On June 17, Mark Henry made WWE Raw viewers everywhere look like gullible nitwits, and Lord, was the con glorious.
After hinting at a retirement announcement through solemn tweets like June 16’s “Whether you loved or hated me in my career.I was all ways there for you.i appreciate u all. Good or bad I will live forever with u the fans” [sic], Henry hit Raw during a John Cena segment, sporting a salmon-colored suit jacket.
Silsbee, Texas’ finest brought along wrestling boots and dropped them off on the ramp—a play on the amateur wrestling gesture of retiring competitors leaving their boots on the mat as a goodbye. He was warm to Cena, encouraging him to put his guard down so they could share a moment. Henry then gave a revealing, choked-up speech about what he’d accomplished (and what he hadn’t) and formally retired from the active roster. He made an Evita reference, shouted out to his family, raised Cena’s WWE Championship (a belt that would never be his), and graciously acknowledged Mae Young chants. Cena raised his hand. This was really it—right until when Henry gave Cena a hell of a World’s Strongest Slam and yelled, “YOU THINK IT’S THAT EASY?? I GOT A LOT LEFT IN THE TANK!!!”
That segment was big and brilliant enough to instantly build hype for what quickly became Money in the Bank’s main event. Before Henry and Cena square off for the WWE Championship on pay-per-view this Sunday in Philly in what should be one of the key matches in the World Strongest Man’s career, we spoke to the 42-year-old ex-Olympian for 15 minutes about as many topics as we could. While Henry has long been reputed to be a really nice guy when not in killer mode, his gruff voice automatically made every syllable pretty intimidating. Read all his quotes in a slow, authoritative cadence.
With Leather: I have to start with the thing everyone’s talking about right now, which is the retirement storyline that happened on the 17th. It really blew my mind.
Mark Henry: You mean the retirement dupe.
WL: Yes, your Oscar-winning performance.
MH: Sports entertainment got duped.
WL: I did. You had me going, too. It was a thorough campaign: You tweeted to Stephen A. Smith. You set all that up in advance. How long was that in the works for? Whose idea was it? What was it like pulling it off?
MH: Well, I mean, I’m a constant entertainer. It’s something that I thought of four years ago, five years ago when I signed my contract. ‘At the end of this contract, I’m going to retire and I’m going to have everybody ready for me to retire, and then I’ll get ’em just the way I want to.’ It’s funny, [this] five-year plan. The only thing that can come to mind is Hannibal in The A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together.”
WL: What was your strategy for doing the tears? Did you have to think of a specific memory or use some Visine or do a little trick?
MH: [Incredulous] No, I don’t need Vi-sine. Man, you’ve got to be able to get into whatever you’re doing. Not only am I trained, but I’m also one that really gets into anything that I do, and it was real to me. I made it real, and there’ll come a day when I have to do stuff like that again, but right now, that’s not the question. The question is, ‘Is Mark Henry going to be WWE Champion on Sunday?’ I can see myself being WWE Champion. I can see what it’ll do for the business. I see what it’ll do for me.
I took a 50 percent pay cut when I signed that last deal five years ago because I was looked at as being a middle-of-the-road performer. During that time, John Cena made millions, and that’s what I want. I mean, Money in the Bank is not just the name of the pay-per-view, it’s a chance for me to get my will to where I want it so when the time does come for me to officially retire, I won’t have to worry about nothing.
WL: Before going through with the retirement dupe or even after it, did you have any concerns that doing that would diminish the effect of when you actually do retirement because people are going to be skeptical the next time and say, ‘Well, maybe he’s going to pull the same kind of stuff that he did last time’?
MH: Good. I hope so.
WL: You’ve had one of the most interesting, up-and-down careers of anyone I can think of that’s still on the WWE roster. The only person who is similar is Kane, maybe Big Show, in terms of all the stuff you’ve been involved in and how long you’ve been around. You’ve had significant lows, but you’re also having significant highs. What’s your take on going the journey? How were you able to cope with all the rotten stuff and get through to the good stuff?
MH: I mean, that’s life. Everybody that’s had the road be smooth and perfect with a steady incline, I’d like to meet ’em. I don’t think it’s ever been done. There’s highs and lows in life, and there’s highs and lows in sports entertainment. It’s a credit to me that I’ve been around 17 years, so I’ve had a long time to have highs and lows. Obviously, I’ve done something right.
