To be a legendary professional wrestler, you usually must possess at least one of three qualities: 1) being a great talker (think, the Rock or Hulk Hogan), 2) being an amazing in-ring performer (think, Shawn Michaels or Bret “The Hitman” Hart), or 3) being a larger-than-life figure (think Andre the Giant). The Ultimate Warrior (born James Hellwig), who passed away Tuesday at the age of 54, was none of these things, yet is unquestionably one of the industry’s biggest stars of the last 30 years.
So why was the Ultimate Warrior one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s most beloved figures? Sheer force of will and a little bit of crazy. The Ultimate Warrior came along during the era when Hulk Hogan ruled everything, and Warrior’s landmark victory over Hogan at Wrestlemania VI in 1990 sort of signaled a changing of the guard. A “good guy” did not simply have to be a virtuous upholder of American values; he could be a maniacal, face-painted shouter hailing from “parts unknown” who didn’t walk to the ring soaking up applause but instead sprinted down the aisle and addressed the crowd via head-scratching, stream-of-consciousness, rarely coherent yelling. He represented something of shift to the video-game era — loud, bright, fast — and most of the Warrior’s biggest fans were often the youngest fans in the arena on a given night. He was a charismatic wildman, not just a guy wearing trunks.
Like pretty much everyone who worked at WWE (formerly WWF), he had a falling out when leaving the company. But like everyone else, he eventually made his way back. The Warrior was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame just this past weekend and then made his first appearance on “Monday Night Raw” since the ’90s. Hellwig came to the ring not wearing his trademark makeup, but slipped on a replica mask to deliver what would be an eerily foreshadowing final speech.
“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own,” he started. “Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe a final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized.” He concluded with, “You are the Ultimate Warrior fans. And the spirit of the Ultimate Warrior will run forever!”
So when news of Warrior’s death broke just 24 hours after he gave that speech — complete with its many death references — the first reaction was to think it was some sort of hoax, just a tasteless “angle” in an emerging storyline. But if there’s one thing that we should be used to at this point, it’s a professional wrestler dying well before his time. This has become a sad, semi-annual occurrence, as an entire generation of wrestlers dealing with the after effects of steroid use and untreated head injuries succumbs in ways that run the gamut from sad to horrifying. This time, given Ultimate Warrior’s final farewell, it was especially eerie.