Think back with me now to 1997, Stone Cold Steve Austin is WWE's fastest rising star, Owen Hart dumps Steve on his head, breaks his neck and puts him out of action. As we all know, Stone Cold came back from injury, sold more merchandise than anyone else in WWE history, and became one of the most recognized names in the history of the business. We know this. Now, imagine that while Austin was sidelined, he gets a call from Eric Bischoff. Uncle Eric is a changed man! He's willing to restructure his entire company around the newly invented Austin, Austin agrees, and a Stone Cold led WCW win the Monday Night Wars and put WWF out of business. What a story that'd be, right!? Well, let's go back a little further to 1983...
The most recognized name in the history of the business. Period. You can say a lot of things about Hulk Hogan, and they'd probably be true, but you can't take away this accomplishment. But how did it come to be? What happened before the leg was dropped in 1984 and Hulkamania was born? He'd been wrestling for seven years at this point, surely in a time that championships didn't change hands several times a year there must be something to his rise. The only thing that's somewhat common knowledge is that he "used to be a bad guy", and while true, is only the tip of the iceberg. Let's get some things out of the way that aren't true that The Hulkster would like you to believe...
Hulk Hogan did not:
Turn Metallica down for their bassist gig
Drink John Belushi under the table
Get offered the face of the George Foreman Grill
Wrestle 400 days in one year
...and believe me, I'm as disappointed as you. But, what WAS Hulk doing those seven years? He was being handed everying (some things don't change). Like many guys of Hogan's size, he was a body builder that was approached and asked if he'd consider giving it a try. Hogan had been a fan for years and took them up on the invite. After a year of training, he did his rounds of the territories in an era where wrestling ability was more important than look, and it held him back. His rise was slow, but he rose, his look and natural charisma were too good to ignore and he eventually wound up in Vince Sr's WWWF, yes... as a "bad guy"... paired with Fred Blassie, he had a nice run in the upper-midcard, that peaked at a title shot vs Bob Backlund. He'd be most remembered during this time for his feud with Andre The Giant and a match at Shea Stadium to a sell-out crowd (Hogan will claim to have headlined this show, but it was Bruno Samartino vs Larry Zbyszko in a steel cage that sold those seats).
During this time, there was a casting call around wrestling locker rooms looking for somebody to play the villain in Rocky 3. Hogan loved the idea and he asked Vince Sr for the time off to audition for the part. Vince hated the idea, not so much for the time off, but out of fear that if he landed the part that the movie would expose the business. Hogan, who wasn't a real wrestler to begin with, didn't give two shits about the business, and auditioned anyway. When you're not a real wrestler, but real wrestling promoters are willing to put you in front of sell-out crowds with Andre The Giant, you don't bite the hand that feeds you. Hogan was fired.
Spoiler Alert - He also got the part.
Needing a job, Hogan did what anyone in his non-wrestler shoes would do: He sent Verne Gagne his headshots. Now, let's stop for a minute and talk about Verne and his AWA. He paved the way for Vince McMahon Jr in so many ways. He ran a hell of a company! Verne was the first major promoter to pull out of the NWA, he was running the 2nd biggest territory in the country, and at the time he brought Hogan aboard the AWA was bigger than the WWWF. It was close, and hard to believe, but Vince Sr (New York) was #3 behind Verne (Minnesota) and Jim Crockett (Mid-South). Verne, seeing potential money in Hogan, got him on TV right away pairing him with Johnny Valiant in much the same heel tandem he had in New York with Fred Blassee. Verne planned on further training Hogan and help him get a little more credible in the ring. Breaking from the NWA as he did, Verne was known for training his own talent, and he was really really good at it. It also meant his 'guys' were all flight risks, and kept his title on himself until he was WAY past his sell-by date, and centered his shows around the same trusted guys.
History has a tendency to repeat itself, and this would be no different. Heel Hogan would wind up being cheered by AWA crowds for going after Verne's tired old talent. Not just fluke-type troll cheers, either. No, Hulkster started getting legitimately over, as times were changing and fans wanted something new. Pair that with Rocky 3 hitting theaters, and Verne knew he had a goldmine. He turned Hogan babyface and positioned him, in what was his own spot mind you, to feud with Nick Bockwinkle for the AWA World Heavyweight Championship. Problem was, while Verne liked making money, he was also a traditionalist. He couldn't put the title on a guy that couldn't hold his own in the ring, he needed to work with Hogan more before he'd be willing to make him champion. Instead of taking the high road with this issue, and have Bockwinkel go over clean... or even dirty... Verne saw more money in pissing off his fans. In a bold booking strategy, Verne had Hogan go over Bockwinkel clean a number of times only to have the decisions reversed on technicalities. Welcome to the AWA folks... no jumping off the top rope, no pile drivers, and no dumping your opponent to the floor. Because rules are fun, you see. Anyway, these decision reversals were the caused a riot in one instance, and what would prove to be more disastrous, the cause of Hogan's frustration.
