Hulk Hogan could not hide the smile that crept beneath his platinum blond Fu Manchu moustache and dye-enhanced 5 o'clock shadow as his Hulkamaniacs welcomed him back to New York City.
It had been nearly 10 years since he had wrestled in Madison Square Garden, and he wasn't sure how he would be received. The Garden was hallowed ground to Hogan, the birthplace of "Hulkamania" — he wrestled for the first time as "Hulk Hogan" there, won his first world championship and headlined the inaugural Wrestlemania there in 1985.
Hours before his Garden return, Hogan had an autograph session at The World, the restaurant-club of World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation), and the line of fans logjammed pedestrians outside.
"I was kinda worried about how to handle the Garden, whether to play it safe, keep myself from getting hurt, conserve my energy," Hogan said. "I came here and saw these people, and they won't accept anything less than full-speed ahead. I mean, the energy level is there. It's a good thing I stopped by here to get a last-minute reality check because I was beginning to doubt myself."
The line began to grow the previous evening at around 8 p.m. and by 3 the next afternoon, it was gift-wrapping 44th Street near Times Square. Hogan's fans were decked out in red and yellow, the traditional wrestling colors of their hero — some wore T-shirts and bandanas while others flaunted red and yellow feather boas.
And as the doors opened, Hulkamaniacs young and old — and some Hulkamaniacal moms — could not contain their excitement and relief.
"Oh, thank God," said one mother as her bandana-wearing 6-year-old son gripped a plush Hulk Hogan doll made before he was born. "We've been waiting since 7 o'clock this morning."
However, as thrilled as his fans appeared, no one seemed more awestruck than Hogan himself. Two years ago, wrestling critics, some fans and even his own employers, the now-defunct former WWE rival promotion World Championship Wrestling, wrote him off as old and washed-up.
For Hogan, his return represents not only redemption and what he calls the "last great run" of his in-ring career. He is fulfilling a last wish of his father, Peter Bollea, who died this past December after a series of strokes.
"Oh, amen brother. It's more than redemption; it's purifying the soul," Hogan said. "It's not about money. It's about my career, it's about my father's last wish, it's about my livelihood."
The trademark adrenaline-charged Hogan schtick was nowhere to be found as he reflected on his return to the WWE after a nine-year absence. There were no catchphrases. No "Whatcha gonna do when Hulkamania runs wild on you?" or "Train, say your prayers, and eat your vitamins."
Instead he was Terry Bollea, 48-year-old aging wrestler with his wife of almost 20 years, Linda, and children Nicholas and Brooke in tow. With the exception of white sneakers, Hogan dressed entirely in black — jeans, T-shirt and a bandana covering his bald bronze scalp, with tufts of what remains of his platinum blond hair sticking out.