Curtis Axel is up against more than his opponent every time he steps into a WWE ring; he is in a constant battle to escape the shadow of his legendary father.
Were Axel not the son of Curt Hennig and the grandson of Larry "The Axe" Hennig, he'd be seen as an athletic worker with good technical skills and plenty of potential. Instead, he has to shoulder the weight of constant comparisons, and has to try and follow greatness.
Trying to live up to expectations and create a legacy separate from one's father is a common fight men take on, but few of us have a dad in the Hall of Fame.
Going from Michael McGillicutty to a derivative of his father's first name and his grandfather's nickname is a sign that he has chosen to embrace his lineage. Axel has also incorporated his dad's signature move, the Perfect-Plex into his matches. Rather than try to outrun the Hennig shadow, Axel will have to balance carrying on tradition with making his own history.
Axel looks too much like Mr. Perfect and The Axe and moves too much like an amalgamation of both to avoid comparisons to them. He blends his grandfather's power and bruising style with the finesse that his father displayed.
Being born with the genes of two former stars in his blood has both helped and hurt him.
The Curse Stains the Blessing
Being the son of a famous wrestler, a former champion and beloved figures provides opportunities that one might not get otherwise.
Were Axel just a talented developing Superstar without a famous name, would he be given his recent push that has seen him battle John Cena and Triple H in consecutive weeks? His lineage gives him a connection with the audience, name recognition and the proverbial foot in the door that he wouldn't have received otherwise.
Being the son of former WWE champ Bruno Sammartino, gave David Sammartino a head start in momentum. It wasn't enough to carry him to championships with the company or long-term success, but it afforded him a shot some guys at his talent level may never have received.
Were it not for being Ric Flair's son, David Flair likely wouldn't have been on TV so much with WCW and would never have won the WCW's U.S. and tag team titles.
The trouble is, with these opportunities comes added scrutiny.
Fans wanted David Flair to be the next Ric Flair and David Sammartino to be the next Bruno. That's an impossible feat, as no one will ever be to pro wrestling what those men were.
Some talents are of the once-in-a-lifetime variety, and even having the genes of that talent can't help one relive that success. Ludwig Van Beethoven's son couldn't hope to do what his father did and neither can many of these second-generation wrestlers.
Ask Michael Jordan's sons what it's like for people to expect all-time greatness of you because of who your dad is. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Jordan said to his children, "You guys have a heavy burden. I wouldn't want to be you guys if I had to."
He's exactly right, as much as a famous name can advance a career, it is a burden as well.
In the AWA during the late '70s and early '80s, Greg Gagne was a fine wrestler. He was a solid babyface and tag team champion who—despite his successes—will always be a disappointment to many because he wasn't Verne Gagne.
Greg's dad was a multi-time world champ and one of the industry's biggest stars. As good as Greg was, it was highly unlikely that he could repeat his father's achievements.
The same has been true for Ted DiBiase Jr.
The son of The Million Dollar Man is a talented worker, but he has yet to connect with the fans the way his father did. DiBiase Sr. was one of WWE's most hated heels in the late '80s, and wrestled names like Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan and Jake Roberts.
His son has yet to make much headway with the company.
DiBiase Jr, in an interview with Kevin Eck of The Baltimore Sun, talked about what it's like to be the son of a legend: "You're under the microscope. Every move you make, everything you say or do will be compared to what your father did, and mine just happened to be a Hall of Famer."
Venturing From The Shadow To The Spotlight
This is Axel's journey: added eyes watching his career unfold, fans constantly drawing parallels to his father.
His challenge will be to find a way to carve out his legacy; to have discussions of him not center around his father and grandfather. It's a challenge that many like DiBiase, Sammartino and Flair have been unable to do, but Dusty Rhodes' son has shown that it is possible.
For Dustin Rhodes, it took a major gimmick change to accomplish that. With his father's name, he succeeded in WCW, but it wasn't until he took on the persona of Goldust that he became his own man.
Rhodes told Gary Mehaffy of F4WOnline.com the following:
I started feeling that everyone’s just referring to me as Dusty’s son and that, and it’s cool, but I wanted to make a name for myself. I wanted to set some goals and create some ‘Dustin Rhodes’, without the huge shadow, or umbrella, and the huge boots that you just cannot fill, of the ‘American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes.
The success of the Goldust character helped him become a wrestler known for more than being Dusty's son.
Axel is not going that route at the moment. He will have to carry the weight of added expectations without the help of a mask and gold wig or the mesmerizing aura that was Rhodes' Goldust gimmick.
It will be wrestling skills, intensity and in-ring production that he will have to depend on.
WWE has wisely paired Axel with Heyman and is currently giving him every opportunity to thrive. He now begins his venture in earnest, trying to go from an unknown to a star, to acquire respect, admiration and championships.
It's the trek that every wrestler goes on, but Axel, like other second or third generation stars, has to do it in the dark cover of an icon's shadow.
He has to follow perfection.