Hogan accidentally won the IWGP Heavyweight Champaionship by knocking out Antonio Inoki with a lariat
Verne and Hogan met in an effort to iron things out. Hogan didn't know what he was doing in the ring, but he wasn't deaf, and wanted to be the champion and face of the company. Verne, instead of playing the training card, played the money card. He tried to convince Hulk that he stood to make more money chasing the title than actually holding it, which Hogan knew was BS. Verne then offered to compromise, strapping Hogan briefly in exchange for 50% of Hulkster's merchandise sales - which at the time nobody did. Hogan sold T-Shirts at AWA shows independently, and was making a killing. Verne was a promoter and this was untapped revenue. Hogan obviously didn't like that idea either, but said he'd think about it. Hulkster was on his way to tour Japan and the two decided to continue negotiations upon his return. The next time Verne would see Hulk Hogan would be on WWF TV.
Vince McMahon Jr was now running things in New York, and as I talked about in my last article, he NEEDED to hit a home run. We'll get into it more another day, but what's widely misconceived about Vince and his dirty business tactics are that they had way less to do about the talent and everything to do about time slots. For him to achieve his vision, he needed to get the WWF airing in as many cities as he could, which meant taking time slots from local territories.
As history played out, Vince was pitching his show to a very big AWA affiliate in St Louis. The station was thinking of getting out of wrestling all together when Vince started showing the station manager clips of Thunderlips from Rocky 3. "See that guy? Sign on with me and he'll be on your station every Saturday morning..." Vince told him. Since Vince left out a few minor details of the deal, like the part where Hogan didn't work for him, it was a deal the station couldn't refuse! This would be Vince Jr's biggest TV acquisition to date.
Now, to make it work. Vince needs Hogan to secure his vision and hit his home run. Hogan needs Vince if he's ever going to be World Champ without all that annoying "wrestling", and Vince knows that too. Pulling out all the stops, Vince Jr sends Vince Sr to Japan to say "Hey Hulk! Remember that time I fired you? Lol that was stupid. Sorry about that, but anyway, Backlund's still there, and he still sucks, but like, worse..." or something along those lines. Sr told him he'd be the face of the company, just like Backlund and Bruno before him. He also let him in on his son's plans of going nationwide, and Hulk was sold. Senior proceeded to take David Shultz (at Hogan's request), Adrian Adonis, and Dick Murdoch off Verne's hands too while he was out there because he's still a dick.
AWA Locker Room 1983
Hogan did what any sensible top draw would do for his boss, he sent him a telegram saying simply "I'm not coming back". Verne laughed it off, seeing it was sent from Florida, and figured his buddy Eddie Graham (Florida Territory) was messing with him. Getting no response, Hulk sent another one a few weeks later, which got Verne on the phone with his contacts to find that it was legit. Verne was now having a bad day.
Vince got his guy, but now he had to get the title on him, which was going to be easier said than done. Vince wanted to do a big build in a babyface vs babyface - who's the better man showdown. Backlund wasn't big on the idea of losing the belt in his home country, er, I mean he wasn't big on losing it to a guy that couldn't wrestle. His logic was that he didn't want to be responsible for "exposing the business" by losing to Hogan, nobody'd ever buy that! Vince then went with the 'Plan B' transitional champion in The Iron Sheik, which suited Backlund because Sheiky Baby was a legit wrestler, and it suited Vince in that if Backlund decided to go into business himself, The Sheik would mop the floor with him (characters aside, in his prime The Iron Sheik was one of the best Greco-Roman wrestlers in the world).
Iranian Olympic Wrestling Team '68 - USA Olympic Wrestling Coach '72 & '76
Part 1 in the books, now he had to get the title from The Iron Sheik over to Hogan. In what should have been the easy part, as Sheik understood the deal going in, hell - anyone with half a brain knew what was going on. Such as Verne Gagne, who was done playing games with the McMahons. Verne brought The Iron Sheik into the business years back you see, as in, The Iron Sheik drove his equipment trucks and set up his rings. As the story goes, Verne offered The Iron Sheik one hundred thousand dollars to break Hogan's leg and bring him the WWF Title, where his old job would be waiting for him. Rumors will be rumors and that's between Verne and Sheik, but the Gagnes are the only ones that say that part never happened. Whether The Iron Sheik really was THAT loyal to "The Mr McMahon" or Vince actually offered up a counter-bribe to NOT cripple Hulk Hogan...or both... is up for debate. All that's certain is that The Iron Sheik did his job, took his three moves, and laid down like a man and Hulkamania was born.
The rest is history as we know it. Hogan would go on to be the most recognized wrestler of all time... without ever learning how to wrestle.