I’ve always said that professional wrestling is the most fascinating of all businesses to the point that a lot of the times, the goings on behind the curtain are more intriguing than what’s going on before the audience. Unfortunately, the business is also marred by being incredibly scummy and petty, giving us stories very much like that of the film the Wrestler. Because of that, it’s always nice to see a story that actually gives us a happy ending. Recently, one of the big stories to put a smile on my face is that of Mark Henry.
(Gifs by Jerusalem who is the coolest of cool dudes, except for the Matt Striker one by Klauser, but he’s okay too)
Since I’ve been watching WWE through his entire career, I thought I’d take a second to go over what’s been a pretty interesting and endearing story. Mark Henry competed in the Olympics in 1996 to pretty big fanfare, known for being a record-breaking power lifter. WWF signed him to a major contract of $10 million for ten years, figuring him to be such a big deal that he’d easily be worth the money. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out so well for them. Mark Henry ended up losing at the Olympics due to injuring his back while trying to pick up too much weight. Still, there was much potential in a guy they could label “The World’s Strongest Man”.
Henry made his WWF debut at Summerslam 1996, where he joined the commentary table with Vince McMahon, Jim Ross and Mr. Perfect to watch a match between Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Jerry “The King” Lawler. Henry got involved and it led to him making his wrestling debut against Lawler at the next In Your House PPV. Henry won and proceeded to singlehandedly fight off Marty Jannetty, Leif Cassidy and Hunter Hearst Helmsley. The guy was made to look like this unstoppable patriot who was easy to get behind. Then, in preparation for Survivor Series, Henry got injured. Well, shit.
Henry came back and joined the company’s resident militant black stable the Nation of Domination. His only positive note during this time is that the company booked him to destroy Vader on more than one occasion, causing Vader to experience internal bleeding. Killed momentum aside, there were other problems with Henry. The guy just wasn’t very good in the ring, his weight was starting to balloon a bit and he was getting lost in the shuffle. In 1996, when the company was in dire straights, WWF believed he could give them a push against WCW. But when he was gone, the company began to find itself and new stars rose upwards. Henry simply wasn’t needed.
Even worse for him, the company had acquired another 1996 Olympian in Kurt Angle, who not only won the gold medal, but in freestyle wrestling! See, getting a really, really strong dude on the roster sounds cool, but when things are fixed, the muscle doesn’t come into play too often. Shoving someone across the ring or pressing them over your head is impressive, but you don’t need to be the strongest man in the world to do it (excluding the time he did that to Vader because WOW!). Others can do it, including those with actual mobility. Amateur wrestling, on the other hand, goes hand-in-hand with understanding the grappling that makes quality pro wrestling happen. In the late 90′s, the company had been starting to see their folly in putting so many eggs in the basket of Mark Henry.
They certainly couldn’t fire him or they’d owe him a considerable amount of cash they couldn’t afford. No, the only way to get out of this situation would be to make Mark Henry quit. They had storylines that dealt with his eating habits to shame him. They had X-Pac make fun of him while wearing blackface, which was for some reason considered to be completely okay (X-Pac was the good guy in this!). They put him in a storyline where he wanted to bang Chyna, which is fine because she was considered to be somewhat desirable at the time and it worked into his strongman persona, but it led to him being tricked into making out with a transvestite while exclaiming, “Jesus! You have a penis!” Then, in the worst of all this, Henry was romantically linked with octogenarian Mae Young and impregnated her. In easily one of the stupidest moments in wrestling history, Mae gave birth to a slimy hand for the sake of Pat Patterson announcing, “Let’s give her a hand!” Humiliation and a spot in midcard hell was his day-to-day experience.
Mark Henry took in all of this abuse and smiled because he may have been treated like a fool, but he was a fool who was making $10 million in ten years. Also of note is that Henry was wise about his money ventures and safely invested it. He also tended to stay to himself when traveling, only because he didn’t want to be seduced or put in danger by the life-destroying lifestyles that most wrestlers on the road fall to.
