Hulk Hogan knows about being the hero and the villain.
He has played both roles during his four decades in wrestling. In the ring, he was the red-and-yellow-clad "Hulkster" during the WWF's rise in the 1980s, becoming a global celebrity; and then he was the black-and-white "Hollywood Hogan" in WCW and later the WWE, the sinister accelerant of the nWo's popularity that propelled the "Monday Night Wars."
Both personas made him a larger-than-life hero to generations of fans, but in recent years, it has become more complicated after a tape containing racist language became public in the aftermath of his successful lawsuit against Gawker Media. Hogan was subsequently suspended from the WWE for three years, before being reinstated in 2018, and has since made numerous appearances with the organization.
He's scheduled to take part in Monday Night Raw's "Legends Night," joining stars such as Ric Flair and Kurt Angle for an evening of nostalgia and interaction with the current roster. ESPN spoke with Hogan this week about that event, the concept of heroes and villains in wrestling and what actor Chris Hemsworth needs to get right to accurately portray Hogan in an upcoming biopic.
Editor's note: Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
ESPN: When you go back to the WWE for an event like Raw, what is the vibe like? Do you just become one of the boys again? Or is there a sense of awe from them?
Hogan: "It's a mixed bag. Some people I get a really warm reception from. Some of the younger guys are really cold to me, like I'm coming to steal the main event. And I'm like, 'I can't do this anymore, guys! I'm not a threat!'
"Going back with all the legends will be a lot of fun. When I've gone back before by myself, there have been certain wrestlers, like Edge and Seth Rollins, that have told me to my face that the only reason they got into this business was because of me. The newer kids ... I don't think they know who I am all the way?
"The wake-up call that really got me was with 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin. We weren't really close at all, but over the last few years have become good friends. It caught me off guard when he called me one day, and we're chatting about cars or something and all of a sudden he goes, 'Damn, Hogan. I was on the internet the other day and I can't believe all the stuff you did in your career!'
"When Stone Cold didn't realize that I did "The Love Boat" and Johnny Carson, then I understood why the young people didn't know."
It's kind of like when younger generations can't comprehend how famous, on a global level, someone like Michael Jordan was in comparison to subsequent NBA stars. Your fame in comparison to that of Austin or The Rock feels different.
"That's because for 20 years, there wasn't a Stone Cold or a Rock or a John Cena. It was just me, every day, and sometimes twice on Saturday. I'd wrestle 400 times a year. It was crazy. The timing was so perfect for me because of how hot wrestling was. The cover of Sports Illustrated. The craziness of [the first] WrestleMania. It all just took off like a rocket.
"It's hard to recapture that. We blazed such a trail that it's hard for the young guys to follow that trail. It's like what Vince McMahon always says [does Vince impression]: 'Hogan, I'm always looking for an attraction.' That's because we branded something in Vince's mind where he's always looking for that next big thing, that hood ornament."
What did you make of The Undertaker's farewell, with the WWE Network documentary and Mark Calaway giving fans a look behind the gimmick?
"I didn't expect it to be done so open and honestly. I mean, he retired and came back, and put his boots in the ring and all of that. But this was the final 'final' goodbye. Putting the nail in the coffin -- I know, great cliché there. But opening up and showing people what he was about, that he was totally dedicated to this business, had wrestling in his blood on day one and was a good dude and a family man. I think the whole thing was done really well. It was a good move."
Do you wish you had a chance to do a "Last Ride" documentary, with the whole sendoff and stuff?
"I haven't really thought about it. There's still more business to be done with me even though I'm not actually wrestling anymore. I don't know how to approach that as far as timing goes. And it could only be done by the WWE, because they're the only ones that could do it correctly and give it justice. Hopefully, down the road there'll be a spot to do it that way."
Obviously, you return to WWE as shows are being held in fan-less environments. How do you think you would have handled wrestling during the COVID era?
"I was trained a different way. I started in the 1970s. The first day I came in to be a wrestler, they broke my leg and said, 'Don't come back.' Once I got my act together, my drive was that no one was going to hurt me again. I spent a couple of years learning to get in good shape, how to wrestle and then how to do the professional wrestling scenarios.
"I would listen to what the fans wanted. I didn't plan stuff out. I just knew who was going to win or lose, and then listen with my heart and my ears with what they wanted to see. You're a three-tier chess player, thinking a few moves ahead every time. Andre [The Giant] taught me that, because Andre basically raised me in this business.
"Wrestling every night in front of live crowds, I learned how to read those fans. How to pace myself in creating emotion and passion and hatred and then blowing the roof off the place when I 'hulked up.' For example, you can be in the ring and someone can hold you in a rear chin-lock. Today, I see guys come right up and take off and hit the ropes. Back in the day, when I was in a rear chin-lock, I would start shaking my ankle and leg a little bit, like I was freaking out. I wouldn't come up out of that chin-lock until the building was about to explode. It's a different feel with a live crowd.
"It was a totally different time. A lot of the superstars that are coming in from the performance center right now are learning to wrestle without a crowd. So I'm not sure there's much of a transition to go out into the ThunderDome without a live crowd. But for me, it would really affect me until I got my sea legs under me, because when I wrestled, I was so used to the crowd. Even when I'd watch other wrestling shows with fans now, I think about how freaked out I'd be to watch a bunch of people sitting down looking at their iPhones during my matches."
