Just How Much of an Asshole WAS the Hulk Hogan Character, Anyway?

30 years ago this week, what’s now World Wrestling Entertainment held the fifth annual Royal Rumble in Albany, New York. While the 1992 event is best known for Ric Flair’s marathon performance en route to capturing his first World Wrestling Federation Championship, it arguably wasn’t even the biggest news coming out of the show. That’s because of how the finish was executed. With a final four of Flair, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and Sid Justice (Sid “Sid Vicious” Eudy), Savage got tossed by Sid and Flair, with Hogan then jumping in to try to eliminate Flair. Sid saw an opportunity and dumped Hogan to loud cheers.

“It’s every man for himself, big boy!” Sid yelled at Hogan, repeating what had become one of the Rumble’s taglines. In fact, the first pay-per-view Rumble match in 1989 (the first event a year prior aired on USA Network) was booked to open with babyface tag team champions Ax and Smash of Demolition drawing the opening two spots and beating the crap out of each other. Naturally, this was done to establish that there were friends in the Royal Rumble, to hammer home the “every man for himself” and “friend vs. friend, foe vs. foe” catchphrases.

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How did Hogan react? Not only was he indignant, but he grabbed ahold of Sid’s arm from the floor and wouldn’t let go. Flair spotted his own opportunity and proceeded to dump Sid with Hogan’s help to win the match and the title. After the match, Hogan almost jumped Flair—who hadn’t even done nothing to him—before a pull-apart with Justice where the fans were clearly on the side of the latter, chanting “Sid.” It was easy to get the impression that this was the start of a Hogan heel turn. After all, Sid’s facial expressions and his delivery didn’t change much at all from the babyface he had been so far in the WWF or the heel he had been previously in WCW and the CWA.

But it wasn’t. It was the start of Sid’s heel turn. Even though Hulk Hogan is an asshole. The character, that is, even if the same is probably true of the man.

The Two Faces of Hulk Hogan

What’s always been particularly strange about this, which is something that was pointed out regularly not just by heel announcer Jesse Ventura but also various independent wrestling magazines, was that it was a bit of a sudden transformation. If you have the chance, seek out Hogan footage from his first two and a half years back in the WWF. The charisma that he’s always had was channeled in a completely different direction, one where he’s a charming, innately likable force of nature. You totally get why he was such an overwhelming superstar in a way that doesn’t come through as strongly in his later work.

Hulk Hogan Mr T Cyndi Lauper
WWE

But that changed in mid-1986, with the start of what would become one of Hogan’s all-time best-drawing feuds, against “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. Since Orndroff’s May 1985 babyface turn, he and Hogan had been linked as friends and sometimes tag team partners, only to attack “The Hulkster” for ghosting him at the late June 1986 TV tapings. Thanks in part to Orndorff being the first friend to turn on Hogan in the WWF, their feud did incredible business, peaking with the biggest house show in the history of North American wrestling when they packed Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. Despite that success, the feud was a clear turning point, as it was the first time that Hogan didn’t exactly come off as the wronged party to set up the conflict.

One potential reason for the change is that George Scott was ousted as WWF booker days before the turn was taped.  Dave Meltzer reported at the time in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter that Hogan and Tito Santana would be joining Vince McMahon as the new creative team, only to follow up two weeks later that McMahon was taking full control. When I emailed Meltzer to ask how this could relate to the Orndorff angle, he responded that he didn’t think it was a direct consequence of Scott losing the book as much as Hogan and McMahon wanting to push the character towards their idea of an antihero.

The shift was stark enough, though, that, if you watch the segment where Hogan narrates a recap of the key beats of the storyline, it comes off as if it’s an attempt to course-correct creative decisions that made Hogan The Asshole in this situation. The nearly eight minute segment attempts to craft a storyline where Orndorff had gone AWOL and carefully laid a trap for Hogan…instead of the existing narrative where Hogan:

  1. Dodged Orndorff’s phone calls.
  2. Tried to be a glory hog and tag himself in during their match with The Moondogs.
  3. Raised his friend’s ire by (accidentally, in all fairness) nailing him during the match where the turn took place.
Hulk Hogan Paul Orndorff
WWE

“We had one more week, man, one week to get ready for the big one: [John] Studd and [King Kong] Bundy,” Hogan said of the match where the turn took place. “A whole week! The next day, I even flew to Tampa to make it easier on him. But all he wanted to do was argue! And then, when he pulled a disappearing act in T-Town for three days, I didn’t know where he was hiding out. The only thing he had the courtesy to do leave a note for me, saying ‘I’ll see you at the arena.'”

Suddenly, the narrative has shifted to Orndorff ghosting Hogan despite how little it matched what had already happened.  But if McMahon or Hogan had cold feet, it didn’t last long: The pattern continued less than a year later with the build to Hogan’s legendary WrestleMania III main event against Andre the Giant.

Bigger! Better! Badder!

