WM Top 25: #11 – Hogan’s return, WrestleMania X8

Make sure to check out the original article on Examiner.com to see an embedded clip of Hogan-Rock for WrestleMania.

I’ve never been a real big fan of Hulk Hogan growing up as a wrestling fan. I just didn’t really connect with him and even as a young kid I could see how formulaic and predictable his matches. I also had the Ultimate Warrior and Bret “Hit Man” Hart as my wrestling heroes when I was a young fan. That’s not to say I don’t realize how vitally important he is to the professional wrestling industry. The fact is he carried pro wrestling, and World Wrestling Federation especially, on his back through the ‘80s.

When he left the World Wrestling Federation in 1993 I was more than happy to see him go. But it wasn’t long thereafter that he turned up in World Championship Wrestling. By 1996 he turned the pro wrestling on its ear once again when he turned into a villain and become the maniacal “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, leader of the new World order.

Flash forward to 2002 and World Championship Wrestling was out of business and World Wrestling Entertainment now owned its remnants. It was announced that the original incarnation of the new World order (Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Hulk Hogan) would all be returning to WWE together as the nWo. The trio made their return on February 17, 2002, at the No Way Out pay per view. The loyal WWE fans hadn’t seen Hogan in a WWE ring for over eight years and they showered with wild cheers and applause, despite him supposed to be playing a villain. You could see the emotion in Hogan’s face despite being masked behind sunglasses. It was apparent right there that Hogan wouldn’t last as a bad guy.

Over the next few weeks in the build-up to WrestleMania X8 the nWo interacted with all the top stars of the day in World Wrestling Entertainment, including The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. It was determined that Hogan would battle The Rock in a battle of the ‘80s biggest wrestler-turned-movie star against the new millennium’s biggest wrestler-turned-movie star. It was set to be the battle of Icon v. Icon, the past versus present, and any sports cliché of old versus young you want to use would fit the bill here.

Going into the match Hogan was positioned as the clear bad guy while The Rock was supposed to be conquering hero. But on that March 17 day in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the fans dictated otherwise. As a side note, this was the first time that Hogan entered the SkyDome as a wrestler since his WrestleMania VI loss to The Ultimate Warrior. It’s safe to say that many of those same fans that watched Hogan versus Warrior in 1990 were now back twelve years later, all grown up with families and lives of their own.

The stare down between Hogan and Rock was as epic as any scene in an action movie. The crowd even “popped” at the opening bell. The fans’ nostalgia for the Hogan they grew up with took over and every move he made was cheered wildly. The more Hogan cheated in the match the more the crowd loved him. No matter what The Rock tried the Canadian crowd booed him mercifully. The two consummate professionals switched up their game plan mid-match and started playing to their reactions. It was one of those matches that isn’t technically sound or considered a “five-star” classic, but it is a classic based on the story told and the crowd’s activeness. Much like how a ball game can be swayed by the fans’ participation (the proverbial sixth man), this match was much the same. With a fully invested crowd the match was turned up to a whole new level. It is kind of like how when you watch a big dumb action movie that’s only really good with the volume turned way up in order to get the whole effect.

In the end The Rock pinned Hogan clean in the middle of the ring to win the match (as he should have), but the story did end there. After the match the two gladiators stood middle ring as the spectators chanted Hogan’s name. The two men shook hands in a show of respect as Rock celebrated his victory. Unfortunately for Hogan his nWo co-horts didn’t appreciate Hogan’s mutual admiration society with Rock and they hit the ring to attack their now-former leader. Rock returned and saved his adversary from a double team attack from Hall and Nash. The two heroes celebrated mid-ring as the past and present came together.

In the days and weeks to come Hogan would receive a hero’s welcome at every television taping he appeared on, including a ten-minute standing ovation he received from an appreciative crowd in Montreal, Quebec, shortly after WrestleMania X8. The fans continued to support Hogan wildly at every turn and it led to him gaining one more World Championship a month after WrestleMania. This final reign didn’t last long as the nostalgia finally started to wear off and the spike in pay per view and TV ratings died down.

To this day, Hulk Hogan is susceptible to make random one off appearances for World Wrestling Entertainment. At this point in his career Hogan works much better as a “special attraction” type of performer rather than a full-time guy where his act would wear thin quickly in today’s marketplace.

But that moment at WrestleMania X8 was a night for fans that grew up watching Hulk Hogan tell them to “train, say your prayers and eat your vitamins” to return to their childhood for one night only. It didn’t matter to them that Hogan was supposed to be the “bad guy,” to those fans overwhelmed with nostalgia and memories that night Hogan was still the hero they always remembered.

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