By Paul Guzzo | TBO by Tribune Staff
Published: July 24, 2015 | Updated: July 24, 2015 at 05:53 PM
TAMPA — Hulk Hogan has been called “The Babe Ruth of professional wrestling” for his role in turning his longtime employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, into a mainstream form of entertainment worldwide.
Now, his career with the WWE may be over — casualty of a mysterious recording already at the center of a sex-tape lawsuit and now said to contain a racist rant by the wrestler.
On Friday morning, the WWE and Hogan — Clearwater resident and native of Tampa — officially parted ways.
The night before, the WWE erased all mention of Hogan’s history with the company — an extreme move that industry watchers can’t remember since Chris Benoit killed his wife and son then took his own life in June 2007.
The video was recorded in the Tampa Bay area in 2006 and portions were obtained and shown by the website Gawker Media. Hogan, 61, whose real name is Terry Bollea, filed a lawsuit against Gawker that’s now pending in Pinellas circuit court.
Hogan is seeking $100 million from Gawker. He also seeks to keep the video private.
The transcript of the recording has been sealed by court order and only the jury and parties to the suit, not the audience, will see it during trial.
The National Enquirer and Radar Online, citing unnamed sources who claimed to have seen the video, quoted Hogan admitting he’s a racist and uttering racial slurs in a conversation about business dealings involving his daughter, Brooke.
A spokesman for Hogan indicated he suspects that Gawker the source of the leaked remarks.
Early Friday, Hogan posted a tweet: “In the storm I release control, God and his Universe will sail me where he wants me to be, one love.”
Later, in an interview with “People” magazine, Hogan issued an extensive apology.
While mentions of Hogan currently remain on a WWE Web page dedicated to those who held its world championship title, his personal “Superstars” page has been removed, as has his place on its online Hall of Fame and all links to his merchandise.
Some videos of Hogan’s past matches remain on the website though not directly linked to his name. They can only be found searching by an opponent’s name.
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WWE officials did not directly mention the remarks attributed to Hogan but did allude to them in a statement:
“WWE terminated its contract with Terry Bollea (aka Hulk Hogan). WWE is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide.”
Hogan’s personal attorney, David Houston, of Reno, Nevada, told the Tribune his client was not terminated but resigned.
On Thursday night at about 8 p.m., Houston said, Hogan was informed that the National Enquirer tabloid would run a story on his racist remarks.
“Because of that Mr. Bollea contacted the WWE, advised them the story would be running, did not want the WWE to go through this with him and resigned,” Houston said. “The WWE accepted his resignation from all contractual obligations and at that point proceeded to release him.”
Who quit whom, Houston said, is a matter of semantics.
“I’m more concerned with who leaked this tape and who is responsible for this on the eve of our trial setting with a major media company,” he said.
“We are very troubled with who may be responsible for this. We find it very suspicious and we will do everything in our power to determine whether or not the defendant in our civil lawsuit is responsible or played any part.”
The sex tape involves Hogan and Heather Cole, ex-wife of local radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, and has been a source of controversy since it was released in 2012.
That year, Hogan filed a civil law suit against Clem and Cole, accusing them of secretly filming the sexual encounter without his consent six years earlier. The suit was settled out of court.
The Tampa Bay area is home to some of professional wrestling’s biggest stars, including current top draw John Cena, but Hogan is the most famous born and bred here.
The Robinson High School graduate sculpted his physique at Hector’s-Elisa’s Health Club, now closed, then learned the craft at a local school run by Yasuhiro Kojima, known in the wrestling world as “Hiro Matsuda.”
As the story goes, on the first day of training Kojima broke Hogan’s leg to see if he was tough enough to endure the rigorous and physical schedule of professional wrestling.
When he healed, Hogan returned to training and went on to become the first mainstream star of the industry through acts of cartoonish charisma that included tearing his shirts from his body, flexing his muscles for extended periods in the ring, and boasting his arms were the “24-inch pythons” and that “Hulkamania is running wild.”
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Hogan also sought to stand as a role model for kids. Calling himself a “Real American,” he preached at children to take their vitamins and say their prayers.
Throughout his career, Hogan captured 12 world titles, starred in films such as “Rocky III” and “No Holds Barred” and is widely recognized as the performer who grew the WWE from a regional to a gloabal entertainment promotion.
Still, the sex tape and its fallout represent just the latest in a series of career scandals for Hogan.
In 1985, in the lead up to the WWE’s first ever “WrestleMania,” Hogan appeared on the prime-time talk show “Hot Properties” starring Richard Belzer. As Hogan demonstrated wrestling holds on Beltzer, the comedic host fainted, fell to the floor and required nine stiches. Beltzer sued Hogan and the WWE. The parties eventually settled out of court.
In 1994, Hogan testified in a federal trial linking WWE owner Vince McMahon to steroid distribution. Hogan admitted he used the performance enhancing drugs though denied he bought them from his boss. McMahon was acquitted.
In 2007 Nick Bollea, Hogan’s son and co-star in the reality TV show “Hogan Knows Best,” crashed a car into a tree while racing drunk. His passenger, John Graziano, was seriously injured and is expected to require fulltime care for the rest of his life.
As Nick Hogan served an eight-month sentence for his role in the crash, Hogan was recorded telling his son over the phone that the accident was “God’s Will.” A remorseful Hogan would later apologize for the insensitive remark on the “Larry King Live” show.
Recently, his Rocky Point restaurant Hogan’s Beach discontinued live electronic dance music concerts after neighbors complained of the noise.
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Time after time, Hogan was always accepted back by the WWE.
He hasn’t performed as a wrestler with WWE since 2006 but has been active with the company during the past few years — as an ambassador promoting its online network, as occasional host of a show, and most recently as a judge in WWE’s reality show “Tough Enough” on training future wrestling stars.
The WWE has a history of making amends with fallen stars.
Most famously, WWE posthumously inducted Tampa Bay area resident Randy Poffo, known as Randy Savage in wrestling, into its Hall of Fame despite a years-long feud with owner McMahon.
The WWE also recently reconciled with James Hellwig, “The Ultimate Warrior,” and inducted him into the Hall of Fame. Hellwig passed away just days later.
But this latest controversy may be hard for Hogan and the WWE to overcome, said Jason Powell, longtime wrestling journalist and historian.
Unlike in years past, the WWE is now a publicly traded company concerned with corporate sponsorships and is focused more than ever on family entertainment to “bring smiles to children’s face,” Powell said.
“They are a PG product now,” he said. “They seem like they want to distance themselves from him as much as possible.”
Powell compares WWE’s reaction this week to the moves it mnade after the Benoit murder-suicide.
“This is obviously nowhere near as bad as that,” he said. “But the WWE is reacting almost as swiftly. I’m curious to see how far the WWE takes its removal of Hogan from its history.”
Don’t be shocked, Powell said, if Hogan is never seen in the WWE again.
“America loves a redemption story but something like this in today’s world will be hard to overcome. I don’t know if the WWE can do business with Hogan anymore.”
Attorney Houston said his client remains optimistic he may one day stand in a WWE ring again.
“My hope is the WWE knows this is not who Mr. Bollea is and that at some point Mr. Bollea will be able to reclaim his reputation and hopefully his position with the WWE. I also hope there can be an element of understanding and forgiveness in our world.”