On June 2, 1989, World Wrestling Federation (WWF) was on top of the world. It had more or less conquered not on their competition but the pop culture zeitgeist, and it’s stars like WWF World Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan were household names. But that night, it released its first foray into Hollywood and motion pictures, with the release of No Holds Barred, a fictionalized portrayal of kayfabe WWF in the late 1990s, with Hulk Hogan portraying WWF World Champion Rip Thomas, battling a monster of a man in Zeus. It wasn’t the first movie to hit Hollywood about wrestling. In the early years, there were films about women’s wrestling (1951’s Racket Girls) and a faux biopic of Gorgeous George in 1949 called Alias The Champ. In 1974, a film called The Wrestler (not to be confused with the Mickey Rourke vehicle of the same name) using mostly AWA wrestlers and starring Ed Asner was released, and Sylvester Stallone‘s 1978 follow-up to Rocky was his love story to the early days of pro wrestling called Paradise Alley. In 1985, several WWF Superstars, including Roddy Piper, appeared in the Dirk Benedict film Body Slam.
The film wasn’t even Hulk Hogan’s feature film debut. He’d first entered the mainstream in 1983 with Rocky III, portraying the brutish ThunderLips, a pro wrestler who faced Rocky Balboa in an exhibition match. But it was the first time Vince McMahon financially backed a film, although he did so under a separate company, called Shane’s Distribution Company. It was directed by television director Thomas J. Wright (Max Headroom, Castle, Firefly, X-Files) and debuted at #2 in the US, behind only Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. But it’s success was fleeting. The movie proved to be a box office bomb after opening weekend, barely breaking even on an estimated $8 million dollar budget. While commentating on Monday Night Raw in late 1997, Vince McMahon joking stated that “Hogan promised me that if the movie lost money he was gonna return his salary. I guess the check is still in the mail.” Several years later, even Jim Ross got in the action, quipping “No Holds Barred? More like No Profit Allowed.”
The film may have bombed at the box office but once it hit VHS and subsequently DVD and BluRay, it became a cult classic. It was so bad it was hilariously good. It was like any typical storyline in WWF at the time, featuring an imposing monster that proved a problem for Hulk Hogan (akin to previous beasts like Andre the Giant, King Kong Bundy and Kamala). By the end of the film, like the end of most Hogan stories, was him finding his faith in himself and his fans and overcoming Zeus.
Soon after the release, Zeus appeared on WWF programming, looking for revenge for Hulk Hogan making him look bad in the film. He soon found an ally in former Hogan friend Randy “Macho Man’ Savage, and alongside Sensational Sherri, the formed a trio that was determined to end Hulkamania once and for all.
At SummerSlam ’89, barely three months after the film opened, Zeus and Randy Savage teamed up to face Hulk Hogan and his new ally, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake.
Zeus would return that fall for Survivor Series ’89, joining “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase‘s Million Dollar Team, that also featured Barbarian & Warlord and DiBiase himself, to face Hogan’s Hulkamaniacs unit of Hogan, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and Demolition (Ax & Smash). Zeus went down 0-3 in his encounters against Hogan.
That December, WWF released No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie on Pay Per View, which featured the full theatrical release of the film, followed by a special match between Hulk Hogan (as himself) versus Zeus from the film. It was their first singles match since Zeus had entered the WWF, and was taped as a dark match at a taping for WWF Wrestling Challenge the week prior.
Zeus left professional wrestling after and concentrated on his acting career, better known as Tiny Lister, he would work on such films as Friday, Universal Soldier, The Fifth Element, Austin Powers in Goldmember, and Zootopia. He was briefly tempted back on two occasions. In 1990, he faced Abdullah the Butcher in Puerto Rico with World Wrestling Council (WWC).
He would return six years later with World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in 1996, as a surprise member of The Alliance to End Hulkamania, with Ric Flair, Kevin Sullivan, Arn Anderson, Lex Luger, Meng, Barbarian, and Ultimate Solution (oddly enough, Ultimate Solution would portray Bane in 1997’s Batman & Robin, while Lister would appear in 2008’s The Dark Knight as a prisoner) in a handicap match against a reunited Mega Powers of Hogan and Savage at WCW Uncensored ’97 (although he would be called Z-Gangsta in WCW).
By then, Tiny Litster was routinely working in television and film, and it was painfully evident he didn’t have much of a future in pro wrestling. But Lister remains grateful for the opportunity that WWE gave him when he was still starting out.
It was art imitating art imitating life when No Holds Barred hit the theaters on June 2, 1989, but 30 years ago today, Hulkamania made its boldest move on popular culture. And while it didn’t set the box office on fire, it endures as one of WWE’s most fun films to watch. The disaster of No Holds Barred would send Vince McMahon back to Stamford, Connecticut with his tail between his legs for nearly 15 years, until WWE Studios was born in 2002 with their first endeavor since No Holds Barred with The Scorpion King, a spin-off from the successful Mummy franchise and vehicle for WWE’s then hottest star, The Rock. Both The Scorpion King and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson proved to be greater successes in Hollywood, and since then, WWE Studios has released over 50 feature films (many of which have been straight to DVD), including their last venture, the Paige/Knight Family biopic, Fighting With My Family.
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