It’s typical that coming off one of the greatest WrestleMania finales in history, the wrestling world would have to deal with a sharp comedown – and a jolting dose of heartbreak. Jim Hellwig, the man known to wrestling fans the world over as the Ultimate Warrior (and who legally changed his name to Warrior at one point) passed away last night while traveling in Arizona. He was 54 years old.
Though the Ultimate Warrior didn’t have a very long run at the top in professional wrestling, his performances left an indelible mark on fans. As explained by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan in the documentary The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior, his appeal was a slam dunk: He was built like an Adonis, had hair like a rock star, had a dominating in-ring style, wore crazy outfits, and carried an incredibly edgy, often dark mystique that provided an alternative to Hulk Hogan demanding we pray and take vitamins. His life was a complicated one, as he was fired multiple times by WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, was once rumored to be dead, and became viral for all the wrong reasons when some of his college lectures veered off into cartoonish homophobia.
But as a performer, he had no equal. Though he flamed out spectacularly, his run through wrestling in the late ’80s and early ’90s was incredible – and thanks to the awesomeness of the WWE Network, you can simply search “Ultimate Warrior” for an entire careerography. But for anybody unfamiliar with his impact, check out some career highlights below.
While not a stunning example of top-shelf ring work, the Ultimate Warrior’s debut match expresses everything you need to know about him. Every move is hard-hitting and high-impact, and his appearance – face paint, arm tassels, metal hair – makes him stand out, especially against the anonymous Terry Gibbs. There’s even a sample Ultimate Warrior promo that drops in the middle of this match, which plants the seeds of his borderline-psychotic charisma.
Nowadays, every wrestler has an entrance theme, and some have more than one. But when Warrior first got started, the idea of entrance music wasn’t a universal thing, especially in what was then the WWF. Warrior’s music might be the greatest wrestling entrance of all time, because it manages to express exactly who the Warrior is in a handful of power chords. As Gorilla Monsoon used to put it, whenever that music would hit, the place would go bananas.
The Honky Tonk Man
Following his debut in 1987, Warrior knocked around the lower ends of the shows beating up on other massive dudes like Hercules and Andre the Giant. But he really started to take off at SummerSlam 1988. The Honky Tonk Man, an Elvis-biting bad guy, had held the Intercontinental Championship for two years, and he was scheduled to defend his title against Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. But a storyline injury put Beefcake on the shelf, leaving Honky Tonk Man without an opponent. He issued an open challenge, and was greeted by the Ultimate Warrior, who blew into the ring and squashed the champ in about a minute. The legend was born.
Ultimate Warrior had a long run with the Intercontinental Championship, and he finally ran up against World Wrestling Federation Champion Hulk Hogan in the lead up to WrestleMania VI in 1990. That match was deeply unusual, as it put two good guys against each other, and the promos that the Warrior delivered in the walk-up to the match were ridiculous and wonderful. In the first one below, he talks about poisoning Hulk Hogan and declares himself a God. In the second, he builds a scenario wherein he crashes Hulk Hogan’s plane on the way to the event. It’s super-crazy-awesome.
The Macho King
Ultimate Warrior’s best match, and perhaps his best program, came against Randy “Macho Man” Savage at WrestleMania VII in 1991. Savage had cost Warrior his WWF Championship earlier in the year, and Warrior challenged him to a retirement match. The build-up was spectacular, and the in-ring work (outlined by the fastidious Savage) was excellent.
After a few years out of the ring, Warrior returned to wrestling, this time in WCW to square off against his old foe Hulk Hogan. The program was largely laughable, but it did create one memorable moment when Hogan went into his dressing room and thought he saw the Warrior in the mirror. The match the two had at Halloween Havoc 1998 was a disaster, but this bit of television will live forever.
The Last Promo
Things were looking up for the Ultimate Warrior. The WWE brought him back into the fold last year for the release of WWE 2K14, a hit video game. Last Saturday night, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, and was given a special shout-out during Sunday’s WrestleMania. On Monday night’s episode of Raw, the Warrior came out for one last promo. As evidenced above, he was always obsessed with immortality, death, and what lay beyond the physical world, so this was the promo he was always going to cut for the crowd. But it also acts as an eerie self-proclaimed epitaph – fitting for a guy whose entire life was a little out of this world.