Will the Hulk tumble, or The Rock crumble?

It's a fans' dream match-up: Two superpowers in the world of pro wrestling, Hulk Hogan and The Rock, meet in the ring tonight.

Pop Culture

March 17, 2002|By Kevin Eck | Kevin Eck,Sun Staff

These days, what were once considered fantasy match-ups between sports heroes of different ages are almost everyday occurrences.

Michael Jordan (before he was injured) came out of retirement to take on young basketball stars like Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant. Golden-years golfers like Jack Nicklaus tee it up alongside Tiger Woods.

But sports fans still can only imagine what it would have been like to see Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron play against each in other in a World Series, or Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain square off in the NBA Finals.

For professional wrestling fans, though -- at least those willing to pay to view it -- such a dream match will actually materialize tonight. Hulk Hogan and The Rock, probably the two most recognizable professional wrestlers ever, will square off in the main event of the World Wrestling Federation's annual WrestleMania extravaganza at the SkyDome in Toronto.

It's being billed as a "Battle for the Ages," pitting Hogan, possibly the most famous pro wrestler of all time, against The Rock, whose mainstream appeal rivals Hogan's at his peak. Between them, Hogan (real name Terry Bollea) and The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) have been world heavyweight champion of the WWF 11 times. Neither currently holds a title, but the stakes tonight are bigger than any championship belt.

Hogan , who at 48 still has a chiseled, bronzed physique, became a household name while in the WWF during wrestling's boom period in the 1980s. He became a movie and TV actor and is the only pro wrestler to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Rock, 29, has been wrestling's top star since the industry's resurgence in the late '90s. Like Hogan, he's become an action movie star, and is the only pro wrestler ever to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone.

For rabid fans of the peculiar sports / entertainment hybrid that is pro wrestling, tonight's match pits the "Immortal Hulkster" vs. the "Most Electrifying Man in Sports-Entertainment." The "Leg Drop" vs. the "Rock Bottom." The "24-inch Pythons" vs. the "People's Eyebrow." For more casual viewers, think Mr. Nanny vs. The Scorpion King.

It's a match wrestling fans never expected to see, and not just because of the wrestlers' age disparity.

Hogan, a former WWF wrestler, had been working for rival World Championship Wrestling since 1994, while The Rock has wrestled exclusively for the WWF since his debut in 1996. But when the Vince McMahon-owned WWF purchased WCW from AOL / Time Warner last year, it cleared the way for Hogan to return and the fantasy match to become reality.

"Reality," of course, is a relative term when applied to the scripted mayhem that is pro wrestling, which is less about actual bodily harm and more about showmanship and charisma, something WrestleMania's main-event combatants have in abundance.

In the WWF's current "story line," Hogan, who once portrayed a superhero-like character who encouraged kids to "train, say their prayers and take their vitamins," is now the "heel," or bad guy: a bitter, aging star who feels fans have turned their backs on him in support of younger, hipper guys. Guys like The Rock, whose role is that of the "baby face," or good guy.

To illustrate just how evil Hogan has become, the WWF last month concocted a scenario in which Hogan and two of his henchmen jumped The Rock and assaulted him with a hammer to the back of his head on one of its weekly televised events. Of course, the WWF is not known for being subtle, and that was just the beginning.

As an ambulance containing the injured wrestler started to leave the arena parking lot for the hospital, Hogan, driving an 18-wheeler, blocked its path, then proceeded to back up and smash into the ambulance, turning it -- and, presumably, The Rock -- into a mangled mess. The TV announcers played it up as if The Rock's life was in jeopardy.

Not to worry. He returned less than three weeks later none the worse for wear, save for a small bandage around some of his ribs.

Hey, even The Babe and Hammerin' Hank didn't have recuperative powers like that.

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