Even if you didn't follow pro wrestling in the 1980s, you would recognize Terry Bollea. With his white-blond ponytail, bodybuilder physique and ever-present bandanna, the man better known as Hulk Hogan (a.k.a. Hollywood Hogan, the Hulkster, the Incredible or simply Mr. America) has ruled the ring since 1984, when he won his first World Wrestling Federation championship. He's been called the industry's "first big iconic star" (Vince McMahon Jr.) and "the greatest of all time" (Muhammad Ali), and he remains the only pro wrestler to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In his new memoir, My Life Outside the Ring, Hogan talks about everything from his first break in the business (literally) to his VH1 reality show Hogan Knows Best and the tabloid chaos that followed the end of his 23-year-long marriage.
How has your family reacted to the book?
I don't know. A friend asked about my wife and whether she's read the book and I said I really hope she has because her publicist is already responding for her. I talked with my son about it, and I talked with my daughter. They haven't read it yet, but they understand why I wrote the book. [After the divorce], I hit rock bottom. A lot of people didn't realize that with the carpet being pulled out from under me in such a short time frame I got to such a bad place. [But] I woke up and realized life is great and people are awesome and life is worth living. People are having a tough time nowadays and I wanted to pass the story along and say, "Hey, don't give up. Life is good. Just keep believing and pushing and things will get better."
The release of your book coincided with the announcement that you're getting back into the business, and not for World Wrestling Entertainment.
When I woke up and realized I should be my own man and be responsible for being happy, I realized I still have a lot to contribute to the wrestling business. And jumping into TNA [Total Nonstop Action] and being a part of that company is huge. I have a chance to give back and help these young wrestlers who don't understand the business and the art form.
Why do you think this younger generation has changed?
The business moves so much faster now. It used to be if Andre the Giant and I had a feud, it'd probably play out six or seven months later at a big event. Nowadays, if Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan have a feud at 9 o'clock, it's usually over by 9:30. It's a story-telling art form to create emotion and drama and I just think a lot of that is lost.
You played bass guitar for nearly 10 years before becoming a wrestler. What was the switch like?
After watching wrestling for 20 years, I thought I had enough confidence to do it. There were no wrestling schools at the time. There were just six or seven huge 300- or 400-lb. wrestlers in a room, and to get in the business you had to take the livelihood away from one of them, take their place. So when I first went into the ring, they exercised me until I was ready to faint. And then they broke my leg.
I couldn't believe that was your first experience.
That's the way it was 30 years ago. I was a huge fan. We call them "marks." They hang around the wrestlers and all of a sudden go, "Oh my gosh, I want to be a wrestler too." So it was like an unwritten law of camaraderie or fraternity of wrestlers that you protected the business. If anybody dared say wrestling was fake, you'd punch 'em. And you never used the word show. If you used the word show it was an insult.
How do you feel films like The Wrestler have affected the popular perception of the industry?
I thought it was great film, but as far as capturing the wrestling business it was a snapshot of a very small percentage of ex-wrestlers. It's not really how every wrestler ends up. It wasn't as intense as what the business is all about. And Mickey Rourke making so much drama out of cutting himself with a razor blade. Making a phone call from the dressing room is harder than cutting yourself with a razor blade. I've done that thousands of times.
In your book, you talked about steroids how they were legal and really common when you first started out.
I just drank an iced tea here with lunch. If next year they say iced tea is worse than steroids, I'll probably quit drinking that too. But at the time it was legal, just like drinking an iced tea is legal. The baseball players, the football players, the hockey players everybody I knew in every professional sport was using it to up their game, or to heal injuries, or to stay at their peak. And everybody thought it was safe.
You also mentioned that what the baseball industry is facing as far as government regulation is nothing like what pro wrestling faced in the early '90s.
The baseball thing is a joke. This has been a problem in baseball for as long as I can remember. I've got a lot of these guys' rookie cards and if you see the size of their necks and forearms compared to their size when they were first signed, it's pretty obvious that they've got a problem. For some reason everyone else has been under the microscope wrestling, football, the Olympics and now all of a sudden the baseball industry is going, "We had no idea," which is just insulting.
What do you think, looking back, about your decision to star in a reality show?
I think the show was good for our family. I was praying and hoping that it would be the glue that would keep my marriage together, but my marriage was already totally unraveled by the time we started filming.
What do you think about your daughter having her own reality show now?
I think it's a great vehicle if you want to be in the entertainment business to keep you visible. I'm not saying she should live and die by being a reality star, but I mean it beats just sitting at home waiting for something to happen.