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Remembering The Ultimate Warrior and The Man Beneath

The Ultimate Warrior’s thrashing theme music blared in SkyDome, moments after he achieved a coup the likes of which would hardly be rivaled until Brock Lesnar ended Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak days ago: Warrior pinned heroic Hulk Hogan cleanly.

Twenty-four years later, Warrior, after a generation of bad blood filling a moat between he and Vince McMahon, took his rightful place, etched in stone into WWE’s Hall of Fame.

Less than 72 hours later, Warrior was dead of as-of-yet unofficial causes at age 54.

If the placing of those items seems odd and blunt, it’s perhaps apropos, considering that Warrior himself was odd and blunt. For a man never afraid to speak at length about the business, politics, lessons of life, and his respect or disdain for fellow public figures, few stars of his magnitude were as shrouded in mystery as he.

Warrior was a riddle, subject to death rumors in an era of “Pop Rocks and Coke killed Mikey the Life cereal kid”, and such rumors subsisted for years. Even when Warrior would return, face paint and hairstyle changes shrouded the man once birth-named Jim Hellwig, making it possible for yarn-spinners to say, “Oh, that’s somebody else underneath the paint.”

His outworldly nature made it easy for us to believe urban legends like that, mostly because he never seemed human. His super-sonic running, rope-thrashing, opponent-crushing, Neanderthal-grunting, apocalypse-forecasting image fit a man surnamed “Warrior” moreso than “Hellwig”. The real life name change was befitting of the character’s quirks, namely because nobody who saw The Ultimate Warrior could imagine him existing as anything but The Ultimate Warrior.

At the Hall of Fame Saturday, we got to see Warrior’s mother, a timid-looking elder easily imaginable in any sewing circle, or enjoying leisure time with her grandkids. I joked to readers that the phrase “Ultimate Warrior’s mother” seemed odd, because you couldn’t imagine Warrior being a child who went to school, played sports, and went to the prom.

Warrior had to have been born from a reptile egg, or descended from some uncharted galaxy, or evolved suddenly from some jungle creature. Even as the man spoke eloquently about his experiences and feelings, looking very much like an easy-going Ron Perlman with a more jutting jaw, I was still making convoluted allusions to his unique alter ego. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

As I write this, and as you read this, conspiracy theorists and closure-minded folks will scour both the Hall of Fame speech and his Monday Night Raw ‘in character for old time’s sake’ promo, looking for an “I Buried Paul” clue that may have foretold his death. Speculation will run rampant about how he went from ‘here he is’ to ‘he’s gone’ in a day. It’s a testament to Warrior’s reckless image, cultivated by years of equally reckless portrayal, that his death will be subject of far-fetched speculation, even if the cause is determined to be acutely explainable.

The irony in all of this is that Warrior *was* human, moreso than most of his peers in the business.

While those he’s faintly damned with the bluntness of tongue continue to hang on for one more day in the spotlight, or one last payday, Warrior had the financial freedom to walk away. He wasn’t a wrestling fan, but he could perform to the standard of packed arenas globally. Stories of an out-of-control ego are contradicted by his presence away from the wrestling business, wrestling exactly one match between 1998 and the end of his life. Near as I can tell, Warrior didn’t wrestle once in 1993, 1994, 1997, or 1999, the ages of his life where men like Undertaker, Batista, Steve Austin, and Bret Hart were at their respective peaks.

For as boisterous and profoundly vociferous as he was with a microphone in front of his painted face, Warrior spoke intelligently about conservative politics, whether or not you agreed with him (and one part his 2005 Connecticut speech would certainly hit a sensitive nerve). He stressed the differences in privilege and entitlement, and how he feels society blurs those lines to the detriment of people he feels actually earn their keep.

How odd that Jesse Ventura, on headset, often derided Warrior as a rambling idiot with no regard for the safety of others, and yet Warrior smoothly followed Ventura’s real life creedo on wrestling: you get into the business to get out of the business. Whatever philosophical differences the two may have had politically, they can admire each other’s exit strategies for escaping a sapping, grueling form of entertainment, and remaining free on their own terms.

We saw his family on Saturday. We listened to him speak knowledgeably about WWE’s ‘little people’, and how he remembered their considerable contributions to his living. We watched him gently shake off the chants of “One More Match”, saying ‘no, no more match.’ The cheese in that trap didn’t entice him as it would others. He was proud, charming, playful, thoughtful, and most of all natural. Nothing put on. Even the triple-pointed make-up job remained unapplied.

How do you remember The Ultimate Warrior? How does a fan of Jim Hellwig, or even an observing detractor, put together the images of the unearthly hero and the articulate family man? We saw both; hell, we saw em 48 hours apart between his induction and his final “Warrior” promo.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons quoted his own father when he was asked what current NBA player the late “Pistol” Pete Maravich most resembled, and the elder Simmons said there wasn’t a comparison out there. That’s how I feel about Warrior, and that’s the simplest legacy for a complex man: there is no comparison for The Ultimate Warrior.

In his prime, Warrior stood out in a sea of lively hues. In retrospect, a melding of multiple eras still sees Warrior fail to blend with anyone else, even other industrial giants.

To remember Ultimate Warrior is to remember him alone. He conquered alone, he walked away from wrestling alone, and he stood on a proud, self-made pedestal alone.

The fact that The Ultimate Warrior and the man we saw this weekend on the final run of his life occupy that same pedestal, one built for only two human feet, is why his strange and unique legacy will never be forgotten.

Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.

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Justin Henry

Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.

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