WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Fantastic Four #13 by Dan Slott, Sean Izaakse, Marcio Menyz and Joe Caramagna, in stores now.
The aforementioned Fantastic Four #13 is a game-changer in the history of the Hulk and the Thing, which is one of the most storied rivalries in comic book history in terms of two heroes constantly going toe to toe with each other. The Thing and the Hulk have probably fought more times that many superheroes have had fights in their entire comic book careers.
For the most part, however, the fights are barely worth the term "fight," as they are almost always just teases that nowhere as the two heroes ultimately either part ways or team up against a mutual enemy. Here, though, we will mostly spotlight the Hulk and Thing battles that actually resulted in a clear winner one way or the other (as well as some other significant moments between the two heroes).
The first Thing vs. Hulk fight was significant not just because it was the first battle between Marvel's two "strong man" characters, but because it was actually the first crossover in the history of the Marvel Universe period! Amazingly, it was actually a tie between the Hulk's guest appearance in Fantastic Four #12 and the Fantastic Four's guest appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #1 (both books came out the same week in late 1962), but it still counts!
The set-up for the issue (by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Dick Ayers) is that the Fantastic Four is called in to help investigate a saboteur that the military assumes is the Hulk. When the FF finally catch up with the Hulk, he relatively easily dispatches them. All of them, that is, except for the Thing. However, right when the Thing is about to serve up his strongest punch on the Hulk, the Hulk is knocked out by an unseen villain.
That will be a recurring theme in the history of Thing and Hulk fights, someone breaking it up right before you would see who was going to win the fight.
The saboteur, of course, turned out to be the guy who knocked the Hulk out and so the Fantastic Four took down the bad guy and went back home without any further tussles with the Hulk. Kirby and Lee, though, likely knew that their fans were clamoring with an outright battle between the Thing and the Hulk and so, for the 25th issue of the Fantastic Four, that's precisely what they delivered.
Fantastic Four #25 (by Kirby, Lee and inker George Roussos) was heavily interconnected with another Kirby/Lee title, The Avengers, where the Hulk had been a founding member but was now at odds with his former allies. The Avengers were out looking for the Hulk when he happens to wind up in New York City. Mister Fantastic is too ill to help and so it soon boils down to the Thing having to fight the Hulk single-handed. It is this brilliant issue that established a few different things. One, that the Hulk is effectively a force of nature more than just merely a mortal and so it is typically going to be foolhardy to mess with him and two, that the Thing has far too much heart to ever give up, even when he has been beaten badly like what happens to him during his brawl with the Hulk.
The Thing heroically drags himself up after the Hulk secured the first outright victory between the two behemoths and heads off to take on the Hulk once more. This time around, though, the Avengers have arrived on the scene and so the Avengers and the Fantastic Four team-up to fight the Hulk and in the end, the fight seems to be still going the Hulk's way when he transforms back into Bruce Banner and escapes. It has been over fifty years since the release of Fantastic Four #25-26 and the basic tenets established in that comic have still mostly held ever since. The Hulk, at his peak, is literally "the strongest one there is" and the Thing has far too much heart to ever walk away from a fight when innocents might be in danger.
Another recurring theme in fights between the Hulk and the Thing is the idea that while the Hulk "just wants to be left alone," the Thing is very much part of a team in the Fantastic Four (in fact, you could look to that as one of the central conflicts between then as characters, as they are both monsters, but the Hulk is a monster who wants to be left alone while the Thing is a monster who wants to be loved). As a result, a good deal of the time, when the Thing actually succeeds in defeating the Hulk, it is really because the Fantastic Four defeats the Hulk. For instance, in Incredible Hulk #122 (by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe), while the Thing certainly plays a significant role in the fight, including distracting the Hulk by throwing him out of the Baxter Building to the ground far below, it is Mister Fantastic who really secures the victory with a weapon he invented to take down the Hulk.
The classic Fantastic Four #112 (by Stan Lee, John Buscema and Joe Sinnott) spotlights yet another one of the main themes in the Hulk/Thing rivalry, which is that since the Hulk is so much more powerful, then the Thing has to be craftier. The whole basis behind the Hulk's power set is that the madder he gets, the stronger he gets. This is a terrible thing to have to deal with during a fight, because it means that the longer the fight goes on, the less tired the Hulk is while you have been exerting yourself the entire time. So because the Thing knows that he cannot outlast the Hulk in fights, he has to think of ways to defeat the Hulk early or at least distract him long enough for more help to arrive.
In the aforementioned Fantastic Four #112, the Thing is doing just that and is holding his own, but mostly just killing time before being pummeled when the Thing's girlfriend, Alicia Masters, is injured from some debris kicked up from the fight. It distracts the Thing and one of the last things you want to do is to turn your head while fighting the Hulk!
The jade giant punches him so hard that he basically kills the Thing! Luckily, Mister Fantastic then showed up in time to bring him back to life (as there was some residual life left in the Thing, it was just hard to tell underneath all of that rock).