Around 2000, the company decided that Henry’s weight was getting out of control, so they sent him down to their developmental federation Ohio Valley Wrestling. This is probably the saddest part of the story to me. Henry took this punishment seriously and while I haven’t seen his work there myself, word had spread that Henry had transformed into one hell of a worker. His speed and mobility had gone through the roof. How was that possible? He didn’t just lose weight. He lost a LOT of weight and muscle mass in general.
Sweet Christmas! The dude was ready for prime time, definitely. Except… that wasn’t meant to be. The company heard about another world’s strongest man competition, this time in the form of the Arnold Classic in 2002. WWF figured that the company could benefit from having Henry compete, win and come off looking like a big deal by proving himself as an even more legit version of his moniker. Henry did just that, but at the cost of his impressively svelte physique. All that work for nothing.
The next five years were a bit of a non-eventful blur for Henry. Although they’d push him, he never came off as a major threat. He came off as enough of a threat. He’d feud with someone like Bill Goldberg, but was never considered a possibility in ever having a chance at beating him. He took on Kurt Angle for the World Heavyweight Championship at one year’s Royal Rumble and nobody even dared to think that he’d ever win. He fought the Undertaker at Wrestlemania in a Casket Match and nobody in their right mind entertained the chance of him ending the streak. He defeated World Heavyweight Champion Rey Mysterio cleanly, but in a non-title match in a time when all Rey did was lose in non-title matches. The one true feud of interest was Henry vs. Batista.
Seemed like a pretty basic plan. The super-strong good guy vs. the super-strong bad guy who was even stronger. The angle, sad to say, got delayed again and again due to both guys being so injury prone. By the time they did have their blow-off, it wasn’t even on PPV, but a Smackdown main event. When it was Batista’s turn to be injured, WWE decided that the roster was too thin and even if he may have been responsible for Batista’s injury, they still needed Henry around. After years of trying to get rid of him, they actually signed the guy to a new contract after his $10 million one expired. Lucky guy.
Still, the feud gave us one of Mark Henry’s most defining moments. Batista was in the middle of a cage match when Henry ominously walked to the ring. On Smackdown, where the show was taped days earlier, the viewers saw Mark Henry tear the cage door open, step in and decimate Batista. What those who saw it live and those who watched the satellite footage of the show witnessed was something else completely. Yes, Mark Henry opened the door, but it wasn’t so instantaneous. Due to some snafu, the chain holding the door shut wasn’t gimmicked like it was supposed to be, so Henry stood there for several minutes, yanking at the chain and trying his damnedest to open the blasted door. Eventually, he broke the chain, entered and they edited the footage for the broadcast. Many look at that to this day as something to laugh at, but the more people watch it, the more they suddenly notice, “Wait… that guy still broke a steel chain with his bare hands. Holy shit.” They tried to fake something to make him look impressive and when that didn’t work, he impressed on his own in exchange for looking silly.
After years of injuries and on-again/off-again feuds with the likes of guys who were obviously going to win, Henry was tossed to the WWE-stained rebirth of Extreme Championship Wrestling. Although looked down upon for betraying the name of the original ECW, WWE’s ECW did an awful lot of good for the company in the long run. New wrestlers who would otherwise never get airtime were able to develop personalities and get themselves known to a piece of the overall audience. More importantly for this story, older wrestlers were able to find a place to reinvent themselves instead of wallowing in obscurity until being fired. Henry didn’t do much of note until being thrust into a feud between Big Show and Kane for the ECW Championship. He was looked at as being a third wheel, but at Night of Champions, he made a big splash.
No, literally. Kane superplexed Big Show off the top rope and Mark Henry popped out of nowhere to splash Kane and pin him. This is a huge turning point in Henry’s career. The belt could be considered to be like a gold watch, being given to a guy whose only reason for deserving it is that he’s been in the company for over ten years. Or it could have been given to him as an apology due to a big incident backstage where writer Michael Hayes got in trouble for saying some racist stuff to Henry. But something unexpected happened upon winning the belt. Henry, who was supposed to be the no-nonsense heel in this situation, suddenly acted like he won the Superbowl on Christmas morning. Overcome with emotion, he grabbed the ECW title and smiled and celebrated so hard that it’s hard not to feel for the guy. No longer was he a bland and uninteresting big man who wasn’t even all that tall. He was the World’s Happiest Champion.
