The Mean 6.04.02: The Ultimate Warrior

I’ve been working on this thing so long, anything I had in the opener ceased being relevant months ago

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that everything in life could be broken down into two extremes: excess and deficiency. He believed that if a person could find the medium or mean between the two extremes in all that they did in life, they would travel down the path to happiness and virtue. With pro wrestling fans, the two extremes are clear: the deficient “mark” enjoys watching wrestling more than anybody but has very little knowledge of anything not on TV, while the excessive “smart” knows every backstage dealing, but as a result can become highly bitter and cynical, losing their ability to enjoy the show. These two extremes view each wrestler differently, often disagreeing with each other. Each week I look at both perspectives and then attempt to find “The Mean” between the two. This week, let’s take a look at The Ultimate Warrior

When you try to talk wrestling with the average joe off the street, likelihood are they will know, even if they’ve never actually watched Raw, who Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and Steve Austin are, probably Randy Savage, Sgt. Slaughter, and maybe a few others as well. These guys have all had some degree of success in crossing over to the mainstream media. However, there is one name and one image that will be irrevocably tied to the word “professional wrestling” so long as the children of the eighties feel like chatting, despite the fact that every attempt he has made to cross over to the mainstream has failed miserably: The Ultimate Warrior.

Indeed in the mind of most non-fans, the maniacal, screaming, snorting, face painted, outlandishly colored and garbed Warrior still represents to them the atypical professional wrestler. One of the reasons America probably marvels at the fact that The Rock is so well-spoken (something that was made light of repeatedly on Saturday Night Live in his first hosting stint) is because they still have the ranting, bellowing image of the Warrior dancing in their heads.

Strangely enough, The Ultimate Warrior (or simply “The Warrior”) wrestled in the WWF and WCW a combined total of only about six years max. He has not wrestled for either promotion since his ill-fated WCW run in 1999. He has not wrestled for over a year consecutively since 1990. Yet he is still better known to most casual wrestling fans than Chris Jericho or Kurt Angle. He has a web site full of endless, incoherent rants on life and living that has not been updated in two years and yet it still gets its fair share of visitors. What is it about the Warrior that has kept him in the spotlight for so long despite having done so little? He never carried the torch Hulk Hogan handed him in 1990, his comic book and training facility bombed, and his last run in wrestling was one of the worst flops in history. Why then has the Warrior endured?

Jim Hellwig, who in 1996 would legally change his name to Warrior, started off as a California-based bodybuilder, which was a big part of the problem. In the 80s, the criteria for potential wrestlers was not what it is today; technical skills were not as valued as they now are and fans were not as exacting. Though there always has been and still is a place for guys who have good bodies or size and nothing more in wrestling, in the 80s an upcoming wrestler’s look carried more appeal than ever thanks to the carnival atmosphere established by Vince McMahon’s expanding WWF. Men who would today be called cruiserweights would either be stuck in tag teams or as enhancement talent; the idea of somebody the size of Chris Jericho ever holding the World title was laughable. And from this atmosphere was the wrestling career of Jim Hellwig launched.

Rick Bassman discovered Hellwig, a wrestler turned trainer with a particular affinity for sculpted weightlifters that he could mold into decent power wrestlers. This day, Bassman’s most famous trainee is Prototype, a highly touted WWF developmental prospect who wrestled first in Bassman’s own California-based independent federation, and has since moved onto the WWF’s Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW) territory. In the mid-80s, Bassman discovered four bodybuilders, including Hellwig, whom he groomed into Powerteam USA, a fairly popular stable in the California area. Of the four, two would fade into obscurity, but Hellwig and fellow Powerteam member Steve Borden would go onto stardom; Borden would eventually become the man called Sting.

When Powerteam USA faltered, Hellwig & Borden left the territory, with Bassman’s blessing, to seek prominence elsewhere. The duo would do tours in Memphis and in the Mid-South (where they feuded with future WWF superstar and much later Borden’s mentor as a born-again Christian, Ted DiBiase, among others), before settling down in the well-known Texas-based World Class Championship Wrestling, run by the famous Von Erich family. Along the way, Hellwig & Borden developed a tag team called the Blade Runners, patterning themselves in look and demeanor after the Harrison Ford apocalyptic sci-fi cult film; Hellwig took the name Rock while Borden became Flash.

