First came the photo: Hulk Hogan, American wrestling icon, with arms outstretched against the stars and stripes, with the words, "One nation, one team," and the hashtag #LetsDoThis.
Then came the video: Hogan again, in a 51-second, WWE-style clip, roaring and flexing and exhorting the U.S. men's soccer team to take care of business in the World Cup.
Thousands of posts and retweets later, Hogan's status as a global symbol of American badassery was reaffirmed. Not that it was ever in doubt.
In his 35-plus years in the public eye, Hogan has been a movie and TV star, a global entrepreneur, one of the most famous and charismatic athletes on earth. But in a way, it is the Hulk the world saw on social media during this World Cup — a musclebound Uncle Sam whose 24-inch pythons ripple like the stars and bars themselves — that will forever be the legacy of Tampa native Terry Bollea. Never mind the peaks and valleys of his wrestling career, or the occasional tabloid tawdriness of his personal life. As a symbol of pure, unfiltered, over-the-top American brawn and braggadocio, Hulk Hogan is as perfect as it gets.
Given Hogan's American-icon status, it's only fitting that the wrestler's waterfront bar and restaurant, Hogan's Beach, will be Tampa's premiere party joint this Fourth of July weekend. Friday brings a night of classic rock and fireworks; Saturday a concert headlined by country duo Love and Theft; Sunday, a set by superstar trap DJ Carnage. Hogan will likely be there each night, pumping up fans from stage.
Over crab cakes at his usual corner table at Hogan's Beach, we grilled the Hulkster on the evolution of his restaurant and his status as a Real American hero. Here are excerpts.
How does it feel to be at a level where America rallies behind what you say?
It's kind of surreal at this point. I'm like, "My gosh, this is still going on after 35 years?" It's not just intertwined with Americana, which is really something that I'm grateful for, but it's bigger than that. It's intertwined in our society. This whole Hulkamania thing is international. Sometimes that doesn't sink in with me. I think, "American icon? Oh, okay." To me, I'm still Terry from Tampa.
Obviously the Hulk Hogan brand has been an international symbol for decades. But was there a point where you began to realize there was an American-ness to it, too?
Oh, yeah, brother. In the early '80s, it was lucky timing for this Americana thing, because we had this huge altercation with Iran, and the guy that I wrestled, the Iron Sheik, was actually the Shah of Iran's bodyguard. He's the real thing. He's not just some phony wrestler. So I come out, waving the flag, doing the American thing, and all of a sudden, the character of Hulk Hogan, with the blond hair and the muscles from Venice Beach, Calif., got branded red, white and blue. I got branded that night, brother.
There's a responsibility to that. When you become a symbol of the red, white and blue, you're asked to visit troops and do a lot of patriotic endeavors.
I haven't been overseas yet, but we may go this year with Vince (McMahon), because Vince goes every year. But we've done all the stuff — Fort Hood, all the USO tours to see wounded veterans. It's amazing, because these guys, I'll sit there and go, "Ah, my back hurts! I've had nine back surgeries, I've replaced both knees, replaced both hips, my back hurts." All of a sudden I walk in there and I see these kids, like 18, 19 years old, both arms blown off and a leg, and I say, "Brother, are you okay?" "Ah, I just had a bad day at the office, sir!" It just straightens you right out.
What are your memories of the Fourth of July growing up in Tampa?
Oh, when I grew up in Tampa, we lived south of Gandy by like two blocks, right behind the ABC Liquors. Gandy and MacDill. I remember we had sparklers; that's all we had. If we looked right through the palm trees, we could see down towards Ballast Point Pier, and we could see the fireworks.
How has the Hogan's Beach experience been for you so far?
It's good for me. My partner, Ben Mallah, has put his heart and soul into this place. He goes, "You need a presence in Tampa. The tourists all come to Universal and Disney, and they're all looking for you." And it's true. When I did Hogan Knows Best, they'd all come looking by the house. I just kind of come fluttering in and show up and enjoy the place. We have DJs here and different functions. I get to come in here and act like I own the place and run it 24 hours a day, and I'm just posing. But these guys (pointing to his partners) are the ones that do all the hard work.
When you walked in, everybody immediately pulled out their phones. Is that the case every time you come by here?
It's not busy now. But if we were to come blowing in here at on a Friday or Saturday at 7 or 8 o'clock, we usually kind of hide at this little table here. We let the people know that I'll sign autographs and take pictures, and the people are pretty cool. Usually we eat for a half hour, then sign pictures for two to three hours. But it's expected. The last thing you want to hear is, "I went to Hogan's Beach and he wouldn't even sign an autograph!" Believe me, that's the last thing you want.
It seems like you're having a good time with the party element of Hogan's Beach.
I am. And I don't drive on those days, so I have an extra drink or two. I get up there with the kids, and there's so much energy with the electronic music. I used to work out to AC/DC and hardcore rock 'n' roll. Now I work out to dubstep and trap music. I just got hooked on this electronic music. And so when I'm up there, I'm actually having a good time. It's fun. I think people like seeing me make a fool of myself, too, so it's good. You need to come out, brother.