When Mark Henry signed for WWE in March 1996 amidst a blaze of publicity following his world record weightlifting exploits, much was expected of the two-time Olympian. A lengthy and lucrative contract was offered despite the precarious state of the company at the time, which made Henry a significant figure from his opening appearance.
There was just one problem however. Notwithstanding the strength and desire he had accumulated during his decorated weightlifting career, Henry had zero in-ring wrestling experience, and sported an entertainment personality which lacked depth and polish. “I was the first WWE developmental talent,” the 43-year-old confirms on the phone to The Independent from his home in Austin, Texas. “When I moved to Connecticut to start training, I had no idea what wrestling was other than what I saw as a fan.”
Soon after his training begun, Henry was joined by another aspiring talent named Dwayne Johnson who was also looking to make his name in professional wrestling. “The Rock moved in with me at my apartment,” recalls Henry, “and we trained together after that.”
A broken ankle curtailed Henry’s progress, and during his convalescence, the company he was working for began to make changes. Faced with immense competition from the deep pocketed World Championship Wrestling and the cult success of Extreme Championship Wrestling, WWE rebranded its content under a tag known as the Attitude Era. Gone was the staid storylines of the past, and instead an edgier content began its rise to prominence.
Watch Vince McMahon usher in the Attitude Era:
“Wrestling went from being sometimes comical to very serious, and there was a lot of depth regarding the vastness in which people performed. A lot of times you had comedy in wrestling, and then all of a sudden it was serious,” says Henry. “People cussed and there was nudity. Weapons were used, and there was mass cage matches. Every week it seemed that new things were added.”
The character Henry first portrayed in WWE was based on his glorious past, as he personified a strongman who displayed his gargantuan strength at every opportunity. “I enjoyed working with Jerry Lawler and Jake ‘The Snake Roberts,” Henry remembers, but the generic nature of his work was ill at ease with the increasingly more daring surroundings of WWE.
Henry’s former training partner had changed his name to The Rock, and had become a member of the Nation of Domination stable, a group which paralleled the Black Panther Party. Henry soon joined, and began to enjoy significant awareness for the first time in his career.
“I’m blessed to be able to say that at every juncture in my career I succeeded,” he says. “To go into the Nation of Domination and be in a faction with the Rock, arguably the greatest wrestler of all time, and to get the experience of working with Owen Hart, Ron Simmons and The Godfather was great.”
After the faction faded, Henry then formed a rewarding tag-team with D’Lo Brown, before incorporating a new deviant character called Sexual Chocolate, a man whose carnal desires seemed to have no limits. He even became an in-character father after engaging in on-screen relations with a then 75-year-old Mae Young. When their child was born as a hand, the news was simply another part of the show. Two or three years prior, and it would have been the most shocking wrestling storyline in history.
“Sexual Chocolate was the wildest character you can imagine with no inhibitions whatsoever,” laughs Henry. Despite since becoming a two-time World Champion, Henry is still frequently treated to cheeky chants referencing his time as the character, which he humbly appreciates.
“It’s hilarious. It just solidifies the fact that my hard work and sacrifice in that character paid off, so I smile and take it with a grain of salt.”
The majority of fathers struggle to juggle the complexity of work and homelife, especially those who have to look after a hand, but Henry’s WWE career somehow survived the sexual and resumed the strength, as he once again reinvented himself to become an ass-kicking destroyer. “Becoming the world’s strongest man again after ten years was another highlight which led to two World Championships. I’ve had a pretty storied life,” he remarks.
With 19years of WWE experience, only The Undertaker, Triple H and Kane have served a longer tenure with the company than Henry, who sees parallels between the nineties glory days, and today’s generation.
“The Attitude Era happened organically because of the youth. Steve Austin was young, Shawn Michaels was in his prime. Everybody was in the prime of their careers. The roster was so deep with talent, and it reminds me of now. You have the older regime and then you have all these new up and coming talents. It makes for a more combustible situation. You have young people wanting to reach the top, and then you have older guys that were fighting for their lives to stay in.”
Long-term WWE fans often pine for a return to the Attitude style, but Henry has no desire for a restoration of the past. “The only thing that I miss about the Attitude Era is some of the people,” he admits. “There’s no Mankind type guy these days, or a Steve Austin. With him, the profanity was at a paramount, but he was so entertaining. That’s the stuff I miss, the little subtle nuances. But I love the business the way it is today, and I hope that it keeps flourishing.”
When looking back over nearly two decades in the ring, there is one match in particular that stands out in Henry’s mind as his all-time favourite.
“Wrestlemania 22, me vs The Undertaker. I don’t think there will ever be anybody who will surpass The Undertaker in regards to his greatness, so to have the honour of being in the ring with him was beyond what I had ever dreamed.”
And as for how much will his own dream continue for?
“I don’t think time is going to allow me to be in the ring forever. I’ve done everything there is to do and right now I’m more thinking about how the future of the business is going rather than thinking about what I can get out of the sport.”
As he approaches his mid-forties, Henry is striving to make the future of professional wrestling even more successful than its past. With a Performance Center producing dozens of young wrestlers all hopeful of stardom, two competitors in particular have impressed the veteran. “I like Kevin Owens, and also Uhaa Nation. He’s an unbelievable talent. Both of those guys I think will have a big impact on how the business is going to look in the future.”
We end the conversation by talking the glittering facilities the developmental prospects have to enjoy in 2015. Life was vastly different as a wrestling rookie in 1996, but when asked about whether he is perhaps a little jealous of the luxuries of today, a switch was flipped, and the passion poured out.
“No way. I’ve never in my life been envious of nobody else. I’m Mark Henry, I’ve always had everything I’ve wanted. Not because somebody gave it to be, because if I wanted something, I wanted to sweat equity to go and get it myself. I have never envied another man.”
With more reinventions than Madonna, from Sexual Chocolate to salmon suits, Henry has always defined himself by who he is rather than what he is perceived as. Why? Because that’s what he does.
WWE The Attitude Era is published by DK, priced at £17.99 (dk.com)
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