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People will tell you that Hulk Hogan's eventual heel turn in WCW was an inevitability, after two years of the same tired old routine fans had steadily fought against the Real American in an unstoppable inertia that left turning Hogan heel for the first time in nearly fifteen years not only a very real possibility, but also the most logical choice. Viewed on that plain it was an uncontrollable decline (one that even lead Hogan to "go to the dark side" at the end of 1995), but what if there was another causing factor to Hogan's declining popularity?
In his first live appearance for WCW, Hulk Hogan received some boos. Arriving at the Clash Of The Champions 27 in Charleston, North Carolina – in NWA country, in RIC FLAIR country, fans booed Hogan because he was the enemy. A lot of people also cheered him. Hogan cut a promo, essentially saying he would face the winner of the Sting/Flair title match that evening at the pay per view the following month. You wouldn't need to know anything about wrestling to know it was going to be Hogan against Flair, you only had to watch the promos in the month's leading up to his arrival to see that Flair was being asked six questions and five of them were about Hogan.
The point I'm getting to here, in a round-about way, is that when Hulk Hogan arrived he was a character that had been off of television for over a year, in front of an audience of many people who had never really watched him, facing a roster full of fresh faces and opponents. Sure, many of the people watching knew him to be from the enemy, but the 1990s (and to a bigger extent the 1980s) were different viewing times, that national expansion was coming but both the WWF and NWA-WCW had their parts of the country where they were stronger. The idea WCW fans were ready and willing to boo Hogan, consistently, just doesn't seem right.
It's an idea enhanced further still if you isolate the matches Hogan had with both Flair in 1994 and Vader in early 1995. Against credible/viable heel opponents, Hogan was a cheered babyface. Listen to the pop when Hogan first wins the title off of Flair at Bash At The Beach, or when he "retires" him four months later at Halloween Havoc. The Vader program is a bit more murky because the booking was so bad, but even then people viewed Vader as such a threat it was a hard time getting people to boo Hogan, particularly in the early stages.
The problems started between the two feuds. After dispatching of Flair he didn't immediately move onto to the very natural progression against Vader. Instead with his incredibly strong powerbase within the company for not only him and Jimmy Hart but also his ever swelling group of friends on the roster – he was moved onto a feud with the Three Faces Of Fear. Included in that group? Best friend Ed Leslie (playing "The Butcher" or "Brother Bruti" depending on what week it was) and Avalanche (the latest natural disaster gimmick for John Tenta aka Earthquake). Rounding out the trio was Kevin Sullivan, who himself was less than a year away from becoming head-booker in the company.
The feud lasted three months and was absolutely awful. People like Vader and Steve Austin were being shunted down the card in favour of giving Hogan's friends a spot, and nobody bought it. The characters weren't just awful, they had no credibility. What had Sullivan, Butcher and Avalanche done to earn a spot even in the main event of a Clash? Much worse was what was to come at Starrcade. Hogan had throw out the idea in a meeting about facing Leslie in the main event of the show – Eric Bischoff and the other existing brass within WCW didn't feel they had the power to overrule Hogan, so let it go on.
What's worse, still, is that the booking of the undercard had been so directionless the list of viable opponents for Starrcade wasn't particularly long. They had teased making Meng (Haku of WWF fame) a monster push as a heel – including a memorable angle at the August clash where he no sold a Dusty Rhodes chair shot and left him laying with a nerve hold. It would've been a stretch getting Meng ready for Hogan in under six months, but it's not hard to believe him being built for that length of time before being slayed by Hogan would've been received as badly as Butcher vs Hogan.
