No Holds Barred: When WWF Tried to Make Hulk Hogan a Movie Star

We take a look back at WWF’s attempt to turn Hulk Hogan into a movie star in 1989’s cult classic No Holds Barred.

Last Updated on June 2, 2023

While the names Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan have been suplexed by controversy lately, it’s impossible to ignore how popular they had made the WWE, then WWF, back in the ’80s and ’90s. In 1989, the maniacal McMahon had a genius idea to make Hogan, already a megastar and the longtime world champion, even bigger. Let’s make him the biggest Hollywood actor, too! Enter No Holds Barred, Hulk Hogan’s first starring movie role and the first movie/wrestling crossover event ever! Oh, and did I mention it featured Friday favorite Tom “Tiny” Lister as the mega heel? Damn right. Let’s go!

Years before WWE Studios came into existence and gave us…*ahem* gems as  The Scorpion King, The Marine, See No Evil, and The Chaperone, all led by WWE superstars, Vince McMahon got into movie-making with its precursor, Shane Distribution. McMahon might’ve played it safe with his wrestling storylines but not when it came to the company’s promotion. His risk-taking is what led to genuinely awesome ideas like the Attitude Era, Rock ‘n Wrestling, and even the creation of WrestleMania.

But in 1989, McMahon had the bright idea to produce a movie that would glorify the already mythological might of Hulk Hogan. Hogan, who had dabbled in movies, notably as “Thunderlips” in 1982’s Rocky III, would star as Rip Thomas, World Wrestling Federation Heavyweight Champion. Gee, what a stretch there, Hulkster! Rip is the biggest star on TV, so big that he’s single-handedly killing the ratings of struggling network rival, World Television Network, run by the evil Mr. Brell.

Brell is played by character actor Kurt Fuller who, if you were around in the ’80s and ’90s, you were basically trained to loathe this guy. He always played sniveling weasel characters, usually of some type of authority, as he did in Ghostbusters II and later in Wayne’s World.

Nevermind how a single wrestling champion can destroy an entire rival television network. Details like that are well beyond what No Holds Barred has to offer. Brell decides the best way to beat Rip is to hire him away. Of course, the heroic Rip is having none of this lousy idea, to which Brell responds by calling him a “Jock Ass”, an insult I didn’t really understand then and it’s worse now.

While the script for No Holds Barred is credited to Dennis Hackin, there’s significant contribution by McMahon and Hogan. Shocker, considering the number of times the WWF is put over, that’s wrestling slang for “winning at the expense of another”, in casual everyday conversation. You also see their influence in the action, which makes Hulk Hogan look more like the Incredible Hulk. Never is a better example than when Brell’s goons try to kidnap Rip in a limo, and Rip kicks the car so hard that he leaves dents and moves the entire car from side-to-side. Not only that, when the limo gets to its destination, Rip literally punches himself through the roof, launching into the air like he’s the damn Rocketeer. he then proceeds to “Rip ’em!!”, his catchphrase mind you, until one guy literally poops his pants. The action is atrocious, and there’s a reason why the Hulkster never became a legit action movie star. His punches look fake, even by wrestling standards, and he’s incredibly slow even though Hogan is at his physical prime.

That’s the level of humor and action you’re getting out of No Holds Barred. But it’s an odd mix of silly, childish jokes and uncomfortably vile acts of violence, which is a criticism you could lodge at professional wrestling as a whole during that time. Brell eventually gets fed up and starts his own wrestling show, enlisting the aid of the massive and intimidating Zeus, aka Tiny Lister with a Z shaved into his otherwise bald nugget.

Here’s where some of the uncomfortableness comes into play. Zeus, after challenging Rip time and time again, finally decides to hit him where it hurts by crippling the wrestler’s geeky brother, Randy. Brell also hires the sexy Samantha, played by former model and See No Evil, Hear No Evil actress Joan Severance, to seduce him. But Rip is such a good dude, and look how his butt glistens while doing push-ups, that Samantha can’t bring herself to do it. So Brell hires some more goons to kindap and rape her! Yeah, this movie is all over the place. Suffice it to say, Rip has accepted Zeus’ challenge by now.

No Holds Barred culminated in an epic steel cage battle between Rip and Zeus. Steel girders, an epic crash, and even electrocution were involved. It was as chaotic and deadly as it sounds. Vince McMahon loved this, and did something unique to promote the movie. He created the No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie PPV event, which essentially saw the entire film play out for the paid audience. That was then followed by an actual Hogan/Zeus match that had been pre-taped.

Not only that, but McMahon kept the No Holds Barred fun going for months, bringing in Zeus for a series of matches culminating in Hogan and his pal Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake vs. Zeus and Randy “Macho Man” Savage at the No Holds Barred ppv in December 1989. The hook was that Zeus, angry over losing to Hogan in the movie, now wanted to defeat him in real life. Huh?

McMahon was smart, though. At the time, there was no blurring of the lines between wrestling and real life. Your character is who you were, so fans easily bought into the idea that Zeus really hated Hogan. Wrestling was incredibly goofy at the time and made absolutely no sense, so this fit right in. You wouldn’t dare attempt such a stunt as this nowadays, where kayfabe, or the illusion that wrestling is real, has long since been broken. Then again, you get a lot more pre-taped cinematic matches now, so I guess that’s the balance.

No Holds Barred was savaged by critics at the time. Director Thomas J. Wright would go on to work on some iconic television shows, including Millennium and Firefly, but never became a big-time filmmaker. The movie debuted at #2 at the box office with $4.9M, behind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That ain’t too shabby. Again, Hogan was a gigantic star at the time, and seeing wrestlers in movies of that scope was rare. Hogan has said the movie cost around $8M, and with VHS/DVD sales it ultimately earned around $16M. However, the film has continued to be the butt of on-air jokes by McMahon and others, usually about how much money the film lost. So who really knows?

Hogan may have been the first professional wrestler to become a big movie star, but he never reached the levels that Dwayne Johnson, John Cena, and Dave Bautista are seeing now. He would feature in numerous films over the years, such as Mr. Nanny and Santa with Muscles, which should tell you everything you need to know. Zeus, aka Tommy “Tiny” Lister, would continue to be intimidating AF, but also beloved as the bullying Deebo in the Friday movies. He even played President in The Fifth Element, and continued to dabble in professional wrestling.

With the creation of WWE Studios, the WWE has had its share of hits and embarrassing misses. But it’s undeniable that wrestling movies have improved significantly with films such as The Wrestler, Fighting with My Family, and Ready 2 Rumble. Just kidding about that last one. It’s awful! It’s also undeniable that none of this would’ve been possible if No Holds Barred hadn’t been there first to make the hot tag.

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