In my TJR staff predictions for 2016, I said that Mark Henry will win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at Wrestlemania. I wanted to expand on this a bit more and pay homage to one of the elder statesmen in WWE as he approaches, by his own admission, the end of his nearly 20-year career inside the squared circle.
When I first met Mark Henry, it was inside a luxury box at the old Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey before Raw. He was joined by Mick Foley, only weeks removed from his Hell in a Cell match with The Undertaker, as well as the late Owen Hart and Luna Vachon. They all could not have been nicer, none more so than Owen who stopped at the doorway on his way out of the box and turned around to ask if anyone still needed pictures (I sheepishly raised my hand to get one last photo and am so glad I did). One thing that struck me was how happy Henry seemed just to be there, laughing with Owen, his fellow Nation stablemate at the time. It’s not hard to believe he was a huge wrestling fan growing up. He looked like a big kid having fun.
Prior to his career in wrestling, Henry achieved success as a two-time Olympic weightlifter, as well as a powerlifter, setting a dizzying number of records that still stand to this day. Bill Kazmaier, himself an accomplished strongman and former pro wrestler, once called Henry one of the strongest men in the history of the world. In one bodybuilding magazine, Kazmaier was ranked third behind Henry as one of the top 10 strongest men of all time. He accomplished all of this while routinely competing in “drug-free” competitions and has long been a vocal critic of anabolic steroid use, even quitting weightlifting and vowing never to return unless the sport cleaned up its act.
In 1996, Henry signed a 10-year deal with WWE, unheard of at the time, and wrestled his first match on pay-per-view against Jerry Lawler. That right there tells you they had some fairly lofty expectations for him. You could argue that he never fully lived up to those expectations, largely due to the many injuries he suffered throughout his career. I once wrote a column about Kane and how versatile a performer he has been throughout his career, switching back and forth from comedy character to unstoppable monster, depending on what role the company needed him to play. Henry, one of the few roster members more tenured than the Big Red Machine, is similar in that he has achieved success on TV as a fun-loving sex addict wooing Chyna and Mae Young, but also as an ass-kicking World champion inducting people into his “Hall of Pain”.
Let’s talk about that “Hall of Pain” period for a moment. I was one of those people who had cast Henry off by that point. He had been around forever, wasn’t getting any younger and it felt like he was constantly getting hurt. Then, suddenly, at Night of Champions in 2011, he pinned Randy Orton to win his first World championship, clean as a sheet in the middle of the ring. I was stunned, and also very happy for the guy. He worked his ass off and proved all the doubters wrong. Better still, he beat Orton again the next month to illustrate that the first win was no fluke. None of this “even-steven” booking that has become so prevalent in WWE of late. Henry established himself as the real deal and was putting out some of the best work of his career, particularly on the microphone. And let us not forget his emotional retirement speech-turned-swerve on John Cena in 2013, one of the all-time great moments in Raw history (if there is ever a physical Hall of Fame, the salmon-colored jacket he wore that night must have its own display case). It’s very easy to take some of these stars for granted, especially the longer they are around and the more you see them with so many hours of television. You forget how truly scary Mark Henry is until you make him angry. Once that happens, be somewhere else.
The “Hall of Pain” stuff makes you wonder how big of a star Henry truly could have become if he was able to stay healthy all those years ago. At the very least, it extended his career by several years. He had planned to call it quits once before, but Vince McMahon convinced him to sign one more contract. Now, he says, there will be no more contracts. Wrestlemania 32 in Dallas will be his last, and if that isn’t his final show, he intends to finish up soon after. You need not look any further than the way he’s been used on TV in recent months, almost as an afterthought, to put newer talents over. The man is all but done, that much is obvious.
Which brings me back to my prediction (perhaps hope would be a better word) that Henry will enjoy one last moment of glory by winning the Andre Battle Royal. For one, Henry grew up in East Texas, and while not exactly a short drive from Silsbee to Dallas, the show is nonetheless being held in the Lone Star State. Not only that, but Andre the Giant was Henry’s favorite wrestler as a kid. He’s told the story before of going to the matches in nearby Beaumont and tripping over the barricade as he went to touch the giant. Andre spotted him hanging over the barricade and picked him up, settling him back down on his feet as he continued on to the ring. Now, Henry has a chance all these years later, in the twilight of his own career, to pay homage to the man himself. You can’t write a better story than that.
Surely, there will be people questioning why 44-year old Mark Henry should win a match that can, instead, be used to elevate someone new to notoriety. Had WWE elected to use the battle royal for such purposes in the past, I might be inclined to agree. The reality is, in its short lifespan, the Andre Battle Royal has hardly been established as any sort of launching pad for new or underutilized talent. They had a chance with Cesaro’s win in 2014 to really make it mean something and they squandered it months later when they, for whatever reason, chose to prematurely end his alliance with Paul Heyman and opted instead to do nothing with him. The fans certainly seemed ready and willing to embrace the Swiss Superman, but WWE felt differently. Fast forward one year to the Big Show’s victory. Hardly an inspiring choice, but perhaps there was an idea behind it… or not. It wasn’t more than a handful of weeks before the trophy, and the win, was forgotten about.
My point is this. There is absolutely no harm in a Mark Henry win at Wrestlemania. It would be a classy show of respect for a veteran of the business and a feel-good moment for the fans, provided they tell that story going into the event.
Just remember, if he charges you for air, you best keep your bill paid.
Jason Solomon is host of the “Solomonster Sounds Off” podcast, which can be heard weekly on thesolomonster.com, Stitcher Radio and iTunes.