Rambunctious. Loose Cannon. Iconic. Whatever words you use to describe him, James Hellwig -better known as the Ultimate Warrior – was a larger than life personality both on and off camera.
After 2 and a half years in smaller promotions and WCCW, Hellwig made it to WWF (now WWE). He debuted as Dingo Warrior in June of 1987, wrestling in non-televised matches until the end of October, when he would change to the Ultimate Warrior moniker.
His explosiveness out of the gate was his calling card. As his music would hit the arena speakers, he would burst from the backstage area running full speed, jumping into the ring and violently shaking the ropes. These actions, combined with vibrant face paint patterns, would electrify crowds of all ages.
In the late ’80s and into 1990, Ultimate Warrior would capture gold in the form of the Intercontinental Title, first at the inaugural SummerSlam of 1988, which will have its annual showing this coming Sunday, August 17th. This set off a great feud between Warrior and Rick Rude for the next 2 years for the IC belt, until 1990 when he would be thrust into the spotlight for the WWF Championship.
At Wrestlemania VI, Warrior took on Hulk Hogan in a main event that would put the WWF Championship that Hogan held vs. Warrior’s IC title. In a great match, Warrior would eventually pin Hogan, making him the first and only person as of 2014 to simultaneously hold the WWF World and Intercontinental titles at the same time.
Over the next few years, Warrior was in the main event spotlight, taking on the likes of “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Undertaker and Sgt. Slaughter. Eventually asking for a better contract with higher gains, Warrior made what some believe are reasonable demands from Vince McMahon and WWF. Though originally giving in to his demands, WWF would serve him a letter the day after SummerSlam ’91, suspending him and explaining they only gave in to have him at the pay-per-view. Warrior would attempt to resign, refusing the suspension order, however the WWF would not allow it based on his contract.
Returning at WrestleMania VIII, Warrior ran in to save Hulk Hogan from a two on one beatdown at the hands of Sid Justice and Papa Shango. The original plan was to have Warrior make another run at the World Title, but it would be a short-lived return, as the scandals of steroid and HGH use would be thrust into the public eye. Under extreme governmental pressure, McMahon instituted a crackdown. He would later claim in the Warrior documentary that Hellwig’s experimenting with growth hormones would be the reason of his departure.
Through the rest of the mid-’90s, Hellwig would be semi-retired, opening a wrestling school in Arizona and occasionally doing house shows for smaller promotions. For a very brief time in 1996, he would again return to WWF until a dispute between McMahon and Hellwig eventually ended his employment again due to claims of breach of contract.
At this point, the Monday Night Wars were going in full effect and Warrior joined WCW. It was a rather brief involvement in which he would only actually participate in four matches over a year, being used more for promotional material and segments to enhance story lines. By the end of 1998, he would announce full retirement. It wasn’t until a full 10 years later that Warrior would grace the ring one last time in Spain.
Over the 2000s, Hellwig would change his legal name to Warrior, pen a comic book and have a short-lived career as a motivational speaker that would abruptly end with controversy. During this time, WWE would release a DVD about Warrior that he, as well as many fans, found to be inflammatory, only casting negative light upon Hellwig and his beloved character.
Finally in 2013, McMahon and Hellwig sat down and begin to repair a long-broken relationship. The culmination would be reached on April 5th, 2014, when Warrior was inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame. In his speech, he admitted that the interview and inflammatory remarks that had been made hurt him deeply and that he hated being painted in a negative light. But time heals all wounds, and Warrior seemed excited to put the past behind him and enjoy his new role as an ambassador with WWE.
The following Monday Night Raw, his music hit the arena speakers. It was the first time in 18 years that Warrior would enter the ring on WWE’s flagship program. He delivered a speech that would become almost foreshadowing of what would take place not more than 24 hours later:
“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. 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 believe deeper in something larger than life than his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized. By the storytellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever. You […] are the legend makers of Ultimate Warrior. In the back I see many potential legends, some of them with warrior spirits, and you will do the same for them. You will decide if they lived with the passion and intensity, so much so that you will tell your stories and you will make them legends as well. I am Ultimate Warrior. You are the Ultimate Warrior fans. And the spirit of The Ultimate Warrior will run forever!”
The next day while walking to the car with his wife outside of their hotel, he would clutch his chest and collapse. An autopsy revealed that Warrior died a natural death caused by atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and, more immediately, a heart attack.
After 18 years of torment and name calling, Hellwig had made his peace with the WWE and McMahon. Perhaps that was just what was needed to make the spirit of the Warrior rest easy.
Some believe in heaven. Some believe in hell. Some don’t believe in an afterlife at all.
Me, well I like to think that the Ultimate Warrior simply returned to Parts Unknown.
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