Like religion, a sport is founded on the adoration of its faithful. We all have heard enthusiasts describe football or basketball as their religion and a certain stadium as their place of worship. Both sports and religion are value systems that influence the emotional state of their adherents or fans, and ritual and practice are key elements of both. So it’s no surprise that professional wrestling, whose dramatic nature makes the parallels even more apparent, has been studied by religious scholars. But if the sports-as-religion metaphor is accurate, then who is god in the professional wrestling world? While numerous potential candidates exist among the pantheon of wrestling superstars, one name shines a little brighter: Hulk Hogan. Above and beyond his wrestling prowess, Hogan has a unique legacy that’s saturated in symbolism resembling religious worship. Though he was wrestling’s biggest star in the 1980s, it wasn’t until March 17, 2002, at Wrestlemania 18, that Hogan would secure his place at the top of Mount Olympus. Wrestlemania 18 would be day of his apotheosis.
During the 1980s and early 1990s Hulk Hogan was wrestling’s ultimate good guy, wrapped in patriotic imagery and always admonishing the children to “say their prayers and eat their vitamins.” He was a physical manifestation of all the virtues one would expect from a “real American” and seemed to derive his godlike powers from his personal link with fans, a phenomenon which he dubbed “Hulkamania.” Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, always commented in interviews about the strange, almost magical connection between him and his fans, the Hulkamaniacs, which allowed him to use their strength and support when it looked as though he would be beaten. This ability, appropriately enough, he called Hulking up or Hulking out. The religious overtones of this are clear: Hogan’s fan-fueled strength evinced the power of their belief in him. He was able to transform their faith into tangible results in the ring.
Though these traits allowed Hogan to secure a near uncontested place in wrestling history, they were not enough for deification. Despite his unparalleled success, the late 1990s damaged Hogan’s legacy. His movies (No Holds Barred, Suburban Commando), while successful, were not films for the ages. His TV show, Thunder in Paradise, had been canceled and concern over steroid use had tarnished his image. Hogan ended up leaving the WWE for Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, where he tried to maintain his image as the good guy but never achieved the same connection with WCW fans. Eventually he was made a bad guy, or heel, and a founding member of the nWo (the “New World Order”), an infamous wrestling stable, which eventually would take over the WCW. As Hollywood Hogan, the name he adopted for several years, he would become one of the most hated (i.e., most successful) heels in wrestling. But after some troubling disputes with WCW management, including a (possibly staged) incident at Bash at the Beach 2000 where he engaged in an argument with WCW booker Vince Russo, Hogan terminated his contract and left wrestling on a sour note.
But Hogan would return to wrestling in 2002 after a two-year absence. The WWE had survived WCW’s challenge by purchasing the rival and slowly integrating WCW products and themes into its own storylines. One of these products was the nWo. According to the story, Vince McMahon decided to bring the nWo into the WWE so as to poison it from the inside. Founding members Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Hulk Hogan all returned to the WWE at the pay-per-view No Way Out event on February 17, 2002. Despite a warm reception from the fans, the trio made its impact by insulting fan-favorite the Rock and attacking Stone Cold Steve Austin and depriving him of the title. After a month of attacking other wrestlers and making his presence felt, Hogan was soon challenged by the Rock to a match in Wrestlemania, the largest and most important event in pro wrestling. This match would be the key to Hogan’s triumphant return as the hero and secure his immortality.
Dubbed the “Showcase of the Immortals” Wrestlemania is symbolic of the highest peak in professional wrestling. For the first decade of its existence, Wrestlemania was Hogan’s pay-per-view. Of the first nine Wrestlemanias he was in the main event of eight and on March 29, 1987, he made history when he body-slammed the 400-pound Andre the Giant. If Hogan was a demigod whose powers were built on the faith of his followers, then Wrestlemania was his church, in which he was at his most powerful. (The only Wrestlemania in which he had ever been defeated was Wrestlemania 6, against the Ultimate Warrior). But on March 17, 2002, Hogan would return to the event that made him famous, after more then eight years as the bad guy, against the popular People’s Champion, the Rock. Color commentator Jerry “the King” Lawler observed that while we would never be able to watch Tyson vs. Ali or Babe Ruth vs. Barry Bonds, Hulk Hogan vs. the Rock, one of only a few to rival Hogan in terms of popularity, was actually going to take place.
