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  • Thunderlips, Stallone and WWE: Did Rocky III profoundly change pro wrestling in U.S.?

Thunderlips, Stallone and WWE: Did Rocky III profoundly change pro wrestling in U.S.?

Lee Cleveland Updated
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In 1980, a little-known wrestler named Terry Bollea, donning the stage name 'Hulk Hogan,' faced the menacing Andre 'The Giant,' only drawing 1,200 spectators in a building that held 3,500.

But, in August of that year, Hogan and Andre would face-off under different circumstances at Shea Stadium in New York in front of 36,000 onlookers. And on a card headlined by Bruno Sammartino, Hogan, a relative newcomer on the wrestling scene, would defeat Andre and win the respect and admiration of WWF fans.

And what happened next was something not even the WWF could envision.

Actor Sylvester Stallone was so impressed with Hogan's performance and larger-than-life persona, he cast the red hot wrestler as "Thunderlips the Ultimate Male" in his 1982 movie, Rocky III.

The film was an enormous box office smash, grossing $16,015,408, even more than its predecessor, Rocky II, and was the fourh fourth highest earning film of 1982. Moreover, a new star was born. (Well, two if one includes Mr. T)

Bearing an uncanny resemblance to a comic book action hero, the charismatic, well-sculpted fella known as 'Hulk Hogan' would become a mainstream icon.

And WWF, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), would separate itself from the other 30 or so fledgling wrestling organizations and become a fabled American institution.

... But not everyone was immediately taken by Hogan's newfound stardom following the boxing movie.

After filming his scene for Rocky III against the wishes of Vince McMahon Sr, the then-owner of WWF, Hogan would be mysteriously - and unbelievably - ostracized by the organization soon thereafter.

A burgeoning star, Hogan would make American Wrestling Association (AWA) his new home and his legions of fans would continue to grow. But to the mainstream, Terry Bollea would remain 'Thunderlips,' the monstrous bad guy wrestler in the third installment of the Rocky series.

Hence, WWF, AWA and the 'Hulk Hogan' character eluded public consciousness. 

An emerging visionary, Vince McMahon Jr would replace his father as CEO of WWF in 1982 and launch an expansion process that fundamentally changed the industry. 

Looking to generate immediate momentum upon assuming control, the younger McMahon welcomed Hulk Hogan back to WWF and the organization would gain significant traction almost instantaneously.

Realizing Hogan's enormous reach,  a by-product of the wrestler's role in Rocky III, McMahon signed the enigmatic Roddy Piper to be Hogan's rival and then seemingly built a quality roster around the soon-to-be entertainment legend.

Added to the new WWF stable were Jesse Ventura, Jimmy Snuka, The Magnificent Muraco, The Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, Junkyard Dog, Paul Orndorff, Greg Valentine and Ricky Steamboat.

Over the next two years, Thunderlips ...er.. Hulk Hogan would become the face of pro wrestling while WWF would transform into a pop culture enterprise.

So what would have happened if Rocky III had not been produced or if Stallone selected someone else to play the role of Thunderlips?  

Would the WWE, and pro wrestling in general, have thrived in the U.S. for so long had Andre 'the Giant' or Bruno Sammartino been featured in that role instead?

One could argue pro wrestling became a mainstream institution as a result of McMahon's business tact. After all, he was the first to combine the traditional sport of wrestling with elements from the entertainment world. Instead of trying to push wrestling into the mainstream he brought the mainstream to WWF and attracted a massive audience as a result.

...And Hulk Hogan was arguably the centerpiece of Mr. McMahon's genius concept.

Although McMahon deserves credit for building a quality, successful brand, even many hardcore wrestling fans insist Hulk Hogan was the flame that ignited pro wrestling's proverbial firestorm.

So while it may be foolish to consider Sylvester Stallone the 'Father of Modern-Day Pro Wrestling,' one must wonder how far it would have gotten if not for a boxing movie. 

Rocky III Facts

  • In the scene where Rocky body-slams Thunderlips out of the ring, Sylvester Stallone admitted that he couldn't dead-lift Hulk Hogan so he had Hogan jump into his arms.

  • Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) is billed at a height of 7 feet despite Hogan only being 6'6''. This was because in the first two films, Rocky was billed as 6'1'', whereas Sylvester Stallone is only 5'9''. Because Hogan is genuinely 9 inches taller than Stallone, to maintain the illusion that Rocky was over 6 foot tall, Thunderlips had to be billed as being taller than the actor portraying him.

  • Earnie Shavers was initially the favorite to land the role of Clubber Lang.

  • Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) broke this movie's record for the biggest box office opening weekend ever for any film that opened in fewer than a thousand theaters.

  • According to Chuck Wepner, the match between Rocky and Thunderlips was based on Wepner's match with André the Giant. Wepner was tossed out of the ring in the same way that Rocky is in the film.

Facts courtesy of IMDb

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