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


    In 1980, a little-known wrestler named Terry Bollea, donning the stage name ‘Hulk Hogan,’ faced goliath Andre ‘The Giant’ on a pro wrestling card that drew only 1,200 spectators in a building that held 3,500.

    However, 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 that card, headlined by Bruno Sammartino, Hogan, a relative newcomer on the wrestling scene, would defeat Andre and win the respect and admiration of World Wrestling Federation (WWF) fans.

    … But what happened next was something that not even the WWF could envision. Actor Sylvester Stallone was so impressed with Hogan’s performance that night and the young man’s larger-than-life persona that he cast the muscular brute as Rocky antagonist ‘Thunderlips – The Ultimate Male’ in Rocky III (1982).rocky iii hulk hogan

    The film was an enormous box office smash and grossed $16,015,408, even more than its predecessor, Rocky II. Moreover, this third iteration of the Rocky series was also the fourth highest-earning film of 1982 – and a brand new star was born. (Well two, if you include Mr. T)

    Resembling an action hero straight from the comic
    books, 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. Vince McMahon Sr, then the owner of WWF, didn’t authorize or appreciate Hogan’s participation in the movie and subsequently ostracized Hogan from the organization.

    A burgeoning star, Hogan would make American Wrestling Association (AWA) his new home and his legions of fans would continue to grow thanks to his recent role as Thunderlips – the monstrous bad guy wrestler in Rocky III.

    The emerging visionary, Vince McMahon Jr would soon 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 and potential, 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. And 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 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?

    Who knows? Regardless, one could certainly argue pro wrestling became a mainstream institution as a result of the younger 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 some hardcore pro wrestling fans insist Thunderlips, Stallone’s creation, was the spark that ignited pro wrestling’s popularity explosion.

    So, while it may be extreme to consider Sylvester Stallone the ‘Father of Modern-Day Pro Wrestling, how far would have gone if not for Rocky III and Sly’s showcasing of Thunderlips?

    • Rocky III Facts
    • In the scene where Rocky bodyslams 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 nine inches taller than Stallone, Thunderlips had to be billed as being taller than the actor portraying him to maintain the illusion that Rocky was over 6 feet tall.
    • 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 retired heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, the match between Rocky and Thunderlips was based on Wepner’s real-life 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