Hulk Hogan has certainly had a significant fall from grace in recent years. The sex tape and released recordings of his horrible, racist feelings have done their damage to his reputation. Heck, in the world of wrestling alone, continued revelations of his backstage politics have done their fair share of damage. And generally speaking, the criticism against him is fair.
But if you’re a current fan of professional wrestling or have been a fan at any time since 1984, Hogan’s impact can’t be overstated. In the 1980s, Hogan was not only the most recognizable professional wrestler in the world but one of the most identifiable celebrities. At the time, he was easily the most popular wrestler of all-time. And while Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock later matched (if not even exceeded) Hogan’s popularity, Hogan’s run atop what is now the WWE was far longer.
That started 40 years ago.
On Jan. 23, 1984, Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik to become World Wrestling Federation champion. It was not only the first of what would be six championship runs but also the beginning of a craze known as Hulkamania.
Hogan’s initial run in the World Wrestling Federation began in 1979 under Vincent James McMahon. As one of the top heels on the card, he even fought Bob Backlund for the world title. In 1982, Hogan became part of one of Hollywood’s most popular movie series when he was Thunderlips in Rocky III.
While the appearance in a mainstream movie helped raise Hogan’s profile, McMahon did not want his talent doing that. As such, he released Hogan in 1981.
After his release, Hogan went to the AWA (American Wrestling Association). He started in the AWA as a heel, just as he was before his WWF release. But the fans cheered Hogan, leading to him becoming a babyface character.
Something else happened during Hogan’s AWA run. McMahon sold the WWF to his son, Vincent Kennedy McMahon. The younger McMahon had dramatically different views from his father. While his father disapproved of Hogan’s appearance in Rocky III so much that he released him, the younger McMahon saw the mainstream media attention as an asset.
And while Vincent J. McMahon adhered to the territory system, which made the WWF a company that operated almost exclusively in the Northeastern United States, Vincent K. McMahon had a different idea. He wanted the WWF to go national. To make that happen, he needed a star, someone who fans across the country could get behind and pay their money to see. In his eyes, that was Hogan.
Hogan returned to the World Wrestling Federation in late-1983 and quickly established himself as a babyface. Also in late-1983, the Iron Sheik defeated Backlund to become the WWF Champion.
On Jan. 23, 1984, Backlund was set to have a rematch against the Iron Sheik at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Only, in storyline, Backlund could not compete. Prior to winning the championship from him, the Iron Sheik attacked Backlund, injuring him. That injury led to Backlund losing the championship to the Iron Sheik in the subsequent title match. But while Backlund couldn’t fight at Madison Square Garden, the Iron Sheik would still be defending his title. Hogan would be his opponent.
The match lasted only a little more than five minutes, but a lot happened in that time. A persistent Hogan trait, even when wrestling as the ultimate babyface, is that he would frequently use heel-ish tactics in matches. He did that here, attacking the Iron Sheik from behind as soon as the bell rang. While it was certainly legal, attacking an opponent — who still has his robe on — from behind is something you’ll see from heels far more than babyfaces, especially do-gooder babyfaces like Hogan.
The opening minutes belonged to the Hulkster, as the Iron Sheik couldn’t even manage an offensive move. But just over two minutes into the match, Hogan charged the champion, who was staggered in the corner. The Iron Sheik moved, Hogan crashed into the turnbuckle and fell to the ground. Now, it was the Sheik’s turn to pick apart the bigger, stronger challenger.
For the next few minutes, Hogan got the worse of things. He did, however, get a chance to show his immense strength by powering out of the Boston Crab, a submission hold. But Hogan was still down after powering out of the Boston Crab. The Iron Sheik tried to put the match away. He first suplexed Hogan, then went for a pin. After Hogan got a shoulder up, the Iron Sheik got back on his feet and went back on offense.
The champion kicked Hogan twice in the back before going for the Camel Clutch, his signature submission hold which not only defeated Backlund but was to that point, had been inescapable. Hogan again powered up. In something of a precursor to “Hulking up,” Hogan ran backwards, with the Iron Sheik still on his back, into the turnbuckle.
The champion lost his grip on Hogan and staggered before falling in the middle of the ring. Seeing this, Hogan immediately went his his finishing move, the Atomic Legdrop. After hitting his finisher, Hogan pinned his opponent. The three-count triggered a loud pop from the Madison Square Garden faithful.
If there was any doubt before, it was now gone. Hogan was the promotion’s flag-bearer.
The reason that the Iron Sheik defeated Backlund was that McMahon didn’t want Hogan to defeat another babyface. Those matchups would become more common in the future, notably with Hogan’s bout against The Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania VI in 1990. But at the time, a babyface needed to beat a heel, especially to become champion. So, between Backlund and Hogan, McMahon needed a transitional champion. That was the Iron Sheik.
While the Iron Sheik was a transitional champion, Hogan was anything but. His initial reign lasted for more than four years.
Hogan’s title run included the first Wrestlemania, held at Madison Square Garden on March 31, 1985. It was later revealed that McMahon told his wrestlers the company would not survive if Wrestlemania was a flop. With Hogan leading the company and pop stars like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper playing big roles at the event, it was a huge success. Two years later, Hogan’s match against Andre the Giant headlined Wrestlemania III, selling out the massive Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan.
How popular was Hogan? In 1994, he signed with the WWF’s rival, World Championship Wrestling. Hogan’s popularity had diminished before he left the WWF the previous year and he was generally not received particularly well as a babyface by WCW’s fans.
Still, in 1996, when Hogan joined the heel New World Order stable, it was shocking. The move was controversial, with some viewers even demanding WCW make Hogan a babyface again. But ultimately, the buzz generated by the controversial move helped trigger the wrestling boom of the late-1990s.
There are plenty of good reasons to not like Hogan today and to feel that he should not be celebrated. But there’s no denying his importance to professional wrestling. There’s also no denying how much of that importance was triggered by what happened 40 years ago at Madison Square Garden.
[Photo Credit: WWE on YouTube]