WrestleMania Memories: Hulk Hogan vs The Rock

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Welcome to WrestleMania Memories, where we look back at the moments in WrestleMania history, good or bad, that have stayed with us for over three decades. 

When Last Word On Sports decided we would be looking back at our favourite WrestleMania memories over the past 32 years, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about my experience at WrestleMania X8, witnessing a confrontation of two mega stars as Hulk Hogan faced off against The Rock in a match that was billed as ‘Icon vs Icon’. Although I have bared witness to some incredible WrestleMania moments throughout my life, this was the only WrestleMania I experienced live and watched with my own eyes. I am also sure that as my synapses fire their last, the memories of this match will still be renting space in my cerebral cortex.

Despite the fact that this match on paper alone would have been enough to nearly sellout the Sky Dome, the World Wrestling Federation made sure this match had plenty of build up before that fateful day on March 17th, 2002. Vince McMahon had been driven to his breaking point by WWF co-owner Ric Flair, and had decided to destroy his company by injecting it with a lethal dose of poison known as the New World Order, consisting of Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan. Upon their arrival, the NWO was not greeted warmly by the locker room, including the Rock. It wasn’t long before the ‘Babe Ruth’ of wrestling challenged the ‘Barry Bonds’ of Sports Entertainment to a showdown on the grandest stage of all, and we fans couldn’t wait for it to happen.

A Storm Brewing

Through a series of fortunate events, I had spent the week prior enjoying the WWF Axxess event, and one thing I couldn’t help but notice was how many fans were excited about the return of Hulk Hogan. People couldn’t stop talking about him despite the fact that the Hulkster tried to commit vehicular homicide a few weeks prior by t-boning an ambulance carrying the Rock with a transport truck. The immortal one even had the second longest line at the festival, only being eclipsed by the Undertaker. Everyone could sense the ocean of nostalgia about to wash over the city of Toronto, especially those in WWF management.

From my seats in the upper deck I wouldn’t be able to see to see the sweat fly off of my favourite performers, but I could still clearly see all the action, and whenever I needed a little visual assistance, the Sky Dome video screens were there to lend a helping hand. This came in particularly handy when Jonathan Coachman interviewed the Rock, and the most electrifying man in sports entertainment lived up to that moniker by cutting a promo that had everyone there laughing, cheering, and eventually covered in goosebumps with anticipation. Rocky mocked Hogan by asking the Hulkster what we was going to do, then ended the memorable smack talk session by answering his own question, telling Hogan that he would smell what the Rock was cooking. By the time he ripped off his shirt ala Hogan’s interviews from the 1980’s, those in attendance knew while the weather outside was stormy, the real whirlwind was about to go down inside.

Hulkamania Running Wild!

We all waited on bated breath for the match to begin, and in those few moments of restrained pandemonium, you could feel the anticipation reach a fever pitch. When the familiar guitar wails of the NWO theme blasted through the Sky Dome speakers, the crowd let all of that pent up emotion go in a thunderous release that was equal parts excitement for the match, and the return of the Hulkster. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any louder, out from the set walked the Immortal One himself, adorned in feather boas and playing air guitar. It was as though everyone present had travelled back in time to the 1980’s, when our goals in life were to take our vitamins and say our prayers.

During Hogan’s entire entrance, the crowd’s level of madness remained constant, only changing the moment Hogan did his iconic shirt ripping routine, which shifted the crowd’s insanity into another gear that we didn’t even know we had. As the Hulkster stood in the centre of the pandemonium he had just caused, we fans stood in unison and chanted his name with passionate respect and love. The prodigal son had come home, and all sins of the past had been forgiven instantly. If WrestleMania had ended in that moment, we would have remembered it fondly forever and it would’ve been worth every penny paid. Little did we know that we were about to play a huge role in one of WrestleMania’s most iconic moments.

Bizarro World

Earlier in the night, the Rock had the crowd rallied in what remains my favourite WrestleMania promo ever. The crowd booed him at first, but by the end of it, he had won over everyone. When he walked out onto the ramp at Sky Dome his reception was, respectable. Lots of people seem to think this was a Roman Reigns or John Cena situation, but the truth is there were two distinctions that separated this from those other performers. First, Rock did in fact have a good portion of the crowd on his side. They weren’t as numerous as those cheering for Hulk, but they were there and they were loud. Also, unlike the Cena or Reigns situation, the fans in Toronto didn’t hate the Rock, they just loved Hogan. If we had to pick a side, we chose the Hulkster, and in our minds that night was all about him.

Once Rocky made it to the ring, the mutual respect for both athletes became even more apparent. With both men in the centre of the ring, we first started chanting for Hogan, and then gave the Rock his due with his own chant. Then, something magical happened. As both men looked around at the crowd, the chanting changed into indecipherable noise. It was as if our excitement had overtaken us and as a whole we began speaking in tongues, which was appropriate because it sure felt like a religious experience. We were only snapped out of trance when the bell rang and we roared our approval, knowing it was time to get this battle of two icons underway.

‘The Loudest Thing I’ve Ever Heard In My Life’

The opening moments of this match set the tone for the rest of it. Gimmicky tricks designed to get a reaction out of the crowd. We ate up every moment of it. Even when Hogan gassed out five minutes into the contest and began moving like molasses after his first bump, we didn’t care. Once Hogan stopped wrestling and only focused on not dying in the ring, we realized that we could no longer cheer for his wheezing, so instead we turned our attention to the Rock, and rained down our disapproval. ‘Rocky Sucks’ was a chant not heard since 1999, but on a night where nostalgia ruled, we felt it appropriate to bring it back.

It soon became a question of how long we could keep the energy level up. The crazy thing is, that fever pitch continued throughout the match. We were wholly invested in everything these two men did. I truly thought things couldn’t get any more insane. After some more back and forth action, the Rock finally nailed Hogan with the Rock Bottom and we all assumed it was over. The truth is the pandemonium had just begun. The immortal one kicked out at two and began ‘Hulking up’ and everyone in that building lost their minds. Each action garnered a bigger and bigger reaction, until reaching a crescendo with his famous leg drop. To this day, it is the loudest thing I have ever heard in my life. I have been to NHL hockey games, heavy metal concerts, and military air shows. None of them even come close to the sheer volume of that moment. Almost 70,000 people all joined together, feeling this moment and screaming in pure joy. It was magic.

Passing The Torch

Here’s the interesting thing; after the Rock kicked out of Hogan’s leg drop, and hit a second and third Rock Bottom, fans were cheering for him again. By the time he hit the People’s Elbow and pinned Hulk for the victory, we were back on board with the Rock winning. It was as if the nostalgia in our hearts had built up throughout the night, and after purging ourselves, we felt much better and things could get back to normal. Of course, it didn’t hurt that post match, Hogan endorsed the Rock by extending his hand and passing the torch to him, an act that Rocky himself would do a decade later with John Cena.

There is something about experiencing a moment live that stays with you, burrows a memory deep in your mind and your heart. I can say without hesitation that being part of that happening was one of the greatest moments in my life. I will never forget it as long as I live. It is experiences like these that make fans spend incredible amounts of money for the chance to be at the showcase of the immortals. It makes you feel like you’re a part of something huge, not just passively watching, but actively engaging, and even shaping the mania of WrestleMania. Even if my voice was only one of thousands working together, I was proud to have played a small, but ultimately significant role in one of the greatest WrestleMania moments of all time.

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