Before fans were smelling what The Rock was cooking at wrestling shows and on the big screen, before Stone Cold Steve Austin made the middle finger a sign of endearment, Hogan was the first wrestling megastar with crossover appeal. With Vince McMahon, he made the then-WWF a household name, helping launch Wrestlemania, the WWE's biggest annual show of the year, in 1985, making several late-night and morning show appearances, becoming the first professional wrestler to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated and appearing in several less-than-successful movies.
Hogan had arguably paved the way for the success of The Rock, Austin and others, and his father thought that his son's 24 years in the business deserved a better ending. And they both believed the only fitting ending could happen in the place of Hogan's greatest success.
"I want to be remembered as the guy who slammed Andre the Giant [at Wrestlemania III in 1987]," Hogan said. "I don't want to be remembered as the guy Vince Russo fired. I don't want to be remembered like that."
After his father died, Hogan started negotiating his return with McMahon. He returned as a "heel" — a wrestling villain — in March, starting a rivalry with the WWE's greatest "babyface," or hero, The Rock — and headlining Wrestlemania X8 in a match at the Toronto SkyDome with The Scorpion King star in front of 68,237 fans.
Hogan lost the match — but he was still the winner. Though Hogan was a heel, fans cheered his every move that night and booed The Rock, chanting "Rocky sucks!" repeatedly. The fans welcomed Hogan back and turned him back into a babyface, surprising him and his family. They also extinguished any doubt he had about his legacy and began to help him pay tribute to his father.
"I knew there was something special between me and The Rock, whatever that is," Hogan said. "Then we get to Wrestlemania and 70,000 are cheering for Hogan. It just blew our minds. It's just been unbelievable ever since."
The ovations for Hogan have continued as fans have filled arenas nationwide, some seeing him at live shows for the first time while others watch him for what they think will be the last time. Is nostalgia fueling this rebirth of Hulkamania?
"I think it's an out of sight, out of mind kind of thing," said The Phantom, host of the weekly radio show Get in the Ring, who requested that his identity remain anonymous. "He'd been out of the public eye for such a long time, the fervor for his return was that much more. And the fact that he's returned to the place where he first got famous helps. So much for those Internet fans who criticized Hogan the most yet cheer for him the loudest these days."
Much has changed since Hogan was last in the WWE. The curtain has been pulled back on professional wrestling. The industry openly admits that the outcome of its matches are scripted, and wrestlers are more open about their background and private lives. Back then, between 1984 and 1993, Hogan was the face of the WWE — the only star who could fill the arenas and likely to appear in the mass media. And he won practically all the time.
Today, Hogan is a wrestling legend but is considered a star among many WWE stars. He is not in main events all the time. Several surgeries on his left knee have slowed him down in the ring and forced him to wear a brace, even though he jokes, "My knee is the best damn thing on me nowadays."