Heel Honor Roll - Mark Henry, founder and curator of the Hall of Pain
Every great hero needs a villain, and Heel Honor Roll is a column in which we take a look at some of the most effective heels in the business from history and today. Each week we'll discuss one of the many miscreants, jerks, and all around bad guys that we have (at least at some point) come to love in wrestling, and examine how they got doing wrong so very right.
"You didn't believe, did you? You didn't believe that I would be holding the most coveted prize in professional wrestling, did you?!? " - Mark Henry, Night of Champions 2011
The now infamous hand might as well have been shooting a middle finger at Mark Henry when it emerged from underneath Mae Young's blanket. Months of "Sexual Chocolate" finally had been reduced to nothing but meaningless, inexplicable silliness.
Over a four year career, Mark Henry's character had progressed from strongman devoid of personality to strongman devoid of personality who is black, and now he was at the bottom of a storyline spiral that involved sexual addiction, transvestite love affairs, and now, at the absolute nadir of it all, a slime-covered hand popping out of Mae Young. It was the clearest sign yet of the WWE's bafflement as to what they should do with the four year veteran. Henry had both the substantial bona fides and the stylistic form of an unstoppable monster, but he hadn't demonstrated any ability to connect with fans on either a visceral or humorous level. He lacked the ass-kicking fire of a Stone Cold or Rock but also couldn't muster the comic ability of a Mick Foley or Goldust. What the fans were left with was a mass to obviously powerful to be ignored but nowhere near impactful enough to merit our attention.
This led to the fairly unique step of removing Mark Henry from television without firing him, sending him down to former developmental territory OVW in an apparent acknowledgement that his failure was as much the WWE's fault as it was the wrestler's. For almost two years, Henry trained and was retooled.
When he reemerged in 2002 as an angry force of nature who could (with comical frequency) rip cages open to attack the wrestlers inside, something still wasn't quite right. The goofy comic relief and smiles were thankfully gone, but the newfound menace wasn't connecting, credible as it may have been.
"Oh and don't start cheering. Don't start cheering, because none of you believed it either! You're all doubters! You're all haters!" - Mark Henry, Night of Champions 2011
The hand was to blame, or at least the ingrained legacy for which the hand stood. Six years had passed during which Mark Henry was either bland, silly, or absent, and now the fans were expected to believe that this power, which had been there without great effect for years, was suddenly unstoppable? It didn't make sense for the same reason that people yell "Albert" at Tensai; you can't erase your history. We were all there to witness it.
We saw fourth billing in the Nation of Domination; we saw Sexual Chocolate; we saw The Hand. It all happened, and to deny that it happened was no less awkward than all the strange missteps of the past themselves. Coupled with continued bad luck with injuries, Mark Henry's career seemed destined to be swallowed alive by his inability to escape history. He would inevitably make failed comeback, then get released to perform as Sexual Chocolate in TNA and subsequent indy events for the rest of his career…except something amazing happened. Somewhere along the line, Mark Henry stopped trying to escape his history of failure, and instead made it his home.
"I'd like to welcome all of you to the Hall of Pain." - Mark Henry, Night of Champions 2011
The tipping point of all of this was the feud with Big Show in 2011. Suddenly, there was a nasty edge to everything Mark Henry did. The power had an element of malice, and the pain caused appeared to be the victory in and of itself. When Mark Henry crushed Big Show's leg in a steel chair at Money In the Bank in 2011, he had already won; this display was pure spectacle, the driving force behind Henry's "Hall of Pain". Having stated his goal of demolishing the locker room, Henry's power now had purpose, making it dangerous and compelling to watch.
Henry's underrated match against Sheamus at Summerslam in 2011 furthered the growing legend, when Henry beat Sheamus so badly outside of the ring that Sheamus couldn't muster the strength to reenter the ring, losing by countout. Again, here the victory for Henry was not in the win or the loss, but in the demonstration that he could completely annihilate his opponent.
"This is my moment, and I'm not sharing it with none of you! You don't deserve this!" - Mark Henry, Night of Champions 2011
Yet if the feuds with Show and Sheamus transformed the nature of Henry's serious power into something believable, his feud with Randy Orton for the World Heavyweight title gave it pathos and purpose. In a strikingly honest segment of "The Cutting Edge" on Smackdown, Edge and Orton raised the question of whether or not Mark Henry simply couldn't win the big one. Essentially, they were calling him a bust, and instead of denying the past, Henry acknowledged and accepted it.
Yes, his career had been a disappointment, and nobody was more disappointed in all of it than Mark Henry himself, and that disappointment fed the anger that Henry had ridden all the way to his upcoming World Heavyweight Championship match. The insecurity felt real, and from a storytelling perspective it explained everything we had seen (and would subsequently see) from Henry's wonderful work establishing the "Hall of Pain".
It culminated in the apex of Henry's career at Night of Champions in 2011. After an excellent back and forth matchup, Henry defeated Orton, took the title, and cut a blistering promo in which he explicitly refused to let anyone else share the moment with him. Henry's lawless violence was somehow justified, in his own mind, by becoming what nobody thought he could be, and rather than savor the joy of the moment he was intent on turning it on all of us like a flamethrower.
Watching emotions so small come from someone so big was absolutely stunning, and struck an emotional chord that heels in the WWE had never hit up until that point. Mark Henry, from 2011 on, is a fascinating study of how insecure the most powerful men can be, and how that insecurity can, rather than crippling their power, simultaneously enhance it even and turn it into something vicious and ugly. The Cutting Edge with Orton hinted at what the promo at Night of Champions confirmed: Mark Henry is driven to chase dominance by a desire to erase his history, and he is now, as a result, consumed by that history. Night of Champions was reminiscent of Michael Jordan's infamously bitter NBA Hall of Fame induction speech; we were watching someone whose talents and accomplishments were undeniable reveal a deep-seated insecurity that was unworthy of their accomplishments, tarnishing their significance by revealing the petty, selfish motivations that birthed them.
This is, of course, the problem with insecurity as a motivator; the ultimate victory never comes, because no victory can ever erase the past that created the insecurity. The result is Mark Henry's joyless, angry celebration at Night of Champions. Indeed, Mark Henry is the villain precisely because his victories bring no joy with them, only more rage, more unsatisfied bitterness.
The well of insecurity that he hopes to drain is only found to run more and more deep with each achievement, and the cycle continues. Our hatred of Mark Henry's character is rooted in pity over what he has become, what our indifference made him. When he refused to let the fans share in his World Heavyweight Championship victory, it was as much for his own protection as it was for their shame.
He can't let us in anymore, because deep in the foundation of the Hall of Pain is the past that Henry is desperately afraid of us rediscovering and mocking. In his desperation to make us forget that past, he'll keep piling accomplishments, carnage, and bodies on top of it until we do.