Rasslin' - Hulk Hogan in Japan
Hulk Hogan is a legend. Okay, he's also a person, imperfect and human, but I'm talking about the WWF superstar who tore off his yellow shirt every single week to the tune of "Real American" and fought for truth, justice, and the American way. That guy is a legend. His meteoric rise to fame in the 1980s was a thing to behold, and may still be the definition of Pro Wrestling at its best for a lot of people.
But there's been a backlash against the Hulkster in recent years. That's not surprising, as there's always a backlash. We lift up from the bottom and we knock down from the top. So Hulk Hogan, even before his personal trouble in recent years, was becoming the punchline of wrestling fans who volleyed claims against him that he was a cartoon character who never knew how to wrestle. Cartoon character? Yes, that's true, both literally and metaphorically.
Recently I've been watching a bunch of his stuff from Japan, and it's been eye opening. I got my hands on a DVD (this DVD), which has three discs worth of Hogan wrestling in Japan beginning in 1980 and going all the way up to 1993. Western wrestlers working in the East is nothing new, but it does offer us an insight into Hogan's ability pre-WWF. A lot of these matches are available on YouTube, though the DVDs themselves have great quality and are very clear, more so than what's on the internet. They reveal a young, hungry wrestler who was willing to work hard and get his hands dirty. I've seen stuff I never thought Hogan was capable of. Tons of mat wrestling, working holds, stiff punches, chin locks, stuff like that. Every now and then he'll drop an elbow or a leg, but it's not his go-to move. What's even more surprising is that he's really quick on his feet, which is impressive for someone as big as he is. For a giant (which he definitely is), he has a lot of great moves and a good speed that I don't think really came through in his WWF work, which was more of a performance, or a show.
Because New Japan Pro Wrestling is very different from American wrestling, there are no lengthy promos in which Hogan has to talk about vitamins and prayers. The storytelling is done in the ring. All the commentary for these matches is completely in Japanese, but it doesn't matter; you can totally tell who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. It's easy to follow the story the wrestlers are telling, which is a nice change from the American feuding style where there's always some silly grudge about disrespect, or a master plan to get the title that rivals something from a comic book. Hogan even looks different in Japan. The deep brown tan that he's known for and that makes him look like a well-oiled saddle is completely absent. He isn't as blonde in the earlier matches, either, and he rarely wears yellow, except for a few times, one of them being when he comes to the ring in his Rocky III crew jacket.
Long story short, Hogan didn't wrestle these kind of matches in 'Murrica because he didn't have to. A hometown crowd filled with little kids in yellow "Hulkamania" shirts would have been horrified by some of this stuff and bored by the rest of it. "Daddy, why has Hulk been holding on to that man's arm for five minutes?" The point is that he COULD do it, it just didn't fit the market at the time. Furthermore, when things loosened up in America in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he put on some pretty great matches. I submit Hogan Vs. Mr. McMahon from Wrestlemania XIX as evidence of impressive wrestling that didn't have all the cartoony crap in it.