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The WWF has had a complicated relationship with race, but one put it aside. That was until Hulk Hogan called out the black hue of my skin.
I was five years old. It was early 1985 and I was spending time doing what I often did back then: sitting on the floor of my parents’ living room in my childhood home on Schoolcraft and Artesian, in Detroit.
As with all little black boys in the 1980s, to me one of the baddest dudes in the world was Mr. T.
You couldn’t tell me shit about the A-Team. I was all things Lawrence Terio. I had a Mr. T t-shirt. I ate Mr. T cereal. I even rocked with the Mr. T Saturday morning cartoon. The only thing I was more into than Mr. T was baseball.
In the ongoing quest to find ways to keep my hyperactive ass calmed down, my dad had gotten a couple of tapes—Betamax to be exact—of a professional wrestling show from, as it was known at the time, the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE). I had never watched wrestling before—had no idea what it was. But when my pops told me that Mr. T was there, that’s all I needed.
The event on tape was held at Madison Square Garden and it was called “The War to Settle the Score”.
I had no damn clue what I was watching. It certainly wasn’t boxing but it was weird and fun and exciting. It was taped from MTV—we didn’t have cable at the time—and all these celebrities were there, including Mr. T.
But the star of this show didn’t have a Mohawk and wasn’t dripping with gold chains. The star was a six-foot-seven-inch, 300 pound tanned and blonde dude from Venice Beach, California who, when he entered the World’s Most Famous Arena, made the crowd go crazier than they would for Bernard King, Patrick Ewing or Michael Ray Richardson.
That man was Hulk Hogan.
Hogan was facing the evil loudmouth Rowdy Roddy Piper for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Hogan hit the ring to thunderous cheers as Eye of the Tiger blasted in the speakers.
Before entering the ring, he dapped up Mr. T at ringside. He was wearing a yellow shirt with “Hulkamania” emblazoned in red across the front, but ripped it off in the moments before throwing hands with Piper.
I was hooked on wrestling from that day forward, and Hogan, who told kids to “take their vitamins” and “say their prayers”, was the God MC in the ’80s. For years, he could do no wrong in my eyes.
Two years later, Hogan was at the Pontiac Silverdome—about 40 minutes away from my house—in front of a crowd bigger than the one that saw Super Bowl XVI played there five years earlier. He defeated the legendary Andre the Giant, in a match that culminated with the body slam heard ‘round the world.
Hogan, who had been WWF Champion for more than three years, was officially an icon. The real life Captain America, with 24 inch pythons, covered in red and yellow, and draped in the Red, White, and Blue.
Twenty-eight years later, that hero is dead to me. All that is left is just another phony. A fraud. A shameful, racist husk of a white man named Terry Bollea.
“I am a racist—to a point.”
The two words cut like a knife.
Those words were uttered in such a dismissive way that it was clear they were a part of his normal rotation of phrases. The words were just a toss-away to him.
Among the hobbies I have picked up as a well-adjusted adult is collecting throwback baseball caps and quirky, offbeat graphic tees—usually adorned with classic logos, retro movie images, or video-game characters.
I was at work in Philadelphia on the morning of Friday, July 24, 2015, when I decided that I was going to finally do it. I was going to buy my first Hulkamania t-shirt.
I had plenty of tees, including a number of professional-wrestling shirts, but I had never been able to find a genuine 1980s Hulkamania shirt. Not the early ’90s “Hulk Rules” shirts that WWF started selling. Not the knock off “Hulkster” WCW shirts. But the genuine article. The 1985 original recipe jawn.
I had been looking for one of those everywhere and WWE had finally released them as part of a retro collection.
I hit the “Confirm Order” button and, for a hot second, my 35-year-old ass was a kid again. I was finally going to get my Hulkamania shirt.
Then, 20 minutes later, I wandered onto Twitter and noticed Hogan’s name trending…and there it was.
Live and in living damn colour.
It’s not that we haven’t become used to our childhood heroes—especially pro wrestlers—being revealed as damaged frauds. Hell, Hogan had become a flawed shell of his former self long before this.
