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

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.

As Henry toils in Nova Scotia, training among the trees and geese, he grouses about his sport's injustices and muses at the prospect of moving on to an organization, the WWF, that he feels is, in some ways, more legitimate than Olympic weightlifting.

Which sport is cleaner?

The WWF, until recent years plagued by steroid and drug scandals, has rescued its reputation through rigid and random drug-testing measures.

"We went through our problems," the WWF's Andronaco says of steroid abuse, "but [now] none of our athletes are on it."

American weightlifters, however, still view international competition as a rigged game.

Henry claims to have never used steroids to enhance performance and, if he had, he probably would have been caught. Todd estimates Henry has been randomly tested 40 times in the last 18 months.

Yet, the Atlanta Games will probably be dominated again by Eastern Europeans with more dubious slates.

"All the guys who will win medals in Atlanta I'm sure at one time or another have used anabolics in their training," Schmitz says. "Maybe not in recent years, because of increased drug testing we're doing. But it's an advantage if you've used steroids at any time in your career."

For proof, Todd says you need only to look at two-time defending Olympic champion Alexander Kurlovich, who now competes for Belarus after winning gold medals for the Soviet Union in 1988 and the United Team in 1992.

In the world theater of steroids and weightlifting, Todd says Kurlovich is "right out of central casting."

Twice, in 1985 and 1994, Kurlovich was suspended for steroid use. The first was a lifetime ban that was rescinded before the 1988 Seoul Games. Less than two years ago, Kurlovich tested positive again in Germany and received a two-year ban. But after Belarus petitioned the International Weightlifting Federation, Kurlovich's suspension was reduced to one year, making him eligible to compete in Atlanta.

"He's the type of guy Mark has to face," Todd says of Kurlovich. "It makes me a little angry."

Henry says he's out to prove that he can win a medal without drug use, even though he's convinced the field will never be level.

Most agree drug testing techniques have improved markedly, but Henry adds, "the test really doesn't matter so much, because they're not kicking people out for life."

Terry Todd admits he suspected Henry of steroid use when he first caught a glimpse of the Silsbee, Texas, native about eight years ago during Henry's reign as the state's high school weightlifting champion.

"He was larger than any athlete I've known to enter the sport," Todd says. "He was just so colossally big."

Henry wears a size 16EEE shoe and his jacket size is 62.

Todd and his wife, Jan, also a champion weightlifter, had fought for years against steroid abuse in their sport and were wary about becoming involved with Henry.

"We did quite a bit of looking," Todd says of Henry's past.

After a thorough check, Todd became convinced Henry was nothing more than a physical marvel.

Henry has wondered how strong he might be if he took steroids, but says he has never been tempted.

"Why risk my body and risk the thought of me being a good man for the sake of competing against people that are already dirty?" he says. "It's morally wrong."

Others have been willing to sell their souls.

"My soul belongs to God," Henry says. "I'm not selling my soul to get a piece of gold. If I work hard enough, I'll be able to buy a piece of gold. It's not the gold that is so much the important thing, it's the work and achievement that's important. I've tried doing everything the straightforward way my whole life. The system is cheating me, not myself. Myself is not the question here."

Henry says he will probably quit competitive weightlifting after the Atlanta Games if the sport doesn't change.

"They're going to lose people like me," Henry says, "because I doubt if people, drug-free people, are going to continue to weight lift after the Games. There's no reason for me to stay in it."

Then again, Henry has a few things to learn about the WWF.

"What do you mean it's not real?" he asks incredulously. "What are you talking about? You know, this interview is starting to come to a close."

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