HE IS PRO WRESTLING'S FIRST MILLION-DOLLAR man: a crossover star of pay-per-view, silver screen and Madison Avenue whose glistening 6'6", 290-lb. physique, intense glare, thinning blond mane and friendly growl have been used to endorse everything from an antiperspirant stick to kids' vitamins.

But now—wham! thud! oof!—several of Hulk Hogan's former ring cronies have delivered what, in wrestling terms, amounts to an off-the-turnbuckle clothesline: They claim Hulk, 38, bulked up for years on muscle-inflating steroids and abused other drugs.

Hogan has declined PEOPLE'S repeated requests for an interview to address these charges, which threaten to deflate not only his good-guy image, but his King Kong—size earnings as well. (The three-time World Wrestling Federation champion grosses an estimated $5 million a year, much of it coming from such outside-the-arena enterprises as commercials, toys and movies.)

Hogan's headlock on the public's affections actually began slipping last June, when Dr. George Zahorian III, the attending physician for pro wrestling bouts in south central Pennsylvania, was convicted under a 1988 federal law that outlaws the distribution of steroids for nontherapeutic purposes. Among the steroid abusers Zahorian named during his testimony was Hogan. Federal Express records produced by government officials show Zahorian sent packages to several dozen wrestlers, including Hogan. Four of them testified that the packages they received contained steroids.

Despite the testimony, Hogan's lawyers managed to quash a subpoena for him to appear at Zahorian's trial, arguing that it would have invaded their client's privacy and threatened his livelihood. After the trial, Hogan denied all, telling talk show host Arsenio Hall, "I am not a steroid abuser." He did admit to injecting steroids briefly in 1983 while under a physician's care for a torn bicep. Hogan gave the same account to PEOPLE last October but added, "It's like putting poison in your body."

Among Hogan's fellow grunt-and-groaners, his public denials of steroid abuse were a stretch even by wrestling's elastic standards. In January, two of his ex-colleagues, Superstar Billy Graham (real name: Eldridge Wayne Coleman), 48, and David Shults, 42, whose wrestling moniker was Dr. D, began making the TV tabloid and radio talk show rounds. While admitting to being ex—steroid users themselves, they claim Hogan also had more than a passing acquaintance with the synthetic hormone. Graham, a former WWF champ, remembered when Hogan, using his real name, Terry Bollea, was playing bass in a rock band in 1976 and trying, without success, to climb into the ring. At 230 lbs., he was big—but not big enough. He befriended Graham and began asking about steroids. "I saw him a year or two later, and he'd gained at least 80 to 90 lbs.," said Graham, who claims Hogan spoke of tennis ball—size scar tissue on his hips, the result of repeated steroid injections.

"I injected him well over 100 times," says Shults, now a New Haven, Conn.-based bounty hunter for bail bondsmen, who maintains he was introduced to steroids in the late '70s by Hogan, then billed as Terry "the Hulk" Boulder. In exchange, Shults would offer the rookie tips on such things as how to project his ring persona believably in public, while helping him take the drug, which is injected directly into whatever muscles require enlargement. "I regularly gave him shots in the triceps [back of the arms], where he couldn't reach himself, and also a few times in the butt," says the former Dr. D. "Sometimes he took 12 cc's three times a week."

"Hulk always bragged about steroids," says Joe Bednarski, who retired from his WWF career as Ivan Putski, the Polish Power, in 1986. "He'd say, 'S--t, I don't cycle [a practice in which users abstain for a while to let the body return to its normal state]. I don't get off of them. That's how I stay 'over' [popular]."

But his sympathizers think Hulk is being unfairly worked over for using a drug that until recently could be legally obtained by anyone.

"Who didn't do steroids?" says Ken Patera, a former wrestling superstar and 1972 Olympic weight lifter. "The word came down from the promoters, especially [WWF owner Vince] McMahon, that you had to be bigger than life. The only way to do that was to take anabolic steroids."

McMahon, a bodybuilder who has acknowledged experimenting with the anabolic steroid Deca-Durabolin, retorts, "I've never encouraged anyone at any time to take steroids."

But Hogan's drug abuse went beyond steroids, according to David Shults. He says Hogan also used cocaine, marijuana, uppers and downers. Shults's friend Randy Culley, who wrestled under the names the Assassin and Moondog Rex, confirms: "Me and Hogan ran around together. He was real bold about the steroid use. And he also did Placidyl [a sleeping capsule], Quaaludes, cocaine." (So, reportedly, did a lot of others: At least five pro wrestlers have died of drug overdoses in the last decade.) Billy Jack Haynes, a WWF performer from 1986 to 1988, recalls a harrowing car trip to Hogan's Connecticut home with Hulk and two other wrestlers after a bout at Madison Square Garden in 1987. "There was pot, alcohol, pill-popping. Hulk was going 70 m.p.h. on the freeway, stoned out of his gourd," says Haynes. "I got mad at him for driving under the influence. We almost had a fight over it."

"Hogan isn't a bad guy," says Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "He works tirelessly for charities, [even] when the cameras aren't around." But by failing to fess up to past steroid use, Meltzer believes, "he revealed himself to be just another carny con man."

It's an image of Hogan sharply at odds with that of the loving family man (he and wife Linda, 32, have a daughter, Brooke, 4, and son, Nicholas, 2) whose name is licensed to sell a popular brand of kids' vitamins. As a result of the steroids scandal, the joke heard in hard-core bodybuilding gyms these days is: "Hulk Hogan Vitamins come in two forms—orals and injectables." Yet Solaris Marketing Group president Barry Ross, whose company distributes the vitamins, rejects any slurs on Hulk's good name, adding, "We stand by him 100 percent." Although a spokesman for Hasbro (which offers a line of Hulk action toys) would not return PEOPLE'S phone calls, the scent of scandal has not persuaded Gillette to cancel Hulk's Right Guard deodorant spots.

Still, the accusations of drug abuse may have already accomplished what WWF opponents Sergeant Slaughter and Andre the Giant could never do: Toss the Hulkster out of the ring—permanently. As if sensing that his superstar's career is kaput, McMahon is pumping up Hogan's WrestleMania VIII bout against Sid Justice in the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome on April 5 as Hulk's last match before a "hiatus" that McMahon says "could be six months or six years or forever, I don't know."

It is doubtful, though, that any such hiatus will be the end of the Hulk's career. He has a standing offer to wrestle in Japan, where he can take home a six-figure payout for just a few bouts (and where steroid use by wrestlers is relatively uncommon). Still, the price of any such banishment will be felt not so much by the Big Guy as by the little guys—the legions of Hulkamaniacs not yet 10 years old. Sayonara, Hulk? Say it ain't so.

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
IRVIN MUCHNICK in San Francisco

  • Contributors:
  • Irvin Muchnick.