The Rock seemed to be walking into the Skydome as the fan favorite. Still, as Hogan’s music played, the ovation was impressive. Despite the numerous signs held up by the Rock’s fans, Hogan had a powerful entrance. At the onset of their match, the two stepped forward and eyeballed each other while commentators discussed the significance of these two icons going head to head. Fans seemed equally divided. As tensions rose and the two stared at each other and then back at the audience, the cheers for Hogan battled with the cheers for the Rock. It seemed everyone in the house was screaming, and finally the two circled each other and locked up. They grappled for a few seconds, highlighting their strength, each maneuvering for position. Then with a massive heave of force, Hogan threw the Rock across the ring. As the Rock stared dumbfounded, Hogan flexed his muscles and posed for the fans.
That moment, the momentum shifted; fans began cheering for Hogan. The fanaticism of the crowd was crucial. A self-perpetuating energy gained momentum among them. Fans who were initially supporters of the Rock or were only lukewarm about Hogan’s return suddenly were pulled in by the overwhelming atmosphere of the moment. Personal feelings were ignored, as many fans were suddenly kids again, caught up in Hogan’s charisma. Hogan continued to get the better of their next two exchanges, pummeling the Rock. Finally Rock exploded off the ropes and caught Hogan with a clothesline. Hogan tumbled to the ground; a huge cheer for the Rock rose and died very suddenly, replaced instead by a massive chorus of boos. The rest of the match was to go that way. While the Rock still received some cheers, the fans had clearly turned to Hogan’s corner. Every time the Rock got the better of Hogan, resulting cries of outrage filled the Skydome. Conversely, every time Hogan successfully hurt the challenger, fans cheered fanatically.
Then the match came to a triumphant climax. After a rock bottom, the Rock’s signature finishing move, he went to pin Hogan. On two Hogan kicked out and suddenly began freaking out. Hogan, seemingly filled with an unstoppable energy, was Hulking out. As a bad guy, Hogan had never Hulked out. Fans have spoken about the power of this moment. Hogan had not Hulked out in years and many recalled suddenly being kids again, watching Hogan come back from the brink of defeat through the sheer power of his fans’ belief. The Rock could not believe it as punch after punch failed to have any discernable effect. Hogan went for his finishing move, the big boot followed by the leg drop, the very move that had defeated Andre the Giant. But the Rock also kicked out at two and then was able to come back. He rock-bottomed Hogan twice and then landed his other signature move, the people’s elbow, and was able to win the match.
The Rock posed following his victory as Hogan slowly got to his feet. Hogan stepped forward and offered the Rock his hand, which The Rock shook. When Hogan’s fellow nWo members, Hall and Nash, rushed to the ring to attack him for this apostasy, the Rock came to Hogan’s rescue. Then The Rock convinced Hogan to pose for the fans the way he had done so many years before and the two left the ring to a strong ovation.
Hogan, The Rock and even the commentators were shocked at the overwhelming reaction during the fight. The cheers and outpouring of emotion, the fanatical energy, were all reminiscent of a Christian revival, where the participants were brought to a frenzied state of adoration. When Hogan hulked out, it symbolized his charismatic reconnection with his flock and reignited Hulkamania. The fans were able to ignore Hogan’s years with the nWo and the ignominious way he had left professional wrestling and instead tap into the mythology that had made him a hero. His sins had been forgiven. The villainous Hollywood Hulk Hogan was dead and all that left was the hero returning to his seat of power, Wrestlemania, after nine long years in the desert.
Then why, you might ask, if the moment was meant to signify Hogan’s triumphant return, did he lose? It was a necessary sacrifice, a Christlike surrender on the altar of immortality, his crucifixion moment from which he could be reborn. His defeat also was the perfect pretext for his show of respect for the Rock, which led to the attack by his old friends and Hogan’s opportunity to transcend that milieu.
After Wrestlemania 18, Hogan spent the next months capitalizing on his triumphant return as a face. He battled superstars like Triple H, the Undertaker, and Kurt Angle, and even regained the WWE World Championship. He did not always win, but even in defeat he was a fan favorite whose support was no longer based on his successes in the ring. Eventually he scaled down his participation in wrestling but every time he makes an appearance he receives an unparalleled ovation. When he was inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame the resulting ovation lasted almost 10 minutes, with many in the audience moved to tears.
When compared to wrestlers like Bret Hart or Kurt Angle, Hogan was not the greatest athlete to enter the ring. Compared to superstars like the Undertaker and Mick Foley, his character was not the most dynamic or complex. Yet the quasi-religious symbolism Hogan managed to drape himself with served him well throughout his career and allowed him to be reborn well after his fame may have seemed irretrievable. A sign a fan held up during his monumental match with the Rock neatly sums up his place in professional wrestling: “Hogan is God!”
Wrestlemania 18 The Rock vs Hollywood Hogan