And that's not to say Butcher against Hogan was actually received badly. While the match way down on Hogan's battles with Flair (which both cleared an estimated 200,000 buys), the 0.6 buyrate was actually up on Starrcade from the previous year – which is something quite special given that Flair's career was on the line then also. The buyrates before and after Hogan's arrival make for interesting reading:
Starrcade 1993 – Flair vs Vader – 0.55 buyrate/115,000 buys
Slamboree 1994 – PPV before he formally debuted – 0.48/105,000
Bash At The Beach – Hogan vs Flair – 1.02/225,000
Clash Of the Champions - Hogan vs Flair - no buys, obviously, but did a recording breaking TV audience
Fall Brawl – The September PPV Hogan didn't Wrestle On – 0.53/115,000
Halloween Havoc – Hogan/Flair Career vs Career – 0.97/210,000 (at a higher price)
Starrcade – Hogan vs Butcher – 0.60/130,000
Superbrawl 1995 – Hogan vs Vader – 0.95/180,000
Uncensored – Hogan vs Vader – 0.96/180,000
Credit to this Indeed Wrestling Piece For the Figures/Estimates
I'll spare you the rest of the data for 1995, but needless to say that buyrates dropped back to around the 0.5/0.6 range... with one exception: Bash At The Beach in Julyheadlined by Hogan vs Vader.
There were other factors at play too that probably mitigated any reaction Hogan got. In the first year of his run he was very selective in what shows he did, making infrequent appearances at television tapings and very rarely appearing at house shows. Without a the live Nitro (that wouldn't appear until September 1995) the idea that WCW fans could've become worn out on a guy who didn't even wrestle on every pay per view and infrequently appeared on television just doesn't stack up. And, if they were "tired" of the Hogan character, why were they buying pay per views with him in the main event in their droves?
I documented the Dungeon of Doom in ludicrous depth here, but what was perhaps so frustrating was that there was very little evidence to suggest anything related to the Three Faces Of Fear or the Dungeon Of Doom was actually anything anybody wanted to see, yet WCW persisted with it. Kevin Sullivan, now as the Taskmaster, fell into the familiar trope of wanting to “end Hulkamania”. Hogan engaged in series of credibility killing skits with the group including visiting the Dungeon on multiple occasions. He asked “where am I” – proving if nothing else he wasn’t stupid enough to watch WCW’s product, then put his hand under a fountain of water and said “Ah – it’s not hot”.
It was really after Bash At The Beach in mid-1995 that the wheels started to fall off. After the program with Vader actually pointed to a Vader face turn (that never worked out as Vader was fired not long after), Hogan was left with one man to face: The Giant. Paul Wight had been earmarked by Hogan as the latest in a line of attempts to recreate the 1980s WWF roster. Where they could be used (Savage) they were signed, and where not – the were recreated. The Ultimate Warrior would eventually end up on WCW television, but long after WCW tried to recreate him with Rick Wilson as "The Renegade" - which you can read more about here.
The Giant was the attempt to recreate Andre The Giant, and WCW's attempt to recreate the program from Wrestlemania 3. Paul Wight had a presence at 7ft tall, but in a funny giant of way wasn't as gigantic as Andre, just more lanky. He came into WCW with very little wrestling experience – at all, and was thrown in at the deep-end, wrestling his first match on television against Hogan at Halloween Havoc in what may possibly have been only his second or third match overall.
In that sense the main event was actually a miracle. Sure, it was a pretty bad match, but offered nothing horrendous in the fourteen minutes it ran for. If anything the match was somewhat of a relief following the utterly ludicrous angle that ran earlier in the evening. Hogan, WCW had decided, would partake in a "Sumo Monster Truck" match against Giant earlier in the show. Why, absolutely nobody knows. But Hogan in the latest baffling stunt ended up knocking Giant off of the side of Kobo Hall – him plummeting to his presumed death. So imagine people's surprise when about 20 minutes later Giant walked out for the match unscathed.
