(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: The Rock vs. “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan – WrestleMania X8 (2002)
Some wrestling matches are iconic because of the story leading up to the match. Others are remembered for creating groundbreaking moments. Others still are famous for having amazing bell-to-bell wrestling. And then there are matches that are famous because of the names involved and their ability to control a crowd.
Today we revisit perhaps the best example of the latter. By no means is this a 5-star classic in terms of in-ring quality. But this was never intended to be such a match. This is, by its very nature, a match built on ‘creating moments’ and being the wrestling equivalent of fanservice.
It’s time to look back at the legendary ‘legend vs. icon’ match between Hulk Hogan and The Rock from WrestleMania X8.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. In this case, I’m going with a match that was rated poorly by Meltzer but still is still remembered fondly by many fans around the world. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash – the New World Order – didn’t join WWE until after the Invasion storyline had run its course. With WWE the unquestioned king of the American wrestling landscape, WWE decided to bring in icons of the Monday Night Wars at a time when they were no longer a threat to WWE’s position in the market.
And so, the NWO arrived in WWE and received a hero’s welcome. Hogan in particular was basically treated like a god because many people still had such strong feelings of nostalgia and appreciation for him.
As for the Rock, his feud with Hogan began as most rivalries do: with an under-the-collar remark. Hogan posed for a photo with the Rock for his son and mocked ‘the people’s taste’. And The Rock, being the Rock, ran them all down for their insults in one of his most famous short promos:
That was all the spark this feud needed to ignite. The NWO started attacking Rock and laying him out just like they did their various enemies in WCW. Eventually, it was announced that Hogan would face The Rock one-on-one at WrestleMania in what was billed as one of the biggest intergenerational matches ever. Hogan – the biggest star of the 1980s and one of the top stars of the 1990s – vs. the Rock – a legend whose explosive rise to the top may never be replicated ever again – in singles competition. That was enough to completely sell out Toronto’s SkyDome and lead to one of the most memorable matches of the past twenty years.
Before we go to the match itself, I want point out a few key things about this match. First, the widespread rumor at the time was that this was supposed to be Hogan vs. Steve Austin. That was the other (and most likely bigger) dream match people wanted to see since Austin was undeniably a bigger star than Rock during the same period. Sadly, that match never came to pass, possibly stemming from creative differences between Austin, Hogan, and WWE. So they settled with the next best thing, which was Hogan vs. Rock.
Secondly, Hogan was supposed to be the villain in this match. He was supposed to be seen as the ghost of WCW coming back to WWE to take it for himself and his friends and bring in the same evil that ran WCW to the ground. In other words, fans were supposed to boo Hogan. But WWE didn’t count on the fans (particularly those live in Toronto) reacting how they did. WWE didn’t realize that, for all of Hogan’s misdeeds in WCW, many fans still loved him. And by “loved him” I mean adored him.
This is a bit unrelated, but here’s a clip of Hogan appearing on the RAW after WrestleMania X8. The crowd response is so overwhelming that Hogan’s lip starts quivering and he’s trying to hold back tears:
Here’s another from a few months later of Hogan in Montreal after winning the WWE Championship:
Words cannot do justice to how beloved Hogan was back then. Both of these videos were edited for TV. The original segments were MUCH longer because the fans just would not stop cheering Hogan. He was given a standing ovation the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. And this wasn’t just a few seconds of cheering and then relative calm; fans that attended both events live described how Hogan received a godlike hero’s welcome for minutes on end. He was so overcome that he had tears in his eyes. These videos were basically smaller venue versions of the reaction Hogan would get at WrestleMania X8.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the match itself to see how well it holds up.
This match originally took place on March 17th, 2002, at WrestleMania X8. It was rated *** out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Yes, a meager three stars. Meanwhile, John Canton from right here on TJRWrestling rated it **** out of five. But let’s not kid ourselves here. No one tuned into this match to see Hogan using drop toeholds and scientific transitions (if you want to see Hogan do that, I have that here). After twenty years, let’s see how this iconic WrestleMania match holds up.
Hogan comes out first and instead of wearing the red and yellow of Hulkamania of old, he’s dressed in the black and white of the NWO. Before Rock comes in, the entire SkyDome is screaming Hogan’s name. And while Rock gets a nice pop as well, it doesn’t hold a candle to the sustained ‘Hogan’ chants that go on long after the bell rings.
