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King of ‘Pain’: Mark Henry strong-arms his way to WWE World heavyweight championship 15 years after debut

September 23rd, 2011 No comments

Crowning achievement: Lawler made Henry look decent in his high-profile WWE debut on PPV.

I wish could tell you that as Mark Henry lifted me with ease like an infant and held me over his massive shoulders in a backbreaker in September 1996 he’d be a future World champion. Truth is, Henry was green as grass, and I was practically only the second opponent he’d ever been in the ring with in front of a crowd, so I was nervous as hell that he’d injure me. Given my tendency to stomp my adversaries much too stiffly when my charges like Buddy Landel and Tommy Rich tossed prone bodies outside the ring at my feet, it was Henry who probably who had more to worry about than me.

My tag partner on this evening in ’96, Jerry Lawler, had carried Henry through his professional wrestling debut only days earlier at the “In Your House 10: Mind Games PPV” on Sept. 22, 1996, and came out unscathed in spite of his opponent, whom WWE had signed earlier that year thinking they had a future Olympic medalist on their hands. What Henry lacked in experience and mobility, he more than up for with his massive size and incredible strength–two qualities that the promotion had coveted in the Former Federation since the days of Vince McMahon Sr.

Mark had been a Hulk Hogan fan during his teenage years, when he earned national acclaim for his weightlifting achievements in high school. In 1996, Vince McMahon signed him to the infamous 10-year deal for reported a $250,000-per, with the plan all along to push him as “The World’s Strongest Man” coming out of a medal finish on national TV. But as is typical when McMahon can’t control the outcome, it backfired when Henry placed 10th out of 14 competitors. The McMahon media machine spun it as if Henry suffered a back injury prior the Olympics, and the WWF stuck with the idea of billing the rookie as if he were indeed the mightiest human being walking the planet.

At the time, the Memphis-based USWA promotion was working as a farm league of sorts, helping to groom the WWE superstars of tomorrow. While Henry likely could have benefitted from months in the territory like the Rock (who worked Memphis as Flex Kavana before getting called up the big leagues by Pat Patterson), this was a one-shot deal at the Big One Expo Center, the makeshift “arena” hosting Memphis events after Lawler & Co. left the Mid-South Coliseum in July of that year.

While I seemed like an unlikely partner for the King against such formidable opposition as Henry and Brian Christopher, Lawler had a way of making it sound completely logical during this promo.

I remember Mark being jovial and friendly backstage, like a big kid living out his fantasy of being a wrestler–which is how I felt during my brief tenure in the business. To hide Henry’s limitations, Lawler laid out the match so that we’d get the heat on Brian the entire way (by underhanded means, no doubt), taunting Henry, who could never quite get tagged in. I had several of my friends in attendance that night and they were having a blast leading a small contingent of heel fans in the Florida State University war chant. My gimmick was that I was the nephew of Bobby Bowden, carrying on the family tradition of coaching. In fact, on this night, was wearing an FSU jersey “sent to me by Warrick Dunn.” My 7-year-old nephew, Jake, was also in attendance with his father to see me in the main event. When a woman behind them screamed, “Scott Bowden sucks,” Jake turned around and matter-of-factly informed her, “Excuse me, but my uncle does not suck.”

As the heat reached a fever pitch (despite its name, the Big One was a pretty small venue, which made it ideal for a crowd of the approximate 750 rabid diehard fans in attendance each week), Christopher finally made the tag to the big lug, who lumbered in and disposed  of Lawler with a (silverback) gorilla slam before turning his attention to me. Henry nearly took my head off with a clothesline before picking me up in his backbreaker finisher, which I quickly submitted to. After he dumped me awkwardly to the canvas, I tried to scurry away, but Henry ripped the right pant leg completely off my khakis. I found out later that Lawler has instructed him to do so, similar to the rib he had Terry Funk pull on rookie manager Jim Cornette in 1983. Backstage, Henry was laughing as I approached him wearing what was left of my pants and uttered the traditional post-match “Thanks, brother.” He halfheartedly apologized, pointing at Lawler, who bellowed, “Hey, don’t look at me!” Still, I couldn’t help but like the guy.