Something else that's changed a bit since you started in the business is the concept of heroes and villains. There's a lack of clear "good guys" and "bad guys" with many shades-of-gray characters. How do you feel about that change in the industry?
"When I was the good guy, it was the 'training and the prayers and the vitamins' Hulk Hogan. When I was the bad guy, it was 'forget the prayers and the vitamins ... do it for the money.' [Laughs] I was trying to be as evil as I could, beating people with my wrestling belt and the dropping to my knees if someone raised a hand to me. Making sure there was no gray area there.
"Look at when I wrestled The Rock at 'WrestleMania 18.' I hit him in the head with a hammer. I put him in an ambulance and ran him over with a semi-truck. I tried to do everything I could to be the most evil person in the world. And then, when I came out for the match, they started cheering me in Toronto. So even though they weren't supposed to be cheering me, we switched up that thing really fast. I was on a plane the next morning back to Florida to get the red and yellow gear again, brother. I didn't want to be in a gray area.
"When there is a gray area, it confuses the fans, you know? Look at The Miz. They got him as a bad guy. For me, I got a different opinion of him. It's hard to hate someone when, in the next hour, he's changing diapers and kissing his wife on another show. So it's a little confusing to me, but I'm sure they know where they're going with their storyline.
"I don't like the gray areas myself. I like the old-school confrontation of good versus evil."
Isn't part of the issue that we know so much more about everybody now?
"It is, but you've gotta understand that the people still want to believe as long as you don't blatantly throw those wedding photos in their face. Then, it becomes hard to stay in the zone. It's just an opinion I have after being around the business for so long. Others don't share that opinion. But it's all about the numbers, brother. You can tell pretty quickly if what you're doing is on or off."
Whether it was as a hero or villain, was there anyone you wished you could wrestle but never had a chance to?
"Yes. 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin, in a singles match. I tease him about it all the time: 'Man, if I was the bad guy, I would have put you over every night. Right in the middle of the ring. And then I'd get on TV and I'd lie my rear end off about how that bald-headed creep could never beat me!' We could have drawn so much money. When I came back to wrestle The Rock, that Hollywood Hogan character was so hot. I would have loved to chase Steve around the world for a couple of months."
So you're the heel in this scenario?
"Oh, yeah. All day long."
Did you have a favorite heel to wrestle when you were a face?
"One guy, without a doubt, because he was so consistent. And I'm telling you that this guy was on edge 24 hours a day and believed in his business: 'Macho Man' Randy Savage. That sucker was nuts, man. I had a blast working with him. He'd call me up at 4 in the morning and say [slips into Randy Savage impression], 'Hey Hogan, lemme tell you something: You're looking at Elizabeth a little too much.' And I'd say, 'My god, Randy, it's 4 in the morning and you're calling me to tell me that I'm looking at my manager too much?' And he was like, 'Maybe you can back off a little.' He was crazy, but in a very good way."
Was the famous "you've got lust in your eyes" angle that split you and Randy up, and set up your WrestleMania match, born from those 4 a.m. phone calls?
"Oh yeah, that's what he always said. 'Lust in your eyes.' [Laughs] And then he'd beat the crap out of me in the ring, because he was so intense, until I'd have to tell him to knock it off."
I saw on Instagram that you complimented Chris Hemsworth's pythons as he trains to play you in a biopic. What do you think about him as an onscreen Hulk Hogan, and have you talked to him, given him advice?
"We haven't gotten to that point yet. We did talk on the phone when he decided to do the movie, and he said he wanted to be around me as much as he can to study me and see what makes me tick. And I was like, 'Brother, you're going to be surprised.' [Laughs] He's a lot taller than I thought he was, around 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4. He's in crazy shape. I keep on telling him that the only problem is that he's not really good-looking enough to play me in a movie."
What's the essential part of Hulk Hogan that someone needs to capture if they're going to play you in a movie?
"There was always something burning inside of me. It was like a fear that I would stay ahead of, you know? The fear that somebody was going to catch up to me. That somebody was going to figure out how I was pulling this off. That someone was going to be better than me. So I pushed as hard I could and never looked back. There were so many talented people wrestling in that time. I was so worried that somebody might steal my steam."
Can you clarify that fear? Was it like "imposter syndrome," where you didn't feel like you were worthy of the role you were put in? Or was it more like you were worried that someone else was going to figure out your tricks and do it better?
"Both, because I wasn't the greatest wrestler. I wasn't a tough guy. I wasn't one of these guys that, say, they've had 100 real fights and won every one of them. That's not me. I was worried that somebody was going to figure out what I did to stay ahead of the game, and there was also a part of me that was like, 'I'm really not that good at what I'm doing.' I only had so many moves. I didn't want to have people see through my character and see through my gimmick and see that I'm not really good at what I do.
"It all accumulated. I understood the business. I understand what it took to make it tick. A lot of people say I was a politician, but that was a big part of it: Getting along with all the guys in the dressing room, sitting in the office with Vince and being a politician there, talking to kids from Make-A-Wish [Foundation] and making them understand how important the training and the prayers and vitamins are -- even though that wasn't me at the time, my character was impeccable.
"Everything that I did was the sum of all the parts of that character, and the ability to switch gears depending on who you were talking to. There was so much that went into that character in front of the scenes and behind the scenes that not too many people figured out how I did it."