It had been almost 18 years since he last appeared on Monday Night Raw. But there he was on the most recent edition of the program, his famous entrance music blasting away as he walked gingerly to the ring, greeting fans at ringside. Once inside the squared circle, for old time’s sake, he shook the ropes.
The power was gone. But it was great seeing him again.
Then, he cut a promo. In the middle of it he put on a mask that resembled his famous war paint. Suddenly, there was renewed intensity in his voice, something we hadn’t heard from him in a WWE ring in almost 20 years.
He wasn’t selling a feud or a pay-per-view. He didn’t even pitch his new DVD. He was only there for one reason: to thank the fans for making him a legend in the business and for not forgetting him. He even did his famous growl a couple of times (which always sounded like he was clearing his sinuses).
Then, he tried shaking the top rope again. (The same result. Still no power.)
Then, he climbed out of the ring, looking just as weak as he did upon entering it but beaming, nonetheless. After walking back up the ramp, this grey-haired man was gone.
Little did anyone know, it would be the last time he would ever be seen on live TV.
Jim Hellwig, the eccentric, polarizing conservative who played him, is no more.
Just like that. Wow.
Before he entered the WWF in 1987, the former bodybuilder briefly worked for the short-lived UWF (Universal Wrestling Federation) where he was teamed with another ex-bodybuilder named Steve Borden. (They actually trained together.) First they were The Freedom Fighters. Hellwig was Justice and Borden was Flash. Then they were The Blade Runners (one of the many Road Warrior knock-offs of the time). Warrior was Rock, Borden was Sting (yes, that Sting). Dutch Mandell (Zeb Colter in today’s WWE) was their manager.
Apparently, Rock and Sting didn’t get along, which might explain why the team split very quickly.
Rock then arrived in World Class Championship Wrestling (the Von Erich territory in Texas with ties to the NWA) and was briefly repackaged as The Dingo Warrior. Gary Hart managed him. When he finally made the jump to the WWF, he grew out his hair, lost the moustache and would ultimately drop Dingo from his name-o. (Before he debuted on TV, he was still using it at live house shows.) He kept the make-up and the shoelaces tied around his arms, however.
Warrior was never going to be a stellar mat technician like a Bret Hart. Brute strength and agility were all he needed to get over as a monster babyface. And he was never going to be a great talker. Incoherence mixed with over-the-top intensity made him the laughingstock of his peers but unintentionally added to his mystique. (Remember, he was billed as being from Parts Unknown, and often looked to the heavens for strength and support. He wasn’t supposed to be calm and rational.)
I only had the privilege of seeing the man wrestle twice in person, both times at Hamilton’s then-named Copps Coliseum. He did not disappoint. He squashed Steve Lombardi in a quick match in late December 1987 and was one of the participants in the Royal Rumble match at the first annual supercard held the following January. (Hacksaw Jim Duggan won.)
He was just as fired up and frenetic as he appeared on TV. While he has had his many critics, there was no mistaking his connection with the fans. We embraced him wholeheartedly because his energy was just too contagious. He was my last Halloween costume. (I had his orange T-shirt.)
During a period where getting a title push was a really big deal, Warrior got three in the WWF. He was a two-time InterContinental Champion as well as World Champion. I’ll never forget watching SummerSlam 88 on closed circuit TV at Copps wondering who would replace the “injured” Brutus Beefcake in his IC title match with The Honky Tonk Man.
As soon as that famous music hit, we all knew. In less than a minute, Warrior squashed Honky to win the strap. Poor Honky didn’t even have time to climb out of his sparkly red jumpsuit.
Warrior got the push reportedly because he was disgruntled and threatening to leave the company if he wasn’t given a title run. Beefcake, who got taken out of the match in the build-up to the show thanks to an attack by Outlaw Ron Bass, was actually supposed to win that night after working a program with Honky for almost a year. He would never get a second chance.
It ended up working out in the end because Warrior would work an awesome program with Ravishing Rick Rude. After Rude attacked him during their 1989 Royal Rumble posedown (which Warrior was winning), an IC title match was booked for WrestleMania V. Thanks to Bobby Heenan’s quick thinking, Rude stole the title. After coming up short in rematches on TV and house shows, Warrior would regain the title in their much superior SummerSlam 89 encounter, which might be the best match he ever wrestled. (At the 1990 SummerSlam, they had a decent cage match for the world title. Warrior won that one, too.)
After snagging back the InterContinental Championship, it was on to WWF Champion Hulk Hogan. At the 1990 Royal Rumble, after both of them cleared everybody else out of the ring, the two champions stared each other down, much to the crowd’s delight. It was a test to see if the crowd was up for a possible one-on-one match between the two. Needless to say, it got everyone talking.
Three months later at WrestleMania VI, The Ultimate Challenge was on. Both titles were on the line. It was the first WrestleMania I wouldn’t see live (I would have to wait for the video) and I was convinced that Hogan would win. In fact, he was my preference. All my friends picked Warrior which led to passionate arguments.
