As LeBron James passes Michael Jordan on the list of all time NBA scorers, it feels significant. There will be countless statistical and otherwise impassioned breakdowns that make the case for one or the other being the greatest player to ever lace them up. Good luck to them.
What I’m going to do instead, is think about this in a different way. In this article I’m going to talk a lot about professional wrestling. The key thing to have in mind when you read this, however, is that I’m not really talking about professional wrestling.
For me, LeBron James overtaking Michael Jordan in points scored actually reminds me of another event that occurred in Toronto in 2002. In front of a sold-out Rogers Center, at Wrestlemania 18, a wrestling match took place that many thought they’d never see. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson took on ‘Hollywood’ Hulk Hogan in a match that took the greatest icons from successive generations and pitted them against one another.
The comparison being made here is obviously Hogan being Jordan (both teamed with Dennis Rodman and both competed against Karl Malone). The duo is recognised as being of absolutely fundamental importance to their respective sports. Hogan headlined Wrestlemania 1, an absolute landmark in terms of demonstrating what a spectacle professional wrestling could become. He would also go on to be at the pinnacle of wrestling for decades.
Comparatively, Michael Jordan’s career spanned the NBA Finals being shown on tape delay (even within the US!), to becoming one of the largest sporting events on the planet. The money generated within the sport through team contracts and endorsements went to a new level, and as the figurehead of the league, Jordan was a key reason behind it.
Of course, this makes LeBron James The Rock in this comparison. Both entered their respective professions during ‘good times’ compared to their forebears. But they also prospered in this environment, and some would argue took it to a new level. New media brought them under more extreme scrutiny, and yet through their charity work, their excellence and their impeccable personal lives, each has somehow managed to emerge mostly unscathed in a world of constant judgement.
The Rock came out victorious that night in Toronto, and many perceived that match as a passing of the torch from the older to the younger superstar. Similarly, there is no doubt that many will use the scoring tally of James over Jordan as evidence that he is the greatest to ever play the game.
But is it that simple? You can hear it now. LeBron James scored more points than Michael Jordan and he’s not even ‘just a scorer’. There will no doubt also be Jordan loyalists arguing the case of His Airness and his six rings. But where do the motivations of each set of fans come from? The period running into the match between Hogan and The Rock was as conflicting as any ever witnessed in pro wrestling.
In a sport (“sporting entertainment”) that relies on babyfaces (good guys) squaring off against heels (bad guys), this match stood out for the fans being split between the two combatants. Some favoured one over another, and some even cheered for both. The fans knew the implications of the competition and what the outcome of the match might infer for the legacy of each…
Funnily enough, this is also what happened when I asked my fellow basketball nerds at Double Clutch to have their say on who is the greater player out of MJ and LeBron James.
To anyone that witnessed prime Hulk Hogan, particularly if you were young at the time, the sense of nostalgia incurred by his return to the WWE was palpable. To many, ‘Hulkamania’ was not just a silly phrase but a connection with a romanticised vision of the past. Hogan embodied a nostalgia and a connection to a bygone youth that The Rock couldn’t hope to match, being a present day wrestler.
To these fans, attacking Hulk Hogan was like attacking their childhood. It was like attacking the notion that good would always defeat evil. It was like attacking their identity itself. They didn’t care that they were supposed to be booing Hogan. He was their guy, and that was that.
When I hear many of Jordan’s peers, or even someone in my age bracket (someone that at least watched the final three-peat live), discuss the GOAT debate, this is often exactly the same feeling I get.
Pop culture relevance
Hogan was the first wrestler to outgrow professional wrestling in terms of his pop culture relevance. With his charisma, physique and name recognition, Hogan earned his ‘Hollywood’ nickname, appearing in several major movies.
As an aside, I feel it important to note here that in Rocky 3, Hogan made one of the all time greatest movie cameos. He played Thunderlips – a character with which I have personally identified with for many years. ‘The Ultimate Object of Desire’, ‘The Mountain of Molten Lust’ and ‘The Ultimate Male’ are all monikers that should be recognised for their excellence.
Michael Jordan shared much of this pop culture relevance, and maybe had as many nicknames too. Much as Hulk Hogan was the ascendent name in wrestling just as global marketing pushed the sport to a new scale and popularity, so too was Jordan in his respective sport.
He was the flagship athlete of Nike as the Dream Team and the exponential growth of media distribution brought the NBA into homes around the world. An explosive athlete, an infectious smile and an unparalleled desire and work ethic. The nightly exploits of Air Jordan became the gold standard by which sporting excellence was measured.
I remember the feelings myself as a fan who watched Jordan’s first three peat on VHS over and over again. I then watched the second three-peat as it happened. It felt impossible that anyone could ever beat Michael Jordan at basketball because as a young fan I had literally never seen it happen in a playoff series. The story was the same every year. Whoever he matched up with was built up into a feud, be it Magic, Drexler, Barkley, Payton, Kemp, Malone… they were knocked down by Jordan.
It sounds weird to say, but it actually just felt like what I’d watched as an even younger me. King Kong Bundy, Andre the Giant, Macho Man Randy Savage – they were lined up and Hogan decimated a who’s-who of professional wrestling.
I remember at the time that Michael Jordan retired, I just couldn’t fathom how I would ever see another player that was even remotely comparable to Jordan. Everyone seemed to be in agreement he was the GOAT.
To fans of a younger generation, Hogan and the associated sentiment was hard to understand. I get it. Sure he was the WWE (then WWF) champion years ago, but times had moved on and the overall standard of wrestling was far higher now. To the casual observer, and particularly anyone with no investment in either side, The Rock was clearly a more complete wrestler.
He delivered funny soundbites seemingly on demand, he cut promos like no one else in the business and he was everything a modern sporting entertainer should be. Building on the work of greats like Hogan, The Rock was able to build a personal brand and pop culture relevance to rival anyone. What’s more, he had a an impeccable record with charitable causes and the wrestling accomplishments to match.
The Rock was also a far more nuanced wrestler and persona than Hogan. In the 1980s and early 1990s Hulk Hogan could encourage his fans to say their prayers and eat their vitamins and it be taken at face value. The late 1990s, however, brought darker and far more adult themes into the world of wrestling. The same gimmicks and personas simply didn’t come across in the same way in different eras.
Hogan wasn’t known for his high-flying acrobatics, his technical ability or ‘hardcore’ matches – staples of the late 1990s/2000s, and crucial to an entertaining event. Much as Michael Jordan never fully became a consistent three point shooter or the kind of passer that was considered important later on. It seems somewhat harsh to judge him for that retrospectively. Similarly, the fact that LeBron James was fated to compete with arguably the greatest team the NBA has ever seen in the prime of his career, feels just as arbitrary to lessen his credentials as a player for his (potentially) less cinematic career arc.
To someone watching the same sport in the era of one star versus another, so much can change that it makes meaningful comparisons feel impossible.
Few people remember the specifics of how that match between the Rock and Hollywood Hulk Hogan ended that night in Toronto. After fighting off the post-match attack from Kevin Nash and Scott Hall – Hogan’s nWo stablemates who were aggrieved at his display of humility in defeat – both men remained in the ring.
Crucially, and somewhat surprisingly for a match of this magnitude, this wasn’t a title fight. No titles were earned that night because it wasn’t about that. Far more than just a victory for one over the other, the match actually became a celebration of both wrestlers. The fans knew that they had been lucky enough to watch two icons compete and who was ‘better’ ultimately, felt meaningless.
In this article I talked a lot about professional wrestling. But I wasn’t really talking about professional wrestling.
Feature photo – Fathead / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration