Kevin: The Super Bowl of professional wrestling is almost upon us, with the number of fans converging on New Jersey for WrestleMania 35 this Sunday expected to shatter the previous attendance record for the WWE’s flagship showcase. Now one of the most profitable live sporting events in the world, the growth in popularity of WrestleMania is inextricably tied to the popularity of the WWE’s most famous athlete, Hulk Hogan, whose defeat of Andre the Giant in front of 93,000 fans (at the time the largest attendance for a live indoor event in North America) in WrestleMania III in Detroit put the event on the map and served notice that professional wrestling was not a fringe sport anymore:
While Hogan by now had several TV appearances and a memorable cameo in “Rocky III” under his considerably large belt, WWE mastermind Vince McMahon decided to capitalize on Hulk’s increased profile by financing a big screen showcase that would take advantage of his star’s intimidating size and boisterous charisma, while also hiding his less-than-stellar acting chops. Thus, the world was gifted 1989’s “No Holds Barred”:
In his debut as a leading man, Hulk really goes outside his comfort zone by playing a giant bald professional wrestler named Rip who is preparing to defend his title in what’s described as “the hottest ticket in town.” Now even though Hulk technically plays a fictional character, Jesse Ventura and Mean Gene Okerlund play themselves, with Jesse sporting a wig made of fake gold dreadlocks that would probably be considered “problematic” today by the kind of hipster soyboys who would only watch “No Holds Barred” if it starred Brie Larson.
Anyway, Rip saunters in the arena flanked by his team including his brother Randy, who we know is Rip’s brother because this is what Mean Gene says: “There’s always been a special relationship between Rip and Randy, but since the unfortunate loss of their parents, Rip has been more, much more, than a brother to Randy!”
First of all, when their parents actually died will determine how weird I find that statement. If it was when Randy was five, that’s one thing. If it was a year ago that’s something else all together. Also, considering that Randy is always by Rip’s side at matches, does Mean Gene bring up the dead parents shit every time?
Now as we soon discover, as with “Over the Top” — which posited a world in which normal people challenge each other to arm wrestle at the drop of a hat and every establishment has its own arm-wrestling station — “No Holds Barred” similarly presents a society that seems to entirely revolve around professional wrestling. No other political or global issues that don’t involve wrestling are ever mentioned, and no other sports seem to exist. Meanwhile, Rip is not only the most popular athlete, he also appears to be the most beloved person on the planet. I’m surprised he hasn’t been elected dictator for life, except that it would probably take time away from his precious charity work he never shuts up about but that we rarely see.
He also seems to defend his title only occasionally, but because Rip is such a supernova of charisma, I guess when he is not on screen people just lock their TVs away in their attics rather than settle for watching any form of non-Rip-related entertainment. Apparently his mere existence has caused the World Television Network — run by the megalomaniac Brell (played by Kurt Fuller in a tour de force performance) — to be last in the ratings entirely due to the fact that it does not carry his two or three title matches a year.
I’m actually kind of surprised that there is more than just the one network that employs Rip that is able to stay in business in the world of “No Holds Barred,” just as I’m surprised that the president of the second-place network isn’t also trying to either sign Rip up to an expensive long-term contract, or, when the initial negotiations don’t instantly deliver that outcome, try and have him murdered as Brell does.
First though, Brell convenes a meeting of his execs to pitch him ideas to boost ratings, and he just immediately fires anyone who suggests something other than hiring Rip. But if there is one thing these soulless yuppies can agree upon, it is that Rip is the most benevolent human who ever lived, and that he would never break an oral contract over mere profit concerns. This doesn’t dissuade Brell, who obviously did not pay attention to those art-of-negotiation books that were all the rage in the ’80s, since he quickly goes from praising Rip and offering him a blank check, to threatening him and calling him a “jock-ass” within like two minutes.
He then tries committing the first of many, many attempted assaults, kidnappings, and paralyzations against Rip and his friends and family, all of which could be easily traced back to him and yet carry no repercussions whatsoever. At least this gives us the moment “No Holds Barred” is rightly famous for, when Rip demonstrates the ability to make a grown man shit his pants and call it “dookie,” as if he had reverted to a childlike state out of fear:
(Let me take a moment here to note how amazing it is that this scene exists considering that early on someone had to have written this into a script, and multiple people — including the star of the film — signed off on it after reading it. Then perhaps dozens or even hundreds of actors waited in a casting office for the chance to deliver the word “dookie” until they found the one who really sold it. Then a prop person had to create and apply a substance resembling diarrhea to the back of the actor’s pants, while they presumably filmed multiple takes of Hulk saying “what’s that smell?” before they were satisfied. Yet at no point during this long process did anyone question whether this scene should be in the film, and thank god for that.)
After this minor negotiation setback, Brell and his lackeys decide for some reason to visit the biggest shithole dive bar ever, where they discover the amazing secret that watching people beat each other up is a popular activity. His lackeys also feature into a scene where they are aghast that the men’s room is not up the standards of their corporate washroom, and after badmouthing the gross hillbilly clientele they are almost murdered by one of the regulars before he takes pity on them because of their tiny dicks. I never thought I’d want to get back to Hulk’s acting so much in my life, mainly because this whole section of the film felt like it took a huge chunk of my life.
Anyway, seeing this display gives Brell the idea to stage the creatively named “Battle of the Tough Guys,” where the winner will get $100,000 tax free, although I feel like the IRS might have something to say about that. Also not sure why it was necessary to stage it at the same shithole bar they were at earlier, which if nothing else doesn’t seem equipped to handle a complex TV broadcast that requires multiple camera vantage points and up-to-date electrical infrastructure.
I also have no idea how this event was pitched, organized, or advertised either. Apparently it was open to the general public, but the crowd is just made up of the same scuzzy regulars as before, and it’s just a bunch of dudes beating up on each other, there doesn’t appear to be any sort of time limit to the matches and no advertising breaks either. Either way, Tommy “Tiny” Lister literally busts the wall down as the mentally challenged and seemingly mute brute Zeus, and he immediately assaults a waitress, which would have repercussions in any other universe besides the lawless hellscape of “No Holds Barred.”
While he is busy kicking everyone’s asses in the ring, we cut to Rip’s mansion where he, Randy, Randy’s girlfriend, and Rip’s trainer — who looks like the human version of the trainer in “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out” …
… are watching. Also, I just realized that it’s been 15 minutes since Hulk was last on screen, and then after this brief scene he’s off again for another 5 minutes. It’s not a good sign when your own starring vehicle sidelines you for long stretches, and I feel like if Tom Cruise was off screen for nearly 20 minutes in a “Mission: Impossible” flick his absence would be a lot more noticeable.
Finally though we get back to Rip, as he and Samantha … oh shit, I also forgot to mention his love interest Samantha, a P.R. flack played by Joan Severance, one of those actresses who was hot in a very ’80s way:
Anyway, they visit a diner run by Shirley, the sassy black hairstylist who explained the entire conspiracy to Carl Weathers when the screenwriters obviously wrote themselves into a corner in “Action Jackson,” …
… and I also forgot that Rip has to take time out to beat up a couple of thugs in masks who conveniently try to rob the place right as they are eating. That shouldn’t have been a surprise however, as any time an action hero in an ’80s movie either went out to dinner or tried to buy groceries, there was a 82 percent chance he’d have to foil an attempted robbery.
Actually I am kind of confused by the events leading up to this scene. So Rip and Samantha get on a private plane that departs from Atlanta, where the movie was filmed, and arrive in … well, Atlanta I guess, since nothing looks at all different. I’m not even sure what they are doing, something about a fan club meeting and autograph session, and I’m still not even sure what Samantha’s role is in “the company” that seems to either work for Rip or totally controls him since he just does whatever they say without any explanation.
Either way, they get to the hotel they are staying at, which looks to be some $30-a-night Best Western near the airport and only has one room for both of them to share. It also must be the only hotel in wherever they hell they are supposed to be, but either way it’s a good thing Rip is a rich professional athlete, because we all know how chill those types of guys are when their accommodations don’t meet their usual standards.
We then get an homage to this famous scene from what I assume is Hulk’s favorite movie, “It Happened One Night,” and this will be the first and last time Hulk Hogan is ever compared to Clark Gable (in this section of the film Hulk also wears the most disturbingly tiny pair of pink shorts you’ve ever seen; I tried to take a picture of it on my TV but the image was so disturbing it caused my phone to blow up in my hand):
Anyway, it turns out that Samantha was secretly working for Brell and was supposed to seduce Rip, which wasn’t hard since he was trying to fuck her the moment they met. Also. we never see if he went to this fan event or whatever reason they were traveling together. But when she tells Brell she won’t betray Rip because she loves him, he backhands her and gives her a black eye, and rather than filing a police report or a lawsuit she just runs out of his office and never brings it up again, making her Les Moonves’ ideal female employee.
It gets even worse for her, since after Rip refuses an offer to face off against Zeus in the championship of the “Battle of the Tough Guys,” Brell then has one of his goons basically try to rape Samantha in a parking lot, which is interrupted when Rip comes by on a motorcycle and seems to have a little too much fun lightheartedly scaring the guy that was just assaulting his girlfriend. Shortly after, Zeus paralyzes Rip’s brother in front of a dozen witnesses, and if you think either of these incidents warrants a phone call to the cops, you obviously have forgotten what movie you are watching.
Obviously this pushes Rip too far, as after Randy’s assault he agrees to face off against Zeus to determine the true champion of the event Brell invented a week earlier. We also get a very condensed training montage which Rip entirely spends helping Randy through his rehab, and note that Randy here has fairly good use of his arms, yet at the final event he’s basically Christopher Reeve and can barely twitch a finger. Later though he seems to get instantly better after Zeus kicks him while he’s on the ground, which follows the “Gilligan’s Island” theory of medicine whereby the effects of any trauma can be reversed by the same trauma (e.g. suffering amnesia after getting hit on the head by a coconut and having it cured later by getting hit with another coconut).
Meanwhile, the first thing we see Zeus doing as part of his training is PUNCHING CINDER BLOCKS INTO DUST WITH HIS BARE HANDS, followed by a couple of shots of him working out on the kind of basic exercise equipment you’d find at a Gold’s Gym, which is frankly not super impressive coming after the whole cinder block thing. Maybe the editors should have saved the money shot for the end.
Either way we get to the championship of the “Battle of the Tough Guys,” which apparently is a sophisticated black-tie affair, although since this is Atlanta that might actually be realistic. In order to ensure Zeus wins, Brell kidnaps Samantha and holds her hostage right in the TV studio, because hey why the fuck not, it’s not like he’s gotten in trouble for anything else he’s done so far.
Of course Samantha escapes without even having to fake seduce her guards, which allows Rip to defeat Zeus by knocking him from a high distance onto the mat, and the close-up we get of the blood trickling out of his mouth seems to imply that he’s dead. Fortunately Brell saves Rip the trouble by backing into some wires and electrocuting himself to death. Rip gets a standing ovation from Atlanta’s 1% as the movie concludes with him flashing his signature “rip ’em!” hand sign.
But while Rip was probably justified in his double manslaughter, his PR team might want to postpone any children’s charity events for a few weeks. To put it in modern terms, as beloved as The Rock is, if he killed Chris Jericho and Brandon Tartikoff during a wrestling match in front of millions, I think his cuddly teddy bear image might take a little hit for a while.
Unfortunately the parallels with The Rock end there, as despite remaining a beloved and at times controversial figure in the world of professional wrestling, Hulk did not achieve similar crossover success as a big-screen action star (sorry to all you “Suburban Commando” fans out there). Surprisingly though, “No Holds Barred” still came in second place its opening weekend behind “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and ahead of the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” which also featured Joan Severance (man ’89 was the summer of Severance).
However, I was not aware that the grudge match between Rip and Zeus, or specifically between Hogan and Tiny Lister (confusingly still calling himself Zeus despite no longer being in character) over an on-set accident and who should have received top billing in “No Holds Barred,” continued for the rest of the year after the film’s release, culminating in several real-life matches and a major Pay-Per-View event! Fortunately we had friend of the site and WrestleMania expert/multiple attendee Ed (@GlobalEd718 ) — who previously joined us on our “Any Given Sunday” Round Table — on hand to break down how the rematch between “Rip” and “Zeus” went down:
Ed: Apparently Vince McMahon was so inspired by Hulk Hogan’s Slammy Award-performance that he was compelled to continue the action onto the squared circle (also he had a financial stake in the film and wanted to squeeze every last dollar out of it he could). Thus we had “Zeus” making both an improbable return from the dead and a leap from the silver screen to a WWE wrestling ring, not to take on the fictional “Rip” again but to stop the real-life Hulkamania dead in its tracks.
Somehow the fact that Tiny Lister supposedly wanted vengeance in the ring for suffering a broken nose at the hands of Hogan during the filming of “No Holds Barred” made complete sense when I was 13 years old. At 42 years old, I’m starting to question all my entertainment decisions I made as a kid.
Anyway, the beef between Zeus and Hogan turned into a full program, with “The Human Wrecking Machine” teaming up with “Macho Man” Randy Savage to face Hogan and 2019 WWE Hall of Fame inductee Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake at the 1989 SummerSlam Pay-Per-View event:
After tasting defeat at SummerSlam, Zeus would later team up with “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase and The Powers of Pain at the 1989 Survivor Series PPV, against The Hulkamaniacs team consisting of Hogan, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and Demolition.
Zeus’ emotions got the best of him at Survivor Series though, as he ignored the referee’s five-count and ended up getting himself disqualified while attempting to choke the life out of Hogan.
This led to the December 1989 PPV special “No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie,” which featured the final match-up between the two following an airing of the film, with Hogan and Beefcake finally vanquishing Zeus and Savage in a steel cage match to settle their differences once and for all. Looking back on all of this, part of me would like to believe Vince McMahon was ahead of the curve in breaking the fourth wall of wrestling and melding reality with wrestling kayfabe, which would be the direction the business would eventually take during “The Attitude Era” in the late 1990s/early 2000s:
But as smart as McMahon is, when it comes to wrestling, let’s be honest and admit that “No Holds Barred” was just a short-term money-grab. (On a side note, for those who complain about Ronda Rousey headlining WrestleMania this year, at least she was an Olympic bronze medalist, a StrikeForce champion, and a UFC champion. Zeus cut the line and headlined three PPVs with less training than the G.L.O.W. girls., so let’s not be hypocrites.)
However, despite being considered an embarrassingly failed attempt to turn Hulk into the next Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal, “No Holds Barred” was successful in separating Hogan from the rest of the pack in the wrestling industry. Sure, Ric Flair was the better wrestler — especially in the ring, putting on classic five-star matches against the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Ricky Steamboat, and Sting. But “No Holds Barred” still helped put Hogan on the map as a mainstream star who overshadowed EVERYONE in the industry during the “Rock n’ Wrestling Era,” taking the business to new heights from carney traveling sideshow to a multi-billion dollar sports entertainment industry.
That said, it is utterly amazing that it took decades for other pro wrestlers such as The Rock, Dave Bautista (who will be competing in this year’s WrestleMania against Triple H), and John Cena to reach and far surpass the cinematic bar Hogan set in Hollywood. It is not like Hogan has Chris Hemsworth thespian-levels of acting, which makes it even more ironic that Thor will be portraying Hulk in an upcoming biopic.
Meanwhile, although Hogan defeated “Zeus” in the ring a second time, Tiny Lister would have the last laugh when it came to the film side, first portraying more mindless thugs before his breakout role as Deebo in “Friday.” Let’s put it this way, watching “No Holds Barred” in 1989, there is no way you would have predicted that Zeus would be the one working steadily as an actor for the next 30 years, including being directed by Luc Besson, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino for god’s sake. Considering how little his appearance has changed, he could probably play himself in the Hemsworth movie (I also vote John Goodman to play Bubba the Love Sponge).
Kevin: I just realized there is no way we can go out on that note with any sort of defeat for the Hulkster, so let’s conclude with Hogan’s second-greatest non-wrestling contribution to popular culture, the video for “Real American”: