Hulk vs. Gawk: A History of “Creative Control”

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Image Credit: Ryan Shipley

Hulk Hogan* won $115 million in compensatory damages from Gawker Media on March 18, 2016 on conclusion of his defamation trial. I had a pretty solid grasp Hogan knew he would win this case long before the trial began.  That’s because I’m a student of history, and know that Hogan doesn’t take calculated risks unless he’s damn sure it’s going to pay off.  If you weren’t paying attention to history, or how Hogan conveys his image and works a crowd, you wouldn’t have seen how he exercised his “creative control” in tandem with his attorneys to reach a favorable verdict.

I’m going to put you in the Wayback Machine** and show you how Terry “Not Hulk Hogan” Bollea’s history as a performer and his manipulation of reality brought him a jury verdict of $115 million.  I’m doing this because as I write this Hulk Hogan is magically being re-written into existence by his former employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, after being scrubbed from their history books eight months ago.  You can’t “pull a Benoit” on a guy who just won a major lawsuit against a media conglomerate and not be afraid of the repercussions in your own life, especially if you’re a publicly traded company.

The term “Pulling a Benoit” unfortunately requires a brief discussion of Chris Benoit.  Benoit, over a three day period in June of 2007, killed his wife and son, then committed suicide.  Benoit’s death was originally discussed on WWE.com and through their mobile alert services, and on June 25 the planned “Monday Night RAW” show was replaced with a tribute to Benoit’s life and career.  The next morning, police reports began to surface that Benoit may have killed his wife and son, then committed suicide.  That night, WWE aired a pre-recorded statement from its Chairman, Vince McMahon, before the “ECW” show began.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Last night on Monday Night Raw, the WWE presented a special tribute show, recognizing the career of Chris Benoit. However, now some 26 hours later, the facts of this horrific tragedy are now apparent. Therefore, other than my comments, there will be no mention of Mr. Benoit’s name tonight.

And there wouldn’t be a mention of Chris Benoit in the WWE “universe” ever again.  Benoit was scrubbed from the history books.  His name appears in very few places in WWE merchandise, and you won’t find a mention of him on the WWE network now.  This is what I call “pulling a Benoit.”: erasing someone from conscious thought by scrubbing mentions of him from the public eye.

Now let’s discuss Hulk Hogan.  Doing this requires going back to 1996, and a discussion of Hogan’s run in World Championship Wrestling, or WCW.

World Championship Wrestling in 1996 was hot commodity in the pro wrestling business.  Their New World Order (nWo) storyline was so hot  people watching TV would call the police over filmed backstage segments they believed to be actual gang violence.

Hogan’s WCW career, however, was floundering.  Despite a ticker-tape parade announcing his arrival, and getting numerous headlining spots, all eyes were on the formative days of the nWo.  Hogan wanted those eyes on him, so he decided to do something he’d not done in thirteen years.  Hulk Hogan would turn heel (become a bad guy), and in a major way. This was an incredibly calculated risk, because it could have destroyed his career. Hogan would have to kill “Hulkamania” to pull this off and he knew it.

When you spend over a decade crafting an image of the “Real American,” making the “Hulkamania” brand something that’s recognized positively on the psyche of the viewer, a heel turn will kill that image and carries the potential to backfire heavily.  Hogan knew this, so he made sure that it would count financially for him in the long run.  His next contract with WCW would grant him more benefits than most talents would ever get in their professional careers.  Hogan knew his next contract would be ridiculous, because he’d be negotiating from a position of power.  And when contract negotiations began, “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan would exploit that power ruthlessly.

His 1998 four year contract with WCW guaranteed Hogan would earn $24,250,000, bare minimum.  Hogan would get revenue from the gates at house shows.  He’d get a percentage of Pay Per View sales based on buy rates.  He’d get ludicrous amounts of royalties from merchandise, even going as far as to get a “promoting” fee for the nWo.  First class air fare, paid for by Turner Sports, the ability to work any schedule he wanted, and even creative control over the way his character was booked.