They lock-up and Hogan pushes Rock backwards and gets a monstrous ovation. A simple push gets causes thousands of fans to lose their minds and scream. Hogan applies a headlock and Rock sends him into the ropes but Hogan knocks Rock down. He does his usual shtick and the crowd goes nuts again. Hogan lands some simple punches, sends Rock in the ropes, and hits an Ax Bomber lariat. On the next Irish whip, Rock ducks a clothesline and hits a flying forearm. He gets cheers but those are quickly drowned out by louder boos. He signals Hogan to ‘just bring it’ and is just showered with boos. Hogan shoves Rock and Rock shoves back. Rock hits a punch combo and Hogan tries going over the top rope but can’t anymore and rolls out of the ring instead. He attacks Hogan from behind and throws him back into the ring and hits more punches. Hogan counters an Irish whip and goes for a back body drop but Rock kicks him first and then lands a clothesline. The fans are booing Rock vociferously. Rock goes for a Rock Bottom. Hogan elbows out and the crowd changes to cheers on a dime. Hogan hits another punch followed by an elbow. He hits two elbow drops and teases a third one but changes course and rubs his boot in Rock’s face instead. That usually heelish move gets Hogan more loud cheers.
Hogan hits a corner clothesline and then botches a big boot. He sends Rock into the ropes but Rock tackles him and lands punches of his own. Rock goes for a clothesline. Hogan ducks and hits a back suplex for a two-count. He locks in an abdominal stretch and lands clubbing blows at the same time. Hogan with a roll-up. Rock kicks out at two. The fans cheer wildly as Hogan does a back rake, of all things. Hogan does the ten corner punches but stops at three and bites Rock’s forehead. Rock counters and hits back with chops. There’s more loud booing as Rock mocks Hogan’s ear cup taunt. Hogan reverses an Irish whip but runs into a back elbow. Rock charges…and runs into what looks like a chokeslam. Hogan chokes Rock some more and then chokes him with his wrist tape. Hogan goes for a punch but Rock blocks and hits a punch combo of his own. He winds up for a big one but Hogan dodges and sends Rock flying out to the floor.
Hogan smashes Rock into the ringsteps and then into the barricade. He starts dismantling one of the announce tables when Rock starts hitting back. The fans boo as rock grabs a chair. But the referee pulls it away from him. Hogan takes advantage with a clothesline. The crowd chants Hogan’s name as he tosses Rock back into the ring and as Rock hits back with more punches. Hogan reverses another Irish whip and sends Rock careening into the referee. Hogan hits more punches and goes for an Irish whip. Rock counters and lands a spinebuster. Both men go down. Rock locks in a sharpshooter. Hogan gets to the ropes but the referee’s down. Rock has no reason to let go and drags Hogan back away from the ropes. Hogan taps. But again, there’s no referee to end the match. Rock tries to revive the presumably-dead referee as a ghost from the past (the ‘Rocky sucks’ chant) emerges among the crowd. Rock tries to lift Hogan up. Hogan hits a low blow. The fans cheer wildly. Rock Bottom by Hogan.
The referee finally wakes up and counts. One…two…thr – no, Rock survives. Hogan pulls off his belt and starts whipping Rock with it. Hogan wraps the belt in his fist and sends Rock into the ropes. Rock ducks a punch and hits a DDT. Now Rock grabs the belt and whips Hogan with it as hard as he can. That’s followed by a Rock Bottom by The Rock. One, two – No, Hogan kicks out. He’s hulking up! 68,000 fans are jumping up and down, screaming at the top of their lungs. Hogan waves his finger and blocks a punch. Three punches from Hogan. Big boot. Atomic Leg Drop! One, two, and – NO, Rock kicks out! Hogan can’t believe it!
Hogan sends Rock into the ropes and hits another boot. He tries a second leg drop. Rock rolls away. Rock Bottom. The arena showers him in thunderous booing. But he hits a second Rock Bottom anyway and kips up. Suddenly the fans start cheering as he teases his second finisher. The People’s Elbow connects! One, two, and three! Rock pins Hogan!
Winner after 16:24: The Rock
Rock celebrates as he gets a modicum of applause from the audience. Rock’s music ends as Hogan makes it to his feet. The fans chant for Hogan once again. Hogan offers a handshake. After a tense moment, Rock accepts. The two legends shake hands. Hogan humbly steps aside to give Rock his moment.