After some time in World Class, the two former bodybuilders agreed to part ways and try their luck as singles competitors; Borden returned to the former Mid-South (no the UWF), where he became Sting and eventually joined the NWA where he gained superstar status, while Hellwig remained in Texas wrestling for World Class. Knowing that the Blade Runner gimmick would not stand the test of time, Fritz Von Erich and other World Class higher-ups went about developing a new persona for Hellwig, who was popular with the fans thanks to his chiseled physique and intense in-ring style, but lacked a distinct personality.

What the World Class powers that be came up with for Hellwig would be the genesis of the gimmick that would carry him to prominence in the wrestling world. Hellwig was renamed the Dingo Warrior, playing himself off as some sort of rowdy Australian madman who lived only to fight. He began painting the now-famous mask over his face and donned the brightly colored tights and tassels that would later become his trademark. Dingo Warrior was perfect for Hellwig as the extent of his personality involved yelling loudly and going insane, two things that he could do quite well. The fans took to the Dingo Warrior in much the same way late 90s WCW fans took to Bill Goldberg: he represented the primal force of nature within all people that seethed beneath the surface. To fans, Warrior, and later Goldberg, was the expression of what they themselves wished they could do to bosses, co-workers, or friends who were on their nerves: just flip out on them. Problems would arise when Warrior (and later Goldberg as well) would try to make the character more than a primal expression of rage, but for the time being the character was a hit.

In 1987, Vince McMahon knew that the Dingo Warrior character would be a good fit in the larger than life, cartoon-like WWF. The WWF of the late 80s was a federation populated by super-heroes, and just like Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage, Warrior represented the way the average fan would act if they could, perhaps even moreso because of the uninhibited nature of the character. McMahon replaced Dingo with Ultimate to give the character a more heroic sounding name, and in late 1987, the Ultimate Warrior made his WWF debut.

McMahon used a strategy that both he and competitors would employ often in latter years when building up a “monster” like Warrior by having him run through preliminary and lower mid-card competition in extremely brief matches. Though he had tried to develop at least some rudimentary wrestling skills over his formative years, Warrior was still a bodybuilder at heart, and delivering a devastating clothesline and then posing suited him far better than wrestling thirty minute psychology-laden matches; it was his look and his presence, not his wrestling, that the fans came to see anyways.

Still a relative neophyte in the business, Warrior did what was asked of him without question, and all that was asked of him at this point was to go out to the ring and beat guys with a clothesline after two minutes of “wrestling” (kicking and punching). His first major feud was against Hercules Hernandez, another power wrestler with limited technical skill, but who was a fairly well known veteran and another impressive physical specimen; he and Warrior didn’t put on classic wrestling matches, but Warrior squashing Hercules in quick matches served the purpose of getting Warrior over.

In 1988 and 89, Vince McMahon had three guys on the top of the WWF who represented the three most desired fantasies of the common man: he had Hogan, the virtuous, larger than life super-hero; he had World champion Randy Savage, the bad boy rogue who still managed to get the girl; and he had Warrior, the inner savage unleashed. Unfortunately, only one man could be the top guy in the WWF, and as Hogan had made McMahon a great deal of money throughout the 80s and because it was very possible in Vince’s eyes that Hogan was reaching the end of his usefulness, he decided to get all he could out of him and kept Hogan as the number one guy in the WWF. Savage was pushed to the side, first as a sidekick to Hogan (despite being WWF champion) and then as a villain (a role he played better anyways) and foil to Hogan, losing the WWF title to him in the process. But rather than go the usual route and build Warrior as a monster heel to feed to Hogan, Vince McMahon began to look to the future and at Warrior as Hogan’s eventual successor.

In mid-1987, the hated Honky Tonk Man got a fluke win over beloved WWF Intercontinental champion Ricky Steamboat to claim the title. An Elvis imitator with a bad singing voice and fairly lame gimmick, HTM was seen as a momentary surprise champ by most WWF fans who were sure Steamboat would regain the title within weeks. However, Steamboat would be gone from the WWF by year’s end, and HTM would still be the IC champion. Not only did HTM continue to hold onto his title throughout the remainder of 1987 and into 1988, he did it through the most cowardly of means. Countouts, cheap disqualifications, outside interference from manager Jimmy Hart a clean victory by Honky was rare, and it drove fans crazy. As HTM’s title reign surpassed a year in length, fans were giving up hope of ever seeing him lose the title. However, the realists knew that not only would HTM lose the title someday, but also whoever beat him would immediately skyrocket in popularity.

