It’s been 18 years since the 18th edition of WWE’s presentation of WrestleMania which emanated from the Skydome in Toronto Ontario. The card for the evening was stacked and featured some pretty unique matches for the time. When one thinks of WrestleMania X8, your mind isn’t immediately transported to Kurt Angle vs. Kane. Very few wrestling aficionados are going back to re-watch Booker T vs. Edge. This was a feud that stemmed over a Japanese Shampoo Commercial in case some have forgotten. WrestleMania X8’s legacy is forever tied to one match and one match only. Hollywood Hulk Hogan and The Rock is the latest in our WrestleMania REIMAGINED series.
“You talk about headlining WrestleMania after Wrestlemania after Wrestlemania. Well, Hulk Hogan, The Rock asks you this. How do you feel about headlining one more Wrestlemania with The Rock?!”
– The Rock
Never before had there been a match like this at WrestleMania. Promoted as Icon vs. Icon, the normal hype train hyperbole of the WWE was true in everything it claimed about. This was a meeting between two of the biggest stars in the industry. Sure, Hogan vs. Andre at WrestleMania 3 was close. However, Andre was the final obstacle for The Hulkster to overcome to cement his status as THE guy. Hulk Hogan was never a mainstream cultural juggernaut in his own right.
For this matchup, it truly was the two biggest names of all time in professional wrestling looking across the ring from each other. Everything that WWE promoted this match to be was 100% accurate.
As important as this bout was perceived by both the fans and the company to be, no one could have possibly anticipated how it could have played out. The ramifications on the industry once the closing bell rang.
But before we unpack the fallout of the match, we must first take a look at how these two legends ended up against each other in the first place.
February 2002 was a very interesting time in WWE. The Invasion angle had run its course months prior and the infusion of WCW talent was largely perceived to be a failure. This was due to the lack of bigger names. That was all about to change with the signing and re-introduction of 3 of the biggest stars in WCW’s history. Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Hollywood Hogan were the original members of The New World Order.
Specifically for Hogan, it had been almost 10 years since he had been inside a WWE ring. Brought into the WWE to “inject a lethal dose of poison”, Hogan was a clear cut bad guy and spent his first night back assaulting Stone Cold Steve Austin. If there was ever a way to ensure a crowd to passionately boo you, it’s to attack the messiah of the Attitude Era.
However, there were early inklings that this villainous version of Hogan wouldn’t last very long in the eyes of fans. In the weeks that followed the debut of The NWO, scattered amongst the boos were pockets of cheers and chants for The Hulkster. In fact, the evening that The Rock came out to issue the challenge. Hogan was in the midst of cutting a by-the-numbers “You People” promo to gain some modicum of heat to little avail.
When “The People’s Champ” stood across from “The Immortal” Hulk Hogan that evening for the very first time, those in attendance and watching at home knew there was electricity in the air. Hogan responded to The Rock’s callout with an affirmative.
The stage was set for a showdown at The Grandest Stage Of Them All.
That night in Toronto (RIP Gord Downie), Hogan made his way to the ring first, the slightly pornographic tunes of the NWO theme song blasting through the speakers. Although the cameras zoomed onto a collection of pro-Rocky signs during the walk down the ramp, there was no denying the roar of approval that was filling the Skydome. Once Hogan was inside the ring and his music cut, even Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler has to flat out admit on commentary that the narrative had shifted, and the acceptance of Hogan as the villain this night would be outright denied.
Cue The Rock. “The Great One” made his way to the ring, posed on the top turnbuckle as he was prone to do, and paced the ring before getting right into the face of “The Immortal”.
“It’s like Tyson vs Ali, you never thought you would see that.”
Let me take a moment now, if we may, to admit two things to you. The first is that this match we are about to delve into is probably some fan’s favorite match of all time. And the second is that this match is not very good.
I know those sound like contradictory things but hear me out. The reason this match is iconic isn’t because of the technical prowess both men, nor is it inclusion of high spots or death-defying bumps. The truth is, Hogan is arguably past his prime at this point and The Rock had a very by-the-numbers style that didn’t traditionally lend itself to 5-Star classics. If there was an MVP that elevated this contest to one of the most memorable matches in Wrestlemania history, it was the crowd that night.
Because of the aforementioned poor quality match-wise, I’m not going to spend a lot of time breaking down the play-by-play. Instead, there are two things I want to touch on that have always stuck with me, no matter how many times I’ve re-watched (and that number is a lot).
The first occurs in the very opening moments of the match.
The two lockups, and after a short back and forth, Hulk Hogan lets out a dramatic yell and shoves The Rock down to the mat. This is followed by flex and a pose from the Hulkster. And the crowd goes berserk.
Now, I know that that’s a common turn of phrase when describing a wrestling match, or really any sporting event. But I cannot emphasize enough that when I say the crowd goes berserk, the crowd goes BERSERK. Never in my 18 years as a fan have I heard a bigger pop than that early moment. And clearly neither had Hulk Hogan, as he is visibly shocked and takes a moment to asses the situation as every single member in attendance rises to their feet and screams at the top of their lungs. Hulk Hogan, a man who had headlined 9 previous WrestleManias and been at the top of the mountain for years, cannot believe what he is hearing in that moment.
The second is the story that is told in this match. Both men, while not the greatest technical wrestlers are masters at storytelling, and clearly called an audible early on to reverse their respective roles. Therefore The Rock begins working heel and Hulk Hogan transitions easily to the face in peril. This is why, in the climax of the match, we are treated to Hogan “Hulking Up” for the first time in nearly 10 years. And in that moment, the era of Hollywood Hogan comes to an end, replaced by the second coming of Hulkamania.
“In that moment I had to listen to my gut. And I thought ‘I’m going to work as a heel now’ and give the people, 68,000 people, give them the opportunity to not be conflicted.
“Cheer him, you can boo me because the only thing that matters is we have a great match.”
– The Rock
While The Rock would go on to win the match, Hulk Hogan was unquestionably the winner in this exchange. The Hulkster was reborn this night, and the love he received would be replicated in every arena that WWE touched down in for the coming months. In addition, this match kicked off the greatest era of Hogan’s career as a worker; breaking free of The NWO and allowing him to compete in singles matches with some of the biggest stars of The Ruthless Aggression Era. Gone was the politicking, the ego, and the refusal to “do the honors”, replaced with a Hulkster that was content to bask in the adulation of his adoring fans and listen to those he was doing business with.
For The Rock, it solidified his status as one of the greats. Even as late as 2002, it meant something to The Rock be in the ring with Hulk Hogan. It meant, even more, to actually beat him.
“When we got to the back, I gave Hogan the biggest, hardest hug I could and I said ‘thank you for passing the torch’.
“He said, ‘you deserve it, brother’, or something to that effect. ‘Carry it well, like I did when Andre passed me the torch’.”
It’s a very weird feeling to revisit this match in the current setting of the world. For weeks fans have watched wrestling that has been broadcast in empty arenas. These matches carrying out with no fan reaction to help support. WrestleMania X8, probably more than any show in wrestling history, proves just how important a crowd is. This helps to elevate a match to iconic status. WrestleMania 36 could possibly go on to be the best show of the year in terms of work-rate. However, no Superstar will be able to hold a candle to what The Rock and Hogan achieved that night.
Icon vs. Icon indeed.