But this…this. This hit me, and so many other ’80s babies, particularly hard. It was another stiff, brutal reminder of what Ice Cube famously said: “Here’s what they think about you.”
Thirty years after his coming-out party at MSG, here was Terry Bollea—a hapless, pitiful, shameful middle-aged shell of a man—caught on video after having consensual sex with his then best friend’s wife, grousing about his daughter, Brooke, who was dating a black man named Yannique Barker, better known as Miami-born rapper Stacks.
Stacks’ dad, Cecile, was helping Brooke with her failed music career when she hooked up with his son. Cecile Barker, it should be noted, was a heavy hitter in the music industry, having managed artists such as Sly & The Family Stone and Peaches & Herb. By the mid-2000s, he was the CEO of his son’s fledgeling record label, SoBe Entertainment.
But to Terry Bollea, Cecile was just a “black billionaire” whose “nigger” son was having sex with his daughter.
“I mean, I’d rather if she was going to fuck some nigger,” he says in the video, almost matter-of-factly, “I’d rather have her marry an eight-foot-tall nigger worth $100 million. Like a basketball player.”
Here’s professional wrestling’s icon—essentially Bill Russell in yellow tights—who spent years embracing men like Mr. T, Shaquille O’Neal, Dennis Rodman and The Rock, openly talking about the man dating his daughter in the way that slave traders talked about stolen Africans. Without missing a beat, he then openly admits that he’s a racist.
To make the public announcement that he’s “back in the family” comes as a slap in the face to the legions of black fans who have made pro wrestling the cultural phenomenon that it is.
“I mean, I am a racist—to a point,” he says, before capping it off with those two words:
WWE, a publicly traded company that, in recent years, had ostensibly been working to distance itself from its own horribly racist past, acted swiftly. Hogan was fired immediately and removed from the company’s Hall of Fame. WWE also wiped as many references to Hogan as they could from their TV and video libraries. It was the type of treatment that had only been reserved for the likes of Chris Benoit, who was virtually erased from WWE lore after he murdered his wife and son before committing suicide in 2007.
It was a stunning and necessary move for the company. But, unfortunately, anyone who follows pro wrestling knows that WWE founder and chairman Vince McMahon has a history of bringing problematic wrestlers back into the fold, even if they have wronged him, disgraced the company, or committed heinous acts.
McMahon, on three different occasions, welcomed the late Ultimate Warrior back to the company: in 1992, 1996, and finally in 2014 when, like Hogan in 2005, he was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame.
Warrior, notorious for his vile homophobic rants in lectures and in online videos, was previously fired for holding up McMahon for more money prior to SummerSlam in 1991, for steroid use in 1992, and for no-showing events in 1996. The company went as far as to put out a DVD mocking and slandering him in 2005, called “The Self Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior”. Yet, nine years later, Warrior was accepting a Hall of Fame ring and, two days after that, giving an emotional speech on Monday Night Raw.
Less than 24 hours after that speech, the Ultimate Warrior died of a heart attack in Arizona.
McMahon himself has been in hot water for using the “n-word.” It was during a 2005 episode of Monday Night Raw in Detroit when he infamously said, “What’s good, my nigga” to John Cena, at the time portraying a rapper, while Booker T—who, eight years prior, had a notorious Hogan related “n-word” moment of his own—looked on in bug-eyed shock.
In spite of that video and his subsequent blacklisting, it was just a matter of time before Hogan, the man best associated with the company and the industry, would be back in the fold.
This July it finally happened.
Hogan was “reinstated” into the Hall of Fame and showed up in Pittsburgh to address the locker room prior to WWE’s Extreme Rules pay-per-view event.
Mark Henry, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in April, told SiriusXM the next day that Hogan had apologised and he noted that Hogan had done a lot of good work with the Boys and Girls Club. When asked if all the other black wrestlers in the company were on board with the reinstatement, however, he very quickly said no:
“It’s 50/50. I’ve talked to guys that are like, ‘To hell with him.’ And I’ve had guys that were like, ‘You know what? If you’re willing to make the change and try to help out, and go and speak up, be a part of the answer rather than a part of the problem, then it’s all good.’”