Certainly not for the last time in his career, Brutus Beefcake had a bad spot of luck in the summer of 1988. After several close calls, Beefcake was to be the man to defeat The Honky Tonk Man for the WWF Intercontinental title at Summerslam 1988. But Beefcake was injured not long before the show (and written out of the storyline via an attack by Ron Bass) and a last minute replacement was needed. It was just the opportunity to put Warrior over that Vince McMahon had been looking for and he leapt at the chance. HTM came out during the program to gloat about his standing as longtime champion and to issue an open challenge (in fact one of the first times this now extremely familiar formulas was employed), only to get annihilated by Warrior in mere minutes, brining his long title reign to an abrupt halt.

Not only did Warrior win the Intercontinental championship, he became an instant fan favorite by avenging the suffering of every fan that had waited over a year to see HTM get his comeuppance. Warrior had been popular before, but thanks to an aggressive push by the WWF (in addition to a dominant run as IC champ, the company was producing Warrior merchandise by the truckload), but he quickly became second only to Hogan, which was of course the plan. Hogan had made it clear that following his moderate success in movies like “Rocky III” and “No Holds Barred” (more the former), he was looking towards Hollywood as his future (in hindsight never mind, that’s a column in itself). Warrior resembled Hogan in that he was an intense power wrestler, and his character was tweaked to resemble Hogan even more, going as far as mimicking Hogan’s “hulking up” routine, shaking the ring ropes and regaining energy after an opponent’s assault; the goal was to create the next Hulk Hogan.

However, there was one major difference between Hogan and Warrior that the WWF failed to take into account, and it was a matter of charisma. Hogan was the first guy who could really lay claim to the moniker “the people’s champion;” he was a super hero who represented the fans. Warrior was the primal rage, he wasn’t meant to communicate, he was meant to scream. But if he was going to be a Hogan level superstar, Warrior would need to begin to speak, and when he did, it was not pretty. Hogan was known for his almost delusional interviews proclaiming himself to be a larger than life hero. Warrior attempted to give his own versions of these interviews, but at the same time tried to maintain the brutish exterior that made him popular, and the resulting amalgamation was nothing short of bizarre. It almost seemed as if Warrior was trying to overcompensate, be it for years of grunts or because he was trying to live up to a daunting legacy, and as a result he gave interviews using words so large that many doubted they even existed (and in many cases they did not). The strange mix of forced eloquence and rage did not take, and though Warrior’s popularity endured, it began to wane at times.

With little character depth coming from Warrior’s interview segments, the WWF sought to make him more human and tie him to the fans through a meaningful feud rather than a series of endless squashes. And in order to give the Warrior an effective foil, the services of veteran Rick Rude and his manager the charismatic Bobby Heenan were enlisted. A capable wrestler with enough physical skill to ground Warrior’s power game, Rude helped Warrior to the best matches of his career to date in the ring, while Heenan, one of the best mouthpieces in wrestling history, carried both men on the microphone. In an effort to make Warrior seem a bit more vulnerable, and to add more to the storyline, Warrior lost the Intercontinental title to Rude at Wrestlemania V when Heenan interfered. Warrior spent the next five months tearing through undercard wrestlers and other Heenan charges before regaining the title from Rude at Summerslam 1989 in a very good match.

The feud with Rude & Heenan established Warrior as slightly more than a one dimensional bruiser, and for the remainder of 1989 he continued to feud with Heenan and his other charges as the WWF powers that be prepared him for an eventual showdown with Hogan. At house shows, Warrior was put over the legendary Andre the Giant in hasty squashes to give him the rub. As 1990 dawned, with Warrior clearly having peaked as IC champ and going in circles defending the title, and with Hogan having dispatched both Savage and his 1989 foil Zeus, the stage was set for a collision at Wrestlemania VI.

The buildup to Wrestlemania VI was suitably epic. The story was simple: Hogan had dispatched of all his potential challengers, save for Warrior, who had earned a shot at the title by compiling an equally impressive string of victories. There was no animosity between the two men in the storyline, but Warrior was painted as the hungry up and comer while Hogan was made out to be the cagey veteran; it was an old-fashioned turf war and the fans quickly got excited. The WWF actually did a far better job building the feud than Hogan and Warrior did, as each tried to one up each other with increasingly incoherent interviews that projected delusions of grandeur.

