By Mark Dursin
Special to Page 2

Note from Simmons: If you remember the old "Boston Sports Guy" site, you probably remember "The Birdman," my buddy from college (real name: Mark Dursin) who wrote a weekly wrestling column for me. With Hulk Hogan getting inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame this weekend, I put a gun to the Birdman's head and forced him to make a one-time-only comeback. Here it is.

As with all things pro-wrestling, you never know what to believe. But for what it's worth, this is how Hulk Hogan describes the day before WrestleMania18:

"In the days preceding WrestleMania ... they started taking a poll ... asking fans who they would like to see win the match Sunday night -- me or The Rock. Almost everyone who came through wanted Hulk Hogan to beat The Rock. That really got us panicked."

So sayeth the Hulkster in his 2003 self-titled autobiography. Haven't read it? Let me bring you up to speed: Vince McMahon's WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment, is the number-one brand in professional wrestling; WrestleMania is WWE's number-one event; and Hulk Hogan, throughout most of the 1980s, was its number-one guy -- the self-appointed "Real American" who urged the kids in TV land to "train, say your prayers, and eat your vitamins."

With that said, the scenario described in the above passage would be ideal if Hogan was talking about a match from, say, 1985. But it wasn't 1985; it was 2002, and for the first time ever, Hogan was going into WrestleMania as a bad-guy. And when I say bad, I mean bad: The 2002 Hogan wore black tights. He shoe-polished his blond beard. His entrance music had a porn-movie kind of vibe going on. He didn't even go by Hulk Hogan anymore: no, he was Hollywood Hogan now. And he was going up against The Rock, WWE's golden-boy, one of the most popular superstars to come down the pike in years. The fans couldn't possibly root for the despicable Hollywood Hogan over the Rock-- could they?

They could, and they did. Man, did they ever.

You have to understand: Hogan, having left WWE (and Vince McMahon's good graces) back in 1993, hadn't competed at WrestleMania in nine years. When Hogan stepped into the Toronto Skydome that night, 68,000 fans welcomed him back with an eruption that could only be compared to -- well, to nothing, because honestly a sound quite like that one, a roar that long and loud and rabid, had never been heard before in professional wrestling. It was absolute calamity, a frenzy of "Hogan! Hogan!" and "Rocky Sucks!" chants. If the late Gorilla Monsoon had been calling the action, he would have said that Hogan "blew the roof off the Skydome" -- and this time, he would have been only slightly exaggerating.

That was three years ago. Within five months, Hogan left WWE again. Seven months later, he came back, just in time for WrestleMania IX; two months later -- gone. And now, in 2005, he's re-emerged yet again, but not for combat; no, this time, he's being inducted into World Wrestling Entertainment's "Hall of Fame."

First, a little perspective here: Former ballplayers are voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writer's Association of America. Elections also determine entrance into the Pro-Football Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and pretty much any other Hall of Fame you can imagine Induction into WWE's Hall of Fame, on the other hand, seems to be based on whether or not you'd show up at the ceremony. And Vince McMahon's track record of pissing off former employees limits that "folks who'd show up" list considerably. As a result, since the HoF inception in 1993, bona fide superstars like Bret "Hit-Man" Hart and Bruno Sammartino have been left out, in favor of guys such as "Baron" Mikel Scicluna and James Dudley. (I mean ... James Dudley? No offense, but ... who he? Honestly, has anyone ever heard of this guy?)

Apparently, even Vince McMahon recognized what a toothless farce the whole thing was because he stepped it up with the 2004 inductees, which included some "Hey-I-know-him" guys like Tito Santana, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan. (Even Pete Rose, who appeared at three WrestleManias, got inducted. Get it? Since he can't get inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame?) And this year, they took it up yet another notch, by honoring (among others) the Iron Sheik, "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and, of course, Hulk Hogan.

Still, you gotta wonder about any wrestling hall of fame that honors 34 other guys -- including James Dudley -- before it gives a nod to Hulk Hogan. Truly, when you come right down to it, Hulk's the biggest pro-wrestling star ever -- a fact that has made better, more talented athletes bristle for more than twenty years. Even his die-hard fans have to concede he has never been, technically speaking, even passable as a wrestler. No one's punches looked faker. No one's matches were more repetitive. In terms of his ability alone, on a scale from one to ten, I'd give him a three -- one point for every move in his arsenal.

He gets even fewer points for his behind-the-scenes antics. For years, the Internet has chronicled Hogan's deadly sins: betrayal (for signing with WWE's rival, World Championship Wrestling, back in 1994); greed (for his refusal to get out of the way and give younger guys a speck of the spotlight); even deception (for appearing on the Arsenio Hall show and categorically denying that he was a steroid abuser -- a statement he contradicted in court, when he testified against Vince McMahon during his 1994 steroid trial.) And, let's face it: when even fans of a fake sport call you a liar, you've sunk to new lows.

