October 14, 1991 12:00 PM

ON A RECENT FRIDAY NIGHT, A TIDAL wave of soprano screams courses through the cavernous Miami Arena. Although some middle-class moms and dads are in attendance, easily half the audience of around 5,000 is under 12, and they’ve come to see the larger-than-life man of their fantasies. They erupt in frenzy when he vaults into the ring.

With his Crayola-yellow Fu Manchu moustache and hair trailing from his trademark bandanna, Terry Bollea, more widely known as Hulk Hogan—6’6″ and 290 lbs. of tanned and oiled muscles—looks like a character from the pages of a DC comic book. He strikes poses à la legion of superheroes, circa 1965. To the kids, though, this balding showman is no two-dimensional fantasy; he is the biggest, baddest good guy who ever lived. “Hulk Hogan is just like Terry Bollea,” says Hulk of his persona. “When I get in front of people, I turn up the volume.”

Defending his World Wrestling Federation Championship belt (a prize he has claimed three times in the past seven years), Hogan and archvillain Sergeant Slaughter dole out 20 minutes of acrobatic punishment to each other. In the end, of course, Hulk triumphs, after which he points to the ceiling, to himself and then down to the canvas—his way of saying, “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Real Big Guy.”

By earthly measure, Hulk Hogan is a hero whose time has come. He spends some 200 days a year on the road, mesmerizing Hulkamaniacs in arenas across the nation, appears on around 250 TV stations that carry the WWF’s weekly syndicated shows and stars in the federation’s pay-per-view extravaganzas, as well as the currently airing pay-per-view bio film Hulk Hogan: A Real American Story. In his spare time, he makes commercials for Right Guard and Honey Nut Cheerios and does guest shots on The Arsenio Hall Show. Fans snap up nearly 300 official Hulkster products, including pillowcases ($9.95) and Wrestling Buddies, 22-inch stuffed figures that sell for $24.95. “I don’t know anything that could compare with Hulk at the moment,” says WWF head Vincent McMahon Jr. “I think he’s gone beyond Babe Ruth.”

Even, perhaps, beyond the Ninja Turtles. Hogan has racked up three movie appearances (cameos in Rocky III and Gremlins II; a meatier role in the wrestling movie No Holds Barred), and now has scored his first lead in an action comedy. In Suburban Commando (costarring Christopher Lloyd and Shelley Duvall), which slammed into theaters this month, he plays intergalactic warrior Shep Ramsey, who battles evil during a pit stop on earth.

As an action hero, the 38-year-old Hulkster is not about to terminate Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Hogan and his full-nelson comrades are laughing all the way to their brokers’ offices. Thanks to TV and an annual gate of more than 8 million arena fans, the WWF empire is now worth an estimated $500 million. In March, Wrestle Mania VII, its annual slam-bam orgy, grossed about $24 million from 800,000 pay-per-view subscribers, and WWF products (led by Hulk items) grossed an astonishing $1.7 billion last year. Hulk’s personal combined haul is an estimated $5 million to $10 million per year.

Does he really wrestle when he’s earning his bucks? Once wrestling was the province of blue-collar audiences who cheered and jeered touring bruisers camping it up in smoke-filled arenas. But to attract a mainstream audience, the game has recently admitted that it’s closer to showbiz than to sport. The antics in the ring aren’t choreographed, but the outcome is not left to chance. “It was the smartest thing we did,” says the Hulk of wrestling’s new openness. “Now, in the first row, we’ve got families, we’ve got kids.”

Still, the big guys can go overboard. In 1985 Hulk demonstrated a chin lock on TV’s Hot Properties host Richard Belzer. Belzer fell unconscious to the floor and required stitches in his scalp. His $5 million lawsuit against the Hulk was later settled out of court.

Although Hogan has tempered his act, his boyhood was marked by some adolescent shenanigans. Born in Augusta, Ga., Terry Bollea was raised in Tampa, where his father, Pete, was a construction foreman and his mother, Ruth, a housewife and dance teacher. Says she: “I guess Terry gets lots of his showmanship from me.” Terry is Ruth’s youngest child (his half brother, Kenneth Wheeler, a retired Air Force colonel, is from Ruth’s first marriage; his brother Allan Bollea died some years ago). A strapping kid who weighed 195 lbs. at age 12, he discovered his talent as a wrestler in high school. He also found out the consequences of fighting outside the ring. Sent to the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch—where the corners are smoothed on rough-edged kids to keep them out of reform school—at age 14 for street fighting, Bollea became a born-again Baptist. He emerged headed for the straight and narrow.

After studying business at Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida, he left to work as a stevedore. Obsessed with wrestling, Bollea, who worked out regularly, was spotted ringside at a Florida arena in 1976 by wrestlers Jack and Jerry Brisco. When asked whether he’d ever thought of becoming a wrestler, Bollea said, “I’ve wanted to be one all my life.”

After several months training with the Briscos, he was ready for his first bout. Although he was an unknown, Bollea’s size and bearing gave him an early charisma. “By the time he got into the ring, he was getting a standing ovation,” remembers Jerry. “Nobody had a clue who this was, but they were cheering him like he was already a superstar.”

In 1979, after paying his dues on the tank-town circuit earning $.125 for seven nights work, he was recruited by Vincent McMahon Sr. (father of Vincent Jr.), who cast him as an Irish villain. Not until 1983 was he allowed to trade that character for that of good-guy Hulk Hogan. He was named Hogan for his Irish persona and became Hulk because he was built along the lines of Lou Ferrigno, TV’s Incredible Hulk. Says Hulk of the change: “It’s nice not to find your tires slashed when you leave the arena.”

In 1984 the WWF saw the Hulk’s turnstile potential; he was allowed to “win” his first world championship over the Iron Sheik, and Hulkamania was born. “I thought when I got older and lost all my hair, people wouldn’t like me,” Hogan says now. “Thank God it’s still happening.”

America’s best-loved muscleman lives with his wife of seven years, Linda, 32, daughter Brooke, 3, and son Nicholas, 1, in a pricey home on the Intracoastal Waterway near Clearwater, Fla. Their rambling two-story house is done up in Laura Ashley style, thanks to Linda’s decorator mother. “We didn’t go authentic Victorian,” says Linda. “It wouldn’t work in here.” Translation: not with Hulk’s XXL-size ring buddies squashing the antiques. Although Bollea tries to leave Hogan at the door, he admits it’s not easy. “Even Brooke calls me Hulk,” he says.

For all his success, Hogan still trains 90 minutes a day and has learned to watch what goes into his massive body. He briefly used steroids when under a physician’s care for injuries, he says, but concludes, “It’s like putting poison in your body.” And instead of the 12-egg breakfast of yore, he now gets by on a cantaloupe, six egg whites and juice.

Emotional preparation is also important. “I’m in love with my kids, I’m in love with my wife, I have lots of friends. When there’s a negative, I run it right over,” he says.

He takes seriously his position as role model for the preteen set and visits with at least 20 sick and dying children a week. Before a recent match, he met with Porche Duff, 4, who had suffered severe birth injuries. Although she is blind and mute, she was thrilled to meet the hero whose matches she had heard on TV. Kneeling by her wheelchair, Hulk kissed her cheek. “I’m so happy you came to see me,” he cooed. She beamed, and Hogan told her, “Someday, when I get to heaven, Porche will be my manager.”

Before heading into the ring, Hulk recited to a visitor his “Four Demandments”: “Train, say your prayers, eat your vitamins and believe in yourself.” Says the Hulk: “A lot a people say it’s bull, but it’s done a lot for me.


DON SIDER in Miami