They just gave him the ball and he decided to run with it. Henry’s MO seems to be that when he gives a damn, he’ll work his hardest and his remaining time in ECW is that to a T. He proceeded to have some of the best matches of his career against the likes of Matt Hardy, Finlay, Tommy Dreamer and Christian. He’d move his ass and had more pep in his step. Even better, they gave him legendary wrestler Tony Atlas as a manager. It was kind of funny because Henry remained the mouth piece of the duo (he developed some choice mic skills around the time of his Undertaker feud a year or so earlier) and was obviously more imposing, yet Atlas would stand behind Henry, trying to act intimidating. In the story, he was mainly there to distract and attack when the ref wasn’t looking and then carry Henry’s bags when they traveled. In reality, he was there for two reasons: get the down-on-his-luck Atlas a steady paycheck and give Henry someone to travel with him and make sure he’d stick to his diet. While their relationship was an interesting one, they simply stopped abruptly sometime after Henry had lost the belt to Matt Hardy. The two were last seen in a WWE.com video where Atlas talked Henry’s ear off for hours on end about how Hurricane Helms was probably an alien of some sort.
The reason things ended so abruptly was that Henry was moved to Raw as a surprise. An injured Batista was made the guest general manager on Raw one night and decided to get revenge on champion heel Randy Orton. Three ECW wrestlers would be traded to Raw and Orton would face all three in a Gauntlet Match. First, he defeated Evan Bourne cleanly, though it exhausted him quite a bit. Then Jack Swagger came out, threw him around, announced that he had respect for Orton and wanted to make an impression and did so by standing on the outside of the apron so the ref would count him out. Henry came out and did a bit of a reenactment of Swagger’s actions. He stood on the apron and allowed the ref to count. Then, at the count of five, Henry reached in and grabbed the ref’s wrist to stop him. After a moment of stone-faced silence, a huge smile opened on his face and he wagged his finger as Orton gave the greatest “fuck my life” expression. Henry stepped in, dominated Orton, won and got a huge ovation. Everyone seemed to be pretty into it…
Which made it all the sadder that there was no follow-up. Henry had a couple matches with Orton’s cronies and there was a backstage staredown once, but Henry’s momentum slowed to a crawl. He was paired with MVP, another freshly-turned face whose awesome momentum took a dive due to bad booking (WWE’s pathetic trademark of the past several years. Just ask CM Punk and the Nexus). The two unfortunately didn’t do all that much together. They mainly feuded against Big Show and Miz, which led to a really unfortunate segment where MVP tried to prove to everyone that Henry has personality. He did this by rapping… terribly. This could have ruined his career if he had much of one to speak of at this point. Worth noting from the days of MarkVP is that there was a Henry vs. Big Show match in there and it was completely terrible. The idea of the two meeting up didn’t do anyone favors and somehow the match was even below those expectations.
MarkVP split up, though Henry kept wearing his red tights from the experience, which led to many jokes about him being the Kool Aid Man. He proceeded to fade into the midcard background, jobbing an awful lot and losing more and more heat. What he lost in heat, he gained in weight. Soon he found himself in a one-night stable of A.P.P.L.E., a group of random faces led by Santino set to face the heel stable the Corre. Henry’s career seemed to be hitting its twilight faster than ever. Yet he started to take himself more serious in light of all this and hit the gym harder. He started eating better and succeeded in losing plenty of weight.
