The Hulk Hogan brand has survived, even thrived, years of bleached hair, fake tans, choreographed fights, chemically enhanced muscles, reality television, a sex tape and a nasty lawsuit with a gossip website.
But on Friday, in an industry that's based on giving offense and hurling insults, a leak of a recorded conversation in which Hogan repeatedly uses the term "n-----" delivered a body blow that may inflict real pain.
As the National Enquirer and RadarOnLine.com reported about the recording from eight years ago, the World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. on Friday scrubbed nearly all references of Hogan (real name Terry Bollea) from its website. The wrestling star said Friday he had resigned from the WWE.
The Enquirer, America's most infamous grocery store gossip tabloid, quoted Bollea on the tape as saying: "I mean, I don't have double standards. I mean, I am a racist, to a point, f------ n------."
In a statement later on Friday, Hogan apologized, saying there is no excuse for the "offensive language."
"This is not who I am," Hogan said. 'I believe very strongly that every person in the world is important and should not be treated differently based on race, gender, orientation, religious beliefs or otherwise. I am disappointed with myself that I used language that is offensive and inconsistent with my own beliefs."
Despite the apology, his businesses empire — which includes a beach store and a restaurant in Tampa Bay — will surely suffer, said Steve Kirn, executive director of the Miller Retail Center at the University of Florida.
How much? It's unclear in Tampa Bay, where Bollea grew up and where his star has always seemed made of Teflon.
"If part of Hogan's brand is being outrageous and in your face and provocative and sort of angry, then this actually fits in and, for some people, it will probably reinforce the brand identification," Kirn said. "Kind of like he becomes a different kind of an outlaw."
Outside Hogan's Beach, his popular hangout on the Courtney Campbell Causeway, patrons reassessed the wrestler.
"If he's a racist, I don't really care that much," said Daniel Morales, 20, of Miami, who passed through town on his way to Orlando. "He's a wrestler, so I would say his opinion wouldn't really matter that much."
But as a public figure, Morales added, "I would compare this to what happened with (Bill) Cosby."
Others were more forgiving. "When you're in the limelight, things like that happen," said Jarrod Bishop, a 43-year-old businessman from Fort Myers. "I did not hear the comments, but I imagine they were taken out of context."
The Enquirer did not release a copy of the audio recording, which it said was part of a sex tape involving Bollea and Heather Cole, the former wife of Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, Hogan's old best friend and Tampa Bay's pre-eminent radio shock jock.
The Enquirer reported he was talking disapprovingly about his daughter, Brooke, dating a black man.
The audio tape, if it involves Cole, may be tied to Bollea's other major scandal: the sex tape. It spurred a bitter lawsuit against Gawker Media Co., which owns a gossip website and published Bollea's tape in 2012. Bollea has sued for invasion of privacy and wants $100 million in damages.
The Enquirer and RadarOnline.com claimed to have "five independent sources" who provided the contents of the tape to members of the media. They reported that transcripts of the recording were "filed in a Florida court, under seal." The Bollea v. Gawker trial was set to begin in Pinellas County earlier this month but was postponed.
If the tape was part of official judicial discovery, and if it was supposed to remain confidential, the leak could come with sanctions.
"If parties to the lawsuit revealed this material in violation of a court order, like in any civil case there could be significant consequences," Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons said.
During an earlier court hearing in the case, attorneys sparred over confidential videos, one of which carried "offensive language issues." Bollea's lawyer contended that Gawker was trying to create a "sideshow" of a separate investigation and that the videos had been banned from trial. Other details were not released.
The parties are set to appear in court again next week.
While his image online could be erased with a few keystrokes by the wrestling corporation on Friday, Bollea's visage in Tampa Bay is more permanent. He still cuts a substantial wake as one of the area's biggest celebrities. In addition to Hogan's Beach, he owns Hogan's Beach Shop, a souvenir store in Clearwater.
Kirn said it's possible that some outraged opponents "will call for a boycott or some other kind of sanction" of Hogan's businesses, though there was no sign of a widespread anti-Hogan campaign Friday. On the other end of the spectrum, diehard fans will probably stand by Bollea, Kirn said, arguing that he has a First Amendment right and is "a straight talker."
The vast middle, Kirn said, will more than likely denounce Bollea's racist remarks but dwell on the controversy. For them, the scandal will die with the news cycle. Hogan, he said, is not unlike Donald Trump, who is running for president on a wave of salacious remarks that marginalize some people while drawing the adoration of others.
Reaction played out Friday on Twitter, after the wrestler, cryptically, tweeted about 1 a.m.: "In the storm I release control, God and his Universe will sail me where he wants me to be, one love. HH." Fans and critics tweeted with equal force, offering the wrestler their backing, prodding him with jokes and ridiculing him as a racist.
"I think most people are more moderate than that and the result is that these types of private utterances that become public really have a very negative effect," said Chester A. Schriesheim, a professor of management in the University of Miami business school. "I suspect it's going to hurt his business."
Ron Howard, manager of Hogan's Beach Shop in Clearwater, declined to comment Friday morning. He said Bollea is a "great guy."
"People love him, I know that much," Howard said.
Abraham LaBoy Jr., 33, of Tampa, was among the Hulkamaniacs who backed their idol Friday. "I've been supporting him since I was a kid," LaBoy said. Everyone makes mistakes, he said, and it's unfair to judge Bollea for a conversation that should never have been public in the first place.
"He's an icon," LaBoy said. "I think Hulk Hogan is Americana. He's pop culture."
Times staff writers Anna M. Phillips, Katie Mettler, Justine Griffin and Zack Peterson contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804.