Almost without question the best match Hulk Hogan had after losing the WWF Championship to the Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VI a mere 12 days earlier, this encounter between Hogan and Stan “The Lariat” Hansen has a major advantage over most Hulk Hogan matches—from that era or otherwise—in that it takes place in Japan. I’ve written a little bit about the curious effect Japan had on Hulkamania, but this goes deeper than the Japanese expecting more than routine, about their wanting to see the Axe Bomber lariat and not the Atomic Leg Drop. See, in Japan, Stan Hansen was the living, breathing embodiment of America at its meanest, at its toughest, at its worst. Stan Hansen was worse than any ol’ monster Hulk Hogan had chopped down in America. He was a tobacco chewing, bullrope twirling bully, an American Godzilla.
That’s important, because in any other country but Japan, Stan Hansen in a WWF ring is a cartoon cowboy. Oh, maybe not when he broke Bruno Sammartino’s neck in 1976, but plenty had changed in the intervening 15 years. Heck, 10 years after Hansen and Bruno’s feud, Terry Funk came to the WWF as fodder for Hogan’s budding WWF Championship reign and was portrayed as a cartoon cowboy. A middle-aged and crazy cartoon cowboy, which was actually a good contrast for Hogan, but not quite the Terry Funk 1985 needed. In Japan, Terry Funk is Terry Funk. Stan Hansen is Stan Hansen. He’s a bully. The bad man from Borger. And everything about his ring entrance tells you just that.
The pre-match segment, with Hogan standing around in his locker room stretching, ignoring the Japanese interviewer, and watching Hansen make his way to the ring, is one of my favorite parts of this match. There’s something to be said for WWE-style ring entrances and what they accomplish, but nobody knew how to create an atmosphere for a wrestling match quite like the Japanese. With Hansen out in the ring whipping every thing in sight and Hogan in the back, silently watching, it was pretty obvious that something special, something living up to the “SPECIAL DREAM MATCH” bulling was about to go down. Hogan and Hansen were two bombs, set to explode.
What’s amazing, at least to me, is that Hansen was a last-minute replacement for Terry Gordy, the All Japan Pro Wrestling Triple Crown champion. A loss to Hogan, Gordy figured, would do him more harm than good. The resulting match, however, has a sense of destiny to it. Hogan teamed with Hansen during Hogan’s time in Japan. He’d grown to be this big, shouty, American teddy bear, a nice enough dude, but somebody Hansen would be deeply ashamed to associate with. Instead of one of those cutesy American matches between former tag team partners—you know, where one man knows the other’s move “almost before it happens!”—things escalate very quickly from Hogan’s mat wrestling display (those who’ve long bemoaned Hogan’s five moves of doom should pay attention to his STF, his cravate, his drop toe-hold, and so-on) to a Hansen-style brawl. Both men throw punches. Both men shed blood. Hogan, in a decidedly anti-Hogan twist, bodyslams Stan Hansen onto an unbreakable Japanese table. Beyond Hogan’s yellow trunks and his willingness to cheat, he’s almost unrecognizable.
That’s what I appreciate the most about Hogan’s one-off appearances in Japan, that they represent something utterly different from what I’m used to. I recently listened to Colt Cabana’s interview of William Regal (one of my top five favorite wrestlers), and Regal said something that reminded me to look up this match. He said that, too often, wrestlers (and people involved elsewhere in the industry) get too caught up in the finer details of their craft and forget what interested them as children. For me, it was Hulk Hogan. Sure, I also loved Randy Savage, Bret Hart, Ultimate Warrior, and Jake Roberts, but it was Hogan who got me in the door and, later, Hogan who I most bitterly complained about.
It’s not my place to talk about Hulk Hogan the person or Hulk Hogan the backstage politician, but Hulk Hogan the wrestler existed, and was not just a figment of my imagination. Beneath his routines, beneath his catch phrases, and beneath his pre- and post-match posedowns there existed a Hulk Hogan who could really go in the ring, but wasn’t called upon to except on the rarest of circumstances. When I watch a Hogan match like this, I think of all the good-to-great John Cena matches I’ve seen, all of the Randy Orton matches I’ve enjoyed despite not really liking Randy Orton, and the divide that exists between people who love those two wrestlers and those who hate them. It’s a wide gulf, one unlikely to be bridged, but take a look at this match and realize that, for 13-minutes, Hogan and Stan Hansen are equals. Then watch John Cena vs. C.M. Punk or Randy Orton vs. Christian and tell me, with a straight face, that one carried the other. I don’t think I’m revealing anything when I say that wrestling, at its core, is a partnership. If the two partners aren’t somehow equal, the match fails. There’s a wealth of Hulk Hogan matches following this one that only proves this point. Wonderfully, none of them take place in Japan.