Thursday, January 3, 2013

An Open Letter To HULK HOGAN

Dear Hulk Hogan,

I think about you more than I should.

No, not in that Single White Female/The Fan sense.

Rather, I think about you the same way I think about Superman; rather, I've pondered what you mean in this modern age.

After all, you are Superman, of a fashion.

You made your living as the hero in the business of professional wrestling.  When you dropped the big leg on the Iron Sheik in '84, you launched what seemed at the time like a huge cultural movement: Hulkamania was alive and, to use your term, running wild.

And run you did.  You and Vince McMahon ran with Hulkamania and the Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection so far and so fast.  There were t-shirts, action figures, board games, music videos, guest appearances on Saturday Night Live and The A-Team (and who could forget the time you dropped Richard Belzer on his head?), video games, and even a Saturday morning cartoon.


It was the last item that caught my attention, watching you (and an animated avatar voiced by Brad Garrett) take on Rowdy Roddy Piper, Mr. Fuji and the like.  From there, I found Wrestling Challenge, Superstars of Wrestling, and of course, Saturday Night's Main Event.

For a kid like me who enjoyed cartoonish tales of good and evil, this was right up my alley.

Of course, no one can stay on top forever.

Eventually, the shirt-ripping, the posing and the Three Demandments (training, prayers, vitamins) got old for most of the wrestling public.

Hulkamania ruled the world for the better part of the decade, even as Warrior Wildness threatened to usurp its place.  But as the '90s dawned, wrestling fans wanted something different.  Hardcore fans wanted more consistent workers like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, who could put on high-quality matches.  (That isn't to say you couldn't--you always worked with a deeper move set in Japan.)
  
Meanwhile, the world at large was losing its taste for square-jawed good guys.  They wanted someone with edge, with bite.  You went over to WCW, and did the Hulkamania thing for a few years, but like your physique without chemical enhancement, the business was in a lean period.  Things were rough all over, and it was time for something new.

Who knew that something new would be you?


When Scott Hall and Kevin Nash came to WCW claiming to be invaders from the north, no one in their right mind expected you to be their mystery collaborator, but it totally made sense.  When you finally thrust the knife and turned on the crowd, it was like a dagger in my teenage heart at the time, but now I can appreciate the brilliance of that move.

You needed to stay relevant, and Hulkamania wasn't helping.

So you killed it.

Gone was the red and yellow, the prayers and the vitamins.  Now it was biker black, treachery and bile.  Hollywood Hogan became the heel to beat, a master planner who used his troops to keep him on top of the heap by any means necessary.  The nWo was the hottest thing in pro wrestling, and it isn't a stretch to say D-Generation X and Stone Cold Steve Austin wouldn't have existed without it.

What's more, wrestling was becoming relevant to popular culture once again.  In no uncertain terms, you saved the business.

Who else could have?


But the backstage Hulk Hogan who used to dress backstage with the rest of the boys, the Hulk Hogan who helped carry the company on his back, gave way to the Hollywood Hogan who kept himself afloat however he could.  Was it a personality shift, or was it just your true nature coming out?  (Reports generally skew toward the latter, but I'm willing to hear your side.)

Either way, it was clear that with no Vince McMahon to filter you, you couldn't be stopped.


And for all you did to save the business, it was clear you were no less out of touch with it as time went on.  When Eric Bischoff signed some of Extreme Championship Wrestling's best and brightest in an effort to freshen up the product, you did your best to keep them from breaking out of the midcard.  Sure, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Jericho didn't fit your expectation of what a professional wrestler should look like.  They weren't larger than life comic book characters, but that's not what the people wanted anymore.  The people wanted guys to whom they could relate, and the hardcore fans wanted guys who could work.  Neither of those descriptions fit you.

You had a chance, though.  You had a chance to stay current, to do what was best for the business and to keep the fans happy.  After a year of slow burn and build-up, which is almost impossible now given the climate of the business, you and Sting went mano a mano for the title at Starrcade.  With WCW finally on top of the WWF after years of running second, the company had a chance to strike the killing blow.  All you had to do was let Sting go over, clean.


Let me go back to the start for a moment.  I think about symbolism and iconography a great deal.

The amount of consideration I continue to give to Superman is baffling to everyone, even me sometimes.  But I feel it's necessary--to get a sense of who we are as a people, we need to know where our icons are and how they reflect upon us.  Superman has the benefit of being entirely fictional.  Sure, he's at the mercy of whoever is running DC Comics at a given period, but he has a certain set of values from which he'll never deviate.  He's easy to believe in because he's so neatly inhuman.

On the other hand, you, Hulk Hogan, are very messily human.

After you choked the life from WCW with your creative control clause and your battles with Vince Russo (a man just as clueless as you, though in different ways), you set out to defy your physical limitations, which is admirable to an extent.  You had knee surgery--this is more frequent than it should be, isn't it?--and came back to the WWF to make one more run.  Even though you returned as Hollywood Hogan, the fans accepted you the way they did when you were the Hulk.

