CUPPING his ear, flexing his 24 inch ‘pythons’ and milking the applause for all it was worth, it almost seemed like Hulk Hogan had never been away.
Eighteen years had passed since the legendary wrestler last appeared in England, but the 12-time world champion was the undoubted star of the show during TNA Wrestling’s Maximum Impact IV Tour on Friday night.
A buzz of anticipation could be felt from the outset at the Manchester Arena, and judging by the number of fans wearing fake yellow moustaches, Hulkamania was in full effect.
The evening’s action got off to a thrilling start with a triple threat match for the X Division Championship, which showcased the combined talents of reigning champion Austin Aries, Motor City Machine Gun Alex Shelley and Manchester’s own Mark Haskins.
The cocky champion revelled in his role as the villain of the piece, at one stage pulling up a chair to watch Shelley and Haskins slug it out rather than get involved in the action himself.
But when you are as good in the ring as Aries wrestling fans won’t boo you for long, and the slick combination of moves that led to him hitting Haskins with his signature brainbuster DDT for the victory elicited as many cheers as jeers.
Ahead of the next clash Earl Hebner received his customary introduction as ‘the most controversial referee in wrestling history’, a reference to his part in the infamous WWF betrayal of Bret Hart in 1997. True to form Hebner basked in his notoriety, donning sunglasses similar to those worn by the Hit Man and copying Bret’s trademark poses.
Sadly this diversion was one of the few highlights of the match that followed, as England’s impressive Douglas Williams struggled to gel with the wooden Crimson, who is still failing to connect with audiences despite his long undefeated streak.
One man who has no such problems is the adored AJ Styles, the competitor nicknamed The Phenomenal One because of his outstanding ability. Pitted against the ever-improving Gunner, he slung his opponent into the outside railings before leaping over him into the crowd, jumping back onto the metal fencing and launching off to connect with a flying forearm smash.
Chants of ‘TNA, TNA’ erupted around the area, and they increased when AJ won the match with an overhead Pelé Kick to Gunner’s face. Phenomenal indeed.
Next up was an entertaining Knockout Division match, which saw women’s champion Gail Kim and her partner-in-crime Madison Rayne lose to the experienced team of Mickie James and Tara. The to-and-fro contest was ended when Tara caught Gail Kim with her Widow’s Peak manoeuvre, signalling a short break before two tantalising main events.
The first saw the 282lb juggernaut Samoa Joe take on TNA World Heavyweight Champion Bobby Roode in a title match filmed for a forthcoming TV episode of TNA Xplosion.
Roode has made the transition from fan favourite to principal antagonist with relative ease and now carries the gold like he was born with it around his waist. Slow and deliberate in his moves, he frustrated the crowd, yet could not silence the trademark cry of “Joe’s gonna kill you” as the Samoan submission machine cranked up the action.
The sight of the 20-stone brawler flying through the ropes and slamming into his opponent with a suicide dive was simply awesome, as was the exchange that led to the eventual finish.
Joe lifted Roode into position for his patented Muscle Buster, only for Roode to reverse the move, become trapped in Joe’s sleeper hold, then push the challenger backwards into the referee. Using the momentary distraction to hit Joe with a fisherman’s hook suplex, Roode got the three count, and slinked to the back with his title intact.
Dixie Carter was next to make an appearance, the president of TNA thanking the fans for their support and announcing that tickets for next year’s tour would go on sale this week.
She then introduced an unusual guest, an 83-year-old grandmother at ringside who was apparently given free tickets after TNA management read how she used a walking cane to scare off an intruder she caught stealing from her home in Scotland last year.
It sounded like the have-a-go-hero would make a good story device and so it proved with the arrival of the aptly named Bully Ray, who grabbed the microphone and informed the crowd that most of all he would like to “smack that old granny in the face’.
Daring anybody to ‘come in here and do something about it’, what followed was classic pantomime, as Bully taunted, “There’s not one tough United fan in this building, there’s not one tough City fan, but I’ll tell you what there is...” before unbuttoning his top and revealing a red Liverpool FC shirt. He proclaimed: “God bless Steven Gerrard, God bless Liverpool” to a cacophony of boos.
Bully was joined by Kurt Angle, the only Olympic gold medallist in professional wrestling, before the arena erupted at the arrival of the man-of-the-moment James Storm and ‘the Icon’ Sting - making his last farewell tour of the UK.
But if those in attendance thought that reaction was loud they had another thing coming, as the dastardly Bobby Roode emerged once more, declaring that a three-on-two handicap match was now on the cards, with the odds stacked in the villains favour.
The stage was set for one man and one man only and Hogan duly delivered, evening up the numbers as he strode out to the ring to the sound of his original entrance music, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.
Decked out in his famous red bandana and yellow T-shirt, which was inevitably ripped to reveal his huge frame, Hogan’s physique and enthusiasm belied his 58 years, and he set about giving a masterclass in how to work a crowd.
Never has a man garnered such reaction by doing so little (nor consistently overshadowed younger talent who had so much more to give) but this wasn’t the time to complain about his limited moveset or backstage political maneouvering.
In terms of a nostalgia trip it was everything a wrestling fan who grew up in the 80s and 90s could have wanted - the biggest star in wrestling history using every trick in the book to send the crowd wild.
With six competitors in action each was given the chance to enjoy the limelight, the 52-year-old Sting displaying a surprising amount of pace and agility.
Things picked up as Hogan ‘Hulked up’, dished out three punches to Bully and a big boot before hitting his famous leg drop. The pin count was broken by Angle and the match degenerated into a free-for-all, in and outside the ring.
Dragging Bully over to the aforementioned pensioner, Hogan locked him in a full nelson hold and invited her to apply her walking stick to his head, before taking the weapon, personally handing Bully his comeuppance and throwing him back into the ring, just in time to take a Stinger Splash and for Storm to finish him off with a Last Call superkick.
The pin count was a formality - a prequel to showboating the likes of which will probably never be seen again. Led by the Hulkster the winning trio celebrated for what seemed like an eternity, posing and hugging delighted fans long after the final bell had rung.
Hogan once declared that Hulkamania would live forever. Thirty years on, it’s still going strong.
Tickets for next year’s tour are on sale now at www.gigsandtours.com/tna2013