E. Bollea shall have the approval of the outcome in all wrestling matches in which he appears, wrestles and performs, such approval not to be unreasonably withheld.

That’s the “creative control” clause, and it’s going to be important later.  Hogan became obsessed with having “the approval of the outcome” in any of his life events, not just pro wrestling matches. He would take that obsession and and would leverage his “creative control” straight through to his favorable verdict against Gawker.

Let’s move forward to July 24, 2015, when Hulk Hogan issues a statement apologizing for using the Word White People Must Not Use Anytime as audio from the sex tape is released.  This apology wasn’t enough for his former employers.  WWE fired Hogan, removed him from their Hall of Fame, and began to “pull a Benoit” on Hogan by scrubbing as much as they could from their history books.

And so the WWE has not only terminated their contract with Hogan for his damning words, but it’s also completely removed him from many areas of its website. In a situation similar to former wrestler Chris Benoit’s murder-suicide back in 2007, the WWE apparently wants to make it look like they’ve never had anything to do with Hogan, even removing him from their Hall of Fame listing. (emphasis added)

WWE didn’t just “pull a Benoit” on Hogan.  They even issued a statement “disavowing” their relationship with him, because a publicly traded company can’t have talent saying bad words in the name of diversity.

“WWE terminated its contract with Terry Bollea (a.k.a. Hulk Hogan). WWE is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide.”

Now let’s move to the present day, where Hulk Hogan sued Gawker Media over their dissemination of a one minute and forty second excerpt of his sex tape. That defamation suit was a calculated risk for Hogan, and he knew it.  Hogan’s been a performer all his life in a physical version of improv, so the end result was a masterful display of Hogan and his legal team exercising “creative control” over the outcome of his lawsuit.

He can’t sue them in Federal court for defamation, so the case gets in front of a Tampa jury, where Hogan is a local celebrity, lauded by many.  He’s allowed by the judge to wear a “plain black bandana” as part of his courtroom attire.  He won’t get to call himself “Hulk Hogan,” though.  He’s “Terry Gene Bollea” for the trial. No worries.  Hulk Hogan’s had “creative control” over his life even after he left professional wrestling, and so this entire trial is now on lockdown for a Hulkster-friendly verdict.

Absent the name “Hulk Hogan,” the new argument becomes there’s two people in discussion.  One is Hulk Hogan, the public figure who boasts about the size of his “python” and his sexual prowess on radio.  The other is Terry Bollea, and Bollea has an expectation of privacy Hulk Hogan does not.  Bollea was upset his privacy was invaded by Gawker’s dissemination of one minute and forty seconds of the sex tape made eight years ago.

All the while, the jury isn’t seeing Terry Bollea.  They’re seeing Hulk Hogan talking about a man named Terry Bollea.  This Tampa jury is seeing Hulk Hogan, a man always fights “for what’s right” tell them a guy named Terry Bollea had his privacy invaded, and that’s wrong.  The “Hulkamaniacs” on the jury listened and gave Bollea $115 million in compensatory damages.

With that $115 million verdict the WWE is working full-time to restore the Hogan name to their “universe.”  Don’t be surprised if Hogan gets his Legends contract reinstated and a return to the Hall of Fame.  WWE doesn’t want a lawsuit when their biggest focus is keeping shareholders happy, especially not against a man who just won a defamation suit against a media conglomerate over his hurt feelings.

“Pulling a Benoit” on a dead guy who committed a reprehensible act is one thing.  Doing the same thing to a guy over a word uttered eight years ago on a sex tape who just scored bank doesn’t look good when you understand his ability to leverage “creative control” into hundreds of millions of dollars. Vince McMahon and his legal team have been watching the outcome of this trial, and they know Hogan’s history. They know how he’ll take the benefits of a calculated risk and exploit it for maximum gain.

And they’re afraid of what he’ll do if his focus turns to Titan Towers.

*He’s Hulk Hogan.  I don’t care that his real name is Terry Gene Bollea.  You spend a lifetime calling yourself “Hulk Hogan,” that’s what I’ll call you.

**A series of references and a discussion of Hulk Hogan requires a return to this video:

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