My mother-in-law tells the same Hulk Hogan story anytime the topic of pro wrestling comes up.
A line of giddy fans waited to meet The Hulkster at a Toys "R" Us in Kingwood, Texas, sometime in the 1980s. When she neared him, she was star-struck despite being the most casual of fans. She reached out and touched his boulder of a biceps. As they exchanged small talk, she grinned through every word.
Even now, decades later, the sparkle hasn't faded from that brief meeting. My mother-in-law's eyes light up as she relives it.
That's a testament to Hogan's star power.
His crossover appeal eventually faded, with the racist comments he made in 2007 a likely contributing factor, but the six-time WWE world heavyweight champion was a transcendent figure for a long time. He wasn't just a star in the wrestling world; he was a fixture of pop culture. Even if you didn't know anything about wrestling, you knew who Hogan was.
To a degree, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin followed Hogan's lead as a mainstream figure in the late '90s. John Cena's name reached past the WWE world. The Rock's name didn't grow into what it is today until after the bulk of his WWE career was done, but he has to be mentioned as well.
Brock Lesnar's star power is undeniable, but it's hard to build around a guy who wrestles so infrequently. Even when he's the champ, he's more of a guest star than a centerpiece. And at 42 years old, it's hard to imagine him sticking around much longer.
Ronda Rousey's UFC success gives her obvious crossover appeal, but her WWE future is uncertain amid an ongoing hiatus from the business.
So there remains a vacancy in that spot Hogan and Austin once occupied.
WWE CEO Vince McMahon has compiled a roster that's overflowing with talent. The company boasts acrobats and bruisers, showmen and powerhouses, any of whom can wow you in the ring.
But who among all those world-class athletes will make their mark beyond the wrestling bubble?
In an attempt to answer that question, I concocted a social experiment—one that had those unfamiliar with the WWE product eyeing its cast of characters.
The process was as follows:
- Three sets of focus groups (36 people in total) sat down and watched a series of WWE highlights.
- Both the Superstars' ring work and mic skills were on display during these clips.
- The observers offered comments, asked questions and eventually noted which wrestlers most appealed to them.
- The participants scored each wrestler's general appeal out of five—from not appealing at all (zero) to extremely appealing (five).
These viewers offered quite the mix of perspectives.
That group included Katie, an elementary school intervention specialist who had questions about what parts of pro wrestling are real. It featured Andrew, a bus driver who remembers being wowed by Andre the Giant way back when. People like 10-year-old big brother Derek and Hanni, from Alaska, who runs her own apparel company, offered fresh eyes.
The results offered a number of surprises.
NXT champion Adam Cole's average score was only 2.1. There was more talk of his good looks than his ring work.
One of the pillars of WWE's women's division didn't do as well as one might expect. Charlotte Flair's glam had some people on board, but others said she sounded too robotic. The mixed reaction garnered her a flat 3.0.
Seth Rollins outdid both Flair and Cole with a 3.3. While most were impressed with his athletic ability, he didn't come off as larger-than-life enough for some.
Hanni, who sells specialty hoodies for kids, focused much of her comments on appearance and fashion. Rollins didn't do well there with her.
"He seems like a normal guy," she said.
That's not the sentiment WWE wants to hear about one of its main attractions.
A good number of other impressive athletes got decent reactions from the non-fans. Drew McIntyre, Ricochet, Kofi Kingston and AJ Styles all wowed to some degree. They didn't generate as much discussion or electricity as the five stars who scored highest.
Who most stood out to these potential new fans then?
Braun Strowman (3.5 average rating)
The moment Braun Strowman strode onto the screen, stomping toward the ring, a good number of people said the same thing: "Whoa!"
Even as large and muscular as many of the other WWE stars are, Strowman stands out among them. His massive frame (billed at 6'8", 385 lbs) combined with a cougar's quickness had many folks in awe. Several kids asked if he was related to The Hulk.
His girth and beard had others drawing comparisons to some of nature's most sizable predators. "He looks like a grizzly bear," Katie said.
A few viewers thought he looked like a creature that might roam the landscape of a horror movie.
Crystal, a faculty coordinator at Rice University, was among those unnerved by Strowman. She had seen a bit of WWE here and there and was familiar with The Miz via reality TV, but this behemoth was like nothing she had experienced.
"He's an impressively terrifying individual," she said.
Where some wrestlers underwhelmed with their overall look and failed to come off as credible fighters, The Monster Among Men had the opposite effect.
Strowman's power not only had people oohing and aahing, it also left them talking about how much of a destructive force he was. "Larger than life" was a commonly used phrase.
"It might take a couple of guys to take this guy," Andrew said.
A fourth-grader named Emanuel offered Strowman an alternative name. "They should call him The Thrower," he said. "He can throw anybody around."
Emanuel, like many of the kids polled, opted for the NBA or soccer over WWE. None of those sports can boast someone with a physical stature quite like Strowman's.
This beast of a man seemed to both haunt those watching and stir up a sense of wonder. Can that translate to big-time stardom? Andre the Giant's size made him a must-see spectacle. Perhaps if WWE built its brand around Strowman, history could repeat itself.
Bianca Belair (3.7)
A room full of 10-year-olds perked up at the sight of Bianca Belair. Side conversations halted. The kids stared with excited eyes at the rising NXT talent as she sashayed down the entrance ramp.
One might assume someone such as the bubbly, baby-faced Bayley would get the strongest reaction from kids during this experiment, but it was Belair by a mile. The SmackDown women's champion's score averaged 2.8, a big fall from what the NXT star pulled in.
Katie, who has worked with elementary students for over a half decade, offered one possible explanation. "She reminds me of Ariana Grande," she said of Belair. "She looks like a pop star."
Belair certainly has a cool factor to her. She has a glittery, fun look. Her entrance theme is a banger.
Her appeal goes beyond all that, though.
Clips of Belair lifting women above her head with ease forced folks to take notice. Her speed, grace and presence had kids and adults alike in awe.
A few kids asked if she was related to Strowman, as she appeared to be the strongest woman they had seen during the viewings. "Ooh. Now she's buff," Faith, a fourth-grader and track athlete, said excitedly as she watched Belair in action.
The other focus groups admired her physique as well as her power.
When Belair started whipping opponents with her ponytail, jaws dropped. A number of viewers asked to rewind the clips to see more of that eye-catching move.
WWE would be wise to showcase the NXT star in a major way once she heads to Raw or SmackDown. Few wrestlers created as much electricity with these focus groups as Belair.
Becky Lynch (3.9)
Flair may be the better in-ring worker, but she didn't score nearly as well as the Raw women's champion.
Becky Lynch's attitude left quite the impression. Everything from her confident walk to her trash-talking skills generated passionate discussion. The words "hardcore" and "intensity" came up often.
"She's a badass," Crystal said. "I would watch wrestling to watch her."
Many of the kids saw her as both brave and intimidating. They likened her to an anti-hero—someone they rooted for despite fearing. "On a scariness scale from one to 10, I give her a 7.5," Derek said before many of his classmates agreed.
Some viewers saw her as trying too hard. They thought she came off as disingenuous. Despite those criticisms, Lynch scored better than any other female Superstar.
When the clips ended, some of the women asked if they could watch more of The Man. The discussion of stardom was put on hold. Newly won-over fans munched on popcorn as they watched Lynch matches.
WWE has clearly spotted her potential as a top star, booking her to headline WrestleMania 35 and making her a prominent part of its programming. The results say the company should continue down the same road.
Velveteen Dream (4.1)
No one the focus groups watched received as loud a reaction as NXT star Velveteen Dream. His cocky gait, grand hand gestures, outrageous attire and hip-swiveling all had folks saying things like, "Wow!" or "Oh yes!"
It took just seconds for the NXT North American champ's over-the-top style to snag the viewers' attention.
Dream was a hit with the kids and adults alike. His physique impressed. His panache left people buzzing.
"He is so much fun," Katie said. "I would love to watch him fight." Hanni added: "I think he has the potential to be the Macklemore of wrestling."
There was plenty of appreciation for his in-ring arsenal. Dream's heavy-handed slaps were often the center of conversation. The same went for the champion's graceful movement around the ring, his seamless transition from hold to hold.
Although a lot of the kids found Dream entertaining, they didn't know what to make of him. Some asked where he found all those wild outfits.
One fourth-grader offered a formula to break up the elements that make up Velveteen Dream. "He is 40 percent boxer, 40 percent dancer and 20 percent artist," Derek said.
However one calculates Dream's components, it's clear he is a big-time entertainer.
And while several NXT acts have not worked when transported to Raw and SmackDown, there is less to worry about in his case. He is not some one-dimensional worker buoyed by his gimmick. Dream is a charisma machine, a flamboyant, unique presence who made an impression on these focus groups like no one else.
Roman Reigns (4.3)
When Roman Reigns popped up as part of Strowman's highlight package, a few of the viewers wanted to start talking about him. "Wait. Who is that guy?" someone asked.
Eyes were locked on the screen when Reigns was in action. He scored well with men, women and kids.
Young viewers likened The Big Dog to Superman. Women debated how he compared to Jason Momoa in terms of looks.
What might surprise Reigns' critics the most was how much people talked of his likability.
Other wrestlers got them to say "Wow!" but there wasn't much talk of a deep connection to anyone other than Reigns. Many said the former world champ felt like the most genuine person they saw. They remarked on his passion and heart. Hearing that he had cancer only seemed to deepen those feelings.
"He's very real; he has something," Andrew said.
"Of everybody we have seen, I think he has the most potential to be a mainstream star," Hanni said. "He has so much charisma."
The reactions to Velveteen Dream and Belair pop out first.
A room full of fourth-graders' eyes widened and stayed transfixed on the two rising NXT stars. Both scored well with the adults, too. They both hold the kind of charisma that leads to stardom.
It's easy to imagine either wrestler (or both) becoming a major part of WWE's future.
In a way, how some of the established names scored confirms McMahon's instincts. Two of the highest scorers, Reigns and Lynch, are prominent figures in the chairman's circus.
The Big Dog headlined four straight WrestleManias from 2015 to 2018. The Man dethroned both Rousey and Flair this year at WrestleMania to walk out of New Jersey a double champ.
Reigns and Lynch clearly click with the kind of people WWE would like to start pulling in. It helps that the company has showcased both, giving them prime-time opportunities to hone their act. There aren't a ton of clips to show people of wrestlers who rarely get TV time like Rusev.
But why hasn't this big share of the stage that translated into mushrooming stardom for Reigns? Despite his position atop WWE, he hasn't extended his reach into the heart of pop culture.
Lynch has made some headway in terms of reaching past the wrestling bubble, however. She's fresh off landing the cover of ESPN The Magazine, becoming the first WWE star to do so:
If the trash-talker takes over the mantle that once belonged to Hogan and Austin, it would veer from tradition. And maybe that's exactly what the plan should be.
Many would first think of a brawny, snarling big man when pro wrestling first comes to mind. Lynch is something else entirely. The same goes for Velveteen Dream and Belair. These mold-breakers, though, were the ones to create the most excitement in this process.
The sample size was small, but that electricity was undeniable—the kind of current that could eventually carry a WWE star into transcendent territory.