Twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1994, the wrestling world was rocked.
Vince McMahon and the WWF went on trial for steroid distribution. The most hyped witness for the prosecution had just left Vince’s employ. Hulk Hogan was making the jump from the WWF to WCW.
At the time, many thought the WWF, and maybe even pro-wrestling, would not survive.
Twenty-five years later that’s an absurd notion. Like any mainstay of the popular culture wrestling changes—adapts, evolves, morphs—but hangs on with loyal fans and the ebb and flow of casual fans. At the time, it felt like end times for the WWF at least, and a huge pendulum swing to the WCW. While the former would not come to pass, the latter did, and, within a year, the Monday Night Wars would ignite.
Hulk Hogan’s exit from the WWF was anything but gracious or graceful. Vince hyped the Hogan versus Sid Justice matchup at ‘Mania VIII as the possible last match of Hogan. Then Hulk came back for ‘Mania IX for his real farewell match, tagging with Brutus Beefcake to take on Money Inc. (Ted DiBiase and I.R.S.). In the swerve of swerves, he ended the night as WWF champion, beating Yokozuna in less than ten seconds after ‘Zuna beat Bret Hart for the belt. At King of the Ring 1993, Hogan wrestled his last WWF match of the decade, losing the belt back to Yokozuna.
Though everything was set up for him to return and beat Yoko, negotiations fell through on that front. And, he claims, Hogan was just more interested in making movies. Instead of Hogan, it was newly-face Lex Luger who showed up July 4, 1993, to bodyslam Yokozuna on the U.S.S. Intrepid battleship. It all swirled so fast that fans aboard the Intrepid chanted for Hogan when the chopper carrying Lex landed.
For his part, Hulk Hogan has always known when to make an exit. When the Dr. Zahorian trial in 1991 revealed Hogan’s name as a candy customer of Zahorian, he was the name the press cared about. Not only was he the most famous of wrestlers, but he was also the one on television telling kids they too could achieve his body and skills with training, prayers, and vitamins. Hogan went on the Arsenio Hall Show to help ease the scrutiny but simply made it worse when he wouldn’t cop to recreational use, admitting only to using steroids a couple of times for recovery. Ever wonder why Hogan went away from WWF TV between ‘Mania VIII and IX? This is it. If you’ve watched the 1992 Rumble or Wrestlemania VIII on the Network, you’ll hear Hogan cheered wildly (and Sid booed when he eliminated Hogan at the Rumble). This is a postproduction edit. Go back and watch the original live versions (if you can find them), and you’ll hear Hogan booed mercilessly during his entry to the Rumble and during his traditional entrance schtick at ‘Mania VIII. Moreover, you’ll hear Sid Justice get a huge pop when he eliminates Hogan in the Rumble and cheers for his ‘Mania entrance. These reactions were a direct result of his perceived steroid use and lying to cover it up. Hogan wanted away from the scrutiny and pressure of the media and the fans. Hogan stayed gone for nearly a year.
In the Spring of ’94 McMahon was indicted by a grand jury after two years of investigations and, that summer was taken to federal court to be tried for steroid distribution to wrestlers. The federal case was flimsy, and, unlike the Dr. Zahorian trial of 1991, turned no real evidence of steroid distribution conspiracy. Hogan did testify but gave the same flimsy lines he’d offered on Arsenio before. He only used the ‘roids to recover. While Zahorian had been caught redhanded shredding evidence as the feds busted down his office door, McMahon was never directly tied to conspiracy to distribute. At the end of July 1994, a neck brace clad McMahon celebrated when the jury found him not guilty based on lack of evidence.
Fans still turned away from the WWF in droves and wrestlers became laughably inflated cheaters. Needless to say, Hogan wasn’t interested in going back to the WWF again.
