On March 29, 1987, Hulk Hogan changed my life forever. I was nine years old. He was the champion and one half of the most iconic staredown in wrestling history, gazing up at Andre the Giant, preparing to attempt what had never been done. “The irresistible force meeting the immovable object,” said announcer Gorilla Monsoon. When the irresistible force won, I fell in deep and lasting love with wrestling.
Almost none of the statistics from that day were legitimate. No, Andre was not really seven-foot-five, nor had he gone the entire length of his 15-year career without being pinned or bodyslammed (a quick YouTube search would prove it today). No, there weren’t really 93,173 fans in attendance. But none of this really matters to me any more than it matters whether Muhammad really flew from Mecca to Jerusalem in one night. I can’t always allow facts to ruin my religion or my wrestling.
When Hulk Hogan defeated Andre the Giant, I had what scholars in the field of religious studies would call a conversion experience. Struck with the truth of Hulkamania, I was born again. Hogan’s three “demandments” of training, prayers, and vitamins (and a later fourth demandment, belief in yourself) became the technology by which I would constitute my own gendered self. For this nine-year old boy, Hulk Hogan became the model of manhood. I’m not sure how exactly I lived it out; I don’t remember suddenly doing a lot of training, praying, or taking vitamins. But I nonetheless believed in Hulk Hogan as a greater version of myself, a potential future self that remained unattainable but which always demanded my pursuit.
Several years ago, I wrote a paper in which I considered Hulkamania as a distinct religion. The first problem with such a project would be that it requires a definition of “religion,” which isn’t as simple as looking up the word in a dictionary. I chose a definition that included both the personal and social; religion was not only an inner experience of truth, but also a means by which humans produced communities and institutions. Considering the ways in which Hulkamania claimed a transcendent authority (in the 1980s, Hulk Hogan regularly claimed direct communications with God) and cosmic significance (Hogan’s descriptions of his own matches rivaled the end-of-the-world scenarios that were promised in Christian revival tents), as well as the ethical demands of Hulkamania and the ways in which Hogan ritually bound us together as Hulkamaniacs, I made a convincing argument that one could claim Hulkamania as a religious identification. Hulkamania seemed vaguely Christian, if only because Hogan wore a crucifix, but its theology otherwise seemed more or less compatible with the Qur’an. Hulk Hogan spoke for the ultimate reality of the universe (al-Haqq), and against this reality, the unbelievers had no chance. Hogan’s victory against Andre the Giant delivered the same lesson as the first Muslim community’s triumph in the battle of Badr.
Religion offers a kind of truth, but you can get this from places other than what we usually call “religion.” I’ve found it in my life as a Muslim, but also as a hardcore wrestling mark. In the twenty-five years since Hogan-Andre, I’ve found a variety of truths from different wrestlers; Shawn Michaels taught me the meaning of work ethic, Mick Foley taught me about Husayn-like sacrifice, and Steve Austin taught me about standing alone and flipping off the world. They were all teachers on a mythic scale, but for me, it began with Hulkamania.
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So now I’ve seen Hulk Hogan fucking. I haven’t yet considered the theological consequences for Hulkamania. Maybe the fact that I’m even thinking of it in those terms means that I’m really a hopeless mark. The Hulk Hogan in this tape isn’t the Hulk Hogan who slammed Andre the Giant; it’s not Hulk Hogan at all, but some guy named Terry who has spent over thirty years manifesting the myth of Hulk Hogan for us. The weird thing about wrestlers is that they become everything that comic-book superheroes can be in a kid’s imagination, but there’s no chance that 25 years later, the kid’s going to see Superman as an old bald dude with ridiculous tan lines having sex with some radio host’s wife. There’s no speculation on what Superman might be like in “real life.” If having witnessed Hulk Hogan’s penis offers any salient lesson for my work with religion, it’s this: the realm of religious experience is by no means isolated from the outside world. Being surprised that Hulk Hogan has a sex tape is kind of like being surprised that there’s a Burger King in Mecca. The “sacred/profane” binary often turns out to be artificial, but sometimes we need to imagine that the binary exists. The time will come when I’ll watch Hogan-Andre again, and when I do, his penis will not be in the ring. It’s the kind of mental acrobatics that make wrestling and religion so infinitely rewarding for me.