At the latest set of Impact Wrestling tapings, the immortal Hulk Hogan came to the ring, broke kayfabe and cut a heartfelt babyface promo about how he's tried to help not just the company, but the business, along in the past few years, how he thinks the likes of Beer Money are the future, and most importantly - he's retiring! On September 21st in Knoxville, Tennessee, TNA cordially invite you to Hulk Hogan's farewell. To mark this occasion, I thought I would look back on Hogan's time in TNA. Two entire years of Hulkster-stamped decisions, whether they be beneficial to the product or as crippling as multiple back surgeries.
To begin, let's go all the way back to October 27th 2009, for the announcement that had us all on the edge of our seats. Assembling an impromptu press conference at Madison Square Garden, Spike TV and Dixie Carter proudly announced they'd gone into partnership with Hulk freakin Hogan! Not only would he be appearing in front of the cameras, but he'd also be backstage, putting his seal of approval on everything from booking to production itself. In the case of most fans, possibilities ran through our minds. If TNA could sign the biggest draw this industry has ever seen, absolutely ANYTHING was possible! It was a blatant warning shot across WWE's bow. Not only had they stolen Vince McMahon's prize act, they did it in the WWE's home away from home, MSG itself! Finally, we were about to see the birth of true competition in the wrestling world, something that had been lying dormant ever since WCW went under in 2001. I don't mention WCW by chance either. In the early days of the TNA/Hogan partnership, the success of WCW in the 90s was a clear strategy they were trying to replicate. Hulk Hogan headlining, Eric Bischoff running the show, Vince Russo booking, a whole multitude of their old buddies/flunkies following suit and for one night...it worked. It really worked. Having the entire former New World Order cut a promo together in the ring during the 4th January 2010 live Impact was television gold. It was the very best of WCW Nitro, only we weren't watching a DVD, it was actually happening live in the Impact Zone!
Before I go any further, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the preceding Hulkamania tour that "ran wild" on Australia in November 2009. Before ever stepping foot in a TNA ring, Hulk Hogan decided to cash in on his name for an exclusive tour of Australia, headlined by four nights of the immortal Hulk Hogan vs the Nature Boy, Ric Flair! Never mind the fact that both these men were well past their prime (and still are), they drew in the crowds with their literal nightly bloodbaths and gave these aging legends one more moment in the crimson-stained spotlight. In a rather sly trial run, the undercard of that tour was largely brought with Hogan to TNA in the months that followed. Ken Anderson, Shannon Moore, Orlando Jordan, Lacey Von Erich, etc. All of them would spend the best part of 2010 employed by TNA, in some cases soaring to new heights, others crashing and burning. I'll chalk this one up to Hogan doing TNA a favour, as Mr Anderson has become a multiple time World Heavyweight Champion (and an honest to god draw!), Shannon Moore a staple of both X and Tag divisions, and even though she's left to pursue other opportunities, it was usually quite the pleasure to see Lacey Von Erich mix it up as a replacement Beautiful Person.
In the three months since signing on the dotted line, Hogan had talked up a storm, pegging TNA as the next big thing in professional wrestling today. One of his biggest initiatives, that he will always be remembered for, was trying to reignite the Monday Night Wars! He truly thought that putting TNA Impact head to head with the juggernaut of WWE Raw was going to bring about a surge in interest and kickstart a whole new era. For that, I honestly can't blame him, as on paper, it's a brilliant idea. As I mentioned before, for that one single night, it worked. Not quite the 3.0 ratings Hogan was trumpeting, but it did set an all-time high for Impact, pulling in a rating in the mid 1's. Unfortunately, what followed was a systematic dismantling of the viewership. There was absolutely no way they could keep the momentum of that particular show. It was a one-off, plain and simple. Over the next few months, the ratings continued to fall, but Hogan remained stubborn and refused to pull the plug. They'd throw out PPV quality main events on free tv week after week, whether it be RVD vs Jeff Hardy, Kurt Angle vs AJ Styles or even Hogan's personal return to the ring when he teamed with Abyss against Ric Flair and AJ Styles. Nothing worked, period. Eventually someone in management saw sense and realised if the viewership kept dwindling, there wouldn't be a company to promote. As a result, TNA made a hasty retreat back to Thursday nights, where they continue to broadcast to this day. While you could label the renewed Monday Night Wars a failure, I commend them for trying to compete on that next level. For all the flack they get for lazy booking, during this brief move to Monday nights, they were genuinely trying.
Another big "achievement" of the Hogan regime came on January 17th 2010, with the introduction of a four-sided ring. The Internet community had been hearing for months how Hogan wasn't a fan of TNA's unique six-sided ring and planned to revert to a traditional setup as soon as possible. Barely a couple of weeks into appearing on the show, the Impact Zone was radically redone. The stage was completely different, the ramp actually led to the ring ala classic WCW specials and the ring in question was back to the squared circle of old. No longer would TNA be any kind of visual alternative to the WWE, they'd both be peddling the same wares, on Hogan's orders. As a legend who had made his entire forty year old career in a four-sided ring, I can empathise why six sides might trouble him. However, in the time since the change, I've heard non-stop cries from fans for the six sided ring to return, even accomplishing such a feat for this year's Destination X PPV. I get the impression this change may not entirely have been for the benefit of TNA, merely to make Hogan feel more comfortable in his surrounding. If we know anything about old men, it's that they don't like change!
