Joe Hendry is Charlie, and Queensland’s Sunshine Coast his Chocolate Factory. The enthralled Scotsman is at his raconteur best during Wednesday’s impromptu, live Q&A session with his fans.
“The food here is off the chain. It’s all healthy, good food. You’d have to pay 15-20 quid for this in a restaurant back home. Here, it’s practically an all-you-can-eat buffet, from six in the morning to eight at night. Then for snacks, it’s all meat and stuff. For me, every meal is usually two massive plates and then snacks on top,” Hendry tells his viewers on the video-streaming service Twitch.
The Coral sea and its giant waves “are no joke, man” and neither is the fauna. “Everything here is a hundred times bigger,” exclaims Hendry, from a spider “with a giant orange arse” to a wasp “which was like a final level boss”.
Those who have followed the wrestler’s progression share his wonder, but it would surprise many that the upcoming Commonwealth Games are the 29-year-old reigning British amateur champion’s first multi-sport event, let alone his first visit to Australia.
Young hopefuls leaving freestyle wrestling for the glitzy worlds of professional wrestling and mixed martial arts is the norm, but Hendry stands as an anomaly. The popular independent wrestler from Edinburgh has traded ankle locks for leg laces, tights for a singlet, and the squared circle for the wrestling mat.
Understandably then, even more than the locale, it is the elite athletes with whom he will spend the next three weeks, who have left Hendry amazed.
“Everyone is cordial. You see someone, you say hi, you get to know people. But inside, everybody is super-focused about their individual events. The intensity is spectacular, and it will only get better when we reach the Village on the 1st. I have found a new respect for what it takes to be an elite level athlete. My training partner in Scotland told me, ‘you’ll come back a new person’. I think I became a new person when I reached here.”
The journey began on that balmy July evening. Hendry was one of the vociferous 40,000 collected at the Celtic Park to witness the opening of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. But while the proud Glaswegian crowd went into a frenzy upon the Scottish contingent’s arrival, a wide-eyed Hendry began daydreaming.
“When I saw them waving to friends and family, the pride on their faces, I thought I’d like to do that,” Hendry told The Indian Express. “I started imagining what it would be like if I had my family in the audience and how I would feel, walking around a stadium, holding up the Scotland flag.”
While he had a black belt in judo, representing his country was little more than a dream. Hendry was a year into pro-wrestling at that point. Although he was generating buzz working for the Glasgow-based Insane Championship Wrestling (ICW) promotion, it was hardly the recommended path to freestyle wrestling. Then, BBC arrived to save the day.
“They were doing a documentary at the time on ICW, and an idea for a story was ‘what would happen when a pro-wrestler tries competitive sports’. I jumped at it and said ‘Yes! I’ll do it,” says Hendry, who was then signed up for a bunch of tournaments.
“I was in the final of the Scottish championship within three weeks, and ahead of the champion by eight points. But I didn’t know the rules that I needed to be ten ahead. I got carried away and got rolled.”
Following the silver, Hendry went on a two-year run which culminated in him winning the 97kg gold at the British Championships last November. Surely, such a mercurial rise of an “outsider” would have invited some resentment?
“There was a bit of resistance at first from amateur wrestlers, because they thought I wasn’t going to take it seriously. They must have thought he’s here only because of the documentary,” says Hendry. “But that quickly went away. I think they saw that the documentary is come and gone but he is still here, he is putting in the hours. Then they started treating me like everybody else.”
The documentary met a tougher fate.
“It never aired! They were everywhere, filming stuff. And it looked awesome. And then BBC decided, ‘naah’,” Hendry guffaws.
His in-ring career gathered steam too. Equipped with a flashy persona and an increasingly-technical move-set, Hendry became a draw on the independent circuit, winning titles in ICW and WCPW/Defiant. The crowning glory came in the form of a match against Kurt Angle — the 1995 Worlds and 1996 Olympic gold medallist-turned-six-time WWE champion, arguably the biggest crossover success story.
Like most things of note nowadays, the contest was borne out of a Twitter exchange. When a fan asked Hendry, “if you could wrestle anyone, who would it be?”, Hendry named and tagged Angle, and the veteran responded with a Direct Message: “Work hard, maybe one day I’ll give you the match.”
The match took place 13 months later, in October 2016, when the semi-retired Angle defeated Hendry in a competitive clash called by illustrious announcers Jim Ross and Jim Cornette.
“It literally can’t get any bigger than that outside of WrestleMania,” Hendry told SportBible last month. “I think that day was really a turning point for me because I progressed a lot as a pro wrestler. I’m thankful to Kurt for giving me the opportunity to do that. He’s given me a lot of advice which has been great when it comes to both pro wrestling and amateur wrestling.”
Good luck to my friend Joe Hendry. Go for Gold!!!! http://t.co/sRb26N6v66
— Kurt Angle (@RealKurtAngle) February 21, 2018
Save for the theatrical, predetermined nature of the former, the two streams are less different than they seem. Like freestyle, pro-wrestling too is fundamentally based on classical, ‘catch’ wrestling. Hendry believes his progress as a wrestler has been organic, and his freestyle training has complemented his in-ring craft, and has given him a “greater appreciation about the roots of professional wrestling.”
Contrast then lies in the training. The six-foot two Hendry acknowledges that the balance of performance and aesthetic in pro-wrestling makes ‘looking the part’ of utmost importance. Amateur training meant he had to leave behind cosmetic workout drills for functional ones. “There were routines which I have been doing for a long time, which gave me comfort. I have had to change that, but I am seeing the changes and the results.”
