On the very first edition of WWE SmackDown back in 1999, Triple H, long and luscious locks flowing down to his shoulders, stood toe-to-toe in the main event with The Rock, flamboyant as ever in an extravagantly fabulous, multi-hued and very shiny shirt. The result was a match to remember, a good first step for a program that, despite being forever in Raw’s shadow, has stood the test of time.
More than 15 years, 790 episodes, 148 cities and seven countries later, the two men will meet once again on a special anniversary episode Friday night on SyFy. Looking at the two genetic freaks, you’d think barely a week had passed. Somehow they are more handsome, successful and jacked than ever.
But time has indeed passed since that first episode—oodles of it. Time enough for “smackdown” to take its rightful place in the lexicon, made an official word by Merriam-Webster in 2007. Time enough that it would take two months of your life to watch every episode of the show, now second only to Raw itself in longevity.
Signed to a wrestling contract just days after his appearance in the 1996 Olympics, Henry has been a unique presence in the WWE for close to two decades. Standing 6’4″ and weighing more than 400 pounds, Henry is legitimately one of the planet’s strongest men—which has served him well in the world of professional wrestling.
Henry sat down with Bleacher Report this week to talk about being an enormous kid, being an even more enormous man and his phony retirement that rocked the wrestling world.
Bleacher Report: Before we do anything else, I have to fact-check Wikipedia. Because it claims you were 5’5″ and 225 pounds in the fourth grade. I have a kid that age. He’s barely 50 pounds! Were you really Rey Mysterio‘s size in elementary school?
Mark Henry: I weighed about 125 pounds more than Rey Mysterio.
B/R: (Laughs). Was it hard to stand out like that as a kid? Did anyone have the gumption to bully you?
MH: I was a big kid my whole life. I grew up among big people. My brother was a big kid. I didn’t really feel like a big kid. Except for the teachers, who pretty much didn’t want me to squish any of the other kids.
B/R: I could see that might be a danger. A valid concern. Of course, you got bigger and bigger. By high school you were setting weightlifting records. Is it true you were so far removed from the drug scene that permeates power lifting that when someone asked you what kind of juice you were on you said, “Orange juice”? Performance-enhancing drugs were never part of your world?
MH: Not at all. I was kind of sheltered. I grew up in Silsbee, Texas, a town of 3,000 people. I didn’t really understand what steroids and anabolics were until I became kind of famous as a kid. They did an article on me in Sports Illustrated. Before that, I had no clue what steroids were.
At the state meet my junior year, this was in 1989, somebody said, “What are you taking? What kind of juice you on?” I guess I was kind of dumb and naive and I did say, “Orange juice.” That’s how sheltered I was.
B/R: Obviously you did great things in that world, despite not having the kind of artificial advantages other people did. The Olympics are a pretty impressive accomplishment no matter the finish. Had you signed with WWE before the games in 1996? Or did that come later?
MH: It was afterwards. They sponsored me as an athlete to do some appearances and stuff like that. And I wore WWF workout gear and stuff like that.
WWF and Foot Locker were my sponsors at the time. I endorsed those two products and, pretty much, those are the only two products I ever endorsed. I stayed away from many things because I wanted to actually use the things I market. A lot of people don’t take honor and pride in that, but I do.
B/R: There’s a long history of strongmen in wrestling, from George Hackenschmidt to Milo Steinborn to Ken Patera. Now, your trainer, Leo Burke, was a little fella from Canada. He couldn’t show you the big-man style. Who did he have you watch when you were coming up to emulate and learn from?
MH: To be a teacher you don’t have to exemplify the talents you want somebody to portray in the ring.
B/R: That’s a good point.
MH: Leo Burke was an unbelievable trainer. Him and Tom Prichard. Tom Prichard was not a big guy. And I learned a lot from him. Dory Funk.
I learned from the people who were around me. Danny Davis, one of The Nightmares, he was only 5’5″ and 160 pounds soaking wet.
Jimmy Cornette and Rip Rogers, who were the other people who trained me, in a way. It wasn’t all physical training. It was a mentality. Jimmy Cornette had really studied and was in favor of understanding the history of our industry from Abraham Lincoln all the way to John Cena’s reign.
B/R: That’s quite a history too.
MH: I know the history of wrestling. I love the fact that you mentioned George Hackenschmidt. Because he was special in a time when wrestling was about little guys. He was one of the guys who started wrestling’s transition to big guys. I love that. That was a good question.
B/R: Hackenschmidt was such a great character. Not only did he set those box-office records with Frank Gotch, but he would go to where the world’s most famous strongmen were performing, challenge them and win. He was the strongest man on the planet in his day—just like you.
MH: And he knew he was the strongest. Just like I knew I was the strongest guy on the planet. It was unfortunate that they allowed people to cheat. Because if they didn’t allow people to cheat, there would have been an unbelievable gap between me and everybody else.
MH: Even though I was still able to win world titles and set records that other people couldn’t do, even with steroids, just imagine how far the gap would have been?
B/R: Everyone was always impressed with what you did athletically. But when you came back and the Arnold Classic that first year in 2002, I think that changed the way people thought about you, especially in the weightlifting community, among your peers.
MH: Most definitely. The reason that whole thing came about was the fact there were a couple of guys, who shall remain nameless, who said I shouldn’t be able to call myself “The World’s Strongest Man” in WWE. Because I didn’t compete in strongman competitions. I just wrestled. That I was in a fictional world.
I got angry. One, because they said the business I was in was fictional. When I pick people up, I really pick people up. Gravity does not all of a sudden stop existing.
MH: I pick them up. They fall. We get hit. It hurts. I’ve had five surgeries that could have ended most people’s careers. But because of the fact that I’m resilient and have a lot of pride, I refused to let myself go out except on my terms. An injury is not going to take me out.
Two, I’m one of those people who believe you better watch what you say. Those guys said I wasn’t the strongest man in the world. I told Vince McMahon, “Listen, I feel offended by this.”
I thought everybody knew I was in wrestling giving light to lifters. I was giving us respect, being away. But that turned into them thinking I was no longer one of the guys. So I had to go back and show them.
B/R: Coming up on Friday we have the 15th anniversary of SmackDown. What makes you special, Mark—you talk about resilience—is your longevity. Very few people have walked that path the way you have for that entire 15 years. You’ve seen wrestling change a lot in that time. Is it in a better place now, or do you miss those glory years?
MH: I think it’s definitely in a better place. We have more international markets, and the hand of the WWE stretches a lot further around the world. We’re PG so more people can actually watch our programming.
There’s a lot more mandates on safety and health and fitness. That itself is a lot. But the biggest thing, I expect the athletes have gotten better, the business is stronger than its ever been and I can really sit back and appreciate the changes.
B/R: There have been so many great Mark Henry moments over the last 15 years, many of them on SmackDown. You’re one of those guys who I associate with SmackDown, along with Batista and Edge and a few others.
But the memory that stands out to me, and not just because of your salmon jacket, was your fake retirement last year. I hope you follow the Internet and Twitter and know just how much we all loved that angle and how much we appreciate you.
MH: I did. Afterwards. It was a performance I’d always aspired to. The ultimate compliment was Hulk Hogan saying it was one of the reasons he called Vince to come back to WWE, calling it one of the greatest performances he had ever seen.
If Hulk Hogan thought it was pretty damn good, who am I to argue with him?
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