Wrestling is important. It is not heresy; I will not recant. This modern metaphor of the “male-centric soap opera” is inane, inadequate, and furthermore, whoa: are you going to let TV Guide talk to you like that? The media that consumes you is important. It gives you language, community—it defines you. We are scary-ass primates. We were given a cold, floating rock with some animals and infectious diseases and we made websites where you can pay to view someone relieve themselves on another person because it provides momentary excitement of the anatomy that governs arousal. You could watch a fucking soap opera if you wanted to. You don’t need anyone’s permission. Don’t take that—don’t let someone dismiss and belittle what you like by fettering your interests with some bullshit false binary.
Wrestling lives the wet dream of every cirrhotic college drama professor. It’s the caveman that beat the astronaut—a complex performance art bred of combat athleticism and improvisational acting, whose esoteric inner language and politics belie its immense reach and accessibility. It’s everywhere. Literally everywhere.
Essential to its ubiquity is wrestling’s ability to tell the same sort of stories as theater or film, relayed in real-time and stripped down to the rawest of components–
And yeah: for all my talk about the intellectual might of wrestling’s ability to convey essential human stories, a lot of it does just come down to good vs evil, or, to be as Romans, Face vs Heel.
Don’t dismiss. Good vs evil is a reliable device because our cultural understanding of “good” does not align with our cultural practice of “good”. Good people fought for segregation. Good people murder doctors in churches. Good people look the other way. Every day.
There really isn’t any accountability process for being “good”. You just need a lot of people to like and approve of what you’re doing, even when it runs counter to your self-parroted principles.
Yes, Hulk Hogan. The Icon. The Immortal. The bad-tan baron who helped lead wrestling out of the territorial era and into national syndication. He is the blueprint for the classic babyface: ever dogged but undaunted, full of smiles, loves his country, cannot be defeated by conventional means. Affixed with crucifix and a date at the children’s hospital, Hulk Hogan instructed a generation of wrestling fans on the responsibilities of being an American. He was the first wrestler to successfully reach out to film, music and television—his appeal transformed our sport into an integral cog of pop culture.
He wasn’t very attractive—even if you liked men. He had the right physique and sold well enough in the ring but his (American) matches were slow, dull affairs to be endured. He takes a bunch of offense, and then he “Hulks out” at the end and defeats his opponents with the spirit of rock ‘n roll. He didn’t like to share. The image he maintained of himself required the cheapening of so many potential stars. He cared for nobody but himself and more than once all but destroyed the phenomenon he created because it couldn’t elevate him high enough.
We were permissive—of unearned title shots and winning matches by pinning your opponent’s god damn manager—and were perhaps prepared to be in perpetuity. Because he represented what we wanted out of American masculinity. Because he gave us a good vs evil we could believe in. Because he was good with kids.
When Hulk Hogan joined the nWo, the betrayal and outrage of the community—some genuine, some “kayfabe”—revitalized the sport, passing the momentum away from the stuffy suburbs of Connecticut to the American South. It catalyzed competition between WWF and WCW, making room for smaller niche promotions to sprout in the wake (and subsequently choke to death once WWF reasserted its grip).
I think we were all a little too grateful for what Hogan’s heel turn did for the sport to bring it up, then. And little too late as it may be, almost twenty years after the fact, but someone should say it.
Hulk Hogan was a ruthless bully. A prima donna preoccupied with his own star. A megalomaniac. He had always been a heel.
In 1984 Hulk Hogan chokes out Richard Belzer and busts his head open on television. For real. For no reason.
To promote their match at the inaugural WrestleMania, Mr. T and Hulk Hogan appeared on Richard Belzer’s show and, when challenged about the authenticity of wrestling, Hogan puts a man a third his size in a choke hold and then drops his head-first onto the floor.
Now: homophobia is boring, and it’s sad to lay eyes on old shame of someone who would go on to prolifically advocate for civil rights. But you don’t just lock some otherwise defenseless prick in a chokehold for calling you or your friend gay–even if you or your friend are gay. Verbal violence is still violence, and no person, gay or straight, should be denied the right (and let’s admit it to ourselves: pleasure) of bashing back. But context is not a myth. You don’t bring a gun to a knife fight and you don’t nearly kill a guy for getting a cheap laugh at your expense. You can spit in his face, you can clothesline him off a moving bicycle, but anytime you put your hands over someone’s air supply you are essentially committing Schroedginer’s Manslaughter. It’s not that bad.
