's going to be a slow build, but I'm going to take a giant leap and make sure it doesn't take as long as it should. I'm going for it, man, I'm going to beat Punk, and I'm going to prove it's not just Mr. Perfect, there's a whole 'nother level to the Hennig family and it's continuing on through Curtis Axel. And I'm going to do something my father never did, and that's hold the WWE Championship.

Non-wrestling question. I understand you're a big fantasy football guy and were undefeated a few years in the WWE league, so got any advice or secrets to your success you can share?

That's awesome. I had a feeling that would be the question. I always love talking about fantasy football. I figured this out two years ago, I never used to hit the waiver wire that much. And that's where the last two years I've won most of my leagues because I'm always paying attention. It's hard to look at the stats of every single game, but you've got to pay attention to injuries and guys that are doing better than other guys. I hit the waiver wire up like crazy. Sometimes it works -- most of the time it works, sometimes it doesn't -- but you gotta be on that thing. I'm trying to think who it was that I picked up ... but he was on the wavier wire and I picked him up and he was a stud, you know? That's where you win championships, through the waiver wire. You always have your studs in your lineup, but if you can pick up a guy nobody knows about and might do well or succeed when a guy gets injured, that'll win you championships.

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