Inspired by the Extreme Championship Wrestling episodes they’d been tuning into each week, a bunch of teenagers were in a park in Augusta, Georgia in 1997, putting on backyard wrestling matches. One day, after weeks of being left alone to do their thing, one of the park’s security guards was walking quickly towards the group.
The guys weren’t stupid. They knew this probably wasn’t going to end well and each of them expected they were going to be told they had to get the hell out of the park. The security guard was eventually standing in front of the group, hands on his hips.
“Hey, that was fun to watch. Just to let you know, there’s a pro wrestling school just up the road.”
Current Premiere Wrestling Xperience World Heavyweight Champion Anthony Henry was part of that suddenly dumbfounded group. Almost 20 years and over 350 matches later, Henry has recently been labeled the latest ‘indie darling’ by some and an ‘overnight sensation’ by others. And it all started because some security guard wasn’t a complete asshole.
Henry is more than just a rising star in the world of pro wrestling. He’s the father of a nine-year old girl. He’s recently become the fiancé of his longtime girlfriend. He works as a personal trainer. And as if that doesn’t keep his schedule full enough, he’s also a student, pursuing his master’s degree in Public Health.
Growing up in Augusta, Henry admired the likes of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, but after stumbling upon something quite different from the WWF or WCW products that were dominating wrestling on TV at the time, he became a huge fan of a whole new generation of wrestlers.
“The ECW thing kind of made its way into pro wrestling and was big and we were all watching the late night episodes of ECW and I was like ‘oh wow, this is different’ and became a fan of Rob Van Dam and those guys,“ said Henry, now 33 years old. “I think the backyard wrestling, if anything, maybe stemmed from watching ECW and wanting to emulate that, because they almost did all of the hardcore stuff.”
That pro wrestling school that the security guard mentioned was just five minutes from Henry’s house. Convinced that they were about to become the next Triple Threat or Dudley Brothers, the group of middle school friends showed up at the school and asked to train.
“(My friends) dropped out after about two weeks and I kept going and it wasn’t the best training, but it was a step in the right direction and I got my foot in the door,” said Henry. He stuck around long enough to learn how to run the ropes, take a bump or two and even found himself working a show or two in front of a smattering of fans.
Still a teenager, an admittedly immature Henry felt like he was on his way to becoming the next big thing in wrestling, but one of his fellow classmates had branched out and started training almost 2.5 hours away in Cornelia, GA at NWA Wildside. Henry eventually went up there to check it out.
“Lo and behold I realized that I wasn’t that good. I didn’t really know what I was doing,” said Henry. The NWA Wildside roster featured the likes of Jimmy Rave and AJ Styles and Henry figured that he probably needed to start training there if he was serious. He made the drive at the end of each week to work their Friday night shows, which were full of other students. In short order, he noticed he was progressing a lot quicker working with a more experienced set of trainers and felt like the time was right to make a more permanent move.
“Eventually I just realized I needed to come up and train so I moved closer to there,” said Henry. “I moved to Athens, about an hour away. So I’d make the trip up to the school every week and train up there.”
It didn’t take too long for Henry to start working the Saturday night TV tapings for NWA Wildside. His first match was a tag match with Terry Diamond as his partner against Iceberg and Tank, one of the more established independent tag teams in Georgia. After just a few weeks of training regularly under the tutelage of Wildside trainers Todd Sexton and Sal Rinauro, 18-year old Henry was wrestling on TV.
“I feel like you’re not necessarily ever ready until you’re ready; until you’re there. I definitely had some growing to do,” said Henry. “The path I ended up taking, it took me several years for me to kind of grow. I don’t necessarily just mean as a performer, just as a person, just becoming wiser and more mature and things like that.”
Wildside was fun, and Henry felt he was growing as a wrestler and as a person, but something else caught his eye in late 2004. In much the same way he discovered ECW, Henry found MMA on TV one night and fell in love with the sport. By 2005 he was out of wrestling entirely.
“I actually stopped wrestling for a few years in early 2005, took a couple years off and that’s when I really got into the MMA stuff,” said Henry. “That’s all I did. I didn’t even watch pro wrestling for those years that I was out.“
Henry dove head first into learning jiu-jitsu and eventually had two professional MMA fights in his hometown, winning both via submission. After going back to college though, Henry stumbled across wrestling on TV one night in 2008 and noticed that things had changed – for the better.
“I just kind of randomly came across some Low Ki matches or something or maybe it was ROH. I was just liking what I saw in terms of there was a lot of MMA being introduced into it and the style was a little bit different than when I had left as funny as that sounds, it only being a few years,” said Henry.
Even though he was focused on school, Henry got the itch to get back into the ring again and sought out an old friend to help him out.
“I contacted Sugar Dunkerton, he’s also from Augusta, and also was at the training school when I first started and he was going to a show in North Carolina. I tagged along with him and I ended up getting used,” said Henry. “I think I wrestled Simon Sermon in my little Tapout shorts.”
That first match led to Henry getting regular bookings with a couple of NWA-affiliated promotions in Georgia. In late 2009, Henry found gold around his waist for the first time when he won the Alternative Pro Wrestling North Georgia Title. Over the course of the next 18 months, he went on to win multiple titles with various promotions. He also continued to finish off his college education, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s in Public Health.