Hogan is left selling for Rock in the ring when Hall & Nash arrive. They chastise Hogan for respecting The Rock and then attack him. Suddenly Rock comes back and saves Hogan! The crowd cheers even more. After a short celebration, Hogan goes to leave when Rock summons him back into the ring. Rock gives Hogan his moment to be himself with the fans. We get the classic Hogan routine and the crowd is going apeshit. This is basically fanservice as Hogan does this over and over. The cheers do not dissipate at all. Finally, Rock, humble as ever, parts the ropes for Hogan. The two legends walk up the entrance ramp in mutual respect and we then get the second-most iconic image from this contest: Hogan raising Rock’s hand in respect as Rock bows his head in humility.
How does one rate a match like that? Not by its athletic merits, that’s for sure. In terms of wrestling skill and technique, it was below average. Rock basically played the hits while Hogan could barely do anything. There was nothing fancy here; everything was so simplistic and easy here. Hell, with a makeshift ring or even a trampoline, anyone reading this could re-create this match move-for-move. If one were to listen to this match on mute (for whatever reason), it would definitely suck.
Instead, this match should be rated based on how well it tells its story and from the crowd reaction. And on that front, it was magical. This crowd loved Hogan to the point that he could do no wrong. Because of that, the rumor about the match change makes total sense. It was reported that Hogan ‘called an audible’ when he realized how the crowd was reacting. He and Rock had a completely different match planned out but Hogan basically called the match on the fly to create something better. That’s something that’s missing from today’s wrestling; everything is so micromanaged and controlled that spontaneity is discouraged and homogeneity among matches is strictly enforced.
Hogan did some outwardly villainous things like hit a low blow and used his wrist tape and belt as makeshift weapons and the crowd STILL cheered for him. He had so much goodwill with the fans and they showed their love and appreciation for him while Rock was quickly recast as this match’s villain. He played his part well and helped take this crowd noise to a new level. And by the end, the whole face/heel thing was forgotten anyway. The fans booed Rock during the match but cheered him when it was over. They might’ve hated the idea of him winning, but they begrudgingly admitted he was the better man once it was over (it also helped that the People’s Elbow was stupidly over).
Once Hall and Nash were dealt with and the post-match celebrations began, Rock was treated like Hogan’s equal. Hogan, for all the bad things he’s become known for, was the spitting image of sportsmanship on this night. He could’ve just walked out afterwards and left Rock to have his moment. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he went out of his way to tell the world The Rock was better than him and he took his loss like a man. Meanwhile the Rock was the spitting image of humility and respect once it was over. That’s one of the main reasons people respect the Rock to this day; he didn’t have that much of an ego and he wasn’t a braggart outside of his promos. He was humble and never let his success go to his head. That’s an incredibly rare thing to see in the egocentric world of professional wrestling.
And once again, the crowd is what made this match plus everything before and after it. They were unbelievable. They gave Hogan a standing ovation for a shove. Like I said earlier, Hogan was GOD on this night. He and Rock took fans on a magical journey here. The wrestlers made the fans forget about everything else and hypnotized them with one of the most over-the-top yet emotionally-satisfying matches in years if not decades.
Final Rating: ****
This match reminded me of the first match I ever reviewed for this series: Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk from 1981. The two matches were similar in one key way: both matches had very little action and variation but the crowd went nuts all the same. This match, like that earlier one, was all about emotion and giving the crowd what they wanted.
It also reminded me of another match famous for its crowd: this contest from back in 1992. It was way more athletic than this one but it, like this one, is remembered much more for its atmosphere than anything in the ring. This goes to show just how important crowds are to wrestling. Even though there have been some cases of great matches taking place in front of small, quiet, or non-existent crowds, nothing can compare to a match taking place in front of a rabid and emotionally-invested live audience.
There was never any doubt that anyone looking for excellent grappling wouldn’t find it here but that was never the point. This was all about the moment and the emotion. The wrestling was underwhelming, but the moments will last a lifetime. In fact, this match is perhaps more remembered for its pre- and post-match moments than the actual match. The first stare-down and the post-match celebrations are more iconic than anything that happened between the bells.
Maybe, just maybe, this match and the circumstances around it are why, to this very day, WWE books matches in order to create moments instead of high-quality matches. After twenty years, they’re still desperate to re-create the magic that took place here. It’s just too bad that no one has the guts to tell their top brass that they’re chasing a fever dream. Nothing they do now or will do in the future will ever lead to something as unique and memorable as this.
Thanks for reading.