Let me go ahead and make a clarification to the title of this article – I’m about to discuss a professional wrestling match, which means more technically, this is my favorite “sports entertainment” call of all time. But it doesn’t matter because the delivery of this line is so perfect, it can match up against anything in the history of sports.
The setting is WrestleMania 18 at the SkyDome in Toronto, Canada on March 17, 2002. Although the headlining match for the WWF Heavyweight Champion that night was Triple H vs. Chris Jericho, the real headliner was a match billed as “Icon vs. Icon” – Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock. I can safely say that this match might not have been the all-time best in wrestling history (although it might have been), but it was definitely the most audience-participation match of all time. I mean, it isn’t even close. There has never been a match that captured the imagination and voices of the audience more than this one. It is simply indescribible.
I know because I was there. In person. Watching with my own eyes. My good friend James Aaron and I drove a rented, bright yellow, Ford Mustang more hours than I can count to see this match. And it didn’t disappoint. I have been to many live wrestling events and I have watched untold hours of wrestling on television, and nothing comes close to the frenzied excitement of the Rock vs. Hogan match at WM 18.
Now, what is ironic here is that my all-time favorite sports call took place at an event that I was physically present at – meaning that I did not hear the call during the live event. I was, of course, watching it live in the SkyDome with no commentary. It wasn’t until I re-watched the event on video and listened to the announcers that I was blown away by one powerful moment.
So, here’s the build-up and back story.
Hulk Hogan and the nWo had recent come over to the WWF from the defunct WCW wrestling brand. Hogan still had his charisma and electric personality, but he was getting older and the spotlight was no longer on him. It was on The Rock. At this point in his career, Hogan was playing the part of a “heel” (bad guy) and was supposed to be going into WM 18 as the “hated” opponent. The Rock was supposed to be the good guy.
But, two things came together with perfect timing. First, the WWF universe was glad to see Hulk Hogan back where he belongs – in the WWF. And second, Toronto has always had a huge Hulk Hogan fan base (all of Canada, really). Aaron and I knew something special was brewing as we drove into Toronto because all we saw were Hogan signs, Hogan posters, Hogan dolls (I even had my Hulk Hogan doll from my childhood with me). This was supposed to be an event where Hogan would be booed and The Rock would be applauded – but not on this night.
When Hogan’s music started and he appeared at the top of the entrance ramp, the reaction was absolutely deafening. I’m not sure if I have ever felt more overwhelmed by something entertainment related. I know I haven’t. This was an out-of-body experience and time kind of stood stll as Hulk Hogan, my childhood hero, starting making his way down the ramp, looking better than ever. You could tell he was stunned by the crowd’s response – he had worked for 3 weeks to be hated by the audience, and all they wanted to do was cheer for him. Something magical was happening…
As The Rock came down the entrance ramp, he too received a wonderful ovation, but we were stunned when the chants of “HOGAN, HOGAN” drowned out the cheers for The Rock.
I won’t go into the details of the full match – perhaps that can be another article sometime. Let me summarize by saying – I couldn’t hardly take it. I was in the floor a couple of times, so scared of the outcome. I desperately wanted Hogan to win. Every move these guys did on each other was met with cheers or gasps from all 70,000 fans in attendance.
And then it happened…The Rock put his finishing move on Hogan. A move called “The Rock Bottom.”
It had been such a great match and I was so thankful for the respect the SkyDome had given Hogan, so I was kind of resigned to the fact that he was about to lose. The Rock went for the pin after his finisher and then….
Hogan kicks out!! He kicked out of the Rock Bottom. And then he started hulking up. Hulk Hogan started hulking up just like it was the 80’s and the crowd absolutely lost their mind. I was crying and screaming. This was the thing of absolute dreams.
You have to understand that at this moment, anyone who grew up loving wrestling was no longer in 2002 inside the SkyDome. We were back in our childhoods. We were in the 1980’s. Our hero was back and better than ever. We had literally waited 20 years to see this. Unless you love wrestling, it will be difficult to understand, but we were all thinking of the magic of WrestleMania 3 even as we were watching Wrestlemania 18.
Then Hogan did it. He gave The Rock three big punches, threw him in the ropes and delivered the “big boot.” There was only one thing left to do. It was now time for the classic Hulk Hogan finishing move – the leg drop.
And he did it. Perfectly. Absolutely nailed it. This was it. Hogan was going to win. He went for the pin… ONE, TWO….
The Rock kicked out! The place went bananas. Oh my goodness, I can’t even hardly type this.
Well, I’m going to stop there. The match continues and ends absolutely brilliantly – unfortunately, Hogan lost, but it was done so well and it was important for him to lose (see below). But it was the hulking up and the perfectly delivered leg drop that was the ultimate experience for me.
Now, fast forward a month or two and it was the spring/summer of 2002. I was able to finally watch the video of the match, with the commentary. The two men commentating for WM 18 were J.R. (Jim Ross) and Jerry “the King” Lawler. J.R. is widely considered the best play-by-play wrestling announcer of all time, and he certainly delivered on this night. Lawler typically serves as the comedic element of the duo, so J.R. does the heavy lifting.
Now, let’s go back to the match highlights. Hogan is hulking up after kicking out of the Rock Bottom, remember? Everyone is losing their minds, we are crying, screaming, and going bananas. He then hits the big boot and The Rock falls to the mat. Hogan briefly looks at the audience as if to say, “you guys know what’s next.” And we certainly did. It was time for the leg drop!
So Hogan goes off the ropes to deliver his famous finishing move, and as I already mentioned, he lands it perfectly. Just as Hogan finishes the move and as he is going for the pin, J.R. delivers this chillingly perfect line:
“He beat Andre the Giant with that move!”
So, I don’t even know how to follow up on this. I would love to think it was a spontaneous call, but it is just too good. By bringing in Andre the Giant, J.R. managed to tap into what all of us were already thinking – this is Wrestlemania 3 all over again. Andre is probably the most beloved professional wrestler of all time and he famously “passed the torch” to Hogan at WM 3. The body slam of Andre the Giant by Hogan is the most important wrestling moment in wrestling history; I don’t think there is any doubt about that. And then Hogan hits the leg drop and pins Andre in front of 93,000 fans back in 1987.
But this time, things would be different. Hogan, in a sense, was passing the torch to The Rock. And for J.R. to beautifully work in the name of Andre the Giant while simultaneously taking us back to WM 3 and the start of the modern wrestling phenomenon, well, it was a moment that can never be duplicated.
I have embedded the video of Hogan “hulking up” leading to the leg drop. Listen carefully for J.R.’s call – it is somewhat difficult to hear because the crowd is so loud. But it’s there. And it’s the best of all time.