They were right. Hogan didn’t stand to gain anything from winning a mid-card title but Warrior stood to gain everything from the WWF Championship. Sure enough, at the end of the match Hogan missed his patented leg drop and Warrior splashed him for the win. (Hogan wanted some time off, reportedly.)
Because the WWF had two separate live show tours (one headlined by its world champion, the other featuring its IC titleholder in main events), Warrior had to vacate his secondary strap which I still think was stupid. Nevertheless, the match with Hogan was both influential and suspenseful. If I had seen it live, I would’ve been crushed, even more so than I was when I read about it on April 2.
I’m not sure how long Warrior’s world title reign was supposed to last but I was always amused by how it actually ended. It was clear that the WWF wanted Sgt. Slaughter (during his Iraqi sympathizer period which, to this day, doesn’t make any sense) to go into WrestleMania VII with the belt so he could pass it on to Hogan for his third reign.
So Slaughter got the shot against Warrior at the ’91 Royal Rumble. In the build-up to the match, both Macho King Randy Savage and Sensational Queen Sherri failed to convince the WWF Champion to put the title on the line against the former champion. So, during the Rumble match with Slaughter, they did everything in their power to cost Warrior the championship. Their antics were hilarious both then and now.
Thoroughly pissed off, Warrior challenged Savage to a retirement match at WrestleMania VII. It was the only time I ever remembered him not running like a lunatic to the ring.
It was a spectacular encounter (far more engrossing than Hogan/Slaughter which remains one of the worst WM main events ever) filled with some memorable moments like Savage delivering five consecutive flying elbow drops and still not getting the victory. After Warrior caught his second wind, The Macho King was temporarily retired. (He would be reinstated later that summer to feud with Jake Roberts.)
More than a year later at the 1992 SummerSlam, Savage, now once again the WWF Champion, defended the title against his future tag team partner (they would be collectively known as The Ultimate Maniacs; Jesse Ventura often referred to Warrior by the singular version of that name). Both were babyfaces at the time who also had to contend with the outside interference of Mr. Perfect and Ric Flair. The original plan was for Warrior to align with the heels and become champion again but reportedly, he absolutely refused. So, instead of paying off a storyline where one of the men in this match would become a villain (who would “sell out”?), there was a chaotic finish where the heels attacked Savage and Warrior. Regardless, I still enjoyed it.
It would be the last memorable match in the Warrior’s career. Although he would briefly return in 1996 (he squashed Triple H at WrestleMania 12) and even had a short run with WCW in 1998 (where he would put over Hulk Hogan in a belated, less-respected rematch), he was already past his prime. He would officially retire in 1999 but did work an indie match with Orlando Jordan (JBL’s former crony) in 2008.
Before his recent reconciliation with Vince McMahon and the WWE (he had just been inducted into their Hall Of Fame on Saturday), Warrior was a longtime punching bag for various former colleagues like Ted DiBiase and Jake The Snake Roberts. In 2005, he was reportedly buried on The Self-Destruction Of The Ultimate Warrior, a single-disc DVD that features relentless mocking and imitations of his crazy promos by legends like Ric Flair and Christian, among other notable complaints.
As he noted in his Hall of Fame speech, he was deeply hurt by the comments. But thanks to making peace, the new three-disc DVD, Ultimate Warrior: The Ultimate Collection, is now available. It features a brand new interview with the man himself.
The coincidentally timed release of it will give much-needed solace to his many fans including famous ones like CM Punk (who Warrior had openly praised on more than one occasion) and Seth Rollins of The Shield who credits him for inspiring his interest in being a pro wrestler in the first place.
The legacy of The Ultimate Warrior is messy. He was tough to get along with backstage. Legends like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels dismiss him as a limited muscleman who lacked their considerable technical skills. He could be clumsy in the ring. (Not every Gorilla Press Slam went smoothly.) He wasn’t a great talker. He could be demanding. And his political views were not exactly mainstream.
But by God, he was fun to watch. And he had a killer theme song that’s held up remarkably well.
Seeing him tangle with the likes of Rude, Savage and Hogan in key, high profile matches at the height of my WWF fandom are among my most enduring memories as a young wrestling fan. What he lacked in technique, he made up for in intensity. He rarely made sense when he talked but I didn’t care. His madness was funny, even if that wasn’t the intent. I was a Warrior fan through and through (except when he fought Hogan) and truth be told, I still am.
If there’s any solace to be had from this sudden, shocking, devastating news (he leaves behind a second wife and two daughters), it’s that Warrior (his legal name since 1993) didn’t die bitter. Whatever animosity existed between himself and various colleagues has now been extinguished. Wrestlers on Twitter have nothing but kind things to say about him. His final experience with the company this past weekend was uniformly positive. (He even gamely posed for photos with fans the day he died.)
We don’t always get the ending we want in life. There’s always that sense of unfinished business. But 54-year-old Warrior was able to do what so many in the business never get a chance to experience.
He got a final victory lap.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
UPDATE: Warrior died of a massive heart attack. According to those who saw him during WrestleMania weekend, he didn’t look well. His widow, Dana, has issued a public statement thanking everyone for their support.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, April 17, 2014