When the time came for the actual match at Wrestlemania VI, Hogan & Warrior rose to the occasion in a sold out Toronto Skydome that housed the (at that time) largest crowd ever to witness a wrestling event. Neither man was known for their technical wrestling acumen or storytelling ability, so there was understandable apprehension on the part of the WWF in putting them together for what was to be a turning point in the history of the federation. The stature and popularity of both men and the nature of the storyline would have been enough to carry the match, but for reasons we mere mortals may never truly understand, Hogan & Warrior went out and put on an incredible match that showed the true potential of both men. It was an excellent clash between two skilled power wrestlers that reflected the conflict well, and the inevitable fact that there was only room enough for one. In the end, it was Warrior who emerged the victor, and in a moment WWF fans will never forget, Hogan symbolically passed his conqueror the World title belt just as he did the torch.

Warrior ran roughshod over challengers as World champion just as he did as IC champ, but most excitement over the new standard bearer of the WWF quickly faded as he just couldn’t make the connection to the fans that Hogan had. To Warrior’s credit, a big problem was that Hogan had not exactly followed through on his promise to fade into the night. Hogan 1989 film “No Holds Barred” had not done nearly as well as expected, so he remained committed to the WWF (albeit on a reduced schedule) to ensure his financial future. Hogan began a feud with newcomer Earthquake that saw him injured and go through an intense recovery period. Hogan’s kinship with the fans rose once more, as Warrior’s continued to drop. While Hogan had always been the “man of the people,” fighting for those less fortunate, Warrior was simply the madness that all people keep in inside, and sometimes never recognized. Hogan’s storyline captured the hearts of the fans, while Warrior continued to bellow in vain.

By the time Summerslam 1990 rolled around, a steel cage match between Warrior and his old rival Rude for the World title could only score co-main event credit with a Hogan-Earthquake showdown. At Survivor Series 1990, both Warrior and Hogan were survivors in their individual matches, and then were the winners of the “ultimate match of survival,” but Hogan’s popularity overshadowed Warrior’s once again, and the question of why the torch was ever passed was looming heavy.

At Wrestlemania VI, both Warrior and Hogan were cheered, but the discerning observer could not help but notice that as the match went on, boos for Warrior could be heard as support for Hogan increased. After Wrestlemania, the crowd support for Warrior continued to wane. When Warrior was a midcarder or even IC champ, he was a peculiarity that fans could enjoy. If the WWF was a circus (as so many claimed), Warrior was the clown, the freak who amused the fans to kick off the show. However, if you’ve ever watched a good circus, you know that it isn’t the clowns who are the last act in the center ring; it’s the trapeze artists or the lion tamers, the human heroes, who are the main event. As time went on (continuing on into the present), Warrior became less of an entertaining diversion and more of a point of mockery. He was a horrible representative to the mainstream world for wrestling. For an industry constantly trying to gain respect in the real world, having a face painted comic book character lunatic who ran down the aisle at breakneck speeds and pounded his chest while snorting, the at least media-saavy Hulk Hogan was looking more and more like a god send.

By January of 1991, the decision to kill the Warrior experiment was made. The WWF had a very over heel in Sgt. Slaughter, so they decided to cut their losses and give him the title so that he could drop it to Hogan at Wrestlemania VII. To still utilize Warrior, who though he had proven ill suited to carry the World title was still plenty popular and selling a good deal of merchandise, he was put into a feud with a guy who was up to the level of a recent World champ and who could also still make the WWF some money given something to do: Randy Savage.

Savage had floated through meaningless feuds with the likes of Jim Duggan and Dusty Rhodes since dropping the World title to Hogan in 1989, but somehow retained credibility in the eyes of the fans. Savage cost Warrior his title against Slaughter at Royal Rumble 1991, the storyline being that Warrior had refused to give Savage a title shot, and a grudge match was set for Wrestlemania VII, with an extra stipulation that the loser would retire. In just one match, Warrior underwent more character development than he had in nearly a year as champion. The two had a classic showdown, with Savage grounding Warrior into a solid match to an even greater degree than Hogan or Rude had been able to. The turning point came when Warrior managed to kick out of multiple Savage elbow drops, but was then unable to put his opponent away either. A distraught Warrior looked poised to leave and be counted out, as he looked skyward for answers, but the cheers of the fans brought him back to the ring to finish off Savage; at long last a bond between Warrior and the fans had been forged.