While working nearly full-time as a personal trainer in Augusta, Henry is working on his Master’s Degree in Public Health. His current trajectory in the pro wrestling world shows signs of a bright, well-paying future, but Henry is preparing for a future without it. Just in case.
“Wrestling is wrestling. It doesn’t owe me anything and who knows what will come of it. Obviously, we always hope for the best but I’m not getting any younger, it’s always a best bet to go ahead and make sure that you have yourself lined up to do something else out of it because you never know what could happen,” said Henry.
Henry also has a family to think about. He has his daughter from a previous relationship and recently got engaged to Amber Young, his girlfriend of five years. Being able to properly provide for them now and years from now is far more important to Henry than any of the lofty goals he’s set for his wrestling career.
“Having a college education is probably a good step in the right direction. I don’t want to be struggling week to week, paycheck to paycheck,” said Henry. “I want to lay down the foundation for what’s going to be my future and hopefully wrestling is involved in that but if it isn’t, it’s going to be okay.”
When Henry first began pursuing his college education, he was still mostly working the local shows in Georgia. That’s changed dramatically over the last nine months though. He’s caught the attention of promoters everywhere after being involved in matches that got people talking – even if the fans originally had no idea who Henry was when his match started.
“That’s something that happened up in MCW, Maryland Championship Wrestling, when I wrestled Lio Rush. When I came out, people were like screaming at me, ‘who are you?’,” said Henry. “By the end of it though we got a standing ovation and then ‘please come back’ chants.”
Even with everything he’s got going on in his life, Henry knows that he’s got to take advantage of this situation now if he hopes to have a long-term payoff from it.
“I think as wrestlers, that’s important is to get out there and take your brand out to as many different markets as you can,” said Henry. “The more people know about you, the more buzz is surrounding your name, the more money you’re going to make, the more bookings you’re going to get, the more success you’re going to have.“
Walking into a venue for the first time can intimidating for even the savviest indie veteran, but Henry seems to enjoy the challenge of making sure the fans leave the arena talking about him and promoters don’t let him leave without talking about bringing him back.
“I understand that not everybody knows who I am. I understand that to some people I’m just popping up out of nowhere because you can’t be arrogant enough to believe that wrestling fans all tune into everything,” said Henry. “If anything I take it as a challenge when guys are like, “Who are you?” Well, we’ll find out after we’re done.”
As Henry’s profile has increased, so has the quality of the wrestlers he’s working with. In 2017 alone he’s wrestled Rush, Michael Elgin, Martin Stone, Matt Riddle, and Drew Galloway. Being in the ring with better wrestlers means more opportunity for Henry to prove that he’s ready for more.
“It’s awesome because I’m always in there with really talented guys and I think that goes a long way towards getting my name out there,” said Henry. “And because I’m working these guys, the likelihood we’re going to have a bad match is slim to none.”
The life of an independent wrestler doesn’t allow for complaining when things get hectic and despite all the other priorities in his life, Henry isn’t about to let his current momentum disappear anytime soon.
“A lot of people are saying that this is going to be my breakout year, that I’m the next indie darling or whatever you want to call it,” said Henry. “This year has just been crazy already and I’m thinking it’s probably going to get even crazier. I’m buckling myself in and I’m ready to be on the road, in a car, for a whole lot of time.”
Looking back at the last nine months of his career, Henry knows the buzz he’s enjoying now is the result of the hard work he’s put in over the years. The first time Henry really noticed just how much attention he was getting came when one of the best eyes for talent found room for him on one of his shows.
“I think the latest thing that has changed for me is the did I did with EVOLVE and Gabe (Sapolsky)and the Style Battle, all the WWN stuff that I’ve done has just exposed me to a little bit of a larger audience,” said Henry. “At first, Gabe, I think, was unsure about me, because I debuted at EVOLVE 70, which was kind of one of those one-off things. I think he kind of booked me because people had been mentioning him to me.”
Henry lost that match to Darby Allin, but managed to make a good enough impression that Sapolsky booked him again less than three months later. Multiple times.
“(Sapolsky) started up the Style Battle and he took over (Full Impact Pro) and I was booked for those things. I did some matches there that, I think, stood out and he was impressed by that,” said Henry. “The ultimate goal is to do more EVOLVE stuff and eventually get signed with them.”
Signing with EVOLVE would give Henry more opportunity to work under Sapolsky and alongside the talented roster that he’s built. In his limited interactions with him so far, he’s already learned a lot and seen his confidence grow by leaps and bounds.
“(Sapolsky) is very sure of what he wants and he has his mind set on what he wants and it’s detailed. I think that is great because it’s not always the case when you go to companies, they can be very vague about what they want in terms of the match, in terms of the angle and things like that,” said Henry. “He’s very descriptive about what he wants and he’s going to let you know whether he hates it or whether he loves it. He does give you tips here and there, but that’s not the main thing. It’s just the direction that he has for you and the encouragement that he gives you, I think helps out a lot.”
The process of going from being just some teenage kid doing five-star frog splashes off a picnic table with your buddies to being asked to work for the top indies in the United States doesn’t just happen. It requires dedication and a willingness to be constantly learning – something that suits Henry just fine.
“That’s always the goal, to continue to improve and just become the best professional wrestler that I can. As long as I continue on the path that I have been on before, in 2017 I think it’s going happen,” said Henry. “Just keep training, keep humble and always be a sponge. That’s what I’m trying to do man. I want to be on the next level. 2017 I think is going to be my year for that.”