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."
Stormy, Unscripted Wrestling Exile
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.
At the time of his father's death, Hogan had been away from the wrestling world for a year-and-a half following an ugly and public departure from WCW. After years of challenging — and for a time defeating — the WWE in TV ratings and the battle for mainstream media attention, the Time-Warner-AOL-owned WCW was decisively losing the ratings war with Vince McMahon-owned promotion.
The promotion was also losing money. Fingerpointing and infighting ensued and soon creative writers within WCW believed its older stars like Hogan — who had helped lead the organization to some victories in the ratings war after he left the WWE in 1993 — were to blame for the downfall.
During a pay-per-view event in July 2000, Hogan was scheduled for a championship match, but when he entered the ring, his opponent laid down on the mat and refused to wrestle. In a surreal event witnessed by a live and pay-per-view audience, WCW writer (and then-former WWE writer) Vince Russo got on the microphone and launched an expletive-laced tirade at Hogan where he called Hogan a "big, bald son of a bitch" who always used his "creative control card" and "backstage politics" to refuse to lose to younger wrestlers looking for their big break in the business.
Hogan, whose WCW contract was near its end, filed a defamation lawsuit against Time-Warner-AOL and Russo. Some believed the legal fight was part of a wrestling storyline. However, Hogan's lawsuit against Time Warner and Russo is still ongoing.
"When I was written off, when I was in the WCW, the people who were writing the show, people like Vince Russo, basically just threw me to the wayside like a piece of trash," Hogan said. "You can either sink down in the ashes or rise above it. I decided to raise my ugly head up and see what's out there."
"It [the comeback] shows that the creative writers [at WCW] were totally ignorant — that they were flat wrong in their decisions," Hogan said. "To come here and have [WWE chairman] Vince McMahon make the right decisions, not go against the flow and go with what works, it's a high level of redemption for me. At the end of the night, I've proven everything I needed to prove."
‘End Your Career the Right Way’
In the year-and-a-half following Hogan's stormy departure, the WWE purchased WCW. Except for a couple of matches for an upstart promotion called the Xtreme Wrestling Federation (XWF), Hogan stayed away from the wrestling world. He said both he and his father were troubled by his departure.
Hogan did not want the last chapter of his wrestling career to be written in a courtroom. He did not want the pay-per-view shouting match to be wrestling fans' last memory of him — and neither did his father. While ill in the hospital, Peter Bollea, Hogan recalls, told him, "Terry, go back to wrestling. Go back and end your career the right way, with WWF."
Hogan admits that his father was not always supportive of his career. Peter Bollea, he has said, was upset when his son left college to train as a wrestler in 1976. But he was proud of his son and his son's success.
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."
Smelling What Hogan Was Cooking
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."
A Changed Industry, a New Role
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."
Hogan helped lay the foundation for the WWE's success, but the company reached unprecedented success without him. The WWE and its stars who emerged after Hogan left in 1993 have thrived off the foundation he set. Besides The Rock, several other WWE wrestlers make appearances in commercials and talk shows.
"Now that I'm back 10 years later, the structure is a bit different. Things have changed," Hogan said. "They got a bunch of mules. They got Triple H, they got Stone Cold Steve Austin, they got The Rock, The Undertaker, they got [Chris] Jericho. They've spread the wealth. … I could leave the company tomorrow comfortably knowing that someone else will be able to carry the ball."
Graciously Passing the Torch
And Hogan doesn't win so much anymore. Since his return, he has won and lost the WWE Undisputed Title within a month. In addition to The Rock, he has been losing to other popular, younger WWE stars such as Triple H and Kurt Angle. Like an aging quarterback giving approval to a new, younger starting quarterback — or a retiring lead actor passing on advice to his former understudy — Hogan seems to be passing the torch to those who may have watched him while growing up.
"That's probably what's keeping him fresh," The Phantom said. "He seems to be giving everyone the rub. Now, if they had brought him back and he was winning all the time, like before, that might have started to grow old."
Hogan doesn't mind his new role. He's only doing what other wrestling mentors, like the late Andre the Giant, did for him.
"I know my role, as The Rock would say, and I graciously accept my role," Hogan said. "This is all about carrying on this art form. … This is about paying tribute to the guys who helped me. This is all about helping the guys who helped me.
"The wrestlers made me Hulk Hogan," Hogan continued. "I seriously don't think I could have beaten [veteran wrestler] Haku in the ring. I seriously don't think I could have beat [former Olympian and wrestler] Ken Patera, who was the 'Strongest Guy in the World' in '85. These guys made me who I am today. And to not make them [the younger WWE stars] wouldn't make sense."
And the Crowd Goes Wild
Hogan's son Nicholas wrapped his arms around his father's waist just before they all left for a pre-Madison Square Garden show dinner. After asking how far the place was from the Garden, Hogan, rubbing Nicholas' head, joked, "I can wrestle [WWE Champion] The Undertaker in my sleep."
Hogan said his wife and children did not mind his return to wrestling and the days away on from their Clearwater, Fla., home.
"Oh, I'm not really out on the road, brother," Hogan said with a wink and a smile. "I'm out one or two days. … I think it's a nice break for them rather than seeing my ugly butt sitting around the house all the time."
Later that night, the Hulkamaniacs proudly wore their red and yellow and chanted Hogan's name just before his championship match. Many of the same fans who greeted Hogan at The World where there to see him at the garden. A World security guard had told fans that Hogan was signing only pictures. But Hogan did not disappoint — some walked away with the letters "H.H" initialed on Hulk Hogan action figures they had collected over the years.
As the guitar riffs of Hogan's theme music, Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child," ripped through the arena, the chants blended into a single roar and Hogan, dressed in red and yellow tie-dyed tights and matching feather boas, sauntered to the ring, playing air guitar.
Hogan did not win that night. He was pinned by the Undertaker following outside interference by "Mr. McMahon," the evil character WWE owner Vince McMahon plays in the wrestling storylines.
But the Hulkamaniacs didn't care. Following the loss, Hogan posed in the ring, flexing his 24-inch biceps and cupping his hand to his ears, asking for more cheers, even though the ovation was loud and nonstop. So what if Hogan had done the post-match posing routine thousands of times and wrestling fans had seen it thousands of times.
As one boy cheered and pumped both fists in the air, one long-time Hogan fan shook his head in amazement.
"I didn't think I'd ever see him live," said Jason Asher, 25, after the show. "Seeing him not only as a guy who revolutionized the business but also as a man who touched so many people by the way he carried himself — I don't think we'll see a character like him built for a very long time."
Before leaving the ring, Hogan pounded his heart with his fist and pointed up at the sky, perhaps in salute to his father. He then pounded his heart again, mouthing the words, "thank you" as he saluted the fans.
Hulkamania is runnin' wild again. … Whatcha gonna do?