Wrestle Review Wednesday: Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair in the 1980s

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I was not, am not, nor will I ever be a Hulkamaniac.

I began following wrestling after discovering WWF programming on Saturday mornings in the 1990s, and WCW on TBS on Saturday nights. By that point, Hulk Hogan was winding down his run in New York, and his shtick just didn’t appeal to me. Wildly colorful characters like Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Sting, and Bret Hart in his leather jacket and wrap-around shades seemed much cooler to me than the jingoistic, pandering Hulk.

Perhaps my sentiment is the result of being first introduced to Hulk Hogan once his luster had worn. But even revisiting the peak of Hulkamania from the mid-to-late 1980s, his good-guy shtick feels disingenuous. Hulk always wrestled a style more conducive to a heel, relying on face-rakes and back-scratches in the early moments of matches, before the no-selling sequences that brought his victories to crescendo.

The Hulk Hogan that interested me most in the 1980s was Thunderlips, his arrogant character from Rocky III, a persona Hogan only portrayed stateside in late 1970s WWWF and early 1980s AWA.

And I discovered another version of that Hogan via NJPW World, the New Japan Pro-Wrestling streaming service.

Hulk’s 1984 IWGP Heavyweight Championship match against Antonio Inoki coincided with the early days of Hulkamania, but may as well have been in an alternate universe. Decked out in black trunks with silver boots, Hogan plays a menacing, arrogant and, at times, sniveling bad guy to the Japanese hero Inoki.

Hogan worked as a leading good guy in 1980s America, because his muscle-bound machismo and jingoistic aura reflected national sentiment during renewed Cold War tensions. Because Hulk functioned as an avatar of American culture, his stardom transcended that of any professional wrestler before, and arguably since. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s surpassed Hogan, but only since moving onto Hollywood.

So why pine for the black-clad Hulk Hogan of Japan to replace the red-and-yellow American icon? Two words: Ric Flair.

At the same time Hogan was building a national audience in the World Wrestling Federation, Ric Flair drew thousands to arenas for National Wrestling Alliance events across the country.

They were unquestionably the two biggest wrestling stars of the 1980s, though their paths never crossed until the 1990s — coincidentally, right around the same time I became a wrestling fan.

Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair was a dream match for almost a decade leading up to WrestleMania VIII, but the bout didn’t happen; not before a national audience, anyway. Fans waited another two years for WCW Bash at the Beach ’94, and by that point, Flair was winding down as a main-eventer and the WWF steroid trials accelerated the growing backlash to Hogan’s Reagan-era gimmick.

The two facing in the mid-1980s would have been the greatest matchup in wrestling’s history — assuming both played the opposite role for which each made his name.

In contrast to the consummate face Hogan, Ric Flair owes much of his career to playing the bad guy. The Dirtiest Player in the Game first became a national fixture around 1981 and 1982, defending the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship in territories around the nation.

Audiences came in droves to watch hometown heroes like Dusty Rhodes in Florida, Jerry Lawler in Memphis and the Von Erichs in Texas attempt to take the title off Flair’s waist. His star ascended further later in the decade as the trash-talking leader of the Four Horsemen stable, a group so influential, promoters try to recapture its magic to this day.

Flair’s heel persona had considerably more staying power than Hogan’s flag-waving jingoism, and was frankly more believable. Nevertheless, the ideal Flair-Hogan feud would have pit the 1983 version of Ric Flair against the black-trunked Hulk Hogan who wrestled Antonio Inoki in 1984.

In his pursuit of the World’s champion Harley Race, leading up to Starrcade ’83: A Flair for the Gold, Ric Flair gave impassioned interviews. He exuded the same charisma for which his heel character was known, but translated nicely as the hungry, up-and-coming face.

Flair’s good-guy pursuit of the championship from a 6-foot-7, brash bad-guy Hogan could have been wrestling’s Lakers-Celtics.