It’s been a few hours since I’ve heard the news, but I’m still finding it difficult to process and make any sense of. The man born James Brian Hellwig, legally known as Warrior but most commonly known as The Ultimate Warrior, has died.
His return to WWE TV just a few days ago drew a line under a long and mostly bitter saga involving lawsuits, a legal name change, public spats, online spats and a defamatory DVD. Despite all of this, it truly appeared as if all wounds had healed between the Warrior and WWE, with a new Legends contract agreed that would see Warrior make occasional TV appearances, similar to the role the likes of Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels have today.
For many of us aged 30+ grapple fans, Warrior was one of the most recognisable and iconic figures from the WWF boom of the early nineties in the UK. Charging down to the ring at full speed, Warrior was a man who appeared uncontrollable, shaking the ring ropes and pumping his arms up and down to his Eye of the Tiger inspired theme music. His trademark face paint, tassels and herculean physique gave the illusion of a superman, while his interviews often gave the impression of a mad man.
At his peak, he was the epitome of why a large portion of the viewing audience watches wrestling – he was over the top, larger than life and looked like he was from another planet (or, as he famously put it, “parts unknown”). His matches were often over as quickly as his sprint to the ring, and the fans would lap it up. Perhaps the greatest example of one of his squash matches was his first Intercontinental Title win at Summerslam ‘88, where he dethroned the longest reigning IC champion in history, The Honky Tonk Man, in a matter of seconds; the roof of Madison Square Garden threatened to collapse with thunderous appraisal.
Similarly, Warrior also crushed the almighty Triple H at Wrestlemania 12 in mere seconds… A match WWE doesn’t remind its viewers of quite as much.
While he may not be remembered as the most gifted wrestler of all time, Warrior saved his greatest performances for his two biggest matches. At WrestleMania 6 he bested Hulk Hogan in a match that somehow lived up to the hype of the two biggest stars of the era clashing for their respective Intercontinental and World Championships. While the title change did not signify the shift from Hogan to Warrior as ‘The Man’ (i.e. the face of the company), the match itself, as well as the post match embrace between the two remains iconic, if particularly sombre, today.
Warrior’s clash with the late ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage in a Loser Must Retire match the following year was as good, if not better, than the previous year’s clash with ‘The Hulkster’. He was, it seemed, a man for the big occasion.
As the years passed, Warrior would make numerous comebacks, almost always diminishing. Following a disastrous run in WCW he faded from the spotlight, appearing occasionally on a big independent show but mostly in the courtroom or on his own website. It was with a lot of joy that he returned for this year’s Hall of Fame induction so that the fans could once again see the man they idolised growing up and show their appreciation. It was a cruel twist of fate that just a few days later they would be paying their respects.
His final ever public outing, on RAW just 2 days ago, featured a speech that is as now as poignant as it is eerie:
“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own,” he said. “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 and makes them bleed deeper in something that’s larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalised by the storytellers — by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honour him, and make the running the man did live forever.”
“You, you, you, you, you,” he said, pointing to the fans, “are the legend-makers of Ultimate Warrior.”
Wrestling has indeed lost an icon but more importantly a 54-year-old man has died, leaving behind him a wife and two daughters. And that is the biggest reason to mourn today. Rest in peace, James Hellwig.
Over and out.
By Richard Browne and Bingo Nik