Shortly after Wrestlemania (where his role was being in the pre-show dark match battle royal), WWE had their big draft show. Among all the major names mentioned on that Raw in terms of roster trades, Mark Henry was in there. This got a big, “Haha, really?” reaction, but it made a little more sense later. During the main event, a big tag match featuring guys traded, Henry turned on John Cena and left him laying as the World’s Strongest Man left the ring in a sudden heel turn. Um, okay. Sure. Nothing was going well with the face run anyway.
The most important thing of the night was a bit filmed for WWE.com, taking place before Henry’s heel turn. Possibly before he even knew he was going to turn heel! Here’s his reaction to moving to Smackdown. It didn’t mean too much when I originally saw it, but now it has a lot more meaning to it.
Considering the cavern eye sockets and how moist he is, the sudden tear drop is one hell of a powerful image.
Smackdown had lost Alberto Del Rio and gained Randy Orton, meaning that the main event scene was suddenly Orton, Christian, Sheamus and Henry. He was simply there because he fit the bill. Nobody took him serious, even if he did get the last word against Cena on the Raw Draft show. In fact, Vince McMahon didn’t seem to take him serious either since a Henry vs. Sin Cara match set up after one show’s tapings didn’t happen. Henry simply stood in the ring for a while with different theme songs playing and nobody coming out as a practical joke. Vince, who wasn’t even there, wanted to see how long until Henry would get disgruntled enough to leave the ring. Really dick move, especially for the live crowd, who didn’t get their extra match. Still, Vince has this weird code where putting up with his shit and not falling apart will get you points. Between that and Henry’s weight loss, he was about to be given an opportunity.
Henry was inserted into a Big Show vs. Del Rio feud, once again as the third wheel that nobody cared about. It all started with an impromptu Big Show vs. Mark Henry match where Show was more intent on getting a piece of Del Rio, so he suckerpunched Henry on his way into the ring and knocked him out. Henry – who had been using the frustrating Sin Cara match incident as part of his character – didn’t care for this and it lit a fire. At the Capitol Punishment PPV, Henry interfered in the Show vs. Del Rio match, beat down on Big Show and gave him the World’s Strongest Slam through a table. That right there was only the beginning.
Over the next few weeks, Henry went on a tear. He turned a completely boring arm wrestling segment against Kane into a beatdown that led to Kane being World’s Strongest Slammed through a table. He succeeded in pinning World Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton in a tag match. He tackled Big Show through a wall with metal shit flying everywhere. He bullied around the guy who plays the music and proceeded to throw him into the distance like it was a game of Super Smash Brothers. He interfered in a Big Show vs. Del Rio cage match by tearing off the cage door – getting it right this time! – and hitting Big Show with it so hard that Show fell through the cage wall. Mark Henry had simply become the Juggernaut of wrestling. After years of having no idea how to book a super-strong guy, WWE finally got it together. It wasn’t about bending frying pans or holding running cars in place with your legs. It’s about wrecking everything and everyone.
To increase the insanely angry and aggressive side of Mark Henry, he would start cutting promos without having a microphone in hand. He’d start screaming awesome lines.
“IF YOU SAW ME ON THE STREET YOU WOULD NOT LOOK AT ME CROSS BECAUSE YOU KNOW I WOULD BREAK YOUR FACE!”
“BIGGER AIN’T ALWAYS BETTER! BETTER IS BETTER!”
“YOU THINK I’M PLAYIN’ WITH YOU?! LET HIM SUFFER! LET HIM SUFFER LIKE I SUFFER! I DON’T GET NO RESPECT! AIN’T NOBODY GONNA GET NO PEACE AROUND HERE AS LONG AS I’M DOING THIS!”
“I DID THIS! I CARVED THIS OUT! IT’S ETCHED IN STONE! MY HEART DON’T PUMP KOOL AID!”
“YEAH, I SUCK! BUT I’M OVER HERE AND YOU’RE OVER THERE!”
…okay, I’m not so sure about that last line.
