When it comes to icons, wrestling has certainly had its fair share, defining performers and personalities, but two of them are so large that they overcame incredible odds to achieve lasting success. One was an Immortal who transformed the business to accommodate his outsize physique and persona. There other was a Phenom who ignored all the rules of plausibility and grew into a role where his incredible endurance itself overcame his character.
XI. Hulk Hogan
He became so big that his reputation was something he could never actually live up to. Vince McMahon effectively began the modern era of professional wrestling by reshaping WWE around Hulk Hogan, spending years, and the formative development of WrestleMania cultivating a dominant star who only five years earlier wouldn’t have lasted more than a year with the strap (see: Superstar Billy Graham), and whose reign as champion even as it was didn’t really compare to that of Bruno Sammartino. Yet Hogan eclipsed both Graham and Sammartino (a bitterness the Italian Stallion still harbors) in short order, perfecting a match type that would prove durable through all the phases of his career, both when he was beloved, and actively reviled.
Everyone knows Hogan thrived best in his original run with WWE. The steroid scandal of the early nineties cost him heavily, took him out of the championship rotation, and led to a brief exile, only for a comeback with WCW, where he was immediately pushed back to the top. Times were different, though, and without a clear mandate, something he’d always enjoyed in WWE, Hogan began to feel like a pariah. Then he famously turned heel, and the act worked so well even industry professionals forgot that he had long ago made himself into the consummate wrestling attraction, the entity everyone had to talk about, or react against.
It’s a little weird to think, just in terms of parallels, the kinds of double standards that always seem to work against Hogan. In 1996, during the first act of the New World Order angle, he’d was celebrating only his thirteenth year as a wrestling attraction. In contrast, Sammartino, while no longer champion (the company was looking for a new face after ten years, and went through Graham, Pedro Morales, and Bob Backlund, a sort of prototypical Kurt Angle at that point in his career, before settling on Hogan), was still beloved, and still doing exactly the same routine. Thirteen years after first winning world championship gold, the Undertaker also attempted to reinvent himself, in reverse, actually, returning to the “Deadman” role after a few years as an “American Badass.” Do you even want to consider Ric Flair in this equation? Thirteen years into his championship career, the “Nature Boy” was, you guessed it, battling Hogan, much as he had Harley Race, Sting, even Ricky Steamboat.
When you think about the harassment he got for the Starrcade match against Roddy Piper, what do you honestly think about the “legends” matches Undertaker has been having not thirteen years but two decades into the peak of his career?
Hogan’s talent for reinvention, knowing what worked for him, and how it worked for the fans, was often unappreciated both by bookers and the fans themselves. The nWo for him ground to a halt sometime in 1998, and disaster really began to strike in 1999, when WCW lost all confidence in him, eve though he’d had extremely valuable programs with at least Sting and Goldberg during that run. He was seen as a past-his-prime liability. Yet somehow, just when he was at his lowest, 2002 rolls around, Vince comes calling again, and Hulkamania ends up running wild all over again, thanks to another blockbuster match, against The Rock. The thing nobody ever seemed to learn during all of this? Hulk Hogan creates seminal moments in wrestling history. He can do it in the ring (okay, not anymore, obviously), and if handled right (read: TNA, why are you hassling him with Eric Bischoff ?) with his reputation alone. By itself, a leg drop at the end of a match is not really all that exciting, especially when this is something he’d done for years. But a leg drop at the end of a match no one knew he was participating in, a moment that completely redefined his relationship with the wrestling business (something WWE has endlessly recreated, most often at the end of a WrestleMania main event, and never quite to the same effect), that’s news.
I wish more people had cared when Jeff Hardy did the same thing last year. That was TNA’s money shot. Who did he have to thank for it? Hulk Hogan.
Did he sometimes act out of paranoid egotism, effectively bury the momentum of those who might have succeeded him? No doubt. Was he better for this business than anyone else from his generation? You bet. Was he the best thing that ever happened to it? Not a chance. But you don’t need everything to have a career like that. Sometimes he was accused of putting himself before the business, but I think the real truth was, and remains, that the people who do business with him are often at a loss as what to do with him. The power of Hulkamania will always be that Hogan himself is capable of rising above a less than ideal situation.
“The Streak” is a manufactured event for every WrestleMania we’re privileged to see this man perform in. Most of the 19-0 wins come against foes and matches that are well beneath the mystique. This doesn’t really matter. That’s not what it’s about. Undertaker is WWE’s new Hulk Hogan, which even Hogan couldn’t do anything about, which even WWE’s own early mishandling of the “Deadman” couldn’t do anything about. Where Hogan was most often defined as a champion, Undertaker has steadily represented himself as the most legitimate wrestler to ever put his name in with a bad gimmick. He used to do this by no-selling, but eventually built a repertoire that put even the most gifted technical competitors to shame, the ones everyone wished had more success, but never had the mind for the game that he assembled after a long career that in its origins almost mocks the wrestler we know and celebrate today.
Undertaker became a more serious force in WWE the moment the company realized that the only way Bret Hart or Lex Luger could be the man to topple Yokozuna was to get him out of the way. A funny thing happened. Once he came back, he became undeniable. A silly program was crafted, a fake Undertaker introduced, and the real one proved himself in more ways than was strictly necessary at this particular Summer Slam, in the transition days of 1994. The deconstruction began in earnest soon after. The treasured urn manager Paul Bearer always kept with him at ringside became the target of a restless campaign from his enemies. Bearer himself betrayed him. Mankind appeared, more bizarre and suicidal than Undertaker, who had always handled himself with dignity, could ever have been. When the company needed a savior in 1997, a year of constant turmoil, that man turned out to be the “Deadman.” It was at this point, when he was treated more like Ric Flair than Hulk Hogan, that perhaps everyone began to see just how versatile, and valuable, he really was.
Hogan never managed to craft a disciple quite like Kane, a man who blatantly copied much of the same template that had made Undertaker a cornerstone of WWE for almost a decade by that point. By making a sort of Mankind version of the “Deadman,” the company suddenly found itself with a challenge that would definitely place Undertaker at the next level, something that proved more of a challenge than it first appeared. He became more demonic, in this attempt at a place in the driving storylines of WWE. He went so far in this direction that he had to abandon the otherworldly gimmick entirely, in fact, and become a “big dog,” as close to a straight brawler as he ever came. That’s probably the only way Brock Lesnar would have ever wrestled him, the only way it would have made sense.
Then, I guess, he realized there was no future, nothing he could use to extend his career for as long as he liked. So the “Deadman” returned in 2004. It wasn’t for a few more years that he cultivated the refined tactician he remains to this day. It wasn’t for a few more years that he became a default champion, a Ric Flair AND Hulk Hogan for the Smackdown brand. Why put the belt on him? Well, why not? Who better for legitimacy? That’s what it was like for a while, and it certainly worked, but as it always seemed to, that phase ran out of steam, before anyone really seemed to appreciate it. (I’m not just saying this because I figure it would have been better for CM Punk to win that feud.)
Three straight WrestleMania career matches, two against Shawn Michaels, one (actually, a second) against Triple H, and a feud he soundly lost to Kane, and it seems clear that Undertaker, who has regularly taken sabbaticals for most of his WWE career, is almost ready to finally call it quits. You probably won’t see a lot of him in 2011. The Mayan calendar comes to an end in 2012, and so does this career. The legacy, however, is just beginning. No one creates more drama in the ring than the Undertaker. Just imagine what his final match will look like.