Clearly, nostalgia is a powerful thing.


You had one really great year in 2002.

You fought the Rock, and in putting him over clean--a lesson you learned twelve years prior in the same venue with the Ultimate Warrior, and should have kept in mind against Sting--you became the biggest thing in wrestling again.  You beat Triple H for the title--something that could only happen for someone of your stature.

Never mind you had to job out to Undertaker, Kurt Angle, and Brock Lesnar in succession--you still got your Wrestlemania match in 2003 against Vince McMahon, concluding an epic storyline that was decades in the telling.

But then you...stayed.  There was Mr. America.

There were matches against Muhammad Hassan, Shawn Michaels and Randy Orton.  Finally, you left because the money wasn't good enough, and because you didn't feel you were Vince's biggest priority.  But it isn't as though you were leaving the spotlight.  No, you're Hulk Hogan.  You can never do that.

Here's the thing about icons.  They don't have a legacy, they don't become immortal, until after they're gone.  And while you were iconic, you were never really gone.  The version of you everyone loved is gone--that version, the young Venice Beach strongman who stood for everything decent and dropped the big leg on Paul Orndorff, was truly iconic.  Even the original Hollywoood Hogan, up until Starrcade, was arguably iconic.

You were indeed a legend, and you have done incredible things.

But when you decided to put yourself and your family on VH1 and expose all of your issues, you put distance between yourself and that legend.  You became a mortal once again.


Granted, when Hogan Knows Best started, it wasn't so bad.  You were the doting, overprotective father, but it was no worse than a sitcom.  Brian Knobbs as the wacky neighbor?  That's funny.  It was clever for a little while.  Hell, the episode about your Wrestlemania 21 appearance?  That was fascinating.  In the right light, you can be fascinating.

That's the one draw about being human--it's being interesting.

Until you stuck around too long and became a pest, which is what your family did to America as the show came to a close.  I don't need to rehash your marital problems, Nick's legal issues and Brooke's career woes, or the really weird vibe you give off around Brooke, not in detail anyway.  But the sex tape "scandal," the "breastaurant," the subsequent reality shows and comeback tours; almost every move you've made since your heydays ended has been the wrong one.

You made them all out of self-interest.

A few years ago, you decided to return to weekly television as the new authority figure for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, the de facto number two wrestling promotion in North America.  Almost immediately, you made yourself the centerpiece of the promotion, bringing in your nWo buddies and working a program with them.  (They split not long afterwards, if I recall--Kevin Nash got the call from his best bud Triple H and Sean Waltman's working harder than he has been in years doing indie work.)  You brought Ric Flair in and started working a program with him, with dueling factions warring over the rest of the roster.  Much of this you did to keep yourself on top and in the mix.


But the difference between you and Ric Flair?

Flair knows how to cultivate and make new stars.  As much as he wants to go forever, he knows one day he'll be dead, and the business needs someone new to run with the ball.  And because he got over as much with his ring work and psychology as with his innumerable charisma, he can tell who has "it," who is more than just a body.  Maybe deep down, you can too--after all, you put over Austin Aries in promos, before putting the TNA World Championship on him.  But it isn't just that.

Randy Orton and Batista are major names in the business, and they are because Ric Flair mentored them and put them over.  In doing so, he became bigger simply through fan goodwill.  The last time you ever really made someone ascendant look like a star was with Brock Lesnar back in August of 2002, and likely because Vince prodded you.  (And I admit, a match like that on Smackdown with little build didn't do many favors for anyone.  I wouldn't have faulted you for refusing to go along with that.)

Meanwhile, Ric Flair has given guys like Bobby Roode, AJ Styles and Jay Lethal the rub when necessary.  Sure, he still wants to stay in the ring, even as it becomes more of a bad idea for him to do so, but at least Ric Flair knows when and how to put someone over, which is more than can be said for you.

I can count the number of times you've done it on one hand.

The point I'm trying to make is that almost everything you've done in the last couple of decades has been for the benefit of one person: Hulk Hogan.

And after all you did in the '80s to lift the business on your shoulders, not to mention all of your children's charity work, that isn't entirely terrible.  But in your naked avarice, you've done nothing to bring anyone along with you without making sure you look best or pushing yourself first down your audience's throat.  Even now, after Ric Flair's well-received return to WWE Raw, you're looking at returning to the ring even though you physically have no business wrestling.

You're more Hollywood than Hulk, and you have been for years.

Maybe you always have been.



I used to look up to you.

Even as a young adult, I believed in Hulkamania.

But now, I don't know what it is anymore, what it means.  

If it ever meant anything.

Maybe you can tell me.

Yours,
Frankie Thirteen

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