Part Twenty Four
As 1990 began, Hulk Hogan reigned supreme as World Wrestling Federation champion. However behind the scenes, the landscape of the WWF was changing. While Hulkamania had been a proven commodity during the Rock-n-Wrestling Era (1984-1989), WWF kingpin Vince McMahon was toying with the idea of placing a new figure as the promotion’s standard-bearer.
In 1989 the Hulkster had regained the WWF championship by defeating his former tag team partner “Macho Man” Randy Savage at WrestleMania V. From there, Hogan started a program with actor Tony Lister (who had portrayed the character Zeus in Hogan’s film vehicle No Holds Barred). Vince McMahon hoped that to capitalize on the anticipated success of the film and promote a series of matches between Lister (who wrestled as Zeus) and Hogan, culminating in a main event match-up at WrestleMania VI.
Although No Holds Barred wasn’t the spectacular success McMahon envisioned, he still ran with his program of Zeus vs. Hogan. Knowing Lister’s inexperience in the ring, McMahon partnered him with Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan with Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. The two teams would feud throughout the rest of the year with a cage match ending the feud in December. While the Hogan/Zeus program wasn’t a dud, it clearly wasn’t going to be the main event for the biggest show of the year.
With Zeus out of the picture for WrestleMania VI, McMahon looked for a new opponent for the Hulkster. He also began to consider changing course for his promotion. While Hulk Hogan was doing a good job as WWF champion, there were reasons why Vince McMahon wanted to go in a new direction. First off, he wanted to keep things fresh. While the WWF had a history of long title reigns for babyface champions, Hulk Hogan had held the WWF championship for five years (Andre the Giant had a brief reign followed by Randy “Macho Man” Savage’s reign of nearly a year). As popular as Hogan was, all stars need a break. With the WWF promoting four PPV’s a year, airing several weekly TV shows in syndication and on cable, and a recurring special on NBC (Saturday Night’s Main Event), McMahon had to be thinking about whether or not he needed to freshen up his product.
There were other factors at play as well. In his book Hollywood Hulk Hogan, the Hulkster says that he was tiring of being on the road constantly. Nagging injuries were starting to get the best of him. Other sources say that the Hulkster was looking to make more films. With all of the appearances that the WWF champion made, a titleholder could not afford to miss months off of TV to film a movie.
The Ultimate Warrior had proven to be a popular star ever since coming to the promotion. The WWF had two main event babyfaces with Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior with the capability of each man headlining shows on their own. If the Hulkster wanted to slow down his schedule (or even phase himself out of the WWF in order to move to Hollywood), it made sense to put the belt on someone who would work full-time.
The situation with the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan had remarkable similarities to nearly twenty years in the past when the WWF was known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation and a new star was brought in to take the load off of an existing main
There was certainly a precedent for giving a popular champion a respite. During the 1970’s, the WWWF had used the wildly popular Puerto Rican star Pedro Morales as their champion and former champion Bruno Sammartino as a special attraction (Bruno would begin touring the United States, spreading his fame to other territories). Sammartino had held the WWWF belt from 1963 to 1971 before dropping it to Ivan Koloff in Madison Square Garden on January 18, 1971. Morales attracted the Puerto Rican crowd and became WWWF champion after defeating Koloff in the “Mecca of Professional Wrestling” on February 8, 1971.
This title switch from Sammartino to Morales (via the interim heel champion Ivan Koloff) gave the WWWF to go after a growing Latin audience, put a fresh face behind the belt, and give Sammartino the break he craved. As Morales’ reign continued fans, began to speculate as to who was the better champion, Morales or Sammartino. This speculation led to an unlikely match between the two men.
While the WWWF did not make a habit of pitting babyfaces against babyfaces, they made a lucrative exception by promoting a match between the WWWF champion and the former champion. Morales faced Sammartino in a dream match at the first Showdown at Shea. The two men battled to a draw after an hour-long scientific match. While inclement weather dampened the attendance, the show was still successful and earned Match of the Year accolades from mark magazines.
Now Vince McMahon was going to put his two top babyfaces against one another. How would the fans react? The WWF’s practice of not pitting babyfaces against babyfaces was still in place in 1990 when Vince McMahon decided to have The Ultimate Warrior challenge Hulk Hogan for his WWF Championship. Would they need to turn one of the men heel? In hindsight, it seems impossible to think of the WWF turning Hogan or the Warrior heel. Both men were wildly popular and while both men had worked as heels in their careers, turning one into a villain would cut into valuable merchandise revenue. Neither man had worn out their welcome as a babyface so it just didn’t make sense to have one turn heel.
