It's Wrestlemania weekend.
To a wrestling fan, that's as big a deal as the Super Bowl, the World Series or any other championship for any other sport. It is traditionally the season finale, the event at which angles and plotlines running for much of the year come to a head and climax. It's the big one, the one event that you still get, even if you're a lapsed fan. Back in the day when there were only four pay-per-views a year, the three months between the Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania were an emotional rollercoaster. Now that they have to set up big matches every month for a PPV, that's reduced a bit, but they still do a good job of upping the ante for what is known as "The Showcase of the Immortals".
The list of the classic matches that have appeared at this event is long indeed, but there's one in particular I'd like to discuss today. The Rock vs. "Hollywood" Hogan as WM 18, or as it was billed, "Wrestlemania X-8"
First, a bit of history. By this point in time, "Hulk" Hogan had long since left the WWE for its chief (and honestly, only) rival, WCW. Its boss, Eric Bischoff, had a radical idea; he wanted to turn Hogan into a bad guy, or "heel". To say it was a success was an understatement. With Hogan's help, WCW would beat the WWE in the ratings for almost two years. Hogan stopped using the "Hulk" moniker, and started being known as "Hollywood" Hogan. (This is not only because of the new persona, but because Marvel Comics got a check every time they used the name "Hulk".) The same charisma that made Hogan such a superstar was now being used to make him the most hated man in WCW, turning on old friends, teaming with people whose guts he once hated, everything a heel does. Seeing it done by Hogan was almost unfathomable.
Time passed, WWE took the upper hand once again, and eventually they ended up buying WCW. This meant they got ownership of WCW's sizeable film library, as well as all of the current wrestler's contracts. Many started working for WWE straight away, but many of the big names, including Hogan and the other members of his "stable", the NWO, took a bit more coaxing. They eventually showed up shortly before Wrestlemania, and The Rock (at the time the biggest good guy, or "babyface" they had) quickly challenged him to a match.
Wrestlemania was held in Toronto that year, at the SkyDome. Now Canadian fans love wrestling, and take it seriously to a degree that can't be fathomed by Americans. Not that they "don't know the truth" or anything, but that they suspend disbelief, appreciate the mechanics of the sport and can recognize a well-performed match when they see it. They don't watch it with the smug irony Americans do, but with the determined to have fun eye of a person who knows he's surrounded by like-minded people who aren't going to judge him, and is determined to have as much fun as he can. In that, I envy them.
Hogan had left the (at the time) WWF in 1994. In 2002, wrestling fans never thought they'd see him in a WWE ring again, so his return was a time of nostalgic joy indeed. The way the story was being played, Hogan was clearly the bad guy, and The Rock was the good guy. But after an absence of eight years, these old-school, hide-bound wrestling fans were simply not going to boo Hulk Hogan.
After a nice recap/prologue, Hogan makes his entrance at 3:30 into the segment. He's not coming out to his classic song, "Real American", he's not in his traditional red and yellow, he's got a beard and is clearly playing an arrogant bad guy. Listen to that crowd. They Do Not Care. This is their chance, possibly their only and last chance to cheer for him, and damn the plotline, they choose to cheer. The announcers, Jim Ross and Jerry "The King" Lawler, hastily amend their commentary from what was surely supposed to be clearly negative to the "You have to appreciate his past, regardless of what he's like now" variety.
He stands in the ring alone for a solid three minutes before they send in The Rock. They wouldn't stop cheering long enough to cue the entrance music. He gets a mere minute and a half to enter and do his moves for the crowd before the music stops and the match ostensibly starts at 7:45. Again, the crowd would not let the show continue. The pair can not start the match for almost another two minutes. They spend a good chunk of time looking out into the audience, clearly overwhelmed at the reaction.
The sound never lets up. When Hogan lands a blow or sends Rock to the mat, they pop like their son just scored a touchdown after triumphing over both cancer and a serious stammer. When Rock was winning, they acted as if he had called each of them, face to face, and in front of close friends, fat. Ross and Lawler swore blind there were people cheering for The Rock. At that moment, there were probably more people in the SkyDome cheering for Dick Butkus.
As the match went on, it was clear what the audience wanted, and the pair knew how to deliver it. Hogan started to flag, falling under Rock's blows, which gave Rock a chance to take on the heel role, prancing and preening, almost taunting the crowd as Hogan lay on the mat. This gave Hogan the chance to return to his traditional babyface role, if only in disposition, as he kept on using traditional "heelish" moves like biting, choking, and a glorious nut-shot that had the crowd wincing and cheering. If there was any question that the roles had reversed, Rock gets Hogan down and puts him in the Sharpshooter, signature move of Bret "Hitman" Hart, member of the Hart clan, the closest thing to the Canadian Royal Family of wrestling there is, and whose history with Vince McMahon is Quite Another Story Indeed.
When Hogan starts his "Hulk out" revival sequence, the crowd goes to eleven. Once that starts, you can call the match with your eyes shut: three blows by the opponent, Hogan stands straight up, stares him down, does the "YOU" point, Irish Whip, big boot, Atomic Leg Drop, 1 - 2 - 3. And by the time the ref got to three there wasn't a person in that arena over the emotional age of ten. A Hogan match is the wrestling equivalent of comfort food - you know exactly what you're gonna get, it's always warm, yummy and filling, and that crowd had not eaten in a loooong time.
Except the ref DIDN'T make three. Rock gets up, and after TWO Rock Bottoms, he wins the match. And it is not until the very end, when he goes for his big finisher The People's Elbow, do the fans start cheering for him. Because what tops off a nice meal of comfort food like a great dessert.
By this point, the lines of face and heel were lost - Hands were shaken, and the proverbial torch is passed. They'd obviously planned a long run with the NWO angle after this match, but after that reaction, it was clear it would not stand. In what felt like a hasty move, Hogan's NWO compatriots Scott Hall and Kevin Nash come out and start beating up on him for losing, giving Rock the chance to come to his aid and set up a quick face turn for Hogan. The traditional six minutes of posing for the audience followed, and it's clear that the crowd would have sat through another twenty.
Hogan stayed with the WWE for another year and change, but to draw a parallel to a previous era, Andre the Giant stayed around for a while after Hogan beat him in WM3 so many years before. In both cases, most consider those matches to be each wrestler's last great moment. But the real star of that match was the audience. There's hasn't been a crowd that hot and excited for a match since the fifties, and there hasn't been one since. They told the WWE what they wanted, and they were smart and deft enough to change plans and deliver.