Mark Henry reveals how he helped discover and inspire a new generation of Superstars
When Mark Henry’s sports-entertainment career began in 1996, there was no enormous Performance Center to fine-tune every aspect of his training. There was just a ring in a warehouse for the former Olympian and a fellow newcomer who would one day become The Rock.
“They hired Dr. Tom Prichard to work with us,” Henry recalled. “That was the developmental system, three people.”
In the 22 years since then, Henry developed into a world champion Superstar, and WWE’s developmental system has grown to include a state-of-the-art facility brimming with dozens of athletes from around the world. And as Henry’s in-ring career winds down, one of his goals is to leave the industry better than when he entered it.
Henry isn’t accomplishing that with any of the power that brought him to the Olympics or the World Heavyweight Championship; he’s doing it with his eyes. Henry has proven to be an excellent scout and recruiter for WWE, and The World’s Strongest Man’s ability to spot future Superstars has seen him join WWE talent scouts on recruiting trips, including one at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. He’s discovered and helped refine some of WWE’s most gifted young competitors, including Apollo, Bianca Belair and Braun Strowman.
“The first time was probably in 2012 at World’s Strongest Man,” Strowman said of his first conversation with Henry about a potential WWE career. “I’d been a huge fan of his for a long time and had met him a couple of times through my strongman endeavors over the years. To have him approach me and offer me a tryout with WWE was a dream come true.”
Although Strowman appreciated the opportunity, Henry said it took a little time for The Monster Among Men to see what kind of chances he had inside the squared circle.
“It’s hard to steer somebody away from their dream,” Henry said. “His first dream was to be the world’s strongest man.”
Henry noted that although Strowman was a fierce competitor in strongman circles, achieving that goal would require patience and for his fellow competitors to falter, which was his reasoning for approaching Strowman.
“Why wait on somebody else to stumble, so you can get one up on them, when you can just take over and do something completely different and be really, really good at it?” Henry said. “It was hard for me to tell him that.”
“A lot if it was because I was really passionate about the strongman sport,” Strowman said. “I did a lot of things in a short amount of time that not many men were able to do. But I’ve always been a ham and a showman for crowds. I got to compete in front of a few thousand for strongman, so realizing that I could step over to WWE and have opportunities like I did at WrestleMania in Dallas to perform in front of 101,000 people -- that was the big thing for me.”
Henry is clear on one thing: He didn’t force Braun, or anyone else, to give sports-entertainment a go.
“He made his mind up to do it; not me,” he said. “It was the same thing with Bianca.”
For Mae Young Classic standout and NXT Superstar Bianca Belair, Henry came along at the perfect moment.
“He contacted me at a time where I was just settling in life,” Belair said. “I had a job, I was working, and I thought that was all there was for me.”
Henry had watched her compete in a CrossFit event and saw the makings of a Superstar.
“She was a very good CrossFitter, was very, very good at track and field,” he said. “From watching her compete, I knew that she could do this. But she can do it at a high level because of her personality, not because of her talent. A lot of people can turn a flip, but some people do it with flair and demonstrative movements and still get it done. That’s what wrestling requires. To be able to make other people understand without using words is the brilliance of what we do.”
Henry reaching out was just what Belair needed.
“Having him contact me at that point, having someone like him believe in me and say, ‘I think you have all the qualities it takes to be a wrestler,’ put a lot of confidence in me,” she said. “Having him behind me pushes me to be the best I can be.”
Henry has proven to be a great recruiter, but his eye for talent doesn’t stop working once talent signs with WWE, which Baron Corbin learned when he started with the company at Florida Championship Wrestling, the developmental territory that preceded NXT.
“He came in and thought I had something special,” Corbin said. “He told me I had a good look, the way I moved was good. He really helped mold me in those early days, which helped the evolution of who I am and what I do. When you have a guy of his caliber come to you and tell you they see something in you … if that doesn’t light a fire, nothing will.”
Belair also had her own moment where the strongman helped her at the WWE Performance Center.
When you have a guy of his caliber come to you and tell you they see something in you … if that doesn’t light a fire, nothing will.
“When I first got there, I didn’t know much,” she said. “I was trying to figure out my persona. He asked me, ‘What is it that you want to be in wrestling?’ He gave me the advice to go all out, be different and be unique.”
To an outsider, having Henry’s name behind you might seem like it leads to a fast-track to Superstardom, but The World’s Strongest Man makes it clear that he’s only opening a door for these prospective competitors.
“He specifically told me from the get-go, ‘You have to do the rest,’” Belair said.
“It’s not a stamp of approval,” Corbin said. “It’s more like, ‘If you want it, you can get it.’ When he says he sees those things, it puts it on you to succeed. It’s motivation, not ‘he’s gonna make it,’ and you coast and rock and roll through with no struggles. It’s a fire that he lights.”
With motivation like that comes pressure. Some might crumble under the burden of living up to expectations, but these Superstars are ready to prove Henry right.
“For someone of Mark’s caliber to go to bat for me gives me confidence,” said Apollo, who Henry referred to WWE with an assist from rapper Wale. “That let me know that I can do this. I don’t want to let him down. “
“It’s a good kind of pressure,” Corbin said. “Fear of failure is a great thing. It pushes you past your comfort levels. Mark put that on me from the first month I started with WWE. That continues to push me on days when I’m tired or I’m struggling and it’s frustrating. When you have an icon that wants you to succeed, it’s awesome.”
“It feels good to be able to look at somebody and go, ‘Man, you’re me 22 years ago; you can do this!’”
“If anything, it’s been more encouraging for me,” Belair added. “He pushed me to be the best I can be. I don’t think it’s pressure in a negative way.”
Through his work in recruiting, Henry’s found a way to stay connected to the sports-entertainment world as his career winds down. Being involved in the developmental process almost brings his career full-circle, though WWE’s training program has come a long way from three guys in a warehouse.
“I feel like I’m paying it forward,” he said. “It feels good to be able to look at somebody and go, ‘Man, you’re me 22 years ago; you can do this!’”
“I find chunks of coal that have a glisten to them,” he continued. “They get to Orlando and [the WWE Performance Center coaches] start chipping away and chipping away. Next thing you know, ‘Mark, there’s a diamond under there. We’re going to polish it up.’ They do all that work. I appreciate the whole developmental process – coaching them, educating them and putting them out there to see if they can thrive.”
And while he’s won world titles and accomplished things beyond his wildest dreams, Henry says seeing his recruits succeed is the best feeling.
“Every time I see Apollo, Braun or Bianca, Baron Corbin and other people I’ve helped foster, I gush,” he said. “It gives a validation to my eye. I love it. There’s nothing like it.”