INDIANAPOLIS — George Bush and Dan Rather are no longer the only ones embroiled in a controversy about television ambushes.
An even bigger American hero, Hulk Hogan (6 feet, 8 inches; 302 pounds) walked into what looked like a setup here Friday night in the first wrestling match on prime-time network television since Eisenhower was in the White House (1955).
Defending his heavyweight title in a bout staged by NBC as a surprise sweeps week entry, Hogan appeared to have the best of his massive foe, Andre the Giant (7 feet, 4 inches, 500 pounds).
The Hulkster, as Hogan is known to the millions of fans who have made wrestling a cable-TV sensation in the '80s, had Andre on the mat in the center of the stage (pardon, ring ) long enough for the necessary three-second victory count. Only no one was there to count.
Referee Dave Hebner was across the ring, trying, it appeared, to keep an ally of the giant from interfering with the match. When a frustrated Hogan walked over to talk to the referee, Andre, miraculously recovering from his beating, attacked the champion from behind, knocking him to the floor and leaping on top of him.
To the relief of the estimated 18,000 fans at the sold-out Market Square Arena, Hogan clearly lifted his left shoulder after just two seconds. Hebner, however, continued to count to three, making Andre the new champion.
Then, just as the Giant's huge arm was being raised (it is said his fingers are so wide that he can't use a dial telephone), another referee--a look-alike for Hebner--stepped into the ring.
Could it be the first referee was a paid stooge who'd been hired by Andre and his dreaded manager, Ted DiBiase (known as the Million Dollar Man)?
Yes, the Hulkster and most of the fans concluded, that's exactly what happened. But the heartbroken Hogan had to watch helplessly as Andre handed the championship belt to DiBiase, who had tried unsuccessfully for months to buy the title from the Hulkster.
"History in the making," said John Fitz-Gerald, a wrestling columnist from the Calgary (Canada) Sun.
Vince McMahon, head of the World Wrestling Federation, promised an immediate investigation. He expects a decision by Saturday on whether they'll overrule the referee's verdict, when the federation plans to announce the details of its next extravaganza: a cable pay-per-view event in Atlantic City next month titled Wrestlemania IV.
Could it be that Hogan will get a chance for revenge against Andre--or even better, the mercenary DiBiase?
Dick Ebersol, former producer of "Saturday Night Live" and co-executive producer of Friday's program, said NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff asked him to put together a prime-time version of the "Main Event" wrestling feature that has consistently out-rated "Saturday Night Live" in the ratings as an occasional substitute for that late-night comedy series.
Unlike producers who hope their specials evolve into weekly series, Ebersol said that neither he nor McMahon has plans to make "Main Event" a weekly show.
"Wrestling is an arena business," Ebersol said backstage after the match. "That's where the money is drawn and too much (prime time) television would weaken the live business."
At present, business is booming in the arenas, according to Mike Weber, director of media relations for the wrestling federation, which stages about 1,000 wrestling nights a year in the United States. About 85 wrestlers are under contract to the federation, he said, and most of them step into the ring as much as 250 to 300 times a year.
A superstar like Hogan, it is estimated, earns as much as $2 million a year. The wrestling federation also licenses merchandise in 50 different forms, including dolls, T-shirts and even ice cream bars.
Last year's Wrestlemania III at Pontiac, Mich., drew more than 93,000 fans, reportedly the largest indoor crowd ever in the United States. Another 1.6 million watched the 1987 program featuring Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan on pay TV or closed circuit TV in theaters.
What kind of person is attracted to wrestling? Do they think what goes on in the ring is real?
Asked about the appeal of the glitzy, show-biz-conscious nature of pro wrestling, the words most often cited by members of Friday's family-oriented audience were entertaining , funny and therapeutic.
Of the 80 people informally polled by The Times before the match, 28 said the action in the ring is real, and all 28 thought Hogan would win. Of the 52 who maintained the shows are scripted, 30 figured the champ would beat Andre, but 22 expected the Giant to win, setting up a natural rematch for Wrestlemania IV.
Max Grimes, 49, of nearby Shelbyville, Ind., was among those who thought the action was real. "Sure, there is a lot of theatrics, but when you get down to the title match, like tonight, there's so much money and prestige involved that they really go at it," Grimes said.
Edwin Morgan, 21, voted with those who thought the matches were worked out in advance.
"I enjoy it anyway because it's a tension-breaker," said Morgan, a graphic arts typist who drove 65 miles from Marion, Ind., to see the match. "I came here after a hard day's work and get a chance to scream my head off. I can take out on the wrestlers what I can't take out on my boss."
After the match, Morgan was disappointed that Andre didn't win fairly, suggesting it would have been better theater. But no matter. He's already planning to buy his ticket for Wrestlemania IV.
The hourlong TV telecast also featured two other matches. In the first, Randy (Macho Man) Savage won by disqualification over the Honky Tonk Man, who carries a guitar into the ring and moves his hips a la Elvis Presley. The telecast ended before home viewers could see Strike Force retain the tag team championship over the Hart Foundation.