During the late 1980s, the World Wrestling Federation had a Superstar whose fame and popularity reached supernova levels… then quickly faded away He was born James Hellwig, but in reality was a warrior – in fact, he was the Ultimate Warrior. Fans of a certain age will remember Vince McMahon screaming “THE ULLLLLTIMATE WARRIOR” in his famous growl.
Someone whose intensity was reflected in his manic ring entrance – a full-sprint to the ring as crazy rock music flared up. Someone who beat – cleanly – the icon of the WWE during the First Wrestling Boom. The Ultimate Warrior was one of the few WWE personalities whose popularity would eclipse that of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage.
The most famous WWE performers, or “Superstars” if you will, all have outsized personalities. From the days when Hulk Hogan was running wild, to the charisma and ringwork of Heartbreak Kid Sean Michaels, and to the Beer-Drinking, Ass-Kicking, Middle-Finger-Raising Stone Cold Steve Austin.
The Ultimate Warrior was probably more outsized than all three of them combined. He would shake the ropes and work himself into a frenzy before decimating the guy who was unfortunate to be in the ring with him. His interview segments were incoherent at best, rambling about spaceships and nightmares and all sorts of things that made sense to him and him alone.
The Ultimate Warrior quickly rose in stature in the WWE, capturing the Intercontinental belt, then the WWE title at WrestleMania V. This was not to last – soon after, the WWE became embroiled in its steroid scandal, and nobody in the company had a more chieseled physique than the Ultimate Warrior. He quickly lost the titles and, not long after, disappeared entirely from the company.
James Hellwig did make a brief return to wrestling in 1996, when WWE was struggling to compete with WCW’s improving product. Except for a match where he beat the stuffing out of Hunter Hearst Helmsley (yes, Triple H), his second stint in WWE was unimpressive to say the least. Hellwig’s altered physique led to one of wrestling’s most grotesque rumors – that he had in fact died and a new wrestler had taken over the persona. Those rumors were unfounded – the Ultimate Warrior simply looked less, well, ultimate.
In 1998, he arrived at World Championship Wrestling to, once again, take on Hulk Hogan, now a heel. Now, instead of merely being crazy, Warrior had supernatural powers, including the ability to teleport. This “teleportation effect” involved trap doors in the ring – the type of thing that could end wrestler’s careers, like Davey Boy Smith, the British Bulldog. Warrior’s WCW tenure ended with that match with Hogan, widely considered one of the worst matches in wrestling history.
While Warrior never returned to a wrestling ring, the difference between James Hellwig and the Ultimate Warrior began to blur. In fact, Hellwig legally changed his name to Warrior. Outside of the ring, he made diatribes against anything and everything, from Hulk Hogan to, allegedly, homosexuality. He even wrote a comic book – which was just about as indecipherable as his interviews.
His relationship with the WWE deteriorated so badly that the company actually issued a DVD that viciously attacked The Ultimate Warrior. (Warrior, for his part, buried Hulk Hogan in interviews.) You’d think after that, he would never be associated with Vince McMahon’s company again, but in the past year Warrior and the WWE reconciled, and the Ultimate Warrior entered the company’s Hall of Fame. This past Monday on RAW, Warrior made a brief appearance – wearing a mask instead of face paint – with his signature sprint to the ring and incoherent interview style. That was his last public appearance – a fitting finale to a memorable, if erratic, career.