Though professional wrestlers are trained to perform moves safely, their bodies take on a lot of repetitive impact each time they land on the mat. Concussions and spine injuries are occupational hazards, but Hendry refuses to call one tougher than the other.
“Both these forms are difficult in different ways. I think freestyle wrestling is more of a challenge in the moment, whereas professional gets difficult in the long run as it takes a lot of toll on your body. Pro-wrestling is also mentally difficult, in the sense that you have to overcome a lot of politics, and the road to the top can be very long. Freestyle brings an intensity in short bursts, for those who enjoy competing and fighting. Pro-wrestling can be a grind.”
To avoid putting his amateur dreams in jeopardy, Hendry has had to take a sabbatical from the ring. In other words, he is without a day job.
“I may look like a rich man, but I’m not,” Hendry quips. “I am not well-off by any means. I should be growing my business, wrestling more dates but I had to stop to give a hundred per cent to this. That has been the toughest part of this transition for me. I tried to balance everything for the longest of times, but I reached a point when I couldn’t risk any injuries. Training is expensive. Travelling, competition, hotel expenses don’t leave a lot left over at the end of the month.”
To put things in perspective, India’s 97kg contender and Hendry’s possible CWG opponent Mausam Khatri received `1 crore (approx £100,000) for winning a traditional ‘dangal’ invitational tournament in 2016, and was understandably distraught upon receiving a tenth of the amount for repeating the feat a year later.
“On one hand I need to work as much as possible because I need to finance this dream. On the other end I don’t want any injuries. It’s difficult to balance. It’s a challenge but I feel rich because I get to do the things I want to do,” Hendry sums up.
As a result, he has had to put his Masters in Business and Marketing to full use. Like most millennials, Hendry has more than a passing fascination with video games. But unlike most, it’s not about killing time for him. Instead, he streams his sessions to thousands of followers on Twitch, generating revenue from the partnership. His website ships out merchandise embossed with his monikers ‘Local Hero’ and ‘The Prestigious One’ on it. But it’s music, his second love, that greatly eases the burden on Hendry.
Before taking up pro-wrestling in 2013, Hendry tried to make it through his alt-rock band Lost In Audio. With influences such as Weezer, Tenacious D, Dire Straits, and nothing in terms of a formal training but a few classes in third grade — “ My teachers never really saw me as anyone who was gonna amount to anything” — Hendry led his garage band close to a deal with Sony.
“We met their VPs in New York. They told us that look, we like what you do. But music industry has changed and money isn’t being thrown around. Five-six years ago, we could have given you a two record deal. Now, you need to have a million hits on YouTube before we sign you,” Hendry recalls. “I sold a thousand tickets for one of our gigs. I thought I love this, but pro-wrestling is gonna pay my bills. So I decided to use it in wrestling.”
So Hendry became wrestling’s Weird Al Yankovic, parodying the likes of Oasis, Miley Cyrus and Queen for his walkout songs. His rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody (Johemian Rhapsody, if you will) began with, “Mama, I’m gonna kill this man tonight” before he strutted down to the ring. The unique gimmick has helped him stand out in a resurgent British pro-wrestling scene, and grow a ‘come for wrestling, stay for the songs’ cult following.
In an interview with the The Scotsman, Hendry laid down tentative plans for his entrance at the Commonwealth Games.
“If they let me, I guarantee it will be the best entrance of all time. I will be descending from the roof, with ten drones attached to my arms!”
Hendry started 2016 by “finishing all my matches in 30 seconds, and didn’t drop a point for about six months.” But he knows that he is the quintessential rookie at Gold Coast, and needs to start from the bottom, including the hand orientation (He is a lefty in pro-wrestling, but leads everything in amateur wrestling with his right). Fortunately for him, he has a “badass” veteran showing him the ropes.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Hendry said in his Q&A stream. “The coach that I’m working with (Volodymyr Gladkov), I didn’t know how badass this guy is. He was training the Soviet national team. He is 60 years old and still whoops ass all day. He told me, ‘we have changed everything about your game. Your technique is weak.’ He basically told me that I had been winning all my matches on strength and conditioning alone, so he is taking me back to the basics, redesigning me from the ground up. So now, there’s logic behind what I do.”
Hendry has no qualms about being called an underdog. He names England’s Leon Rattigan and India’s Khatri as strong competitors, but laments the pullout from Australia’s Robert Whittaker. Whittaker, the reigning UFC middleweight champion qualified but had to withdraw after reservations from the company. Hendry, who was looking forward to a showdown between a pro-wrestler and a mixed martial artist on a wrestling mat, expressed his disappointment.
“It’s not every day you get to face literally the toughest guy in the world,” Hendry said. “I’m gutted about it but it only increases my chances so there’s pros and cons.”
The Prestigious One is not after a participation certificate of course. While he believes that the amateur wrestling bet paid off “in the first class, of the very first day”, Hendry wants to take home a medal.
“I have enjoyed this. I think, some people need to get into a scrap every now and then. Freestyle helps calm me down. But I wouldn’t be here if I did not want to go for the medal. I’ve been doing this for three years. Most people wait their whole life for a chance like this. You have to aim for the highest possible level, whatever the odds are.”
Story of the life for The Local Hero, who took on the odds when told that he had no future in music in the third grade, that 23 was late to take up pro-wrestling, and 26 was even later to realistically compete in freestyle wrestling. Gold Coast isn’t the final destination either.
“I think I will get into MMA as well. Early next year, I will probably try for an MMA fight. And then, I would have done everything I’ve wanted to do.”