I would have to say Hulk Hogan. With something like this I think, does my mom know who so and so is? She's not a wrestling fan and would have no idea who 99.9% of the wrestlers are, but she does know who Hulk Hogan is. The point is Hulk Hogan was popular outside of the wrestling world. I think he's the most popular wrestler of all time.
Popular of all time? I actually think the Rock may have edged out Hogan to be honest. Both were icons of the business but in this day and age where media gets around much quicker, I'd argue that the Rock has more popularity than Hogan was able to produce in his time. Not to mention the fact that the Rock has had a much more successful Hollywood career than Hogan.
If you said right now I could get behind the Rock notion but Hogan was the most popular wrestling icon from 1983 to 1993 in the WWE and then was huge his entire career in WCW...he transended the business. Not only was he the first to do so but he's done it over a longer period of time. Maybe eventually Rock will take him over but not yet.
I have to agree with Hulk Hogan, I would even say he got more media coverage than The Rock did. It's fairly close, but no one beats The Hulkster in my opinion. He definitely put wrestling on the map with his popularity.
I think people are getting the idea that the Rock is being called better, which I don't agree with. Maybe. Trying to ignore what each guy actually did in the ring, I still think you could make a very strong case for the Rock not only in the ring but outside it as well. Hell, whenever the guy shows up for a random taping the ratings spike!
Another vote for Hulk Hogan here. The WWE is the predominant company in sports entertainment today and Hulk Hogan is a big part of the reason why. If Hulk hadn't done what he did to help the company grow in the 1980's there never would have been a Rock!
Hulk Hogan by far, the simple fact that ratings rise whenever the geriatric wrestler shows up to put five moves on some kid and then leave really shows how much people love him. I to can confess to jumping up when I heard The Hulk's music come over the PA, and then dropping down embarrassed and hoping no one saw me do it.
I gotta go with the flow and agree with Hulk Hogan. Hogan really crossed over a lot of media/entertainment lines and transcended wrestling. He gave wrestling a whole new energy and drive that few wrestlers who came after him could match.