Terry Bollea rode the wave of professional wrestling’s 1980s boom as Hulk Hogan, headlining World Wrestling Federation shows on MTV and hanging out with Cyndi Lauper and Mr T as “WrestleMania” took off and became an annual American tradition. Wearing red and yellow and walking to the ring to the sounds of Rick Derringer’s “Real American,” he told his young followers (or “Hulkamaniacs”) to say their prayers, and eat their vitamins (and of course he offered his own brand of vitamins too).
Unthinkable in today’s fast-paced world of 24/7 pro wrestling networks and short attention spans, Hulk Hogan held the WWF’s World Championship for four whole years until, in 1988, he was finally dethroned due to fiendish cheating from a host of villainous characters, including Andre the Giant, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, and “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, who – the story goes – had bribed match officials. Nonetheless, this only increased sympathy and support for the Hulk Hogan character in the predetermined match-ups, and he’d go on to regain the title just over a year later, with good triumphing over evil once again.
However, Hogan’s ill-fated appearance on Arsenio Hall’s show arguably began his fall from grace. The awkward interview suggested that it wasn’t, in fact, vitamins he had been taking, but steroids. The entire WWF got caught up in the drug scandal, and the WWF’s owner Vince McMahon was indicted by the FBI, barely escaping a prison sentence himself.
Hogan jumped ship to the WWF’s rival, the rising WCW, but despite this change of scenery, and audience, his popularity waned. Co-opting the unfavourable crowd responses, he reinvented himself, cleverly aligning himself with other ex-WWF stars who were younger, hipper, and cooler than him, and “invading” WCW; Hogan dropped the red and yellow for an all-black biker wardrobe, shades, and a beard, and became the leader of the faction calling itself the “New World Order” of pro wrestling. Fans loved to hate him as he took short-cuts to survive against WCW’s heroes. Despite his age, his injuries, and the resulting limited ability, he was back on top of the business yet again by the late 1990s.
Still, nothing stirs up innovation quite like adversity, and despite losing his established stars, Vince McMahon was busy creating fresh, up-and-coming characters like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, with cutting-edge storylines to go with them. WCW, meanwhile, ran out of ideas beyond the “New World Order,” and lost momentum, the “NWO” superstars and their guaranteed big-money contracts still needing to be paid even as revenues declined, and WCW began to collapse under this weight. Hemorrhaging millions of dollars, WCW was put up for sale on the cheap by its parent company looking to cut its losses – and ironically it was McMahon himself who swooped in to buy it.
Despite himself being partly responsible for the decline of WCW – leveraging his creative control to stay on top and ensuring those close to him had all the best spots on the show even at the expense of younger, better talent – Hogan’s own “brand” survived yet again. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the WWF (by now known as WWE after being taken to court by the World Worldlife Fund). He’d even harnessed the power of nostalgia, as well as the cheap junk-food formula of “reality” television as the star of “Hogan Knows Best,” helping his daughter, Brooke, launch her own showbusiness career as a result.
Gawker then revealed Hulk Hogan spouting racism, via transcripts of its tapes.
WWE promptly removed him from their Hall of Fame listing as the news spread of Hogan’s vile prejudiced remarks. Mattel refused to produce Hulk Hogan action figures. Hulk Hogan merchandise was removed from the shelves in major stores such as Walmart and Toys R Us. But the news of the scandal took on a life of its own, and has done ever since, to the point where Hogan’s peers, fans, and critics all too often discuss the incident without actually addressing the words used. Because Hogan’s diatribe speaks for itself:
On the topic of Brooke allegedly offered financial support for her music career from a black billionaire while being linked with his son, Hogan went on a tirade:
I don’t know if Brooke was f***ing the black guy’s son…I mean, I don’t have double standards. I mean, I am a racist, to a point, f***ing n*****s…I mean, I’d rather if she was going to f*** some n*****, I’d rather have her marry an 8-foot-tall n***** worth a hundred million dollars! Like a basketball player!…I guess we’re all a little racist. Fucking n*****.
– Hulk Hogan
Yes, it’s hateful stuff. It’s sickening.
Since that time, while business interests have kept a safe distance from Hulk Hogan for public relations purposes, discussion has continued on what he represents; his reputation; his aura; his mystique. Many people saw him differently, of course, while others – including black wrestlers who worked with him – said this is the first time they had noted any hint of racism from him; some even claimed he stuck his neck out for them at a time when it was tough to get ahead in pro wrestling as an African-American star, and Hogan had pushed for them to be his headline opponent in storyline matches. Beyond this, many have downright denied Hogan is a racist – despite Hogan’s own admission of ‘I am a racist.’ Incredible.