For the last several months of 1986, Andre’s storyline revolved around his suspension for missing a scheduled booking, which led to him returning as the masked Giant Machine. Eventually, he secured a hearing with WWF President Jack Tunney. Andre’s theoretical good friend Hulk Hogan didn’t show up, but Bobby Heenan, who had petitioned for the suspension in the first place, was happy to do so, and whatever he said, he got Andre reinstated. This was followed by:

  1. Hogan getting a trophy to celebrate three years as WWF Champion, with Andre coming out to congratulate him by remarking that “three years to be a champion is a long time.”
  2. Andre getting a noticeably smaller trophy for “being undefeated for 15 years,” with Hogan then coming out to congratulate him…by monopolizing his TV time, resulting in Andre abruptly leaving.
  3. Andre getting fed up, recruiting Heenan as his new manager to help petition for a shot at Hogan’s title, and, when the champion refused, tearing Hogan’s shirt and crucifix necklace.

Until he got mildly violent, how exactly was Andre the wronged party here? Tunney made him look like a chump before Hogan hogged his glory and refused his polite request for a title shot. And even when Andre got physical, he didn’t jump Hogan; he just tore the guy’s clothes to make a statement. Since when do heels show that kind of restraint? And what kind of dominant babyface champion refuses a request for a title shot from an even more dominant contender?  Sure, this would turn into a more tradition babyface vs. monster heel storyline before long, but it’s not exactly difficult to come away from the first few weeks of angles here thinking that Hogan was a management favorite, a glory hog, and a paper champion who was ducking Andre.

The Mega Powers

Later in 1987, the babyface turn of “Macho Man” Randy Savage led to his alliance with Hogan as the Mega Powers, which launched a slow burn storyline that would often hint at an inevitable split. Most often, this came in the form of Savage shooting Hogan angry looks every time Hogan got a little too close to Miss Elizabeth, with those reactions getting less and less subtle as time went on. Hogan did have a habit of keeping his hands suspiciously close to Liz’s ass when he’d carry her around after Mega Powers matches, after all. This all climaxed on the WWF’s second annual live The Main Event special on NBC in prime time, where Savage got sent flying out of the ring and into Elizabeth while teaming with Hogan against the Twin Towers.

Unlike with the Orndorff and Andre turns, there was clearly a concerted effort to have Savage cross what TVTropes.org refers to as the Moral Event Horizon. Yes, Savage had legitimate motivations, but unlike with Andre and Orndorff, he wasn’t simply presented as fed up. Hogan abandoned the match to…not actually do anything while a doctor worked on Liz, sure, but after Savage won the match, Savage flipped the fuck out. He ranted to Hogan about “lust in your eyes,” jumped him with the WWF Championship belt, threatened to do the same to Liz, threw Liz across the room, and also floored Brutus Beefcake for good measure. It’s not something you’d want to use as fodder for a pro wrestling angle in 2022, but in 1989, Savage threatening and putting his hands on Liz made it perfectly clear that while Hogan may be an asshole, he wasn’t an unhinged villain like Savage was.

Hulk Hogan Randy Savage
WWE

Is There No Justice for Sid?

For the next few years, Hogan took a break from launching feuds by looking like an asshole. His WrestleMania VI WWF Championship loss to the Ultimate Warrior was a sportsmanlike affair, and later in 1990, Earthquake was absolutely a heel who wronged Hogan. The same went for Sgt. Slaughter as the evil emissary of Saddam Hussein, and The Undertaker as, well, the early, scary version of The Undertaker. But when it came time for a friend to turn on Hogan again, we got the most dizzying example of all with Sid Justice at Royal Rumble ’92. Not only did it feel like a Hogan turn in a vacuum, but Hogan had eliminated Intercontinental Champion/#2 babyface The Ultimate Warrior en route to winning 1990’s Rumble and Tugboat, whose identity was basically “Hulk Hogan’s friend,” on the way to his 1991 Rumble victory. Where the hell did Hogan get off taking issue with Sid eliminating him?

Over the next several weeks, it seemed like Vince McMahon realized that he had to course-correct, and he did so much more strongly than he had with Orndorff. A smiling Sid cut promos brushing off the Rumble finish as a misunderstanding, allowing him to smooth things over with Hogan and giving McMahon the opportunity to re-do the turn at a Saturday Night’s Main Event special taped eight days after the Rumble. There, Sid was clearly The Asshole, abandoning Hogan while teaming with him and clearly adopting the demeanor of a heel. But first, they had to recap the feud…and how do you that without making Hogan look like The Asshole in recapping the Rumble? The answer? A very obvious overdubs of the Rumble finish.

Hulk Hogan Sid Justice
WWE

“Take a look at Justice just hanging out in the corner, biding his time here!” began Gorilla Monsoon, who was very obviously not in Albany at the Rumble when he said this. “From behind! Look at this! I don’t believe it! He snuck up like a thief in the night from behind and dumped The Hulkster out of there!” Loud boos were overdubbed, and then Bobby Heenan chimed in while obviously canned “HOGAN!” chants were inserted: “Listen, Monsoon! He’s calling him ‘big boy!’ He’s rubbing it in, too! I like Sid Justice! I like his style!” Then Monsoon tried to contort Sid’s “every man for himself” comment by suggesting Sid wronged Hogan by not eliminating him face to face, as if that’s how such an elimination usually works.

This aired less than three weeks after the Royal Rumble. If you saw the PPV, you knew that this overdub was absolute nonsense, so it made Hogan look like he was being protected by management once again. Naturally, he was still the asshole.