I think you would have to be in complete denial to claim World Wrestling Entertainment is not the top professional wrestling organisation in the world today. It does not matter whether you like the company or not, the WWE is the one that puts on four weekly shows and thirteen annual PPVs. They must be doing something right to maintain this sort of output.
Ever since the company broke the territorial rules and went nationwide (and eventually worldwide) only one other company has been able to put a fight. That company was World Championship Wrestling. Thanks to Ted Turner it could afford anything it needed. In particular, the company could afford any wrestler it wanted and even though the unlimited checkbook of Turner would lead to WCW's downfall, it cannot be denied that without it they would have never competed in the first place. The beginning also holds a hint of irony as Hulk Hogan was one of WCW's first big signings in 1994.
Most fans agree that WWE's rise to the major power they are today began back on Jan. 23, 1984 when Hulk Hogan won his first WWE Championship with Gorilla Monsoon claiming "Hulkamania is here!" The rest is history as Hogan would go on to become one of the most popular sports entertainers of all time and pretty much was the catalyst of all that was to come in the future of professional wrestling.
Thanks to a feud between Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon on SmackDown in 2003, an argument has raged amongst wrestling fans for almost a decade. "Could Hulkamania have happened without Hogan?" Personally I feel WWE did have other options if Hogan was not going to be up to the task. Whether or not the company would have been as successful is more difficult to tell. Whilst this is a popular question no seems to ask a similar yet possibly more intriguing one. Could Hulkamania have happened without the WWE?
WWE does not focus much on the company prior to Hogan's championship win. They mention names like Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund but because of how wrestling was booked when it was territorial (and more importantly not frequently televised) they had to cover up a lot of inconsistencies in their history books. It would not be uncommon for events to happen purely to gain the interest of a local audience yet would be ignored afterwards because they would be bad decisions overall. An example of this was Antonio Anoki winning the WWF Championship from Bob Backlund in 1979 during a cross promotional event with New Japan Pro Wrestling. Once the belt was back in America, the title change was never acknowledged outside of Japan and today remains unrecognised by WWE.
One of those many facts WWE liked to cover up is Hogan's first run with them during 1979-80. Back in those days the company was run by Vince McMahon Sr. and like most promoters of the time he felt wrestlers such as Bob Backlund were the best men to place in the company's top position. Whilst being a showman was good it was not enough to make you one of the top stars. Wrestling was still considered, by most, to be completely real at the time and someone who could not make the audience believe this was generally placed as a heel. This was true of Hogan's first run in WWE.
Hogan would spend a few years after his WWE run wrestling for NJPW. In Japan, Hogan's more flamboyant style was welcome, albeit in Japan he ironically displayed a more varied moveset. The showman style served him well as he would gain a role in Rocky III thus beginning his climb to international stardom. Unfortunately this did not sit well with McMahon Sr. Hogan in his eyes was bringing too much attention to the entertainment side of professional wrestling and revealing its secrets. He was not welcome to return to the company.
What was WWE's loss became the American Wrestling Association's gain in 1981. With Hogan signed, they used his appearance in Rocky III a year later to its maximum potential. Although he started off in the company as a heel, the fans couldn't get enough of the larger-than-life character Hogan brought to the squared circle and turned face. In a short amount of time he became the company's top draw as the fans desired to see him take the AWA World Championship off the villainous Nick Bockwinkel.
To fully understand what is going to happen next I am quickly going to explain a little of the AWA's World Championship history. The company was owned by Verne Gange. The record also states he held the AWA Championship on 10 separate occasions with the longest reign lasting 2,625 days (both are company records). All ten reigns accumulate into 4,677 days as World Champion meaning no other man held the title as much. These figures put Triple H's 2002-05 run to shame.
When Gange retired from wrestling he placed the belt on his most loyal employee, Nick Bockwinkel. Gange was yet another promoter who believed the champion had to be someone who could wrestle a technical match and despite Hogan's popularity never placed the belt on him once. Instead, Hogan's run in AWA consisted of screwjobs, reversed decisions and technicalities.
According to Hogan his marketability was recognised by Gange but the owner wanted too much from him. Hogan was still making reasonable amounts of profit from his NJPW tours, profit that the AWA could not access. Gange apparently made two offers. The first was that Hogan gave AWA a share of the money he made in NJPW, which Hogan declined stating he didn't need to be the champion. Later on Gange made a more radical offer stating if Hogan married into his family then he could be champion. On the other hand, Gange offers his own explanation saying Hogan would have not drawn such a large audience once he won the championship because people were turning up to see him chase the belt rather than win it.
Regardless of whatever the true reason is, Gange made a terrible decision. Since Hogan's departure from WWE in 1980, it had been taken over by Vince McMahon Jr. who was less abrasive towards showmen and believed the bigger than life personalities were the way to cracking a national market. He gave Hogan a deal he could not refuse in the face of AWA's unreasonable demands. In 1983, Hogan jumped ship and the path to Hulkamania began.
Whilst the AWA did not initially suffer from failing to capitalise on the biggest draw the company had, it would have dire consequences. By the time WrestleMania had been conceptualised, WWE was taking most of AWA's top talent. Their decline was briefly diverted by the arrival of The Road Warriors but the killing blow was delivered in the late 80s. With Bockwinkel on the verge of retirement, the AWA decided to build their promotion around The Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty) and Curt Hennig. WWE would end up buying over both attractions. The AWA became out-dated and thanks to other financial problems ceased to be in 1991.
Hogan's success in the AWA showed that he was good enough to be a top draw no matter what company he was in. Had Verne Gange allowed him to become their World Champion I truly believe professional wrestling would be in a different position. As mentioned, had WWE not acquired Hogan, they would have probably still gone the same route but their rise may not have been as quick while their grip on the mainstream wrestling community may not have been as strong. Had AWA acted rationally and placed Hogan as their champion they would have had a draw that could compete with whatever WWE wanted to show.
Would things have been different with Hogan as AWA Champion?
AWA could have become a decent alternative to WWE but would have still failed eventually because Verne Gange was old fashioned in his belief of how a wrestling organisation should be run. It is likely they would not have been aggressive enough to try and drive others out of business since they seemed like the sort of company that fully respected handshake deals of the territorial days.
WWE on the other hand would have stayed mostly on the same route but may have not gained the following Hogan allowed McMahon to acquire. Without such a large fanbase, would WWE have been able to compete with Ted Turner's WCW led by Eric Bishoff?
Hogan would have still likely ended up at WCW because he would have probably still gone into films and the company would have made him the same offer. WCW would have still rose because of Turner's billions and Eric Bishoff's aggression. Would a weaker WWE and a stronger AWA been able to exist with a near unstoppable WCW of the mid-90s?
Maybe WCW would be the only major wrestling organisation in operation today. It is possible that things would have ended up the same way with the Attitude Era taking viewers by storm. Then there is always the chance that we would have a large variety of wrestling programs to choose from instead.
I think we all recognise the importance of Hulk Hogan's contributions to professional wrestling but maybe we don't appreciate how much difference that man could have made if AWA had been more reasonable.