As for actual angles perpetrated by the immortal one, his favourite pet project of 2010 was most definitely the monster, Abyss. Soon after arriving on the scene, Hogan took Abyss under his wing. Abyss, at the time, was portraying his character as sheepish, but friendly. Making him the perfect talent for Hogan to give a confidence boost to! To do this, Hulk gave Abyss his WWE Hall of Fame ring. From that point onwards, Abyss basically became Hulk Hogan 2.0. His music was changed to a parody of Real American, he'd Hulk-up during matches and even started adorning himself in the red and yellow. I'll always be happy to see Abyss given something meaningful to do on the show, but I have to admit, he was woefully miscast as the second coming of Hogan. He doesn't have the charisma, he doesn't have the fan support, he doesn't have the backstage stroke and he certainly doesn't draw as a maineventer. The even more confusing aspect of this angle was the prominance placed on Hogan's WWE HOF ring. I know TNA have never shied away from mentioning the WWE or using other companies championships (e.g. the IWGP titles), but the use of the HOF ring felt distracting and counterproductive. Surely acknowledging another company's Hall of Fame is damaging to your own? It was made even worse when Ric Flair's own HOF ring came into play. Now people weren't feuding over titles, they were feuding over rings from another company!
Thankfully, the sycophantic portion of the Abyss angle played itself out as we entered the summer of 2010. Abyss eventually turned his back on Hogan and returned to his monstrous roots, creating a disturbing weapon dubbed "Janice", which he wouldn't hesitate to bury into the back of any talent that opposed him. The most high profile of which being recent acquisition and then TNA World Heavyweight Champion, Rob Van Dam. For months upon months this rampage played out on air, with Abyss heralding the arrival of "they", a soon to debut power in TNA (although no one knew who). We know now that the group in question was Immortal, but oddly enough, almost everyone involved in opposing "they" were actually a part of "they". It didn't make a lick of sense, but that wouldn't deter them. The whole plot revolved around convincing Dixie Carter to accidentally sign her company away (having not read what she was signing in the first place). In retrospect, you have to wonder whether the plot needed to be even a tenth as elaborate as they'd made it. It basically all came down to a ditz putting her signature on the wrong piece of paper. Talk about using a nuke to destroy an ant.
The whole angle culminated on October 10th at Bound for Glory, TNA's biggest PPV of the year. Originally, the still-face Hulk Hogan had been booked in a six man tag match with Jeff Jarrett and Samoa Joe against the apparently heel team of Sting, Kevin Nash and D'Angelo Dinero. However, due to numerous back surgeries, he removed himself from the match at short notice and left his team one man down. However, this would not be his final act that evening, as he came out during the main event (on crutches no less), turned heel and proceeded to help Jeff Hardy beat down Kurt Angle and Ken Anderson to win the TNA World Heavyweight Championship. Abyss’ “They” stood revealed as Hulk Hogan, Eric Bischoff, Jeff Jarrett and countless others, coming to form the unstoppable faction known as Immortal. This was clearly Hogan’s lynchpin idea to turn things around for TNA. In the 1990s, WCW soared to new heights on the back of Hogan’s infamous heel turn at Bash at the Beach and subsequent formation of the NWO. While he has to be applauded for playing the heel card, trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice is next to impossible. Especially, when the angle relied so heavily on Jeff Hardy, a fan favourite, becoming a despicable villain - something he flat out couldn’t do.
Immortal, as a group, have existed ever since that night. However, it has encountered numerous setbacks in the year since its inception. The predominant complaint being it’s forever changing membership. The initial concept of Hogan and Bischoff backing a puppet champion in Jeff Hardy, just might have worked. Maybe even with added muscle in Abyss. But once everyone wanted in on the deal, whatever story they were trying to put across was entirely lost. Their number ballooned upon aligning themselves with Ric Flair’s Fortune group. Now, where they once only had to service a champion and his mouthpieces, there were twenty other wrestlers standing in the ring behind them, just hoping to get TV time through association. So, just as Hogan was attempting to recreate the New World Order’s success, he inadvertently fell into the same trap as a decade before. People always remember the NWO’s formation, never the years spent in-fighting between “Black & White” and “Wolfpac” factions. Similarly, they won’t remember Immortal for Bully Ray picking fights with Ken Anderson.