It’s also not why we’re here. Hulk Hogan couldn’t give a cup of positive-testing piss about the plight of gays. He did this because Belzer was belting that “Wrestling is fake! La la la la!” song and dance. And fair, for sure, that shit is irritating. You put your body through all this pain and effort to get it to a place where you can body slam five hundred pound Frenchmen and you’re getting heckled by some talking head who doesn’t get it.
But the chin lock? A move widely recognized by the community as a “rest hold” (a spot in a match where both wrestlers can not move and take a breather but still look mean)?
Oh, you think movies are fake? How about I throw you onto this catering table, brother? You won’t think it’s so fake then!
It’s not the worst thing someone has done to defend the honor of wrestling’s “realness”, but when one considers that Hulk Hogan’s boss, Vince McMahon–who presumably arranged the media appearance, paid Belzer off and scrubbed any mention of the incident on his programs–was the first wrestling promoter to admit wrestling was fake, to avoid the authority of athletic commissions, it’s far and away from benign.
Hulk Hogan’s obsession with being the World Champion destroys his friendships, stunts the careers of others, and at times even angers his own fans.
The Immortal’s defining trait–in and out of character–is his pathological attraction to the status and allure of being the World Champion, by hook or by crook. If his leg drop of doom don’t get you, the blackmail and politics will.
Even in the comic book logic of pro wrestling, it’s hard to find fault with a guy who loves America and tells children to take their vitamins. Even after you give him the World Title; you get two, maybe three foreign-born massacre machines in before everyone just goes “fuck it, I’ll take my chances punching out the fat guy dressed like a sailor”.
This is where many creative teams might make the beeline to the proverbial glue factory. You can only ruin so many people’s careers with a no-selling spaghetti spokesman making them look weak and ineffective in the ring before you need to move on.
But not every creative team writes for Hulk Hogan. Instead: write a scene without him.
Give Andre The Giant, arguably the greatest wrestler of all time, a moment where for five fucking minutes you try to reward him for his long and arduous service to the sport and acknowledge that while he’s gotten too old and too slow to be the boy with the most cake, you and your audience still know he could probably kill anyone he wanted to and he hasn’t yet.
And then wait for Hulk Hogan to show up under guise of “congratulating his friend” and then completely usurp his friend and more-or-less mentor’s moment. Bada bing: book a classic “David & Goliath” match between a man who hasn’t lost a clean pinball defeat since 1981 against a has-been holding himself up on the ropes, slowly succumbing to acromelagy. Hogan takes full advantage of his youth, strength, and his distinct advantage of not being painfully afflicted with a growth disorder to win the match, deifying himself and overwriting the long and illustrious career of Andre with a three second highlight of him being body slammed. Hulk Hogan beat up a disabled guy and we sold it back to ourselves as the best match in the history of our sport.
So, some sympathy for the devil: Andre would win the belt in a rematch with the old “evil twin referee” switcheroo. He sells it to a guy who gets it stripped by another guy and now everyone’s gotta do a one-night tournament. You can’t just have your champion lose it in a hard-fought contest and train harder and regain his focus and win it back in a hella hyped rematch. This isn’t Vietnam. There are rules.
Hogan, bravely undeterred by his curse of making everyone hate him, needlessly interferes in the tournament finals, giving the victory and responsibility of babysitting Hogan’s broken ego to Macho Man Randy Savage.
Hogan, who won’t leave the goddamn ring to let Macho Man and Elizabeth celebrate his achievement, then shoehorns himself into Savage’s career as the tag team partner and friend who is always there. He convinces Savage to adopt his colors, deliberately eliminates him at the ’89 Royal Rumble, and then, ABANDONS HIM TO A 2-on-1 MID-MATCH to get some alone time with Savage’s girlfriend.
