The Hulk Hogan Trial: Kayfabe Never Stops, Brother

Wrestling Features The Hulk
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The Hulk Hogan Trial: Kayfabe Never Stops, Brother

Hulk Hogan has a 10 inch penis. Terry Bollea, the man who plays him, does not. This is now a matter of public record, confirmed in court in the sort of sincere, earnest tones which Hogan reserves for when he’s most insincere.

Welcome to the Hulk Hogan/Terry Bollea vs Gawker trial. It’s a fascinating case for all sorts of reasons which are best reserved for a lawyer to elaborate on: the nature of the press in the 21st century, the privacy rights of celebrities, what constitutes the public interest, how we act when fame starts to fade. Maybe most fascinatingly, the Hogan under the cold glare of a courtroom camera reveals how kayfabe, that unwritten code of never breaking character in pro wrestling, still endures and is enmeshed in the American cultural experience.

Hogan’s defense seems to be predicated on this: Terry Bollea and Hulk Hogan are two different people. Hogan’s a character, Bollea the man underneath. Hogan is so elaborate a character than he even has a different sized penis—presumably there’s a full character dossier filled with Hogan’s character traits, physical dimensions, and favorite foods which would rival the most obsessive Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s notes.

This is fine as far as it goes. As has been pointed out, plenty of people invest an awful lot of time and money into creating characters for themselves, becoming living brands. The thing with wrestling and Hogan is that he comes from a time when it was never switched off. Good guys didn’t ride in cars with bad guys, and if they did, they could get fined or fired by their promoter. Fans who saw you in the streets were interacting with Hulk Hogan, the persona, not Terry Bollea. Terry Bollea is not famous. He has never been famous. He never will be famous. He is not Ryan Gosling or Tom Cruise, actors who leave their characters behind when they leave the set.

What Hogan is getting at is that he can switch the persona on and off at will, that the things he does or says as Hulk Hogan are not the same as the things he does or says as Terry Bollea. Which brings us to a moment of dubious truthfulness that should have been familiar to any wrestling fan who’s paid attention to Hogan’s interviews over the years.

When asked about his famous claim that he didn’t know if Andre the Giant would let him win during their famed Wrestlemania III bout, Hogan doubled down under oath that no, he didn’t know. This absolutely beggars belief. Without being privy to the backstage scene, there is no way that Vince McMahon, Andre and Hogan would have gone into the biggest match in history in front of the biggest crowd in American wrestling history without knowing the ending. That is not how pro wrestling works.

So if that’s not true, Terry Bollea might have committed perjury. Except maybe he didn’t. Maybe Hogan did. This gets to the crux of the problem with kayfabe of the old style: Hogan/Bollea doesn’t always seem to know what’s real and what’s not. Throughout his career, he’s lied effortlessly and endlessly. To hear Hogan tell it now, however, he has an out. Bollea doesn’t lie. He’s virtuous and humble. But Hogan? That Hogan is a real bad guy, vain, deceptive, loud, boastful.

You can see this pattern in lots of Hogan’s contemporaries. Listen to any interview with Ric Flair or members of the Four Horsemen, his legendary stablemates. They lived the life of hot cars, fast women, and cocaine they boasted of on television. Flair, especially, is quite open about it. He spent money like water to keep up the appearance, 24/7, of being the Nature Boy. To drop it was unthinkable enough that Flair, arguably the greatest wrestler of all time, left crippling debt and failed marriages in his wake.

When Iron Sheik and Hacksaw Jim Duggan got popped for DUI and drugs while riding together in 1987, the worst sin wasn’t the drug use but the fact that the arrest broke kayfabe. Haku is a tough guy in ring and out, but only the pressures of kayfabe explain attempting to bite someone’s nose off. Jake the Snake Roberts admits in the recent documentary about his recovery from drug addiction that the pressure to be “on” at all times was sometimes too much.

Kayfabe is decidedly weird. There’s no other way to put it than to say that being in character all the time warps a person’s sense of reality. Real becomes unreal, you lose sight of who’s underneath, who’s doing the boasting and shit-talking, until person and character fuse. Forget Jared Leto’s overwrought posing about how being the Joker took him to strange places; pro wrestlers are the real method actors. They can and do die for their craft, a craft that seems, particularly in the old days, wedded to losing yourself. The thing that occludes memory and sense is the same thing that makes pro wrestling so vital.

So back to Hulk Hogan’s penis. There’s a split second in the clip where Gawker’s lawyer registers surprise at Hogan’s answer, as if he can’t quite believe what he’s hearing. Actors can do amazing things; changing the size of their genitalia at will is not one of them. Regardless of who’s speaking, the man’s penis is the same size.

But that’s not how the misty, strange world of pro wrestling works. If the lawyer was surprised, that’s only because we’ve sublimated how deeply weird wrestling’s intersection of real life and vaudeville melodrama really is. Hogan can say nearly anything and it will be true by definition. Wrestlers cannot lie because the unrealities they weave are too good to not be true.

Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.