WL: You’ve been in the spotlight for so long. I was reading a story Sports Illustrated did on you back in July 1991 when you were just 19 years old. How did WWE end up finding you? What were they looking for? Also, were you ever pitched any gimmick or something different from you being ‘Mark Henry, All-American’?
MH: I always say smart marks talk about gimmicks and heels and faces and all that stuff. All that’s irrelevant. When I was a fan of the WWF at the time, I made note on a TV show that when I was asked, ‘What does the World’s Strongest Man do in his spare time?,’ ‘Watching the WWF on weekends and Monday’ was my response. Then, [WWE] called me and asked me if I would like to come and check the business out. That was my introduction to the WWE. As far as anything else, I’m focused on what’s going to happen on Sunday. The past is great to dwell on, but we live in the now, and me being WWE Champion is the most important thing in this universe to me. My family wholeheartedly support me, but because I’ve been less than honest, I’m probably kind of in the doghouse, but hey, I’ll take being in the doghouse and winning [at] Money in the Bank rather than having everything milk and honey.
WL: When you were signed in 1996, it was to a landmark contract. I think it was 10 years, $10 million, and please correct me if I’m wrong.
MH: I don’t know who the hell made that up. It was a multimillion dollar contract over 10 years and that’s where it’s going to stay.
WL: With all the stuff that happened to you along the way, were you always sure the contract would work out?
MH: Never. Never. Never. Not at all. Not once. I mean, people think that what we do and what I do is easy. I’ve been world champion at everything I ever done in my life, and it takes time to do that. I came from anaerobic sport and powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting to a sport that has a high endurance and [is] psychology-driven and a start-and-stop type of business. You can’t expect somebody to grab that in a year. There’s been very few people that have been able to do it in two or three years. [For me,] it took a few years to really get it rolling. Now, there’s not that many people that know as much about my industry as I do. I’ve been a student of the game. I know the history. I know where this business is going in the future, and that’s something I can say that people on the outside asking the questions don’t.
WL: Take me through your biggest highs, your lowest lows. What feud, opponent or match did you have that was best for you?
MH: I’ve had some good ones. I would have to say me and the Undertaker at WrestleMania 22 was probably as high as it’s gotten. To be a part of the Streak, win, lose or draw—and everybody’s lost—is an important moment in history. I was honored to be in there and take him to the limit of his ability, and put on a performance that people will remember for a long time. You’re judged by the standard of your competition, and it don’t get much better than that.
WL: How about the bad stuff?
MH: You know what, man? I’ve had some moments where I was unfocused and I doubted whether I wanted to continue to be in the business. That was around ’99. Learning the industry was hard. I went to Canada and what started off as the worst thing ended up as the best thing. I ended up in the Dungeon with the likes of Bret Hart and Stu Hart — God rest him — who was able to say, ‘Hey, you’re trying to do too much. I got the kind of tutelage that I should have got from the first day.’ That’s the thing about this industry: What looks like the darkest thing might be the best thing for you.
WL: When you did the dupe, you spoke with a lot of logic and reason, and a lot of the bad guys in WWE do at times. I feel like there’s a disconnect from the good side. Do you ever sense that yourself?
MH: I mean, it’s all opinion. I say what’s real. That’s what comes across. People feel it and understand it. I’m not going to talk about being your intellectual savior or [how] I’m the prettiest. I’m not going to talk about none of that because it don’t matter. I talk about what matters. I’m better than you. I want what you got if you have something that I want, and how do you think that you’re going to beat me? That’s what I know and that’s what I see as real. People understand it and they get behind it. If they don’t get behind it, then they hate it. Either way, I got you.
WL: Last thing: You always talk about “That’s what I do.” What does that actually mean? What do you actually “do?”
MH: What I do is impose my will. I make you subservient to me. I make you do exactly what should be done, and that’s lay down at my feet. When I put somebody down, I let everybody know, ‘This is what I do.’ There’s no other way to put it. I think everyone of our fans and anybody that’s ever watched the sport will attest to what I say. When I put people, they stay down.