Another stinging blow to Hogan’s super-group was his many absences through story or injury. Only a month after forming Immortal, Hulk was “suspended indefinitely” on-air due to Dixie Carter having filed an injunction against him for control of the company. What this really covered up was his upcoming spinal fusion surgery, which would keep him out of action for the next four months until March 2011. While I can’t begrudge Hogan for tending to nagging health issues, before he left he’d been part-time at best. Entire months could go by and TNA would be lucky if he’d show up for a single Impact taping. His presence was meant to elevate the company, not his absence! In years to come, he won’t be mentioned for how much he did for the company, rather, how little.
Having missed the first two months of 2011 in recovery, Hogan returned “triumphantly”. He’d finally won his kayfabe court battle with Dixie Carter and the company was finally his, lock, stock and barrel. Now that he finally had control, you’d expect sweeping changes, things being done Hogan’s way, right? Wrong. The business would continue to run in place and even falter when it counted most. His most notable failure came at the Victory Road PPV, when Immortal’s crown jewel and World Heavyweight Champion, Jeff Hardy, proceeded to make a mockery of the entire industry by showing up for his main event match against the Icon, Sting, high on drugs, unable to wrestle. While you can’t confuse Hardy’s real life addiction issues with storyline, it took a lot of momentum out from under Immortal going forward. They were without their focal point and with no clear successor. For all the stock Hogan had placed in Jeff Hardy, he had to go out in front of their cameras, on national television, and throw the man’s personalised world title belt in the trash. Whatever hope there was of pushing the next generation disappeared and it very quickly became the Hogan and Bischoff show once again.
Despite being mostly unstoppable, there came a fleeting challenge to Hogan’s authority in May 2011, when Mick Foley debuted as Spike TV’s newest network executive. In one rushed, flustered promo, Foley announced a complete rebranding of TNA’s flagship show, now becoming Impact Wrestling. While the angle itself was dropped after two weeks due to Foley leaving the company under a cloud of “creative differences”, the new name of the show stuck. Despite his character challenging the changes onscreen, Hulk Hogan was most likely the one who masterminded it in real life. He’s given multiple interviews in the past two years, complaining that every time he tried to land a sponsorship deal for the company, he’d have to spend the first half hour of every meeting explaining what TNA was and how it wasn’t a strip club. Impact Wrestling, while losing the three letter abbreviation that every wrestling promotion loves so much, was a lot easier to market. The only thing I’d change in retrospect was making it a hard rebranding, completely eliminating the letters of TNA from the company. As it stands, we’re still in a rather nebulous period, where no one entirely knows whether to refer to the company as TNA or Impact Wrestling. The TNA logo remains on all the championship belts, it remains on the ring at PPVs, wrestlers frequently slip in a mention during promos, etc. There should be some clarification as to which name they’re going by.
The final major story of Hulk Hogan’s TNA tenure is the one which should climax at next month’s Bound for Glory PPV and that brings me write this very column. Around April of this year, Hogan started dropping hints during interviews that he may be ready for one final match, preferably against his long time adversary Sting, if possible. Even going so far as to outright admit the plan is for him to turn face again and wrestle at BFG. From the very beginning, talk of this match has worried me. Hogan can barely walk, let alone wrestle. Not only that, but he’s making a huge assumption in expecting the crowd to return to his side at the drop of a hat. If this is the main event of TNA’s biggest show of the year, Hogan could singlehandedly tank the company with a terrible performance. Yet this is the direction they’ve chosen and by god, they’re going to stick with it…somewhat. Helping the angle is the fact that Sting has been on Hogan and Bischoff’s radar from day one. Sting returned exclusively to defeat them. It makes sense this would build towards a match. Furthermore, Hogan has been costing Sting matches for the World Championship left, right and centre. The most recent of which being at No Surrender, which saw Hogan mace the Icon and allow Kurt Angle (a recent Immortal recruit) to retain his title.
Now, if we do get our big Hulk Hogan vs. Sting match at Bound for Glory, which I’m not ruling out, everything makes sense. But as I mentioned at the beginning of the column, at the most recent set of Impact Wrestling tapings, he made it known that he WON’T be wrestling at BFG (most likely due to numerous injuries and surgeries making it dangerous for him to compete) and that he’ll be having an official farewell at the show just before the PPV. This could either be genuine or the last stop before their big match. If one thing is certain, it could possibly throw everything TNA has been working towards for the past six months into jeopardy. I personally wouldn’t miss the match if it was removed from the card at the last minute, but I am rather angry at the idea of Hogan backing out of an angle he himself instigated. The whole farewell show reeks of him checking out from TNA with suitable fanfare, but as quickly as he can before the proverbial s*** hits the fan.
In summation, Hulk Hogan has had a lasting effect on TNA. Whether it was change for better or for worse, it’s largely subjective. Each of us will have to come to our own conclusions once the dust settles. But for me, he was an absentee authority figure that tried every trick in the book, but none of his antiquated ideas had any traction. He may’ve brought some valuable, albeit dated, brand recognition to the company, but I’m not sure it was worth his exorbitant fee. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back grovelling at Vince McMahon’s door come 2012, looking for a Legends deal.