My grandmothers dismissed Hogan and others as phonies, saying that in their day, wrestling was "real." Had they been both still alive, I wonder how they would have reacted when WWE and eventually the rest of the wrestling industry acknowledged in the late 1990s that their sport was choreographed and scripted.
Pro wrestling in the '90s had come a long way from the no-frills, televised matches emanating from dark, smoke-filled arenas and school gymnasiums that my grandmothers had watched -- and were part of my introduction to the sport.
WWE's Raw premiered on USA in 1993 and helped set a standard for slickly produced shows, complete with pyrotechnics and theme music. The National Wrestling Alliance -- the oldest wrestling promotion at the time and WWE rival -- had had a long history of shows on the Turner Broadcasting station and were bought by Ted Turner. After changing its name to World Championship Wrestling, the company went head to head on Monday nights against "Raw" with its own show "Nitro," waging what became known in the industry as the "Monday Night Wars."
"Nitro" beat "Raw" in the ratings for 83 straight weeks when pro wrestling -- led by Hogan, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, "The Rock" and Bill Goldberg, among others -- experienced the height of its popularity. The shows were among the highest rated on cable television, and stars from WCW and WWE were featured regularly in the mainstream media.
However, "Raw" eventually overtook "Nitro" in the ratings. WCW became defunct when its financial losses led to WWE Chairman Vince McMahon buying out his archrival in 2001.
When WCW and WWE competed against each other, they both became somewhat less kid-friendly. Both wrestling promotions presented their share of scantily clad women, foul language, middle fingers, blood and insider jabs at each other. WWE in particular has been attacked by the Parents Television Council and New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick for its content.
This past July, WWE drew criticism when a pre-taped episode of "Smackdown!" aired on the day of the London terror attacks and showed five masked men led by the villainous Muhammad Hassan -- an Arab-American wrestling character who rants and raves about being profiled and discriminated against in a post 9/11 world -- attacking The Undertaker. Some critics had blasted the Hassan character as being offensive and a racial stereotype before the July 7 edition of "Smackdown!" However, the episode drew so much criticism that WWE eliminated the character for good.
Though wrestling is not for everyone, it has had its poignant moments. Among them include the tribute TV shows WWE and WCW presented following the accidental ring stunt death of WWE star Owen Hart in 1999. WWE has also gone to Iraq two years in a row to entertain the U.S. troops during the holiday season and broadcast the shows on UPN.
Love it or hate it, WWE -- and wrestling in general -- is an experience appreciated worldwide. It has always been a popular attraction in Asia, and Mexico has its own longstanding wrestling tradition called "Lucha Libre," with TV shows on Galavision.
"There's nothing quite like it," said McMahon. "You won't find anything that combines action, drama and -- we don't do comedy -- but I'd say humor. And we wrestle."