(CN) – Hulk Hogan and Gawker threw their first verbal punches Monday in the first day of a court cage match over the publication of a now-infamous sex tape.
A somber Hogan – whose given name is Terry Bollea – told a Florida jury of the “shame” and “humiliation” he felt when the gossip site posted an excerpt of the tape featuring the former professional wrestler and his best friend’s wife.
“It’s turned my world upside down,” he said. “I was completely humiliated.”
Bollea, 62, filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker in 2012 for publishing a 1:41 minute “highlight reel” of the tape with commentary by writer A.J. Daulerio. The edited video showed nine seconds of sex and a lot of pillow talk between the wrestler and Heather Cole, the former wife of radio shock jock Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem, Bollea’s best friend.
The video, shot in 2007 around the time of Bollea’s divorce from his first wife Linda, came from a hidden camera in Clem’s bedroom. Five years later, an unnamed person sent a DVD of the video to Gawker’s offices. The resulting post stayed up for six months, until Gawker took it down in response to Bollea’s lawsuit.
Before Bollea took the stand, the two sides gave opening statements attempting to define what was considered newsworthy.
“[Gawker] made a conscious decision to show Terry Bollea naked, engaged in sex and holding private conversations,” said Shane Vogt, one of Bollea’s attorneys. “He was engaged in the most intimate of human acts.”
“They knew it would emotionally distress and cause harm,” Vogt continued. “They knew and they didn’t care.”
Vogt painted Gawker as an electronic, 21st century bully who replaces “sticks and stones with clicks and phones.”
While Bollea’s attorneys tried to separate the celebrity character Hulk Hogan from the “soft-spoken” Terry Bollea, Gawker’s attorneys blended the two.
“[Bollea] talked about private things, deeply personal things,” Gawker attorney Michael Berry told the jury, holding up two Hulk Hogan autobiographies and a boxed season of reality show Hogan Knows Best.
Gawker maintains Bollea regularly talked about his sex life on radio shows, so when an unmarked package containing a 30-minute sex tape showed up at their offices, it was newsworthy. In addition, Gawker’s attorney noted that articles about the sex tape, including some still shots of the video, had already been published.
“The evidence will show Mr. Bollea has spent years telling the public why he’s a role model,” Berry said. “Mr. Daulerio [the writer of the sex tape post] got a DVD that showed something different.”
Gawker’s attorney asserted the media site did not make the video public for monetary gain pointing to the lack of advertisements on that post’s page – but because it was in the public interest.
Berry talked about to other stories championed by Gawker’s founder Nick Denton and his status as a truth-teller.
At one point, the attorney brought up Denton’s mother, a Hungarian Jew who lived through the Nazis rise to power and Soviet occupation.
“Mr. Denton grew up with parents who’ve seen first-hand what happens when speech is suppressed,” he said.
When Bollea took the stand, the six-person jury and three alternates sat transfixed as he recounted his journey from a rough Tampa neighborhood to the celebrity life of a world wrestling champion and actor.
“As the years have passed by, the moment I leave my home to get the mail, people don’t call out ‘Terry,’ they call out ‘Hulk,'” he said. “That’s part of the deal with Hulk Hogan. You lose your anonymity.”
Bollea, sporting his trademark black bandanna and a silver cross, talked about his friendship with radio personality Bubba Clem, who constantly propositioned the wrestler to have sex with his wife.
“I actually took it as a joke,” Bollea said.
Then came Bollea’s marital problems. At one point, Bollea said, he drove to Clem’s house in tears. After consoling Bollea, Clem’s wife Heather took his hand and led him to the bedroom. Clem handed Bollea a condom. At one point, Bollea asked if he was being recorded.
“It was so weird and so crazy,” he said. “My gut was just telling me this was wrong.”
Five years later, after a finalized divorce and new wife, the video surfaced.
“I was embarrassed as a person, but it was even embarrassing for a character,” he said. “Hulk Hogan was embarrassed.”
Bollea is seeking $100 million in damages. Gawker has said a judgment that large could put the company down for the count.
Photo credit: Boyzell Hosey of the Tampa Bay Times (pool photograph).
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