He fights for the rights of every man, except for when that man is his best friend, and except when that right is “to be left the fuck alone by Hulk Hogan so I can develop my own identity as a world champion.”
Anyway. Savage flips his shit. Hogan beats the dogfuck out of him at WrestleMania 5. Hogan wins.
Oh, and Hulk Hogan and his friend convince his friend’s girlfriend to strip in front of 90,000 people to temporarily distract their opponents, which include his last “friend” who he drove crazy with his ego.
And then after she is seen on camera trying to hide her face from embarrassment as GROWN MEN SCREAM AT HER AND TELL THE REF TO COVER HER UP–
HE AND HIS FRIEND HAVE THE MOST AWKWARDLY CHOREOGRAPHED HANDSHAKE OUTSIDE THE RING.
Hulk Hogan is the sorest loser in all of sports, real or fake.
In wrestling, we have a term: getting your heat back. This is when, after losing, you regain momentum, either by winning a more important match later, sneak attacking the person who beat you after the match is over, or cutting a great promo. Whatever it takes to re-establish yourself and your in-universe threat level. It’s how grown men (and women) with Doink the Clown action figures over-intellectualize the theme of “comeuppance”.
When Thunderlips is in the house, you best fish out the chronologist from your rolodex, because his rate of turnaround cannot be measured by mere mortals.
-on-purpose eliminating his tag partner Randy Savage from the ’89 Royal Rumble, Hogan was left to fight their rivals, Big Boss Man and Akeem, on his own. A lot of brawling ensues, but the Twin Towers, through that esoteric technique called teamwork, which is both legal and encouraged in an elimination free-for-all, eliminate Hogan from the match.
The future star of Mr. Nanny takes a moment to reflect on how it takes being put up against a corrupt police officer and a white man in blackface to establish him as a credible hero.
Sorry. A mistake: that’s my fanfic.
Hogan actually just grabs Boss Man and eliminates him from the match, despite no longer being a legal participant. And the officials just let it slide because it’s not worth the boss being videotaped cheating on his wife again because Terry Bollea can’t wait a week to no-sell all three or four moves Boss Man knows to do before kicking him in the throat.
He’s instrumental in illustrating another concept of wrestling insider-ism: canned heat. Wrestling promotions, specifically the WWF/E, are known to mix out boos and heckling of the characters booked as “fan favorites”, either through pumping in recordings of cheers at live events or just replacing the boos in post-production when the live event is re-released on DVD or online distribution.
Some say people cheered when Hogan was eliminated by Boss Man in ’89. But they definitely cheered in ’92 when he was eliminated by Sid Justice, who was also eliminated by Hulk Hogan immediately after despite Hogan being 1) the designated “good guy” and 2) no longer a legal fucking participant.
The context here is that while the ’89 Rumble wasn’t for anything, the ’92 Rumble was for–The World Championship, because, now say it with me: Hogan’s loss to a monster heel through spurious means required the belt be vacated and put up for grabs by anyone.
Sid Justice would challenge Hulk Hogan to a match at WrestleMania VIII. Hogan, insisting this was his retirement match, demanded that his match go last–where the World Championship Match usually goes–and that the title match between Ric Flair and–
wait for it
wait for it
MACHO MAN RANDY SAVAGE
would have to go on earlier in the show so as not to overshadow his supposed retirement.
Crowds hijacking wrestling events to boo “good guys” they don’t actually like is now more commonplace, most notably the ’14 Royal Rumble with Batista. But the discrepancy of the ’92 Rumble reveals a conspiracy–AN ACTUAL CONSPIRACY, NOT SOME STAFF WRITER AT KOTAKU GETTING LAID–to try and make us, the fans, and the greater wrestling community, believe against our better judgment that you or I might be alone in thinking Hulk Hogan is a bloated false god.
Hogan comes back next year, tells everyone the Champ is secretly 8 years old, calls the challenger one of the grossest and most offensive slurs and then practically steals the title and escapes to Japan.
After doing some movies and shit, Hogan comes back for WrestleMania IX, the first WrestleMania in WWF history to not feature him in the main event.Yet.