And you know what, folks? None of that matters one bit.

Hogan succeeded as a wrestler because he didn't care about wrestling; he poured all his energies into performing. And if, as a wrestler, Hogan was a three, as a performer, he was a thirty three. So what if he can't execute a top-rope frog splash? Why does he have to? What he's got is a lot easier on the ribs and knees: entrances, pose-downs, eyes that bulge out during his breathless interview-rants. Some guys nowadays do suicide dives onto concrete and free-fall from ladders, to modest applause; Hogan gets triple that reaction by putting his hand to his ear.

Hogan earned his Hall of Fame moment not because he could dropkick but because he could captivate. He could get the fans to care. No, more than that, he got them to believe.

And that's the key: If you spend any time on wrestling Internet sites (not something I recommend), you'll learn that pro-wrestling fans come in two flavors: "marks" and "smarts." "Marks" buy everything the promoters are selling. They're young, innocent: They believe the hero won because of his guts, not because some guy in the back planned it that way. They believe good guys and bad guys have separate locker rooms. They believe it all. "Smarts," conversely, are doubters. A steady diet of a thousand lame wrestling angles has completely obliterated their suspension of disbelief and left them jaded. To borrow a line from Jerry Maguire's Rod Tidwell, "They've been to the puppet show, and they've seen the strings."

Whether smart fans even like wrestling any more remains unclear. They only seem to derive pleasure from dissecting every program and talking how they could run a show much better than the current crop of nincompoops. They're cranky, insufferable, and too informed for their own good. (I, of course, am a smart.) If a smart and a mark were in a wrestling match, the smart would be the bad guy. The smart is oh-so-superior to the mark, finds him childish and ignorant. The smart hates the mark. He would also do anything to be one.

Every smart, you see, used to be a mark. Every doubter used to be a believer. And every smart fan wants to believe again, to go back to the way it was, even for just a second.

Unfortunately, WWE has not given fans -- smarts or marks -- a ton of reasons to believe as of late. Two years ago, the World Wildlife Fund lent a legal smackdown to the then-World Wrestling Federation over the right to the initials WWF. Somehow, when Vince and Co. lost that F, they lost a few other things -- for example, their ability to create interesting characters. Hell, they can't even come up with decent nicknames anymore. Once upon a time, WWE churned out Stone Cold Steve Austins and Mankinds; nowadays, the best they can do are guys named Nathan Jones, Paul London, and Shelton Benjamin. (Yes, Shelton: we're supposed to get behind a guy named Shelton.) Even their recent attempts to push new superstars have only revealed how out of touch they are with the fans. Last summer, they tried to shove down the fans' collective throats a young buck named Randy Orton, a guy who has everything except an ounce of personality. The fans crapped on the guy; eventually, the promoters had to pull the plug.

Which brings us back to March 2002, WrestleMania 18. The fans in Skydome that night, the 68,000 chanting Hogan's name, weren't doing so in anticipation of a great match. For cying out loud, Hogan was 48-years-old; Rock was 29. Rationally, Hogan couldn't win. But the fans weren't cheering for the balding, 48-year-old, bad-guy Hogan; they were cheering for the 1985 Hogan, the one that made them believers in the first place. Their nostalgia was infectious. I remember I got the pay-per-view that Sunday night, and I was watching it, in my bedroom, alone. I had even fallen asleep earlier; that's how into it I was. Then the Hogan-Rock match came on, and I heard the fans going bonkers, and I got interested. At one point, I actually got out of bed and got closer to the TV.

Forget about the fact that Hogan's a balding old man. Forget about the fact that his moves are preposterously fake-looking. Hell, forget about the fact here I am, a thirty-two-year old man with a job and two kids, and I'm staying up late on a Sunday night going nuts over a match that's all pre-determined anyway. Let's forget about all that for just one second, because I really think Hogan just might be able to pull this one out.

That's why Hulk Hogan should be remembered: because he can make people forget.

On the night of April 2nd, the night before WrestleMania 21, Sylvester Stallone will induct Hulk Hogan into the WWE Hall of Fame. But I doubt that WWE will be happy with just that; no, they'll probably convince him to make an appearance at the Staples Center the next night, at WrestleMania itself. In all likelihood, some young up-and-comer will come to the ring and talk trash about the Hulkster, and Hogan will be forced to knock him down a few pegs with a couple of his patented fake-looking punches to the head. When that happens, forget the absurdity of the whole thing and just listen to the roar of the live crowd. You'll recognize it as the sound of 15,000 doubters turning into believers.

Mark Dursin is an occassional contributor to the Hartford Courant's Northeast Magazine

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