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ATLANTA 1996 / 13 Days To The Games

INCREDIBLE BULK : Weightlifter Mark Henry, a 400-Pound Teddy Bear, Gets Help From the WWF but None From Steroids

July 06, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most deals are sealed with a handshake.

Then there's professional wrestling.

Two years ago, Mark Henry literally had to put the squeeze on Vince McMahon Jr. during negotiations at World Wrestling Federation headquarters in Stamford, Conn.

Though his strongman status and 400-pound physique pretty much had pre-qualified Henry for WWF consideration, McMahon needed to know that Henry was fluent in the language: dropkick, suplex, power bomb, clothesline, pile driver, moon sault.

McMahon asked Henry to demonstrate a simple bearhug.

Was he kidding?

"I've been watching wrestling my whole life," Henry says now. "You name a move and I'll be able to do it."

Henry rose from his chair and wrapped his arms around McMahon, the WWF's chief executive officer. "I kind of shook him a little bit," Henry remembers. "I didn't know he had a bad back. We got a laugh out of it eventually."

And a contract.

So began the unprecedented--some might say unholy--alliance between the WWF, hardly a bastion of sporting virtue, and an Olympic athlete.

In McMahon's office, where stars are invented and aliases born--Terry Bollea, meet Hulk Hogan--the WWF agreed to sponsor super-heavyweight Mark Henry at Atlanta in his quest for gold in Olympic weightlifting.

The sponsorship--financial terms have been kept secret--has no strings attached and ends after the Olympics, at which time the WWF would like Henry to become a full-time member of its cast.

"He's got half the character down," says Jay Andronaco, a WWF spokesman. "He's big and strong. In my opinion, he's one of those bigger-than-life characters."

The news wasn't exactly embraced at the U.S. Weightlifting Federation, but then again, Mark Henry has never been a conformist. He figured it this way: A 400-pound man has got to eat--quite a lot, actually--and no one else was offering to pay his grocery bills.

"It's unfortunate, because in this country you can't support an athlete in weightlifting," says Jim Schmitz, president of U.S. Weightlifting. "You don't blame a guy for giving himself an opportunity to make a very good living through his athletic abilities."

Schmitz also confesses, "I would suspect that professional wrestling would be right up his alley."

Henry has it all: charm, wit, poise, youth (he's 25), girth, not to mention that back-breaking bearhug move.

He dreams of one day standing in center ring, twirling puny (to him) 300-pound masked villains overhead with uncommon ease.

"Who wouldn't want to see that?" he asks.

He hopes to follow in the large footsteps of Andre (the Giant) Rousimoff, who died in 1993 at age 46.

Andre is the human silo by which all wrestling strongmen are measured.

"Andre picked me up when I was a little kid," Henry says with reverence. "When I was about 10, 11 years old, my step-dad took us to a wrestling match, the first time I'd actually gone to see the WWF. It was in Beaumont, Texas. I was standing on the corner where they come out, and Andre picked me up, out of the crowd, out of all those kids. I was just like stoked after that, telling all my friends."

Henry, who weighed 225 pounds at age 12, had seen the light.

"I want to go down in history as one of the original strongmen," he says.

So much awaits Henry--wrestling, Hollywood, possibly pro football--that he sometimes gets ahead of himself, which isn't easy at 6 feet 3 and 400 pounds.

It was for this reason that Terry Todd, Henry's coach and manager, moved training camp from Austin, Texas, to a remote 200-acre island off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Todd's summer house is one of 10 homes on the island. There, Henry communes with nature, endures his daily training grind and takes daily therapeutic plunges into the frigid Atlantic Ocean.

Most weightlifters tend to be obsessive, consumed by their sport and slaves to their daily regimen, but Henry is not.

"Mark would rather be playing basketball," Todd says. "He likes sports that are fun."

Yet, knowing what potential earnings the future holds, Henry is making the most of this Olympic moment.

In 1992, he finished 10th at Barcelona as a scared-stiff, 21-year-old Olympic neophyte.

And while his potential has been described as unlimited, Henry has not yet mastered the subtleties of Olympic weightlifting.

His strength is in powerlifting, a sport in which he is a world-record holder in the squat (954 pounds), dead lift (903) and combined--squat, bench press and dead lift-- (2,339 pounds).

Olympic weightlifting, comprised of the snatch and clean-and-jerk lifts, is a different animal, requiring techniques not required in power lifting.

Schmitz says the difference in the two sports is "like taking a guy racing a dragster and putting him in the Indy 500."

Henry has, in fact, made a successful crossover. He holds the American weightlifting record in the snatch (396 pounds), clean and jerk (485) and combined (881).

In four years, however, he has not gained much ground on his international competition and is not considered a medal contender in Atlanta.

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