Illustration by Dan Evans
This week's inductee to The Cult is a man who, to a child of the nineties, was an overblown comic book hero brought to life. To the adult that child subsequently became, the reality seemed rather darker. You can read previous entries here.
To a child born in the early nineties, the glorious circus of professional wrestling was viewed through truly guileless eyes. To a British youngster, watching highlights of Raw and Smackdown! on T4 just after the turn of the millennium – or maybe even watching the old WWF on Sky at the house of an especially snotty schoolmate – the overblown theatre of the fighting and trash talk felt utterly fantastical, so alien was the culture and so far away. Thousands of miles over the Atlantic, made manifest by our television screens and VHS players, enormous demigods with polished bronze muscles struggled and grappled with each other, hurling their enemies about by their oily hair or tossing them around by the waistlines of their sparkly underwear. These were fierce men of gargantuan stature who appeared able to take an inhuman amount of physical punishment, and as such they seemed like real-life manifestations of the superhero cartoons and comic book narratives on which so many of us were raised.
Standing tall above these giants – The Undertaker, 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin, Sting and the like – was one particularly bombastic character who somehow appealed to the childlike psyche more than any of his contemporaries. That man was none other than Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan. Though he was relatively late in his wrestling career at this point, he was still one of the most imposing men out on the canvas, coming in at a monstrous billed height of 6'8 and weighing no less than 21st. There was something about his blonde horseshoe moustache, his yellow bandana and his habit of ripping his shirt from his chest while screaming like a loon that set our juvenile hearts aflutter, perhaps because his wrestling persona was essentially the atavistic male ego with an aesthetic somewhere between Flash Gordon and He-Man.
These were innocent, halcyon days in Britain, in the midst of an era when children could be children and before we were all exposed to months of rolling news about the Iraq War. School was still fun, summers lasted forever, while playgrounds and parks echoed with the sound of kids debating whether or not professional wrestling was, as our parents claimed, fake as shit. At much the same time as we were deciding on our football allegiances, many of us settled on a favourite wrestler, whether it be The Rock, Triple H, or Kane for the weird kids. These men made up a new breed of wrestlers and their merits were hotly contested accordingly, but few of us would have dared to find fault with Hulk Hogan, a man who was more institution than wrestler, a man who could simultaneously rock outrageous blonde facial hair, ill-concealed baldness, mahogany spray tans and wraparound shades.
Such was Hulk Hogan's popularity amongst kids, he appeared in a selection of nineties children's films, with the likes of Three Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain included on Channel 5's weekend schedule amongst the seemingly endless reruns of The Goonies and The Karate Kid. He was also the cover star of the Legends of Wrestling video game series which began in 2001, hence capitalising on the popular peak of the PS2, the original Xbox, and what we shall controversially acclaim as the greatest of all consoles, the GameCube. Hogan was the enduring face of professional wrestling, even if he had experienced his heyday well over a decade previous. In those naive, artless years at the dawning of the new millennium, we were mere children, and Hulk Hogan seemed to be as good a role model as any.
Naturally, as we have matured and become adults, the vast majority of us have revised this opinion. Unlike the football clubs we once championed in the playground, our affection for professional wrestlers has almost entirely fallen away. While there is still some residual nostalgia, the popular appeal of wrestling on this side of the pond took a steep plunge in the mid noughties, with the garish, lurid entertainment on offer increasingly unfashionable and devoid of charm. This may have been down in part to changing tastes, in part to creative failings when it came to professional wrestling's characters and storylines, and certainly to some extent down to a generation realising that the fighting in front of us was, in fact, meticulously choreographed. At a time when MMA and other fighting sports were becoming more readily available, the theatrical approximation of violence became that much less thrilling for the majority of people. Plus, there was the realisation that ever having looked up to wrestlers like Hulk Hogan was both profoundly misguided and inherently weird.
First of all, there was Hogan's persona. While he was no more loud, brash or unhealthily hyper-masculine than any other wrestler, much of his shtick involved whipping up a roaring inferno of American jingoism which, in the context of the blatant racism that runs through the modern history of professional wrestling, can hardly be classed as good, clean fun. Considering that Hogan had himself been involved in a racially charged exchange with Tony Atlas back when he was cast as a popular villain in the eighties – scripted, no doubt, but nonetheless a part of his professional legacy – his later role as the all-conquering, patriotic white muscleman wrapped in the Stars and Stripes seems even more off-putting. Then there's the racism scandal which acrimoniously ended his association with the wrestling fraternity, though more on that anon.
Throw in a four-season reality TV show in the form of Hogan Knows Best – quintessential mid-noughties programming which managed to stultify its viewership, obliquely document familial dysfunction and reveal Hogan to be a painfully overbearing family patriarch – and the fact that we had admired him as kids seemed even more bizarre and inappropriate. Hogan was not just an athlete and performer but an almost cultish celebrity figure, and a generation of children had been part of his dedicated following. Disregarding the uncomfortable views he espouses on multiple occasions during Hogan Knows Best – the series was soft-scripted after all, even if there was a good degree of improvisation – the whole thing was vaguely tragic and further diminished his superhero image, ending in real-life divorce from his wife Linda as well as jail time for his son Nick, this after a serious car crash in which a friend of his was badly injured. The next blow to Hulk Hogan's image came in early 2012, when Gawker released part of a sex tape in which he featured, filmed several years before.