Hogan was working on something else in the Summer of ’94. He was filming Thunder in Paradise in Orlando at Disney MGM where WCW filmed its syndicated shows. With the promise of a future movie and television roles with Turner networks, and the central spot at WCW pay per views, the ego of Hogan was won and he signed with Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. While Vince was on trial in July, Hulk was winning the big gold belt (finally) from Ric Flair at WCW’s Bash at the Beach in his first match for the promotion.
Hulkamania was a big departure for WCW who for years promoted themselves as the anti-WWF. On commentary, they often discussed the “real wrestling ability” of the “athletes” and the “state athletic commission” that sanctioned this “sporting contest.” For its part, the WWF cast itself as something different, more comic book storyline than a sporting competition. The famous phone call between Turner and McMahon reflects this mentality and distinction. When Turner told McMahon he’d purchased WCW and was in the “rasslin’ business,” Vince told Turner that was great, but that he and the WWF were in the “sports entertainment business.”
For those of us watching WCW loyally over the WWF then, it was a shock to the system. Where WCW had felt like more of an equitable distribution of talent with more of a focus on wrestling prowess, it shifted suddenly to the Hogan show. Hogan insisted on making mid-1990s WCW look like late-1980s WWF. He brought in Beefer to team then feud with. He brought in Earthquake to feud with. Randy Savage came over to form a new Mega Powers connection. Hogan’s buddies from the WWF came over as well. The Nasty Boys were back in WCW. Hacksaw Jim Duggan defeated the greatest homegrown talent WCW had, Stunnin’ Steve Austin, for the US Championship in a matter of seconds. They created the Giant as the kayfabe son of Andre, back for revenge on Hogan for Wrestlemania III. He’d carry it out a year and he even brought back Zeus (called Z-Gansta in WCW) to beat in a cage a la the No Holds Barred pay per view.
It wasn’t WCW.
And I wasn’t the only WCW fan not buying it. I wasn’t the only one rooting for Flair and Vader to beat the Hulkster. It felt like a slap in the face to the WCW that was, an admission that the WWF had always been better anyway. It suggested the best of the WCW couldn’t beat the best of the WWF. While Hogan did draw viewers, his pops in WCW dwindled quick. By the end of ’94 and the beginning of ’95, Hogan was booed often by WCW fans. We were tired of the Hulkamania schtick, tired of single-minded booking, tired of our favourite wrestlers being held back a few rungs because Hogan needed to stand atop the ladder, tired of Hogan ever refusing to lose clean.
And, wouldn’t you know it, Hogan decided to disappear after ’95 too?
When he re-emerged at Bash at the Beach ’96 as the third man and announced the NWO, he’d finally taken the hint and tried a different tact. And that did stick. The NWO changed wrestling forever by introducing and popularizing faction warfare, regular jeans and t-shirts on TV, “real” names instead of “fake” names, invading groups, and onscreen commentary of promotion politics (Eric Bischoff was the evil heel boss before Vince assumed the role after all). It was also immensely popular with fans. In two short years, 94-96, the industry was back. The WWF responded to the NWO with the Attitude Era. You can go watch the documentaries to see how awesome wrestling was and how intriguing the Monday Night Wars became in the late 1990s.
Surf around online and you’ll find entire forums where smarks debate and layout the storylines in a world where Hulk never left the WWF. “What if Hulk Hogan never left the WWF?” they ask. It’s a pointless debate, I think, as Hogan was never going to hang around on a ship so full of holes.
It was the right move too. If not for the WCW firing that Stunnin’ Steve Austin guy in ’94 so that the ECW and then the WWF could hire him, the WWF may have never made its comeback on the Monday Night Wars. The WWE and the Network may have never been. Hulk Hogan might actually be cast by history as the only money draw in the business…
No point in getting into a smark debate about what didn’t happen though. What I can say, 25 years later, is that looking back at the summer of ’94, wrestling might be an indestructible draw in our culture. Vince remains. Hogan seems still to recover from media blunders and idiocy. He still shows up for all the special WWE events. They are still referred to as the two most singular forces in wrestling history.
And, most importantly, the Network is there for me to watch Pre-Hogan WCW.
You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.