Following the stellar match with Savage, Warrior could have continued working towards layering his character and eventually perhaps his disastrous first run as World champion could be forgotten and he could still be the heir apparent that the WWF had groomed him to be. Unfortunately, as his career had gone on and as he had developed a character he now saw as a larger than life super hero, the man behind the Warrior was beginning to buy into his own hype. Rather than make his character more human, Jim Hellwig began pushing to direct his own storylines backstage instead of following the plans of others. Hellwig did not recognize that a more vulnerable Warrior was a Warrior the fans could relate to more easily; the lines between fantasy and reality had already begun to blur for him (a trend that would quickly accelerate). Warrior entered himself into a feud with the most unstoppable heel in the WWF, a still rookie Undertaker, and booked several aspects of the feud himself, including a particularly memorable segment (though perhaps not in the best way) in which Undertaker locked Warrior in a casket and he had to be pried out by WWF officials. Warrior did try to make himself somewhat vulnerable against The Undertaker, but he did it in such a cartoony and over-dramatic fashion (the casket segment, later training segments with Jake Roberts, whom Warrior went to in an attempt to “learn the dark side” and who ended up turning on him after leaving him in a room full of painfully fake snakes) that he became more and more of a joke to any fan over the age of ten.

The WWF saw warranted potential in The Undertaker, and quickly rushed him and Roberts (who was more over as a heel than he had been in years, perhaps the best thing to come out of the Warrior-Undertaker feud) out of the feud and into a program with Savage and newcomer Sid Justice. Warrior was hastily placed back in the main event for Summerslam 1991, teaming with Hogan to face Slaughter, Colonel Mustafa (The Iron Sheik), and General Adnan in a handicap match. Halfway through the match, Warrior chased Adnan to the back, but he didn’t return for the end of the match and in fact did not return to the WWF for over seven months.

The absence of The Ultimate Warrior from the WWF from August of 1991 to March of 1992 is not one that I have seen explained anywhere (perhaps I’m not looking hard enough, or perhaps I should Ask 411 ). Perhaps he had a contract dispute or perhaps he was just burned out; regardless, he made his grand return at Wrestlemania VIII in the main event saving the retiring (again) Hogan from a double team by Sid Justice and Papa Shango. The moment was electric and completely unexpected in an age before the internet, and perhaps served as a far better “passing of the torch” than what had occurred two years prior (and Hogan really was leaving this time, even if it wouldn’t stick). However, almost from the start there were problems. Many fans thought that this was a new wrestler wearing the outfit and face paint of the Warrior (some even thought it was Kerry Von Erich, who was still semi-active with the WWF at the time). These rumors have been more or less put to rest in the past decade, but the fact that some casual fans still cling to the idea that the Ultimate Warrior pre-1991 and the Ultimate Warrior post-1992 are two separate people is another example of the character’s, and the man’s, failure to connect with the audience.

Things went from bad to worse for Warrior following Wrestlemania VIII. He was originally scheduled to feud with Sid Justice in what may have been the ideal feud for both as each gave incoherent interviews to the point where neither would really come off seeming like a freak in the feud, it would just seem like a battle between two guys the fans didn’t really get, but two big names and impressive bodies nonetheless. But after a dispute with management, Sid left the WWF in the spring of 1992 and the WWF was left with a half finished feud. Warrior was pushed abruptly into a feud with Sid’s lackey Papa Shango (today The Godfather), who had a visually impressive, but cartoony gimmick of being a “voodoo master” (and who was extremely limited in the ring). The WWF could have (and may have wanted to) end the feud quickly and move Warrior onto other things, but Warrior had other ideas.

Before going any further, it is important to note that it is hard enough to get inside the inner workings of the mind of any professional wrestler, but The Ultimate Warrior is far and away in a class by himself. That being said, something happened to Warrior during his time off that changed his view on a wrestler’s creative control over their character and storylines. Prior to his “vacation,” Warrior had been a guy who had for the most part relied on and trusted in the skills of Vince McMahon and others, leaving the booking to them and doing his job in the ring. Perhaps it was because his reign as World champion had been such a flop or perhaps Warrior blamed McMahon & co. for his character’s inability to connect with the fans, but for whatever reason, when Warrior came back, he wanted more creative input. Having just lost Hulk Hogan and with younger stars like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels only beginning to hit their stride, the WWF had to place their fate in guys like Warrior, Savage, and Ric Flair, and so they gave in to Warrior’s request.