This doesn't even take into account what watching Hulk Hogan was doing to our childlike self-worth, not least because his body image was that of a man whose every muscle had been inflated with a forecourt tyre pump. While this look was hardly exclusive to Hogan, his admission during the 1994 trial of WWF promoter Vince McMahon that – while McMahon had never forced him to take anything – he had used anabolic steroids during his years of bulking up should surely have made him even less appropriate as an example to kids. Nonetheless, Hogan was specifically marketed at children, not only through his film and video game work but also in the form of toys, action figures and extremely intense schoolday merchandise. Along with his persona as the archetypal American patriot, this was – let's just say it – fairly fucked up, and the fact that this sort of messaging flew mainly under the radar now feels sort of hard to believe.
It should be qualified that, despite his personal foibles and difficulties, Hulk Hogan is not alone in being a strange and unsuitable role model amongst wrestlers. In many ways, his faults reflect those of professional wrestling's zenith more generally, at a time when there were still some who couldn't tell the fiction from the fact. Likewise, this is not to claim that Hogan somehow ruined our childhoods – there are many of us who have fond memories of his bulging machismo and mad antics, even if we now recognise how amazing it is that we were guilelessly watching them in the first place. It is simply to say that we once saw Hulk Hogan as a comic book hero, as He-Man made flesh, and then the scales fell from our eyes and we were acutely disquieted by what we saw instead.
Despite all this, there is no denying that Hulk Hogan was a consummate entertainer. Whether or not his brand of entertainment should have been advertised to a generation of uncritical children, whether or not the messaging was uncomfortable, he could be brilliant on his own merits, with his character traits and general persona often completely batshit insane. He was so popular in America during the eighties that he fronted his own nationwide phenomenon, with 'Hulkamania' sweeping the United States like wildfire. To those who weren't put off by all the nationalistic melodrama, he was a flag-waving idol and, as his short-lived vests and T-shirts often read, 'American Made'.
In the early to mid eighties, at the height of the Cold War, Hogan's status as an American superhero was even more potent. Having come to mainstream attention through his supporting role in Rocky III – in which he fights Sylvester Stallone in a chaotic bout that is inexplicably refereed despite seemingly lacking all rules, furthering the myth that professional wrestling was somehow an actual fighting sport – Hogan soon came to be a cultural icon himself. With his 'True American' theme tune and love of all things starred and spangled, he was the closest thing that wrestling had to a born leader of the free world. In one match against Nikolai Volkoff in 1985, he even went as far as headbutting the flag of the Soviet Union, which despite being an extremely ineffective fighting strategy against a flag only cemented his place as the musclebound defender of the United States.
Despite Hogan's suggestions to the contrary, this sort of stuff clearly wasn't for everyone. That said, the 'Hulkamaniacs' who followed him around the country were as committed and fanatical as fans come. When he said, in one of his characteristic flourishes, that "God created the Heavens, he created the earth, he created all the Hulkamaniacs!", there were no doubt many who took these comments quite literally. Though some might dispute that it was divine agency that created his 24-inch pythons – as opposed to, say, steroids – Hogan was certainly God's gift to wrestling, with his performances laying the foundations on which much of the industry is built today.
This trash talk is legitimately fucking bonkers
Maybe at some point during his meteoric rise, Hogan also caught a serious case of Hulkamania. Though Hulk Hogan is ultimately a character, listen to Terry Bollea speak about his alter ego and it's not always clear where reality ends and the persona begins. That might partially explain Hogan's downfall, which looking back seems fairly predictable. After all, there was only so long all that jingoistic messaging could go on for before it went straight to Hogan's – or Bollea's – head.
In the end, Hogan's wrestling career was destroyed by revelations of a racist tirade he had made, this during the filming of the aforementioned sex tape. Speaking to Heather Clem, wife of his close friend 'Bubba the Love Sponge', he made a string of derogatory comments about black people in the context of his daughter's personal life. This audio emerged in 2015, three years after the initial tape was published, and WWE soon terminated their contract with Hogan citing their commitment "to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds." WWE then scrubbed all mention of Hogan from their website and removed related merchandise from their online stores.
After the various scandals of Hogan Knows Best and the negative press which had been building around Hogan, this was the final nail in the coffin of Hulkamania as a popular ideal. Though Hogan still has a few dedicated fans and there are still some murmurs of a return to professional wrestling – a development which would no doubt require much grovelling, cynical PR work and reputational rehabilitation – his life as a comic book hero for kids has well and truly come to an end. When we were children, when we were innocents, the myth of Hulk Hogan was bizarre and fantastical, but we believed it nonetheless. Now, nobody really believes in Hulkamania, barring perhaps Hulk Hogan himself.
"Whatcha gonna do when Hulkamania destroys you?"
– One of Hulk Hogan's catchphrases back in his pomp, and a prescient question on his life in the present day.