By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Tell me this isn't an ESPN 100 moment: Aging superstar returns, pulls a Maximus and wins the crowd, nearly toppling the best in his sport. Departs to bone-chilling applause after reclaiming place among the elite. The end.

Hulk Hogan
The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan? It was a clash of eras like Kelly Preston vs. Kirsten Dunst.

A winner, right? If only it hadn't occurred at WrestleMania X8, with the legendary Hulk Hogan revisiting his old stomping grounds (the WW ... E) to battle everyone's current hero (The Rock) for the People's Championship. It was a classic old school/new school matchup, MJ guarding Kobe, or Kelly Preston squaring off in a wet T-shirt contest against Kirsten Dunst.

Of course, the mainstream media shun wrestling, so Mark Madsen's threepeat boogie had a better chance of cracking the "100."

The rap on wrestling is that it's "sports entertainment," a contrived series of events in which athletes "pretend" to compete and results are scripted. Well, jeez ... what's the difference between that and just about any sporting event that matters? Try to tell me that every match between the Williams sisters isn't "arranged" and that South Korea deserved to be in the final four of the World Cup. And what about that Olympics figure-skating drama, or Sammy Sosa's 850-foot moonshots in the home run derby? You have to figure Hasim Rahman and Lennox Lewis wouldn't have thrown down if Gary Miller and the "Up Close" cameras hadn't been in the room. C'mon, Game 6 of the Lakers-Kings series? That wasn't preordained? Now who's being naïve?

Hulk Hogan
Despite the leathery skin, balding head and withered physique, the Hulk was able to turn back the clock.

At least the WWE lays everything on the table. Die-hards relish the wacky storylines, but also the athleticism, and especially those delicious moments when the line between a "work" (something scripted) and a "shoot" (unscripted) blurs. We enjoy guessing which wrestlers are being "pushed" or "buried," or which dramatic nuggets are spurred by real backstage politics. It's the game within a game.

So when Hogan, playing the aging villain as stepping stone for hero in residence, entered the ring, SkyDome fans weren't there for a torch-passing. Even though Hogan, almost 49, looked like a caricature of himself -- leathery skin, withered physique, bandanna-covered bald head -- the crowd erupted like he was taking on Osama bin Laden. Had they been sprayed with a stockpiled dose of Hulkamania? When The Rock was greeted with a startling, Barry Bonds-like mixture of boos and cheers, we had our answer. Even the announcers couldn't deny what was happening.

Hulk Hogan
Somewhere Hogan had stored up a dose of Hulkamania.

For the next 15 minutes, I was a teenager again. Hogan assaulted Rock with clotheslines, tosses and punches, pretty much the same array that was stale a decade ago, only now we were eating it up. Nobody knew how the match would play out. That never happens anymore. And just when you thought the younger Rock had worn out Hogan, that the old man was through, Hulk's eyes bulged, his fists clenched and body quivered, and -- good God -- he was "hulking up!" Everyone went insane. Could this possibly be?

Here was Hulk's end-of-the-match routine: a clothesline to make Theo Fleury's tooth rattle, followed by a devastating leg-drop. When the Hulkster executed the combination, fans were leaping up and down. When he crawled on Rock for the pin, it was utter mayhem, the crowd chanting with the ref ... ONNNE... TWWWWO ... NOOOOOOO! The Rock kicked out!

Hulk Hogan
After the match, the Hulk raised The Rock's hand and tried to duck out ... but the crowd wouldn't allow it.

Just like that, the writing was on the wall in a "Billy Bob and Angelina" kind of way. Soon, a "Rock Bottom" choke-slam led to a pin, the champ basically belting the challenger over the head with the time machine. Afterward, Hogan raised Rock's hand and tried to leave, but The Rock dragged him back for posedowns and hugs. The crowd yelled more loudly for everything Hogan did.

Meanwhile, I was manically calling one of my buddies: "Did you see that?" And since anything that passes the "I Have to Call One of My Buddies Right Now to Discuss What Just Happened" test qualifies as a memorable moment in my book, consider this column an ESPN 100 write-in vote for Hulkamania.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to say my prayers and eat my vitamins.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. This column also appears in the Aug. 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine. Over the next five weeks, his Page 2 column will only run on Tuesdays ... the old schedule will return in mid-August.




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