Wrestling has taken me through every emotion under the sun in the 35-plus years I’ve been watching it – the tears of Owen Hart’s death, the joy of Daniel Bryan hugging Connor Michalek after winning the title at WrestleMania XXX, the excitement of the Warrior’s music hitting during the main event at WrestleMania VIII. Just recently I was filled with the most wonderful nostalgia, meeting the Bushwhackers and seeing Luke wrestle at IPW’s Kiwi As, Mate! event.
But there’s another emotion often associated less with wrestling in general and more with WWE in particular that I’ve been driven to more times than is healthy – rage.
And I can pinpoint the first time that happened in minute detail. In fact thinking of it now so outrages me that I’ve been forced to examine why it’s having such a profound effect on me a quarter of a century on. But more on that in a second…
The match, of course, was the last match of WrestleMania IX, the “World’s Largest Toga Party” at Caesar’s Palace in Nevada. And it started off so well. Much chuckling was to be had as Howard Finkel was renamed Finkus Maximus for the day and the much-missed Bobby Heenan was carried in backwards on a camel. My god, who could forget those blue underpants? And Jim Ross called his first WrestleMania matches, the start of a WWE career that saw him give voice to some of the most iconic moments in sports entertainment history.
Okay, in hindsight it was as tacky as hell. Cleopatra and Julius Caesar appearing at the start? The inappropriate cultural appropriation? Yeah, it doesn’t exactly stack up as one of WWE’s best decisions – but it all pales into insignificance with those last few minutes. But let me not get ahead of myself again…
The card itself wasn’t the best and I think it showed in the muted crowd. Mr WrestleMania, Shawn Michaels was first out, and the crowd barely made a noise. A dreadful performance from the referee aside, and some confusing commentary it wasn’t a bad opener – unfortunately all it did was lull us into a false sense of security.
Doink the Clown versus Crush? Ugh. At least I had Money Inc – the glorious Irwin R Schyster and Ted DiBiase – defeating the Mega-Maniacs (Hulk Hogan and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake) to keep me interested for a bit. And then Lex Luger beat one of my all time favourites, Mr Perfect, and it took a turn for the worse. The one thing keeping me going, though? The fact that Hogan was done for the day and it was Bret Hart versus Yokozuna for the biggest prize of all – the WWF World Heavyweight Championship.
The main event itself was hardly the best match but forgivable even it is yet another example of the cowardly heel foreigner so popular in WWE history, so overplayed and ugly even back then. Of course Yokozuna won, taking advantage of perhaps the most powerful salt in history being thrown into The Hitman’s eyes by Mr Fuji – so powerful he wasn’t able to even attempt a kick-out. And then it happened. My world came crashing down around my shoulders.
Hulk Hogan runs out to remonstrate at the obvious cheating and to check on Bret’s condition. Fuji grabs the microphone and tells Hogan he’s a “yellow belly” and then issues a challenge.
Eighteen-year-old me understands exactly what is going on and is already panicking. I’m turning to my friend – probably around 4am UK time at this point – and we’re in that place where we don’t even need to talk to understand each other. Our body language is screaming “hell no” and yet there’s an inevitability to what’s going to happen.
Hogan helps Bret out, Fuji says the match can happen right now. Bret waves Hogan into the ring and time slows down to a crawl. There’s no bell, at least that I can recall. Macho Man shouts “ding ding” I think. Yokozuna grabs Hogan and Fuji goes to throw salt (surely a disqualification, referee!). Hogan ducks, Yokozuna is blinded. Clothesline, leg drop and referee Hebner is counting before the Hulkster has even hooked a leg. And Hogan is the champion.
No. Just no. I was incandescent with anger. Apoplectic. Ready to break something.
And somewhere in those interminable moments – the lack of official match start, the obvious disqualification miss, Hogan winning the title despite not even being in the match, I realise that what I crave no longer exists. Until that point I had always believed (or perhaps wanted to) there were some rules around this. You had to earn a spot. That there was a kayfabe code that meant something like this couldn’t happen.
It was the moment in The Wizard of Oz when it’s revealed that the all-powerful Oz is just a man behind a curtain, maintaining control. It was my youth dying in front of me eyes. It was Hulk bloody Hogan. And I wasn’t down for it in any way.
That’s why it still gets me to this day, why the mere mention of WrestleMania IX makes me groan as if I’ve had salt thrown in my eyes. Wrestling changed forever that day for me because my kayfabe died – and I wouldn’t be on the same page as the WWF for a wee while after.
The truth is I didn’t need Hulk Hogan any more, his brand of hero wasn’t something I could tolerate. I had spent my first year away from home and had changed. Grown-up even. And I resented it being shoved down my throat. And despite it not really being Hogan’s fault, I’ve never quite been able to forgive him for that moment and I’m not sure I ever will.
To be fair, I never said my rage made any sense!
Anyway, I’m away to rewatch the main event at WrestleMania VIII again, a match I previously called my favourite WrestleMania match in history. And I’m away to take off this Hulk Hogan t-shirt I’m wearing and hide it for a few months until the pain subsides.