Except, it ain’t all good. And count me as being a part of the group that says to hell with him.
A “complicated” history with race in wrestling
Wrestling has always had what would be considered a “complicated” relationship with race, particularly with African-Americans.
While there have been legendary black stars—Bobo Brazil, Ernie Ladd, The Junkyard Dog, The Rock, and others—the sport itself has routinely pandered to racist stereotypes.
Go ahead and Google Kamala, Cryme Tyme, and Saba Simba. Just 20 years ago, they sent three members of D-Generation X into the ring in goddamn Blackface with one member chanting “Hey, Hey, Hey” like Fat Albert.
Racism in professional wrestling is also explicit in who’s showcased as World Champion. In the company’s history, only three African-Americans have held either the WWE or World Heavyweight Championship titles: The Rock, Booker T, and Mark Henry. No black male wrestler has had a one-on-one match for any of WWE’s main roster world championships since Henry lost to John Cena in 2014. (Although two black women, Naomi and Sasha Banks, have won WWE Women’s Championships since then.)
FFor the first time in the company’s history, WWE is heavily represented by men and women of color.
Despite all of this, pro wrestling has been an integral part of black culture and hip-hop culture for decades: Run-D.M.C. performing at WrestleMania V, LL Cool J name-checking The Undertaker in EPMD’s 1990 classic Rampage, the multitude of pro wrestling references made by the Wu-Tang Clan (“Rap vandals / Stomp ya ass like Wahoo McDaniel”), Method Man performing with The Rock in 1999 for Know Your Role, Snoop Dogg’s multiple WWE appearances, and even WCW’s ill-fated 1999 partnership with No Limit Records.
During the ’90s, WWE made a few failed attempts to capitalise on hip-hop culture: Fatu (later Rikishi) originally being a baby face rapper and the rap tag-team of Men on a Mission gaining little traction. They eventually hit a home run a few years later during the Attitude Era, when the likes of the Godfather, the New Age Outlaws, the “American Bad Ass” version of the Undertaker, and more embraced the edgier vibe of rap and hip-hop that fit that era like a glove. (And this isn’t even touching on ECW’s love of hip-hop, which included The Gangstas and 2 Cold Scorpio.)
By 2005, John Cena had released a full-length rap album, which included his iconic theme song, My Time is Now. He also did appearances on other rap tracks, for example with Murs, and E-40.
The most popular pro wrestler in hip-hop history, though, is the legendary “Nature Boy,” Ric Flair—the innovator of professional wrestling swag. His influence on rap has been mimicked for decades: from Ghostface sporting Flair’s iconic “Big Gold Belt” to Pusha T using Ric’s legendary 1986 Spilled Liquor promo in the opening to 2011’s What Dreams are Made Of, to Offset and Metro Boomin bringing that “Ric Flair Drip” to the streets. There are numerous videos online of tough guy rappers like Rick Ross turning into giddy fan-boys when the Naitch hits the room. Pro wrestling is as much a part of “the culture” as anything. Someone has conveyed this to WWE.
For WWE, which has, like so many other organisations in this country, profiteered from black culture, to welcome back a man who openly admitted on camera that he “is a racist” and who spit out the n-word with the frequency of Migos bars, means it’s an organisation that is racist from the top down.
The new faces of WWE can’t let it slide
The WWE of 2018 is far different from the WWF that Hulk ruled from 1982 to 1993. It’s even different from the WWE that Hogan returned to in 2002, after the implosion of World Championship Wrestling.
For the first time in the company’s history, WWE is heavily represented by men and women of colour. And they are not portraying the tired, offensive, and played-out stereotypes of pro wrestling’s past.
