The Ultimate Warrior dead at 54

You could not find a scarier man in neon spandex.

Wrestling star the Ultimate Warrior has died at 54, according to a statement posted on the Web site of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). No cause of death was released.

The Ultimate Warrior might have been born James Hellwig, but he changed his name officially to Warrior in 1993. Heralded as the man who made personality a full-on requirement of wrestling showmanship, he was inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame over the weekend.

Warrior’s death came as a shock — he’d appeared on “Monday Night Raw,” WWE’s weekly television show, days earlier. His Wrestlemania VI battle against archrival Hulk Hogan is remembered as one of the best in pro-wrestling history.

“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own,” Warrior said at “Monday Night Raw” after donning a mask that mimicked his iconic makeup. “Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, it makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized.” He pointed to the audience. “You are the legend-makers of Ultimate Warrior.”

There was wrestling before Warrior, and it went something like this: Get two huge guys who don’t like each other — or, at least, pretend not to. Let them fight in a ring in front of a bunch of people. Televise it.

Warrior changed the game.

He sported a mop of wild, dirty-blond hair that — let’s be honest — probably saw its fair share of Aqua Net. His face was always covered in warpaint that resembled Kiss makeup on steroids.

He scoffed at breaking kayfabe — character — and made it seem utterly unthinkable. Sort of like Stephen Colbert, but about 120 pounds bigger and with a penchant for butt-kicking.

He wasn’t the first to develop and commit to a character — “Classy” Freddie Blassie and Hulk Hogan, among many others, did it too — but he turned it into an art form. For a generation of boys growing up in the 1990s, Warrior was was an icon of masculinity and a fan favorite.

He was a fully-realized, otherworldly character, complete with a mysterious backstory.

Warrior was always announced as hailing from “parts unknown.” Unlike Hogan or later wrestlers such as Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, he wrestled under a pseudonym that didn’t follow the normal first name-last name convention. Hellwig embodied Warrior so completely that he changed his legal name in 1993.

After he retired from wrestling in 1998, he parlayed his success as Warrior into a personal brand. He was a motivational speaker, sold workout tapes and wrote comic books about Warrior. As a precursor of the “attitude era” of professional wrestling, he carved a path for wrestlers such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who eventually transitioned to acting, and Chris Jericho, who became a musician.

Jericho was one of many in the wrestling community tweeting his grief at the news.

Hogan tweeted:

Warrior might have been fierce, but he wasn’t a stranger to levity.

“I wish they could put the effin’ ‘F’ back in for us guys that have a difficult time now keeping track of those kinds of details,” he said to raucous cheering during his WWE Hall of Fame speech, lamenting the demise of the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF. (A legal dispute with the World Wildlife Fund forced the organization to change its name and the initials.) “I mean, I really can’t believe that [WWE attorney] Jerry McDevitt got his [butt] kicked by those Wildlife people.”

Below, a collection of Warrior’s entrances:

WWE’s full statement, posted on their web site:

WWE is shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the passing of one of the most iconic WWE Superstars ever, The Ultimate Warrior. Warrior began his WWE career in 1987 and quickly went on to become one of the biggest stars in WWE history. Warrior became WWE Champion at WrestleMania VI, defeating Hulk Hogan in an epic encounter. We are grateful that just days ago, Warrior had the opportunity to take his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame and was also able to appear at WrestleMania 30 and Monday Night Raw to address his legions of fans. WWE sends its sincere condolences to Warrior’s family, friends and fans. Warrior was 54 and is survived by his wife Dana and his two daughters.

Watch The Ultimate Warrior’s haunting speech (Early Lead)

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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