In Incredible Hulk #153 (by Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers and Herb Trimpe), the Thing is once more a part of a team effort to defeat the Hulk. This time, it is not just the Fantastic Four who is chipping in, but also Spider-Man and Daredevil (the cover jokes that the issue is "The Hulk versus everybody!"). Once again, though, it is ultimately Mister Fantastic who defeats the Hulk with a special weapon.
However, the next time around, in Fantastic Four #166 (by Roy Thomas, George Perez and Vince Colletta), the Thing can at least say that he is the one who delivers the knockout blow. In this battle, the Fantastic Four decide to use true team synergy to take down the green giant. The Human Torch attacks him with a flame blast, burning off all of the oxygen around the Hulk. Then, before he can replenish his air, the Invisible Woman uses all of her strength to cover his head with an invisible force field, thereby choking off his air supply entirely (in the future, writers debated whether the Hulk actually needs air to breathe, but at the time, it was understood that he could be knocked out by cutting off his air). While the Hulk was therefore in a weakened state, the Thing knocks him out with a mighty blow. It is a clever strategy (that later teams, like both versions of X-Factor) would use in battling the Hulk, but it is a bit of a let down in terms of Thing/Hulk fights.
In fact, it was such a let down that the Thing actually decided to switch teams and work with the Hulk, as Thing felt that the Hulk was being treated unfairly by the government. So he helped the Hulk escape. However, their alliance proved to be short-lived and by the end of the next issue (by Thomas, Perez and Joe Sinnott), the two were battling each other once more, this time on top of the St. Louis Gateway Arch! The Thing suddenly finds himself turning back into his human form and, well, just like you shouldn't turn your back on the Hulk, you also should not turn into a human while battling the Hulk and the behemoth smashed the transforming Thing easily...
Marvel Fanfare #21 (by Jim Starlin and AL Milgrom) is a notable fight because it is one of the only times where either one of the two titans ever actually quit a fight. The story was sort of Starlin's love letter to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and it is sort of his riff on the famed Fantastic Four #25-26 fight, only this time the Thing knows when he is beat and he just quits the fight...
Of course, the Hulk doesn't let him do so, but luckily, before the Thing can be battered later on, Doctor Strange shows up to save him.
This leads to a very clever two-part adventure that took place in the pages of Steve Englehart's Fantastic Four run and Peter David's Incredible Hulk run. You see, in the late 1980s, the Hulk lost a lot of his strength and was back to being a grey monster like he was in the very beginnings of Incredible Hulk #1 back in 1962. Similarly, the Thing had been mutated by some more radiation and he became the strongest he had ever been in his superhero career. Thus, the two heroes literally found themselves in reversed situations when they were manipulated by Doctor Doom into fighting each other.
In Fantastic Four #320 (by Englehart, Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott), the Thing just pummels the Hulk into submission...
while in the rematch in Incredible Hulk #350 (by David, Jeff Purves and Terry Austin), the Hulk cleverly tricks the Thing into expending so much energy that he is severely exhausted, giving the Hulk the chance to knock him out....
The Hulk then later "merged" his various personalities into a Hulk with Banner's brain in control and so there was little reason for the two heroes to fight anymore (except for an amusing arm wrestling fight in one of the Hulk's annuals). Even when Banner lost control of the Hulk's mind, writers seemed to have sort of moved on past the traditional Hulk/Thing fights.
The next major battle was a fight that really showed just how far apart the two are in terms of power sets. Right before Civil War, the Illuminati (a secret superhero group that Mister Fantastic was part of) decided to send the Hulk into outer space so that he can finally find a planet where he could live in peace. Sadly, they were distracted by the aforementioned superhero Civil War and missed that the Hulk never landed on the peaceful planet that they picked out for him. He landed on a warrior planet instead. He slowly but surely conquered the planet and he was honestly at peace...but then the ship that took him there exploded, killing his new wife. He assumed that his old friends were behind it (it was actually one of Hulk's own allies who felt that the Hulk was getting too content) and so he returned to Hulk filled with more rage than he ever had before. The resulting event, World War Hulk, saw the Hulk destroy essentially every superhero on Earth, including the Thing in World War Hulk #2 (by Greg Pak, John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson)...
Only the Sentry's interference would save the Thing's life.
The Hulk would later be killed during Civil War II, but he was resurrected by Hydra during Secret Empire, where he destroyed the Thing ridiculously easily in Secret Empire #6 (by Nick Spencer and Leinil Francis Yu).
That takes us to the most recent Hulk/Thing battle in Fantastic Four #12-13 (by Dan Slott, Sean Izaakse and Marcio Menyz), where once again, the Thing's heart is the deciding factor, along with speed, as he knows he is about to transform back into his human form, so he puts all of his strength into one punch (before the Hulk could get too enraged) and while it shatters his own arm in the process (and he soon passes out from the pain), he successfully knocks out the Hulk!
For now, at least, the Thing has bragging rights as to being the strongest one there is (of the two heroes)!
If you're interested in even more Hulk/Thing fight goodness, be sure to check out John Cimino's insane list of every Hulk/Thing fight at his blog here.