Mark Henry‘s future was set before his final Olympic lift in 1996. He had inked a 10-year contract with the WWF.
Henry competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics in super heavyweight weightlifting, finishing 10th at age 21 in Barcelona and 14th in Atlanta.
He weighed 411 pounds in 1996, making him then the second-heaviest Olympian in history (since a judoka from Guam weighed 462 pounds in 2008 and 481 in 2012, shattering the record), according to Olympic historians.
He’s snatched 402 pounds, clean and jerked 501, squatted 985, bench pressed 585 and deadlifted 903.
Henry transitioned into pro wrestling entertainment following the 1996 Olympics and has been plying that trade for the last 18 years.
Henry, once self-dubbed “Sexual Chocolate” in the ring, is better known by his title during his Olympic-style weightlifting days: The World’s Strongest Man. Even now at 42 years old.
He reached pro wrestling’s pinnacle in 2011, holding the World Heavyweight Championship, punctuating a career that’s included a broken ankle, torn rotator cuff, torn meniscus, broken kneecap and, currently, a torn hip flexor.
OlympicTalk recently caught up with Henry before he embarked on a four-day trip to Saudi Arabia.
OlympicTalk: You were a pro wrestling fan before you were an Olympic weightlifter and met Andre the Giant as a child. What was that like?
Henry: My grandmother used to take me to the Beaumont (Texas) Civic Center to watch wrestling on Saturdays. One time Andre the Giant was wrestling. On his walk to the ring, all the kids would run up toward him to these bicycle rack type barricades.
I’m leaning against the fence to touch Andre, and some kid knocks me over. I’ve got one hand on the barricade and my butt on the floor. Andre sees this, picks me up and puts me on the other side of the barricade. You never know what’s going to move you in life, but that moved me. That moment changed everything.
OlympicTalk: One of your notable headlines during your Olympic career was doing a nude photo shoot. What was that like?
Henry: It was an honor to be able to do an athletic Olympic shoot. When you’re a big guy, people won’t respect your body. They want to see the swimmers’ and track athletes’ bodies. For them to say, “We want to see your body,” I was like, ‘Wow, me?” For big guys, to be able to look at us artistically with a beautiful body, it helped with their confidence. It was very tastefully done.
OlympicTalk: How did you get involved with WWE?
Henry: I did Oprah [Winfrey], Jay Leno, every show you could imagine being a notable Olympian [for the 1996 Olympcs]. I would always get asked what’s the World’s Strongest Man doing. I told them I’m like a giant kid. I play video games. I’m a poet. I like to cook.
Then I told them that on Monday nights and Saturday or Sunday mornings, those are the days I can’t be bothered. Those are the days I watch [pro] wrestling.
The WWE -- or WWF at that time -- powers that be heard that, and they reached out and contacted me. [CEO] Vince McMahon himself called me. I thought it was one of my buddies playing a joke, so I hung up. He called me back and said, ‘No, Mark, this is Vince McMahon for real. I want to invite you to come out to Connecticut. We would be honored to have the World’s Strongest Man come to our family.’
I’m a wrestling fan, so I said yes. What time and where? I’m on my way to the airport. Here I am, 18 years later, knocking down the door of being a Hall of Famer.
OlympicTalk: Was it tough to give up Olympic weightlifting for pro wrestling?
Henry: It was bittersweet that I was going to have to retire, but also during that time I was a little bitter because there were guys that were allowed to compete against me [in weightlifting] that I knew were dirty [not Americans]. They took drugs, performance enhancers.
The [International] Olympic Committee, I wanted them to kick those guys out. It didn’t happen. The U.S. weightlifting team was the best in the world, so it was pitiful to have eighth place and 10th place when it should have been gold, silver or bronze. I’m not pointing fingers. I’m over it now.
There’s going to be a time, if I’m allowed to be a watchdog and work in the Olympic movement, that I’ll work to make sure kids compete on an even playing field so they don’t have to go through what I went through.
OlympicTalk: In 2002, you came out of retirement though.
Henry: People were saying I didn’t deserve to be called the World’s Strongest Man anymore because I wasn’t competing. I was angry about that, and the last thing you want is an angry, focused Mark Henry.
I told Vince [McMahon] these guys are talking bad about me, and what they’re saying and how I’m being portrayed are not real. And I don’t like it. He asked me if I thought I could win. I almost cussed him at him. [Henry won the prestigious Arnold Strongman Classic in 2002, named after Arnold Schwarzenegger.]
In my prime, I was the Michael Jordan of weightlifting. I shut a lot of people up [in 2002].
OlympicTalk: What did your Olympian friends think about your move to the WWF?
Henry: Some people were disappointed. They didn’t respect pro wrestling. They didn’t respect sports entertainment. They were ignorant to the fact that Vince McMahon was changing the business to something that families can watch.
They didn’t realize how intellectually stimulating wrestling really is. We have presidents who are huge wrestling fans. Bill Clinton is one of them. If wrestling is good enough for the president, it should be good enough for everyone else.
OlympicTalk: What’s tougher -- Olympic weightlifting or pro wrestling?
Henry: They’re equally difficult. Not everybody gets to make an Olympic team. Not everybody can hold world titles in pro wrestling. So I’ve really, really been blessed.
To be a main-event wrestler at an elite level, you have to be able to do complicated, intricate, strong, athletic movements for 20 to 30 minutes straight all year long. I challenge anybody who doubts what we do as a sport, as a thinking man’s game, to go to our training facility in Orlando and try it out just one day.
OlympicTalk: Pro wrestling has come under scrutiny in recent years and even last week because of wrestler deaths. Does that concern you?
Henry: I don’t think it concerns me. I don’t really know all the facts, so I won’t comment on [The Ultimate] Warrior [who died last week], but what I will say is bug guys don’t live long anyway. And you have to take care of your body and your mind, no matter what you do.
Other sports, marbles, Tiddliwinks, you name it, if you don’t take care of yourself then you have a problem.
Our company has the most diligent drug testing. We have the same as the Olympics -- random testing -- as well as every six months doing cardio tests as well as blood tests. We are very, very stringent in that area.
OlympicTalk: What about when you first came into the business?
Henry: When I met Vince McMahon for the first time, he told me, “I’ve gone through some things in this business, and I want to let you know right now, if you’re taking any drugs, then it’s not going to work because we don’t have that here.”
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. The only juice I’ve ever had was orange juice.
OlympicTalk: You want to get back into the Olympic movement?
Henry: I want to help the 10 or 15 sports that are suffering the most, the ones that don’t make the money that track and field and basketball and tennis and other sports make.
I want to help weightlifting, of course, but I was very, very offended that wrestling was taken out of the Olympics [though reinstated in September]. [1972 Olympic wrestling champion] Dan Gable did everything to get wrestling back in. I want to help people, like he did. I want to put together a group that fundraises and helps the sports that can’t thrive on their own. I think I can give back, and not having me as an ally is a mistake.