This was all set at the backdrop of Hogan's turn to "the darkside".Another thing I wrote about at great length here. I've honestly got no idea what they were trying to achieve here – by this stage with live Nitro's Hogan was being exposed much more frequently to mixed and often quite negative crowd reactions, the response was to have Hogan dressed as the Grim Reaper and cut listless promos. The best explanation we have was it was an experiment, one designed to end with Hogan going on a hiatus. Once the hiatus was abandoned (owing to the fact Nitro was putting up a much stronger fight against Raw than anybody anticipated), they had nowhere to go. Again, if Hogan truly was a character people didn't want to see, the ratings illustrated they had a funny way of showing it.
The result of all that was a hideously abrupt about face, with Hogan all of a sudden deciding he trusted Sting again, before the pair and Savage took part in a bizarre promo at the start of WCW World War 3 – one that briefly started an actual fire and included Hogan setting a copy of the Wrestling Observer on fire. "Observe this", indeed.
But it was by this stage that key indicating factors were beginning wane. Shorn of any marquee matchups WCW struggled on PPV, a point exacerbated by the fact they were absolutely running the well dry of money matches by showing them all on Nitro. Not that they would've wanted to go back to Hogan and Flair so soon on pay per view, but by mid-Feburary it was a showdown fans had seen so often it's hard to imagine they would be willing to pay hard money for it.
Buy-rates sagged, even more so on shows Hogan wasn't on or wasn't a key part in. Starrcade, built on the idea of the "World Cup of Wrestling" featuring a group of WCW performers against a group of New Japan performers fell on its arse, even after a triangle match involving Ric Flair, Sting and Lex Luger and a championship match was hastily added into the mix.
Hogan was getting a cut of WCW buys above the average prior to him arriving, along with a buttload of money. It was a plan that in the first year (give or take) worked quite well. While WCW had two gun opponents for him people we willing not only to pay to see him, but also to cheer him on. Once the money matches ran out and Hogan got embroiled in a painful program with the Dungeon of Doom there was no end in sight.
Fittingly it would end with the most ridiculous stipulation of all. The Doomsday cage match at Uncensored in 1996, a three tier cage that involved Hogan and Randy Savage taking on eight guys (a match scaled at Hogan's whim from a 4-on-1 match). Hogan even wanted Brian Pillman involved – Pillman's Loose Cannon antics and subsequent run in ECW had giving him some notoriety. The program with Pillman (which presumably would've placed him on the same side as The Taskmaster) made absolutely no sense, beyond Hogan wanting to cash in on one of the few things WCW had going for them at the time that wasn't either awful to begin with or hadn't been done to death.
The other bizarre aspect in all of this was Hogan's ring work – he was wrestling like a heel. Back rakes, eye gouging, forehead biting, using foreign objects, Hogan fell on these heel staples at an alarming frequency. It was never anything WCW ever tried to explain, nor anything that remotely makes sense in hindsight. There were even times where Hogan bounced off of Jimmy Hart in a traditional heel manager way – Hart providing a referee distraction to let Hogan get away with whatever he wanted to do. Add that to the times Hogan would use steel chairs, unprovoked, and you paint a surprisingly bi-polar picture of a fan favourite acting like a heel.
It's a fascinating parallel universe to imagine what might have been had Kevin Nash and Scott Hall not arrived in WCW in the middle of 1996. Something had to give (it likely would've been a Sting heel turn), but Hogan's character had felt as stale as ever. That fact is not in question, the point of this piece was to try and ascertain whether it was an inevitability.
It's not an easy question to answer. There was clearly a segment of the WCW audience that didn't like Hogan the moment he arrived in the middle of 1994, but all of the evidence points to Hogan being able to remain popular while they had two beasts in Flair and Vader to feed to him. WCW made a big mistake, when they signed Hogan, in not becoming even more of a Hogan-centric promotion than they became. The mantra became more about what kept Hogan and friends happy, and less about the bottom line. Had they have spent their energy generating a conveyor belt of compelling heels (see Sting, Meng, The Giant, Big Bubba Rogers – even Randy Savage), there's a good case to say they may have had energy for a while to come.