The brilliant businessman behind the Inside the Ropes venture, Kenny McIntosh, covers many pro wrestling topics on his outstanding podcast, and on a recent episode alongside probably the best-ever pro wrestling writer Fin Martin, he tackled the racism controversy as Hulk Hogan begins to attempt to rehabilitate his image in the public eye. McIntosh made the superb point that many people are perhaps in denial about Hogan because they have a nostalgic view – and this can cover both his fans and fellow wrestlers, too. But many more, present-day black WWE stars – from Mark Henry, to Titus O’Neil – do not seem to have a view clouded by nostalgia; they are stars bravely speaking out and saying that Hogan’s words were racist, offensive, and hurtful, and are not easy to forgive.
Hogan’s own opinion is that he was “in a dark place” – that mysterious, mystical location all celebrities claim they visited when they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions. Most decent human beings, of course, don’t suddenly become racist just because they’re having a bad day. Again, Hogan’s exact words were ‘I am a racist.’
When Hogan was finally invited by WWE suits to a recent show, he had the opportunity to address the current roster to express regret for bringing their business into disrepute. Reportedly, Hogan began his speech to the other stars by telling them to be careful what they say in case they’re being recorded. Immediately, this put off the likes of O’Neil (who expressed his disappointment publicly) because Hogan seemed to be saying he was more regretful of being caught, than by what he did.
What McIntosh and Martin intelligently suggested were that Hogan should have actually had a meeting behind closed doors with the black wrestlers of WWE and simply listened to them. Because clearly he doesn’t have any grasp of the seriousness of the offensive views he expressed, whether caught on tape or not. This is a great idea.
The problem here is that WWE are driven by public relations, not values. They’ll allow Hogan a platform to help him repair his reputation, they’ll promote women into positions of prominence on their shows, and anything else with a money-making opportunity attached to it, but they still hold shows in Saudi Arabia where women wrestlers are prohibited, and fund Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in return for a position of power in his rotten administration.
Intersectionality is driven by values committed to opposing all forms of oppression, understanding the way these separate issues link with one another.
With that in mind, an interesting point raised is that, according to McIntosh, O’Neil apparently wore an Ultimate Warrior t-shirt in homage to the man who had died after enjoying a successful pro wrestling career yet who was, as I’ve examined before, a raging hateful homophobe. Despite being best friends with his on-screen tag team partner Darren Young, one of pro wrestling’s first openly gay stars, O’Neil was at ease wearing a t-shirt bearing the image of the bigoted Ultimate Warrior. Martin, who while editor of Power Slam magazine had helped raise awareness of the homophobic campaign Warrior had embarked on, acknowledged the hypocrisy in this.
But the trouble with all this is that, as McIntosh and Martin suggested, it risks becoming a discussion amongst white people, and while any decent white person should be offended by racism, ultimately the buck stops with black people, and it’s those voices that should be heard – especially by Hogan.
McIntosh thankfully acknowledged the issue with white privilege, albeit claiming many of us Caucasian folks have been utilising our white privilege by claiming Hogan is a racist, when that must be turned on its head, because most of the narrative on the internet has been white people saying Hogan isn’t a racist – and that is a far more important and dangerous reflection of white privilege that McIntosh could have (and indeed should have) highlighted. Again, Hogan didn’t just use racist language (rather than “racial” language as McIntosh put it – there’s an important distinction); Hogan said, ‘I am a racist.’ Let’s not forget his exact words, which included ‘n****’ repeatedly: racist – not “racial” – language.
The issue here is that McIntosh talked about “separation,” where you can respect an artist for their work, without liking them as people. So how far does that reach? If McIntosh can, for example, enjoy the works of the right-wing libertarian Clint Eastwood, or the accused sexual harasser Kevin Spacey, but not, I’d assume, the songs of paedophiles Gary Glitter and Ian Watkins, or the architecture of Nazi Albert Speer, isn’t that the same kind of hypocrisy?
No, a boycott of an artist’s work must be consistent for all of us (yes, including O’Neil, although he perhaps feels more established now so as to use his influence for causes he can fight for at this point in his career). But artistic boycotts aren’t just commercial: taking in the works of lyricists or screenwriters or playwrights with intolerant, fascist views is to open yourself up to their artistic expressions and even their perspectives and prejudices. Media is manipulative by nature.
So until such a time as Hulk Hogan actually cares enough to spend time with black people, understand their history, their culture, their views, and why he was so very wrong – and works to highlight the importance of causes like Black Lives Matter – then we’d all do well to boycott any companies he’s involved in. And, yes, WWE comes top of that list.