The WWF went down the road less traveled and launched a program which would pit the WWF’s two top wrestlers to see who was the best of the best. Things started with an excellent promo by the Ultimate Warrior before the 1990 Royal Rumble. The Warrior talked about how he had spread through the WWF like a virus. He spoke of the 28 ordinary people in the Rumble and then pointed out that there were two immortals in the contest-himself and Hulk Hogan. It was clear that to the Warrior, Hogan was the only person who stood a chance against him.
During his promo, the Hulkster talked of how you had to expect the unexpected at the Royal Rumble. While Hogan admitted that there were some tough opponents in the Rumble, he said that no one can compensate for the power of the pythons and ended by saying, “Whatcha gonna do when Hulkamania rumbles all over you?”
The 1990 Royal Rumble saw a variety of top stars in the 30 man contest. While the Rumble didn’t have any particular prize on the line for the winner (as it would beginning in 1992 when the WWF title was on the line and in subsequent years where the winner got a WWF title shot at Wrestlemania), it was a tremendous honor to win it.
Both Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior drew late numbers in the Rumble. The Ultimate Warrior entered at number 21 and he quickly worked in eliminating Dino Bravo. The Warrior continued his non-stop assault and eliminated “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase. DiBiase had drawn the number one spot in the Rumble and lasted over 44 minutes. That was little consolation though for DiBiase.
Finally, the opponent the Warrior was waiting for arrived-Hulk Hogan! The Hulkster got a great number, coming in at #25. Like the Warrior, Hogan quickly went to work eliminating opponents. He tossed out “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka followed by Haku. The Honky Tonk Man went after Hogan but the Hulkster quickly disposed of him as well.
Shawn Michaels entered the Rumble but he didn’t last long. The Ultimate Warrior quickly tossed him out of the ring and dispensed with the remaining ordinary wrestler - Rick Martel. Now it was the WWF’s top two wrestlers-the Intercontinental Champion (Warrior) and the WWF Champion Hulk Hogan!
The two men stared furiously at each other, sizing one another up. They engaged in a brief shoving match but no one moved. Then they tried to shoulder block each other but neither man moved. Their encounter was like two rams butting heads in the forest, striving for supremacy. Both men then bounced off of the ropes, engaging in a criss-cross. Hogan extended a clothesline but The Ultimate Warrior ducked out of the way. Both men then bounced off of the ropes and hit one another with clotheslines, laying each other out.
The Barbarian came in at number 27. With both Hogan and the Warrior down, he was sitting in the catbird seat. When fellow heel “Ravishing” Rick Rude came in, things looked really bad for the Hulkster and Warrior. Rude and the Barbarian went after Hogan but the Warrior rallied and saved Hogan from elimination. This turned Rude and The Barbarian’s attention to The Warrior and they went after him.
This time, Hulk Hogan rallied but instead of saving The Warrior, he helped Rude and The Barbarian by clotheslining the Warrior out of the ring. The Ultimate Warrior took out his anger by returning to the ring and delivering several blows to Rude and the Barbarian before running back to the ring. To some fans’ surprise, The Warrior did not seem upset with Hogan for his rather questionable tactics (then again, it is every man for himself in the Rumble).
Hogan got some help when Hercules entered the ring and aided the Hulkster against Rude and The Barbarian. Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig got the “perfect” number, entering the Rumble at number 30. Just five participants remained but it didn’t take long for people to start getting thrown over the top rope. Hercules threw out The Barbarian but he quickly followed him after Rude tossed him out.
The Ravishing One and Mr. Perfect double-teamed Hogan. In the heat of battle, anything can happen and Rude went to deliver a forearm smash to Hogan as Perfect restrained the WWF champion. Hogan slipped out of the way and Rude hit Perfect instead. Hogan used this opportunity to eliminate Rude, leaving him and Perfect as the last men in the ring.
Mr. Perfect went to soften Hogan up by hitting his finisher, the “Perfect Plex” on the Hulkster. However Hogan “Hulked up”, no-selling the move. That was the end of Perfect and the Hulk quickly disposed of Hennig, winning the 1990 Royal Rumble.
While the Hulkster had won the Rumble, it was clear that he was facing a new challenger in the form of The Ultimate Warrior. Unlike previous challenges, the Hulkster would face a wrestler whose popularity rivaled his own and who possessed many of the same abilities as he did. Suddenly, Wrestlemania VI was shaping up to be the biggest challenge of Hulk Hogan’s career.
Thanks again to Graham Cawthon for his awesome resource page The History of WWE!