Good evening and welcome to this mini-installment of Before They Were Stars. The actual Before They Were Stars series will consist of retrospectives on the independent (or regional if we’re talking MMA) careers of popular talents. For the Minis though, we’ll be taking a look at one match at a time. This week, it’s Hulk Hogan’s turn, as he takes on Japanese idol Antonio Inoki for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on June 2, 1983.
Hulk Hogan is easily the most famous professional wrestler in American history. From telling kids to eat their vitamins and say their prayers to defending America from the likes of The Iron Sheik and Sgt. Slaughter, the heel turn to end all heel turns at Bash at the Beach 96, and even his second WWE run (remember that Mr. America is not, in fact, Hulk Hogan) and a short-lived stint as General Manager for Impact Wrestling, the Hulkster has been entertaining American audiences for years. Although this may all be true, believe it or not, he wasn’t entirely made in America; he was contracted to the WWF at this time, but was in the mid-card at that point, and the WWF had a working agreement with New Japan. In this match, you’ll see an entirely different, more technical side to Hulk Hogan.
The first thing one should notice when watching this is just how over Antonio Inoki was and still is. Aside from Rikidozan, there has never been (and there never will be) a more beloved wrestler in Japan. How loved was he? He founded his own political party, the “Sports and Peace Party,” and won a seat in Japan’s equivalent of the Senate. (Source)
Before the introductions, you can see Hogan with his trademark pointing and shaking the ropes. The belt you see is the IWGP (New Japan Pro Wrestling’s kayfabe governing body) Heavyweight Championship; this match was the final of a tournament for said title. Needless to say, belts were much smaller back then. Also, if you’ve ever watched an independent show and seen the crowd throw streamers into the ring (Ring of Honor fans do this a lot), it came from Japan as a sign of respect from the crowd. There’s a prime (and extremely messy) example here.Hogan came into the match playing the heel and calling out Inoki, prompting Inoki to come right out and Hulk up. Talk about your role reversals. Also, you’ll notice the style immediately presented with Inoki’s first takedown attempt. Japanese wrestling, or puroresu, was the brainchild of Karl Gotch and Lou Thesz (with uncle Billy Robinson involved quite heavily) and didn’t change much from that until relatively recently, when lucha showed up and Japan grew more of its own style. I’m loathe to call what’s presented here “realistic,” but what we have here is basically fixed catch wrestling, and that’s why Hulk Hogan went for an STF out of the gates.
Even with that emphasis on technique, Hogan still got the chance to show off his strength and charisma. Inoki, on the other hand, presented himself as all heart and attempted to wear Hogan down. And when heart wasn’t enough, he used his brain — like at 8:33 when he slipped Hogan’s grapple and got him into an abdominal stretch.
However, at 11:43 Hogan hits a rolling armbar, evidence of that more technical side I alluded to earlier. He also holds that armbar for longer than most would expect from modern wrestling, though that probably comes from how many MMA matches have been finished by armbar. You may also notice the form of the first minute of the armbar; sticking the feet on the side of the head and inside the armpit gives more leverage, but it’s also very easy to get out of.
After Inoki hit a back suplex that caused Hogan to roll out of the ring, the flow changed from submission trading to a more strength-based attack on both sides. Hogan is also selling his moves better than he would normally, rolling halfway around the ring after a head kick. Hogan’s heel work also becomes more apparent; stalling the match by walking around outside the ring isn’t popular on either side of the Pacific.
At about 20 minutes in, though, there’s something you’ll probably never see again. Hogan hits the leg drop, goes for the cover, and Inoki kicks out at two. People have kicked out of Hogan’s leg drop before, but Inoki went for a dropkick immediately afterwards. Granted, he missed really badly on that dropkick, but I can’t find evidence that anyone got up from that leg more quickly than Inoki.
While in Japan, Hogan (like many other gaijin workers of that era) used a clothesline variation as a finisher. After an attempt at said clothesline, Inoki managed to hit that dropkick, and Hogan slipped out of the ring again. I think that’s a game glitch, because he’s only supposed to be able to do that three times; heck, I wasn’t even aware Hogan had that ability. Afterwards, Inoki went for another headkick and missed rather spectacularly. Hogan pulled him into his world (outside) and hit a vertical suplex on the outside. This was a much more hardcore maneuver than what was normally expected in the 80s.
A quick note: I’m not entirely sure what happened, but the bit with Hogan arguing with the ringside officials and the ref talking was announcing that the match would continue. After the restart, Inoki came out like a house on fire, destroying Hogan’s leg. He then added onto that injury with a figure four. Unfortunately, this is one of those times where I really wish I knew Japanese; it sounded like the ref counted to ten on the rope break (with both men outside the ropes) and then nothing happened afterwards. It took two of the ringside officials to break the hold.The match restarted, and Hogan drilled Inoki with two clotheslines: one off the near ropes and another from an Irish Whip. The match would’ve been over if Inoki’s foot hadn’t been on the ropes. After that, though, the clusterscrew starts as Hogan and Inoki go over the top rope after what might have been a botched AA. Hogan goes back in, but gets thrown out, causing a ref bump. Hogan irish whips Inoki into the ring post, but Inoki gets laid out by a lariat from an unknown wrestler. Hogan lays him out and soon after, the ref rings the bell. Garbage is thrown into the ring. Both sides believe they won, but Hogan is awarded the belt.
In conclusion, this was a very slow-paced match, and you can probably blame that on Inoki’s style. Because of the pacing, I really can’t call this a great match, but it should put to bed the idea that Hogan was a gimmick and had the workrate of a French book. Blame the American style that he was made to fit, not the man.