Hulk Hogan has taken plenty of hits in the wrestling ring. But nothing compares to the blow he took last November when Linda, his wife of 23 years, filed for divorce. “I felt like I’d been kicked in the chest by a mule,” he says. Though they had spent weeks living apart and had years of ups and downs—they even visited a marriage counselor on their VH1 reality show Hogan Knows Best—”I thought I was one of these guys who’d never be divorced,” says Hogan. “I thought everything would be cool.”
In the past year, not much has turned out the way Hogan imagined. The man born Terry Bollea, 54, saw his family break apart, his love life play out in the tabloids, and his son Nick, 17, go to jail for the car crash that left his best friend, Iraq veteran John Graziano, critically injured (see box). A self-described “overbearing” dad who “always felt in control,” Hogan readily admits he’s made mistakes, but is still struggling to understand how it all went wrong: “The whole thing is just insane to me.”
Most recently, tapes of Hogan’s jailhouse conversations with Nick in Florida surfaced in the media, touching off a barrage of criticism over clips in which he and his son call Graziano a “negative person” and talk about plans to get Nick a post-prison reality show. Graziano’s mother, Debra, responded, “These people are the biggest phonies and two-faced individuals that I’ve ever seen.”
Sitting down in an L.A. office for his first print interview since the crash, an exhausted-looking Hogan insists the quotes were culled from 26 hours of tapes and don’t reflect his true feelings: “John was part of my family.” He says he was desperate to keep his son’s spirits up when Nick was in solitary confinement to keep him separated from adult prisoners. “Hardened criminals only last 48 hours in there,” Hogan says. “Nick was in for 28 days. I was a father in crisis saying whatever I could to save a kid from unraveling. I screwed up.” Nick has since filed suit against the sheriff’s department for releasing the tapes.
As for his divorce, “I unconditionally love my wife,” Hogan says. “The Linda that I know was a great mother and a great person.” He says the marriage had been troubled for a decade and “the reality show just amplified the problems.” After Nick’s car crash, he and Linda, 48, headed for opposite coasts: “We were trying to stay on separate ends of the world and hopefully get back together after everything calmed down.” Instead, the two sparred over property and don’t speak. Linda even called 911 recently when she spotted Hogan’s car near her house. The divorce “is going to be a war,” says her lawyer A.J. Barranco, adding “the whole thing has been devastating to her.” Hogan now lives with daughter Brooke, 20, with whom he recently made peace (the two feuded after he dated one of her pals). “She’s doing great,” he says.
Despite it all, so is his career: In addition to cohosting American Gladiators on NBC, he’s currently shooting Hulk Hogan’s Celebrity Championship Wrestling for CMT—while flying from L.A. to Tampa every weekend to see Nick. After the year he’s had, “this show is the little bit of relief that I need,” he says. “I’m just trying to get back on my feet.”