Among the company’s top stars are:
Japanese wrestlers Shinsuke Nakamura, Hideo Itami and Asuka; French Canadian wrestler Sami Zayn, who is Muslim and of Syrian descent; Pakistani-American cruiserweight, Mustafa Ali—a former suburban Chicago police officer who is also Muslim; Mojo Rawley, a former University of Maryland football player, who is Arab American (he is the son of Jordanian immigrants and speaks fluent Arabic); Latino stars such as Bayley, Andrade “Cien” Almas, Zelina Vega, No Way Jose, and Kalisto; Jinder Mahal, a Sikh Canadian wrestler of Indian descent, along with the Singh Brothers, an Indian-Canadian tag-team who serve as his valets; Mickie James, a Women’s Champion multiple times, who is Native American; newcomer Sonia Deville, who is the first openly gay woman to wrestle for WWE;
and Samoan-American stars the Usos, Nia Jax, Samoa Joe, and—yes—Roman Reigns.
And when it comes to black wrestlers? There are too many to name. Which is actually a great thing. To list just a few: The New Day, Sasha Banks, Naomi, Bobby Lashley, Shelton Benjamin, Jason Jordan, Cedric Alexander, Lio Rush, Ember Moon, Alicia Fox, along with NXT’s Ricochet, Bianca Belair, and “The Velveteen Dream” Patrick Clark.
This is the first time in my life that WWE has had this many black superstars in prominent spots simultaneously. One would assume that the organisation would’ve been aware of that when choosing to welcome a racist—albeit an iconic one—back into a company that is more diverse than it’s ever been.
It was another stiff, brutal reminder of what Ice Cube famously said: “Here’s what they think about you.”
You have to wonder what Reigns and the Usos—all three of whom are married to black women, including Jimmy Uso who is married to Naomi and has kids who are half-black—think of a man who very clearly doesn’t care for interracial relationships.
Kofi Kingston, who was born in Ghana and is the most senior member of the New Day, made it clear what the trio felt about the Hulkster in an awesome statement made over summer.
“On a personal level, when someone makes racist and hateful comments about any race or group of people, especially to the degree that Hogan made about our people, we find it difficult to simply forget, regardless of how long ago it was, or the situation in which those comments were made,” Kofi said. “But we also do not respond with more feelings of hate. Instead, we just do not associate with the people who convey or have conveyed this negative and hurtful mindset. This instance will be no different.
“Perhaps if we see him make a genuine effort to change,” he added, “then maybe our opinion will change with him. Time will tell.”
Meanwhile, Titus O’Neil was much more blunt in his assessment of Hogan’s attempted mea culpa, particularly about how Hogan seems to keep using the excuse that he didn’t know he was being recorded, rather than just admitting he is wrong to think or say those things at all. O’Neil said:
“I am a proponent of second and even third chances for individuals who show true remorse, acknowledgement of wrongdoing, fulfil their punishment, if applicable, and otherwise put forth sincere efforts to correct the issues. Unfortunately, I must echo the sentiment and dissatisfaction expressed by many of my fellow contemporaries concerning Mr Bollea’s apology and its lack of true contrition, remorse and a desire to change.”
He further added: “Mr Bollea’s apology ‘that he didn’t know he was being recorded’ is not remorse for the hateful and violent utterances he made which reprise language that has caused violence against blacks and minorities for centuries.”
Game. Set. Match.
Am I surprised that WWE brought Hogan back? No.
Should they have done so? Hell no.
If you want to keep him in your Hall of Fame, go for it. Everything else? Get him out the fuck of here. To make the public announcement that he’s “back in the family” comes as a slap in the face to the legions of black fans who have made pro wrestling the cultural phenomenon that it is.
With the political and social climate being what it is in 2018, with WWE’s stock at an all-time high and an incoming billion-dollar TV deal with Fox to air SmackDown starting next year, WWE needs to think long and hard before they go parading Terry Bollea’s ass back on their TV implying that “all is forgiven”, because it damn sure isn’t and it likely never will be.
As for that t-shirt I ordered on July 24, 2015, it arrived five days later. To this day, I have never worn it or even taken it out of the plastic. It’s just a collector’s item now, sitting in my closet and relegated to history along with my respect for Hulk Hogan.
As Tony Schiavone famously said in 1996 when Hogan made the world’s greatest (storyline) heel-turn in wrestling history: “Hulk Hogan, you can go to hell. Straight to hell.”