He teams up with Brutus The Barber Beefcake to take on Money Inc for the tag team titles. You might remember one half of Money Inc as Ted DiBiase, the guy Hogan cheated out of the world title at WrestleMania IV. A veritable wrestling legend with one of the solidest characters in the business, the Million Dollar Man could afford some fucking manners and realized that, as he grew older, his place was in helping develop the mid-card and younger talent. He understood that, while he was a better wrestler and better on the mic than Hulk Hogan ever was, he did not have the draw that he did, and frankly, his place was with the company in the long haul, creating soothing sustainable, while Mr. Three Ninjas was going to bounce the moment he was out of the main event picture and, in a gesture of immense grace, agreed to put on a good match with Hogan and Beefcake.
Sorry. That’s my fan fiction again.
Hogan (supposedly) (because it’s such a stretch to imagine) blackmailed Vince McMahon into giving him the world title at WreslteMania IX despite not being booked in the main event OR active on the roster in any meaningful way. He phones in what should have been a fucking tag team clinic against two of the greatest journeymen wrestlers in the sport and then cuts a promo–
Imagine if Charles Barkley told everyone that Michael Jordan’s favorite video game was Shaq Fu.
Also, imagine that Hulk Hogan then proceeds to call Bret Hart’s opponent, Yokuzuna, “the j-p” and says he’ll take on whoever wins.
One of those things happened IRL. Guess. No, go on. Guess.
Bret Hart, likely knocked off his game because now everyone believes he’s obsessed with the guy from Thunder In Paradise, loses the match to Yokozuna. Hogan, knowing that it’s now or whenever the next time Vince McMahon does something he doesn’t want people knowing he did happens, runs to ringside, checks on Bret, whose come down with a case of “FUCKING SALT IN MY EYE OH GOD WHY IS THIS YOUR GIMMICK” and then leaves him to blind man’s bluff his way to the back.
He beats Yokozuna in less than two minutes.
And then, after setting Bret Hart’s career back another year (he wouldn’t get the title back until WrestleMania X) and obliterating Yokozuna’s credibility as a monster heel champion, he goes over to Japan, where he tells the Japanese audience, people for whom he has demonstrated much esteem for, that the title belt that he has all but stolen is “just a toy”.
He makes no major appearances or title defenses as Champion until King of the Ring, where he loses it to Yokozuna–WHO IS FUCKING SAMOAN–in a ridiculously contrived ending. One of the commentators of that match? Randy Savage. Because the only way to win the Hulk Hogan game is to not play at all.
Why is this important?
Because wrestling is important. It presents to us the stories that we tell ourselves daily. What it means to be “good”. What it means to fight the odds. To be an American. There is no canonical tome of ethics for heroism. We define our heroes, or have them defined to us, through our support and our approval and the emotional investment we make in them.
If we accept Hulk Hogan is a “good guy”, then we have to accept that we, as a wrestling community, as an American society, see
slavish covetousness for material possessions which we don’t actually care for
an inability to abide by the rules we uphold when they are in turn applied to us in our times of failure
coercing women to being used as sexual objects without agency
being a fucking racist
refusing to acknowledge the error of our ways when crowds of people are literally booing at you for being a dick
as “virtuous” qualities.
When you allow media to consume you, when you call yourself a Whovian or run an X-Files fanzine, you silently condone any problematic or oppressive aspect of that media which you do not actively call out. When you do not call out the blatant racism of the Dr. Who fanbase’s dismissal of Martha as a companion, you condone it through inaction. When you write a listicle of 11 reasons Slapshot is your favorite sports movie but never address the casual homophobia within it, you condone it through inaction. I don’t make these rules. Those oppressed people who nurse the psychological wounds of their marginalization being made your entertainment, your identity, will never count you as one of them, or rather, as on their side. You can’t be neutral on a moving train. You can’t say you don’t have an opinion on a man of color being called a “j-p” on pay per view by the magnum opus of white masculinity.
That Hulk Hogan has been afforded the cultural permission to be a “good guy”, to be seen as a positive role model–THE MOTHER FUCKER HAD A CARTOON–in light of the reality that he’s actually an abusive egomaniac says a lot about us.
And it isn’t good.