Soon I began to notice many people sheepishly admitting that for the first time, they’ve been finding Mark Henry entertaining. He was loud, angry, intense, monstrous and a straight-up force to be reckoned with. If he was the Juggernaut, then Big Show was the Incredible Hulk. The PPV Money in the Bank had three match of the year contenders in it and while Big Show vs. Mark Henry isn’t in that league, it was still shockingly quite good. A year and a half earlier, the two plodded around the ring during their tag feud and put people to sleep. Here, we had a battle of two pissed off hosses. It felt like two trucks colliding. Big Show kicked out of the pin after enduring the World’s Strongest Slam, so Henry responded by yelling in fury, hitting another World’s Strongest Slam and then two splashes. After the pin, he put Big Show’s leg in a chair and splashed onto it. In one of the best-booked PPVs in the past few years, the right man won.
Henry kept that momentum going. He put Kane on the shelf in a similar matter as well as Vladimir Kozlov, who was written out of the company. Teddy Long played up how dangerous he had become by stating that there was a lawsuit from the music director and that everyone was too afraid to challenge Henry. This segued perfectly into Sheamus riding the positive reactions he had been getting and turning full face. All he needed to do was walk into the ring, smirk at Henry and say, “I’ll fight ‘im.”
So began another awesome feud. Two dudes who wanted nothing more than to beat the crap out of each other and not back down. What made this for me was that it was built up as kind of a King of Monsters deal. Henry had taken out Big Show, Kane and Kozlov. Sheamus got to prove himself by defeating the Great Khali in what was a surprisingly cool match. I’ve always found that when one really big dude takes out another really big dude, it means more than a title change. After all, any kind of wrestler could conceivably be champion. If you’re a hoss, that’s what you got. That’s most of what you have to offer. If someone’s established as a better hoss… then you aren’t going to look so good.
I think back to Andre the Giant, who was considered the #1 big man. He took out the likes of Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy and Ernie Ladd. He was king. Then, in one of his last appearances in the company, he allowed himself to be injured by Earthquake. Earthquake was the king. Earthquake was later overthrown by Yokozuna, who was later overthrown by Vader, who was later overthrown by… well, Mark Henry! Strangely, while he’s certainly lost his share of matches, I can’t recall Henry being reduced into a beaten and bloody mess by someone on his level. So there you have it. Mark Henry is the king of hosses.
Henry vs. Sheamus came to a head at Summerslam and I absolutely loved the way it ended. Sheamus knocked Henry out of the ring with a Brogue Kick, but wanted to win it in the center of the ring. He went to the outside, tried to pick Henry up and then Henry came to life. He picked up Sheamus, slammed him into a ringpost and then SMASHED HIM THROUGH THE BARRIER!
Henry returned to the ring while a weakened Sheamus crawled his way back. He was too beaten down, but he still didn’t give up. He was counted out, which made both look good. Henry decisively won a fight while Sheamus showed heart. I figured at the time that they would be setting up some kind of Last Man Standing Match. No matter what, this would be Sheamus’ feud to win. It had to be. Henry had been awesome, but it wouldn’t last.
On the next Smackdown, they held a battle royal for the #1 contender against Randy Orton. Despite getting some trouble from Sheamus, Henry completely dominated the match. At the start of the match, everyone pounded on him until he shoved them all off in one fell swoop. He’d spend a few minutes outside the ring, taking anyone eliminated and tossing them over the guardrail or over the announce table. In the end, he eliminated Sin Cara and celebrated by staring down Randy Orton and shouting that he could smell his fear.
Henry and Sheamus would have a rematch a week later. Sheamus decided to play by Henry’s rules and momentarily knocked him out behind the announce table before burying him with chairs. Henry got counted out, which would normally make them even, but Henry had other ideas. The chairs exploded off of him as he stood up, got his hands on Sheamus and beat the everloving hell out of him, ending with a World’s Strongest Slam on the steel steps. This feud would have to be put on hold, but Henry had the last word.
