Former pro wrestler reflects on 21-year career

Submitted photoMark Canterbury (standing) and Dennis Knight strike a pose as “The Godwinns,” a well-known professional wrestling tag team. The two later paired up again as wrestling’s “Southern Justice,” the bodyguards of Tennessee Lee. Canterbury started his 21-year pro career billed as “Mean” Mark Canterbury, soon forming a tag team with Knight. The two men moved on to Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, where the late Dusty Rhodes recommended that Canterbury — having adopted the ring name Shanghai Pierce — wear a mask to enhance his appeal as a member of a “heel” (villainous) tag team.

A popular World War I era song poses the question, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”

Former professional wrestler Mark Canterbury could turn that song on its head — not to mention its singer — now that he is comfortably settled on a 10-acre mini-farm in Monroe County, where he plans to raise hogs and chickens and, he says, “get back to the way it used to be.”

Born in Washington, D.C., to Billy Bob and Jeanette Dixon Canterbury and educated in Virginia, the retired wrestler has fond memories of working on his grandparents’ farm in West Virginia during his childhood summers.

“My grandparents were hard-working Appalachian people,” he says proudly. He also speaks with pride of his late father’s stint as Monroe County sheriff in the early 1960s.

Wrestling professionally under the names Shanghai Pierce and Henry O. Godwinn, the still-muscular 6-foot-4 Canterbury undeniably enjoyed his years in the ring.

“I always loved wrestling,” he says, noting that he started out as a high school wrestler long before getting into the entertainment end of the sport as a pro. While attending high school in Virginia, he placed 13th in the state in his division. “I loved that kind of wrestling too — one on one,” Canterbury adds.

“I had scholarship offers from WVU and Virginia Tech, but I turned them down,” he says. “Instead, I worked at Princeton Community Hospital.”

His first pro wrestling match was staged in 1989 in the since-demolished Union High School in the county where he now makes his home. “It’s ironic that it starts there and ends there,” he says, noting that in many ways his life has come full circle with his return to Monroe County.

• • •

Canterbury started his 21-year pro career billed as “Mean” Mark Canterbury, soon forming a tag team with Dennis Knight. The two men moved on to Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, where the late Dusty Rhodes recommended that Canterbury — having adopted the ring name Shanghai Pierce — wear a mask to enhance his appeal as a member of a “heel” (villainous) tag team.

“I had a baby face, so Dusty Rhodes put a hood on me,” Canterbury says with a laugh.

Even though Canterbury moved on to the World Wrestling Federation a couple of years later, he says he kept in touch with the legendary Rhodes, who passed away in June of this year.

“He gave me and my partner our first job (in wrestling),” Canterbury says. “He was always a big part of my life. He was a good fellow.”

In the WWF, Canterbury took on the persona of Henry O. Godwinn and was given the gimmick of being an Arkansas pig farmer who carried a bucket of slop into the ring to throw onto opponents. He kept that character when, in 1996, he was reunited with Knight, who took on the ring name of Phineas I. Godwinn, Henry’s “cousin.”

While wrestling in 1997 against another well-known tag team — The Legion of Doom — Canterbury suffered a cracked C7 vertebra. Although he continued to wrestle, that injury led to a herniation of the vertebra, a pinched spinal nerve and spinal fusion surgery, effectively signaling the end of his career.

“The doctor said it was a clean break,” Canterbury says of the initial injury. “He told me to lay around for 10 weeks and ice it. But six weeks went by, and I was back on the road, lifting weights and getting back in the ring too soon. I wrestled for seven weeks with a broken neck.”

While the broken neck obviously ranks as Canterbury’s most serious ring-related injury, he mentions that he’s suffered others as well.

“I had my teeth knocked out in California,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “There are pieces of me everywhere.”

He freely acknowledges that professional wrestling is entertainment, staged for an enthusiastic audience, but points out that the resulting aches and pains are quite real, as is the risk of serious damage.

“We’ve actually had people (compete) in the ring that thought it wasn’t real at first,” Canterbury says, noting that a single match usually clears up that misperception.

“They come out of the ring with a whole new perspective,” he grins.

• • •

Canterbury’s pro wrestling career offered him the chance to see the world and meet celebrities, as well as to win acclaim from fans, along with victories and awards in the ring.

