How Hulk Hogan Became the Ultimate American Bad Guy

In some way, Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper all owe wrestling's anti-hero a bit of gratitude for some of their success

Hulk Hogan has always been a bad guy. Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty

Hulk Hogan is somewhere in Florida in the middle of summer. Does it really matter where? It's Florida on a month in the middle of the calendar – muggy and hot doesn't even begin to describe the weather. He's standing in the middle of thousands of people who are booing him and throwing whatever they can in his direction. It looks like everybody finally sees him for what he is, that he's not the "Real American" hero he's been claiming to be all these years. Hulk Hogan is a bad guy. He betrayed everybody. 

Sadly, this isn't a modern-day vision of the man born Terry Gene Bollea. This isn't the man who, as Jeb Lund put it, "alienated most of the wrestling industry over a career defined by megalomania, and who'd hemorrhaged his fortune on a divorce, his daughter's go-nowhere music career and repeated legal fees for his son's drunk-driving drift team schtick." This isn't the same guy who had sex with his friend's wife, then let a billionaire with a vengeance fund his legal fees to sue, and ultimately bankrupt a news organization, putting it out of business. This isn't a 2016 public shaming of Hulk Hogan, a moment where the world sees him for what he really is; this is 1996 at WCW's Bash at the Beach

Hulk Hogan is a real bad guy. We know that now. Was he always racist? Would he have taken Peter Thiel's money 20 or 30 years ago if it helped him? Probably. But that's neither here nor there. What matters is how Hulk Hogan turned heel before we could fully realize what a terrible person he is. When the character Hulk Hogan showed his true colors 20 years ago this past July, shocking the world by joining forces with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall to create the NWO, he helped lay the groundwork for the rise of the anti-hero as the hero in popular culture. In some way, Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper all owe Hulk Hogan a bit of gratitude for some of their success. The most beloved wrestler of his time turned into a bad guy, and people loved the hell out of it. 

But I'm giving Hogan far too much credit here. As anybody who knows anything about wrestling can tell you, Hogan has never been that creative or talented. Like those fictional anti-heroes who have defined the Golden Age of Television that we're still supposedly living in, it was all made up. Hogan and Vince McMahon hit on something, they came up with a schtick that worked, and it worked incredibly well. It was McMahon who saw something in the very large man with blonde hair and a matching handlebar mustache that his father, Vincent J. McMahon, had failed to recognize during Hogan's first run working with the then WWF in 1980. In January of 1984, just a few weeks after returning to the company, and smack in the middle of Ronald Reagan's America, where everybody was supposed to feel good even though things were so bad, Hulk Hogan pinned the Iranian Iron Sheik for the World Championship. In the moment, it looked great and made perfect sense: Hogan was all huge muscles ("24-inch pythons") and positive messages ("Say your prayers, take your vitamins"). He could show up to big events and stand out in a room full of celebrities, and he could also be a cartoon. Wrestling may seem silly to a lot of people, but to those that cared, Hulk Hogan represented what was supposed to be great about America. "The Immortal" Hulk Hogan would never steer his fans wrong. He'd always be on the side of good. 

And then he wasn't. 

You could say it started a few years earlier, in 1994, when he took the stand in the Federal trial against the man who helped create his myth, Vince McMahon, and confirmed what so many of us had already guessed. McMahon had been charged with illegally providing steroids to wrestlers. He'd later be acquitted of the charges, but not before Hulk Hogan, without much remorse, admitted that he took steroids. That it was a "fairly common" thing. Not exactly a "Say it ain't so" moment since, even the most hardcore 12-year-old wrestling fans whispered about how wrestlers got so huge, but it was still admission that the whole thing – the belief that we could be good and fair, big and strong, totally exceptional Americans if we just tried – was a lie. 

Hogan would still play the character of the ultimate good guy. The wrestler you could always count on to run down from the dressing room to help out a friend who was getting beat up by two wrestlers. He was the same guy so many first graders probably chose as their hero – rather than their dads. Except that, after the trial, he was asking fans to continue cheering for his lies. He admitted that his real American image wasn't so much bullshit as it was sad reality, that cheaters win, and the people we think are good guys maybe aren't so great. That's why the heel turn, Hulk Hogan the wrestler becoming a bad guy, was one of the most brilliantly obvious moves in wrestling history. It wasn't killing the myth so much as it was continuing the story; it made us keep thinking of Hogan as a wrestler and not a man, and it shielded the man from the real truth. 

That was 20 years ago this month. The most popular wrestler of his time (it's safe to say Steve Austin and the Rock have surpassed him at this point, both as wrestlers and in their post-WWE careers) had his second act as the exact opposite of everything he had once stood for. And it worked for a few years, until it didn't. Hogan would eventually turn back to the good guy all decked out in yellow and red, WCW would fold, Hogan and McMahon would have something of a reconciliation in 2002 (it should be noted, he returned less than six months after 9/11, when America was looking for heroes and to comfort them wherever they could find them) and he'd win the title once more. His contract would be terminated in 2003, and Hogan would continue to work for other promotions. But by that time, his reputation and the myth of Hulk Hogan (thanks, in large part, to the Internet's ability to keep wrestling history, both in and out of the ring, in a more current context) had been damaged beyond repair. 

It would get worse from there: a very public affair that would lead to the end of his marriage; money trouble; more terrible movies added to his already shitty filmography; the WWE severing ties with (what we can only hope is the final time) him in 2015 for a taped racist tirade; and, of course, the sex tape. It would look as if Hulk Hogan is finished, that we'll probably hear very little from him in the future. His reputation is too soiled. Who could get up from all of those chair shots issued by the toughest opponent of them all, karma? 

But Hogan doesn't really need to get up. He'll no doubt collect some money from the Gawker lawsuit (whether he collects the full amount, which totals well over $100 million remains to be seen), and probably live out the rest of the days watching his body decay from the repeated physical abuse and steroids while thinking he's won. But he didn't. Hogan lost, and he lost huge. I'd love to say something like he lost his soul, but that's cliche. I'd also say he maybe never had a soul to begin with, but again, I'll refrain. What Hulk Hogan did was show us what a real bad guy looks like, and not the kind that double crosses his friend in the wrestling ring to win the championship. No, Hulk Hogan, the wrestler who was made to represent the man that stood for everything good, proved, in real life, that he was the man who would do whatever it took to get ahead. It may look like he won, but Hulk Hogan is a loser.