I’ve watched with interest over the years as Henry’s career floundered initially as a babyface, picked up a little steam as a heel member of the Nation of Domination, was mired in silliness as Sexual Chocolate and “impregnated” Mae Young, and shipped to Canada to train with the Harts, before being sent down to the minors in OVW and told to lose weight and improve his work. Maybe this could have been avoided if he’d have had the extended opportunity to learn under Lawler’s watchful eye in Memphis back in ’96. I understand Vince’s initial rush to get Henry on TV to take advantage of his national exposure, but he really should have called an audible when he performed poorly in the Olympics. Somehow, he managed to stay on the roster after his deal finally expired, mostly due to the company’s lack of depth as top superstars retired or moved on to other interests.

At any rate, the “Hall of Pain” gimmick has been the best approach yet to take with Henry, as they appear committed to getting him over as a classic monster heel after all these years. Creative has also done a great job of portraying him as someone who’s snapped after more than a decade of frustration, and Henry has taken to the role extremely well. They don’t let just anybody pin Randy Orton clean to win the World title, which Henry finally accomplished after seeing countless other performers debut after him and eventually win the belt. At this stage, Henry’s work is pretty damn solid for what he does and his title victory over Orton was fine, despite the initial reaction of indifference at the upset, which was unfortunately captured shortly after the finish by two ill-timed close-ups of two different fans whose faces seemed to say, “Mark Henry–are you kidding me?”

Unlike that night in Memphis years ago, this was no rib. Today, Mark Henry clearly means business.

New WWE ’12 video game packs a punch: Jerry ‘the King’ Lawler’s fist-drop finisher

September 21st, 2011 2 comments

Jerry Lawler drops in on AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel in 1978. (photo by Jim Cornette)

Fresh off Jerry Lawler’s old-school appearance (crown-shaped goatee and all) in the “WWE All-Stars” video game, the current-day King is featured in the new “WWE ’12” title as well as affordably priced downloadable content, along with broadcasting partner Jim Ross and Shawn Michaels in HBK’s “Montreal Screwjob” gear.

Credit the King’s unlikely yet memorable run at the WWE title against the Miz, which began toward the end of 2011, as well as his high-profile bout with Michael Cole at this year’s WrestleMania for his continued inclusion in WWE merchandise.

Mattel is supposedly releasing a modern-day Lawler action figure by 2012 but unfortunately has no plans for a classic King figure from his glory days for the toymaker’s troubled WWE Legends line.

Still, it’s nice to see Lawler’s classic Memphis finisher, the fist-drop from the middle rope, can still take out the biggest and baddest stars in the land. (Check out the clip from the new game below.)

Man, if these games had come out in 1983, at the height of my ColecoVision days, I would have been in heaven.

Whattttaa a rush: Lawler punishes Hawk for no-selling his piledriver.

Upcoming musical ‘Gothic South’ pays homage to Memphis wrestling legend Sputnik Monroe

September 21st, 2011 5 comments

Ladykillers: Sputnik and Rocket Monroe prepare to launch.

I received an email recently from singer-songwriter Dick Deluxe, who’s working on a musical, “Gothic South.” The production will feature a kick-ass song about longtime Memphis wrestling star Sputnik Monroe.

The first preview will be held at Jonny Whiteside’s Messaround at the Viva Cantina in Burbank, Calif., on Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. Dick grew up in Arlington, Tenn.(about a stone’s throw from where I used to live), where Sputnik used to rent a house from Deluxe’s uncle.

“Sputnik was an old family friend who worked with my cousin Maury (“Rocket Monroe”),” Dick says. “As kids we used to spy on them partying!”

I hope I can check out next month’s preview, which isn’t far from my place in Los Angeles–I’d love to hear some Sputnik stories that I can share with my loyal KFR readers. Until then…check out “Sputnik Monroe (Took a Big Bite Out of Jim Crow).”