Highlights of that career, according to Canterbury’s reckoning, include winning world tag team belts in Madison Square Garden and participating in four days of activities at Fanfare in Nashville, where he performed in a video with country music artist and comedian Cledus T. Judd. He had his picture taken with country music legends Charlie Daniels and Willie Nelson — two of Canterbury’s heroes.

He wrestled in every state in the U.S. except South Dakota and Hawaii, and internationally in Germany, England, South Africa, the Middle East and more. European audiences were among the most receptive to the pro wrestling show, he says.

“We were a big part of their entertainment,” he says. “There’s not as much competition from other (activities) for their attention over there. It was like the circus was coming to town when we rolled in.”

The pro wrestling circuit also has its downside.

“It’s rough in many ways,” Canterbury says. “We’re not seasonal — one year I was on the road 302 days. We sacrifice a lot. We miss a lot, like our kids’ ballgames and birthdays. We’re just gone from our families too much.”

Canterbury says wrestlers tend to form close friendships with each other because they’re thrown together all the time on the road. Even with those friendships, it can be an impersonal existence.

“You’re just a piece of meat put out there in the ring,” he says, with more resignation than bitterness in his voice. “It’s best to build a house and save your money, because there’s no retirement, nothing to look forward to otherwise.”

• • •

Canterbury, now 51 years old, has also seen his share of both success and heartache outside the ring.

Speaking about the childhood of his two sons, Shane and Jordan, Canterbury says, “They were both good boys.”

Shane, a 29-year-old who shares his father’s athletic prowess and physical stature, played Arena Football in Knoxville and wrestled professionally for a short time in Tampa, Fla., before deciding “it wasn’t the right time for him,” Canterbury says. Shane now works as a personal trainer and licensed massage therapist, obtaining a psychology degree that can be put to good use in both professions.

Canterbury’s younger son, Jordan, died tragically 12 years ago at the age of 14, when he was accidentally shot by a friend. Canterbury bears a photo-clear likeness of the son he calls “Jordy” tattooed over his heart.

Just a couple of months after Jordan’s 2003 death in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Canterbury suffered another blow when his father passed away two days after Christmas.

The following year, Canterbury returned to live in Monroe County.

“Mom wanted to move back here when Dad died,” he explains. “I had to come back home. There’s nothing like coming home.”

Life has been much different for the former wrestler in recent years. He has devoted himself to the care of his mother, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and now lives in a White Sulphur Springs residential care facility.

“Her mind’s still good,” Canterbury is quick to point out. “She’s tough,” he adds with obvious admiration.

She’s also grateful that her son is still around to lend support. Just five years ago, Canterbury escaped a close call in a traffic accident that left him with a pair of punctured lungs, a broken leg and 13 broken ribs.

“I died twice,” Canterbury says of the Nov. 9, 2011, accident.

It happened on a country road in Monroe County when Canterbury’s pickup truck encountered “two cars racing — one passing the other” as he rounded a blind curve.

“It was around 8 (p.m.), already dark, when you get that November mist settling down on the road,” he recalls. “I just didn’t have anywhere to go. I veered, overcorrected, and (the truck) flipped four times. By the time it quit flipping, I was pinned in my truck, and that’s what saved my life.”

He explains that the way he was crushed inside the vehicle put enough pressure on the trunk of his body below his heart to cut off the blood supply to the femoral artery the accident had severed. Without that pressure, he says, he undoubtedly would have bled out there on the side of the road.

“God was definitely riding shotgun with me that night,” Canterbury says.

Emergency responders cut him out of his vehicle, stabilized him well enough to move and got him to a helicopter at Lindside, which flew him on to a trauma center in Roanoke, Va.

A lengthy recuperation followed, but Canterbury had much to live for as he battled back from the devastating injuries. He’d found love in the hills of West Virginia, and he and his wife, Tracey — who works in the office of the United Technologies Corporation’s Union plant — tied the knot in September of 2013.

Canterbury is looking toward the future in other ways as well, saying he feels he has something to share with the youth of today. “I’d like to visit some schools — do talks on things like gun safety and drugs,” he says. “I saw plenty of drugs when I was on the road — some really tragic stuff.”

He also says he “would love” to get a scholastic wrestling team together at James Monroe High School. “It’s such a good sport,” Canterbury says. “And the key to success is starting early.”

One way or another, the former pro wrestler is determined to make a difference in his community.

“It feels like I’m finishing up where I started out,” he says. “My life is coming full circle now.”

—E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com

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