Writing about anything else in professional wrestling this week became a little less necessary once the Hulk Hogan story broke yesterday. That’s probably one of the more obvious statements you’ve ever read, since Hogan IS professional wrestling to at least a generation of mat enthusiasts and likely the most recognizable face ever in the business. Hogan has done what many before (and just about all since) have tried to do, which is to transcend the business that made him famous. In that regard, you can understand the quest. Unlike retired athletes in every sport who find their services in demand as commentators and pundits and the like, professional wrestling has always been tarred with the brush of fraudulence that prevents many in its ranks from matching, let alone eclipsing, their in-ring achievements with what inevitably comes next. Whether much of what Hogan has created in this transcendence is of any worth is perhaps debatable, but what is simply not open to conjecture is the influence he has exerted both inside and outside of a wrestling ring.
In essence, Hulk Hogan is pro wrestling at its core: which is to say, he is his own greatest advocate and detractor all at once. Hogan’s meteoric rise was brought about through a unique combination of his personal charisma and showmanship, coupled with the help of a couple of high-profile bookers who took it upon themselves to build his reputation to legendary status. He is beyond a central figure to World Wrestling Entertainment, as three generations of McMahons have utilized his star power to boost the company they run. That makes him an important figure in wrestling to say the least, certainly a face on any Mount Rushmore dreamt up by fans, but it also makes him the symbol of something that changed the industry. How you feel about that change is a personal issue, but from the time Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik until this day it became clear that style would forever trump substance in Titan Tower. You can imagine, then, how hard it is for the brass in Connecticut to defect from this strategy that has made them the billion-dollar corporation they are today. Hogan and WWE are a symbiotic relationship, each feeding into the other’s overwhelming ego to attempt to keep the cash flow steady.
For me, supporting Hogan during his heyday was like being a fan of respiration or bacon. Everyone likes it already, so what’s the point? His routine was stale and tired before it even had time to get stale and tired, but the company smartly retaliated against his lack of ability in the ring by pacing the match in a different manner. Hogan would invariably be beaten down before Hulking up and delivering the moves you knew were coming, and he continued to do just that over and over again before departing the WWE at the start of what would become The Monday Night Wars. The move seemed questionable for Hogan, in a way that might seem simple now. The WWE had built Hogan, after all, and attempting to recreate it all over again risked dismal failure. Except that recreating it all over again was exactly what had already worked for Hogan’s character for a decade plus. Defecting to WCW made national headlines and put Ted Turner’s company in a position to compete with their rival. Once the red and yellow had done their duty, Eric Bischoff smartly chose to do the unthinkable and send Hogan to the other side of the locker room as a surprise heel. That decision extended his relevance for another couple of years.
In some ways, Hogan playing a heel makes complete sense anyway. He’s a blowhard actor wannabe who crows about his multimedia appeal, while not producing that much of actual value. He’s a brute, bending wills and contracts in the locker room to prevent those with potentially more talent from achieving their ends. He’s a rampant egomaniac, thinking so much of the fictional character he helped create that only he can decide when to lose or not. I’m reminded of a story about Shari Lewis, the puppeteer who made Lambchop famous (Google it, I won’t mind). Lewis would actually purchase two seats on any plane she flew on for a show, one for her and one for her puppet. It seems affably eccentric and a little charming, but Lewis was demanding that the extension of her arm be treated as its own celebrity. It’s understandable, in a strange way: while Lewis was recognizable enough, it was her puppet that was the real star. When Hogan was pushed enough that the fans couldn’t help but get enough, his creation became its own wrestling Frankenstein. Certain losses would tarnish the “character.” Are you kidding? We’re not discussing a real person after all. Wrestling storylines have always thrived when reality is intermixed. Some of Hogan’s antics made sense given his reputation behind the scenes.
I won’t be discussing in this space whether Hogan is a racist or not. The reason for that is simple: I don’t know the man. Many of his celebrity friends have already made the rounds defending his honor from the unfortunate comments he made in the leaked tape, from George Foreman to Dennis Rodman, and all indicate he is not a racist. Given that Hogan has made a career performing, I’ll leave it to his friends and intimates to decide what’s in his heart and what isn’t. On a personal level, I firmly believe that you can say things in the moment that you may not believe to be true in your heart. People do it all the time. When that moment is during an intimate conversation with folks involved in another scandal involving a sex tape and the information is reported by the National Enquirer, well, now you’ve reached a level that I don’t even want to attempt. All of that said, it doesn’t make the dialogue less disgusting or the result less obvious. Hogan the superhero is a mere mortal like the rest of us, albeit one that appears to make a lot of really bad decisions when he’s not bodyslamming and legdropping.