The title feud between Orton and Henry was surprising in many ways. One of which being that Henry would dominate the entire time. He’d usually attack Orton after matches and would lay him out. Orton could never stand up to him. Wrestling logic dictated that Orton would have to win their match at Night of Champions. For one, Orton had been too unbeatable as the top face. Two, getting the last word in before the PPV means you’re usually going to lose. Third, Henry was never seen by anyone as ever having a chance to win such a high-profile match. It wasn’t viable back with Kurt Angle in 2006 and it wasn’t viable now. Still, I saw a few people admit that if they DID give Henry the belt, they wouldn’t mind. I was one of those people, but I wasn’t going to get my hopes up.
Wouldn’t you know it, Henry won! Clean! Decisively! In the center of the ring! Holy shit!
Then right after, he said this to the partially cheering crowd.
“You didn’t believe, did you? You didn’t believe that I could be holding the most coveted prize in professional wrestling, did you? Oh, and don’t start cheering! Don’t start cheering, because none of you believed it either! You’re all doubters! You’re all haters! I’d like to welcome all of you to the Hall of Pain! This is my moment, and I’m not sharing it with none of you! You don’t deserve this. I’m going to be the most dominant champion of all time! I’m taking on all comers, I ain’t running from nobody, and I’m never EVER going to lose this title.”
After 15 years, Mark Henry has become World Heavyweight Champion. If you told me that a year ago, I figure I’d look at it as a gold watch reward for his career, but having seen it in context, I see it differently. He’s deserved it. He’s done everything needed to reinvent himself into a top tier threat. He’s finally become the breakout star that the company hoped he’d be when they paid millions to hire him.
The main reason I waited this long to post about this is that I wanted to see how they were going to follow up. After all, in WWE’s infinite wisdom, they decided to have a PPV only a mere two weeks later where Orton would get his rematch. Not only did Henry win cleanly again, but in-between, he had still been portrayed as a monster. A Lumberjack Match with Christian had him shrug off like a dozen wrestlers attacking him to the point that Christian gave the best “FUCK THIS I’M OUT!” expression and tried to cheese it. He menaced Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler and his two assaults on the Great Khali appear to be the in-story explanation for him leaving the company. The only times anyone’s gotten the best of him have been because of chair use or Henry being held down by a dozen security guards. The guy’s been treated as a success.
As of this writing, they’re setting up another feud with Big Show, which is what brought him to the dance in the first place. An acceptable scenario would be to have Orton get it together and beat Henry for the title. A good scenario would be to have Sheamus rekindle their feud and get his big win. The best scenario would be to use Henry’s heat and unstoppable nature as an ultimate challenge for Money in the Bank winner Daniel Bryan to overcome and prove himself as a deserving champion.
In a company of talent like Daniel Bryan, Zack Ryder, CM Punk, Wade Barrett, R-Truth, Cody Rhodes, Christian, Sheamus, Dolph Ziggler and so on, I can’t believe we’re in a time where my favorite guy to watch is Mark Henry. He’s the guy who entertains me the most and I know I’m not alone on this. It’s absolutely amazing and is one of the best underdog stories there is. It’s great when an internet favorite like CM Punk gets his due, but while the business is very political, it still isn’t unheard of to see the cream rise to the top. Henry made it to this spot with so much working against him. He’s not a fresh face. He’s been around the company for 15 years. He’s 40 years old. He didn’t have the company shoving him down everyone’s throat by default. In fact, this is a company that spent years and lots of effort in trying to get him to leave. The hardcore fans didn’t care for him. He’s never going to put forth a five star match. His peers regard him as a nice enough guy, but have publicly denounced him for being boring or a danger in the ring.
Despite all of this, he’s worked hard and has finally reached his potential. He’s like the antithesis of Randy “The Ram” Robinson from the Wrestler. Even before this, his story was pretty great due to him being said to be one of the nicest guys who never had an ego problem, is strict about staying away from demons and is really smart about his money. Apparently he even still drives around the car he won from that 2002 strong man contest. The man’s a definite inspiration and his ability to be entertaining and relevant in 2011 should be, at the very least, commended.
Okay, Mr. Henry, sir. I wrote up the n-nice article about y-you… Please d-d-don’t hurt m—NO!