Like most wrestlers during the days of the territories, Hulk Hogan worked in a variety of promotions, learning his trade. Hulk Hogan first came into prominence when he wrestled in Vince McMahon Sr’s (actually Vince Jesse McMahon but most people refer to him as Vince Sr. that I’ve long since adopted the name) World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). There, the Hulkster worked under the name Hogan (reportedly McMahon wanted to appeal to his large Irish audience). He worked a program with WWWF champion Bob Backlund before going on to his first feud against Andre the Giant. During the feud, Hogan bodyslammed Andre, something not unheard of but still a big deal (Hogan’s slam would be conveniently overlooked during his subsequent feud with Andre).
During this time, Hogan toured Japan, working in New Japan Pro Wrestling. There, he worked a surprisingly technical style and the blond bomber caught the fans’ attention, earning the nickname Ichiban (Japanese for “Number One”). Hogan would continue to tour NJPW throughout his career and remain a top star there.
In 1982, the Hulkster appeared in the Sylvester Stallone feature Rocky III, portraying a pro wrestler who the Rocky character battled in an exhibition bout. The film led to Hogan losing his job with the WWF. Promoter Vincent J. McMahon would not allow Hogan to take the time off to make the movie. Hogan left the company to appear in the film. In hindsight, this proved to be a gutsy and successful move on Hogan’s part. The film introduced Hogan to mainstream national audience, winning them over with his fantastic physique and incredible charisma. Promotional appearances on programs such as the Tonight Show only further helped Hogan’s star to rise.
American Wrestling Association promoter Vince Gagne wisely capitalized on Hogan’s growing stardom by signing Hogan to his promotion. Unfortunately Gagne failed to fully utilize Hogan, a move that some believe contributed to the ultimate demise of the AWA. The Hulkster debuted in the AWA as a heel but positive audience reaction led to him quickly being turned face.
Hogan was quickly thrust into a program with AWA World Heavyweight Champion Nick Bockwinkel. The program was a tremendous success. Unfortunately, Gagne failed to pull the trigger in giving Hogan the belt. Numerous theories have been tossed about why Gagne wouldn’t give the belt to Hulk such as Hogan refusing to marry one of Gagne’s daughters, a dispute over merchandising revenue, and Gagne feeling that Hogan’s technical skills weren’t sufficient to carry the world strap. Whatever the reason, Hogan had enough and he bolted from the AWA.
Around this time, Vince Sr.’s son Vincent Kennedy McMahon (or Vince Jr.) was looking for a new star to main event in the WWF. McMahon had bought the WWF from his father and was looking to replace WWF champion Bob Backlund with someone more charismatic. McMahon was looking to take the WWF from a regional promotion to a national one and Hogan was the perfect candidate.
After McMahon transferred the belt from Backlund to the hated Iranian wrestler the Iron Sheik, he quickly positioned Hogan into a title match. Hogan won his first WWF title on January 23, 1984 in Madison Square Garden. The match was televised on the WWF’s syndicated programming and fans quickly knew that there was a new sheriff in town.
From there, Hulkamania began spreading throughout the WWF with Hogan appearing rarely on WWF TV in order to maintain demand for his appearances at house shows. While Hogan met McMahon’s expectations, he knew that he needed the right opponent for the ultimate match to feature Hogan.
In 1984, McMahon signed Rowdy Roddy Piper from Jim Crockett Promotions. Piper was working as an incredibly over face but McMahon knew that Piper had worked as an equally over heel. McMahon felt that Piper’s charisma would make the perfect foil for Hogan.
Rather than throwing the two men together at once, McMahon built Piper up as the promotion’s top heel, using a talk segment known as “Piper’s Pit” to build up the fans’ hatred against Piper. During one “Piper’s Pit”, Piper smashed a coconut over the head of the popular Polynesian star Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, launching a feud between the two men which catapulted Piper to the top of the WWF’s “Most Hated” rankings.
Once McMahon had established Piper as his promotion’s top heel, it was time to design his dream match between the WWF’s top face and its top heel. McMahon was ready to gamble everything on his dream match in order to take the WWF to the national level. McMahon had seen the success of closed circuit events with JCP’s closed circuit event Starcade and he wanted to launch a closed circuit show of his own.
McMahon carefully orchestrated the buildup to the Hogan/Piper match. Previously, he had hosted a match on the popular music television network MTV between WWF Woman’s champion the Fabulous Moolah and up and coming star Wendi Richter. The match (known as “The Brawl to Settle it All”) was a big ratings winner for MTV and it helped popularize women’s wrestling in the WWF. Knowing the publicity that MTV could provide, McMahon staged an angle at an awards show in Madison Square Garden where pop sensation Cyndi Lauper and wrestling manager “Captain” Lou Albano were to receive an award for their fund-raising efforts to battle multiple sclerosis. In true heel fashion, Rowdy Roddy Piper crashed the ceremony laying out Albano, Lauper, and Lauper’s manager Dave Wolff.
Hulk Hogan ran in for the save, setting up a match known as “The War to Settle the Score”. The match was a one hour special on MTV and like any good set-up match, it solved nothing and built things up for a rematch. During the bout, the referee was knocked out, leading Piper’s henchmen “Cowboy” Bob Orton and Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff to join the fray. TV toughman Mr. T was at ringside and decided to help the Hulkster out, only to get beat down for his efforts. However T’s intervention gave Hogan time to recover and the two men drove Piper and his cohorts out of the ring.
The stage was now set for WrestleMania, a closed-circuit event that Vince McMahon tried to sell throughout the country featuring a tag team main event of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T versus Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff. It was a big gamble on McMahon’s part and he basically bet the WWF’s financial future on the event. In order to help sell the event, McMahon hired a public relations firm to promote the event. Despite all this, WrestleMania’s success was in doubt. Then in a brilliant move, the WWF arranged for Hulk Hogan to appear on Saturday Night Live. Hogan and T’s appearance generated additional publicity and Wrestlemania became a success, helping solidify the WWF’s position as a national promotion.
Thanks to each other, Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan were sitting on top of the world. However success can be fleeting. Would the two men be able to hang on to success?