Once this news surfaced, WWE quickly and immediately severed all ties with Hogan. That was without doubt the right thing to do. The ironic thing is that the two sides had just now reached a point where his latest return to his old stomping grounds was ready for significant development. From his role as a judge on Tough Enough to his open discussion about getting one more WrestleMania match, the sky appeared to be the limit for once again pushing forward wrestling’s most important relationship. In this day and age, no mainstream company can afford bad press of the kind a story like this brings with it. Hulk finally found the villain capable of defeating his beloved character. It was himself. Unlike his over-the-top New World Order heel, however, this true self was the kind that could do real damage to huge portions of the fanbase. No doubt Hogan will continue his apology tour, and forgiveness will be offered or not. But even in the hour of embarrassment and contrition, the spin doctor rears its ugly head. Hogan gracefully made the decision to let WWE remove him to protect the company, says his lawyer. Oh dear.
Hogan has to this point always been a necessary evil in wrestling. I can put him squarely in the category of things I acknowledge as important to the history of the sport I enjoy while simultaneously not liking in the least. Hogan’s mantra in the ’80s was a positive message, and he’s been a source of inspiration for plenty of people. He’s also been an extremely charitable individual, making tons of children throughout the world happy even before the social media era when everyone has become much more aware of such things. While none of that is taken away from remarks made, it’s all reduced. How can anyone who espouses such a positive message have such hate in their heart? The folks forced to grapple with that question are in my thoughts today. It’s not an issue for me, because I never bought into HH in the first place. Nothing about Hogan’s personality in the ring or out of it appealed to me, from his tearable T-shirts to his family-exploiting reality show to his all-too-frequent TMZ scandals. Most of it didn’t matter to me, either, to be fair. What a wrestler chooses to do outside of the squared circle is their choice, and the call to maintain one’s celebrity is a siren song that has caused many to dash upon the rocks over the years. But I didn’t miss Hogan as a wrestler either. Once the WCW days dried up, Hogan returned to the scene of crimes past, having an epic moment with his superior athletically and cinematically in The Rock after once more treading the trodden trail of days of future past with his nWo running buddies.
Thoughts of Hogan wrestling one more match filled me with dread, but at first it seemed I had nothing to worry about. Hogan was on a Legends contract, a gift bestowed by the Bank of McMahon wherein he could sell tickets overseas and push everything from the Network to merch without worry of getting in the ring, a good call given his medical issues and age. But you knew the cobra was lurking in the basket, poised to hear the first notes from the cash register flute before rising up to get into a match for old times’ sake. This year’s WrestleMania seemed like perhaps the appropriate hour, with just the opposition to be decided. It would have made for a Kodak moment, to be sure, but the end result would have been fluff. I’ve had more than enough of that to last me for quite some time.
Whether Hulk Hogan the character survives the damage done is a question that will only be answered in due time. Whether Hulk Hogan the man is more apologetic that his remarks surfaced or that he made them at all is one that perhaps never will be answered. Hogan is the central figure of a boom time in wrestling, someone that will always be intrinsic to the DNA of the business we enjoy. His time in that business, though, has passed. The sad fact is that when reviewing Hogan’s lengthy and impressive resume, one always senses an undercurrent of manic attempts to stay relevant, even when things have passed him by. Having him coach and score potential WWE wrestlers makes perfect sense, given that he’s acknowledged as one of the best in the business. Kicking him to the curb in front of those potential wrestlers makes even more sense. Hogan has had more moments in the sun than perhaps anyone else in the business. It’s time for the shade to set in. As his character’s own greatest steward, Hulk bears the greatest responsibility for its failure and success.
WWE has done their part correctly, addressing the issue and taking swift and appropriate action. Many times the bottom has fallen out and the olive branch has been extended. This time should be the death of the proverbial camel from the broken back. For all Hulk Hogan has done for the wrestling business, and all the moments he’s created for fans of it, he should be left out of it moving forward. His tale of unparalleled success should be a cautionary one. We are watching only characters, after all, fictitious constructs of creative types parsed together for our enjoyment. As unsettling as it may be at times, the truth and reality behind the armbands and microphone work can be the real horror. I’ve been done with Hulk Hogan the character for ten years now. I’m done with Hulk Hogan now.