The mind of Jim Hellwig is a strange and somewhat frightening place. Somewhere along the line, Hellwig began to see The Ultimate Warrior as more than simply a wrestling character; he began to literally see him as some sort of beacon of hope than people needed to believe in (ironic, considering most fans viewed him either as a joke or as overblown). And more than that, he came to see himself and the Warrior as one and the same (he legally changed his name to Warrior in the mid-90s). In his feud with the “voodoo master” Papa Shango, Warrior didn’t think a straight wrestling feud would do; he thought that the fans wanted to see “their hero” the Warrior combating unspeakable evil and he sought to give them that. Shango got a hold of one of Warrior’s wristbands one week and “put a curse” on him causing Warrior to puke one week and have black goo inexplicably leak from his face the next. Fans were beginning to mature and saw the whole scenario as absurd (not to mention that the few times Warrior and Shango actually met in the ring it was not pretty to say the least), but Warrior was so wrapped up in his own bizarre world that he failed to see this.

Warrior never recovered completely for the Papa Shango feud, though unbelievably enough he probably blamed the WWF for not letting him go “far enough” with it. Nevertheless, though Warrior had blown just about every opportunity he had gotten since 1988, he was still popular enough that the WWF wanted to use him on the main event level. Luckily for all parties concerned, Randy Savage, the man with whom Warrior had had the greatest feud and match of his career, needed a new opponent for Summerslam 1992. The decision was made to have the two fan favorites go at it, with top heel Ric Flair and his manager Mr. Perfect serving as irritants to build and drive the feud. Flair & Perfect lead each man to believe one had joined them, altering the competitive nature of the match to fierce paranoia and resentment from old wounds. Warrior was even forced to make his character a bit more human in order to sell the very real emotions. As it turned out, neither Warrior or Savage had sold out to Flair, but still had a great match at Summerslam with Warrior winning the match, not the title, by count out, when Flair & co. interfered. Warrior was poised to become a far more legitimate wrestler via a feud with Flair, and a key player in the passing of the torch to the next generation of WWF superstar but something went wrong along the way.

In the fall of 1992, The Ultimate Warrior abruptly quit the WWF. Again, I’m not sure on the exact circumstances (ask Craig Letawsky or Scott Keith), but in the midst of a feud pitting Warrior & Savage against Flair and his new ally Razor Ramon (Scott Hall), Warrior took off. It would be three years before The Warrior would appear in a wrestling ring again.

How the Warrior kept himself financially afloat during his years away from the ring (today he does presumably thanks to a settlement from the WWF over merchandising rights) is another great mystery, because when he returned to the WWF in 1996, he showed negative acumen when it came to business. Following a lackluster indy appearance in which he defeated his old foe the Honky Tonk Man, Warrior was brought back into a floundering WWF that needed whatever quick fix it could get. Over three years, Jim Hellwig’s mind had warped The Ultimate Warrior beyond even the image of super-hero and into some sort of guru and savior to the downtrodden. Never did fans long more for a simple snarl and chest beating than during Warrior’s incomprehensible ’96 diatribes in which he would literally make up words on the spot then pass them off as just being too big for anybody but someone of his intelligence to understand. He opened Warrior University, a school for wrestling and “the Warrior way of life” (more in a minute), that went under the minute the WWF stopped promoting it (and again, Hellwig blamed the inability of others to ascend to his level). A Warrior comic book was produced that ironically enough did not feature the spandex clad super-hero Warrior of 1992, but rather a bizarre hybrid of the old barbaric Warrior and the verbose Warrior of modern day (the latter’s speech patterns dominating the narrative that accompanied the completely indecipherable plot). Outside the ring, Warrior’s ego was out of control, and inside the ring, he was wrestling like he had never met Rick Rude or Randy Savage and it was 1987 all over again.

Warrior made his 1996 WWF return at Wrestlemania XII, trouncing future World champion Hunter Hearst Helmsley (Triple H) in a foregone squash that was nonetheless one of the card’s main selling points. For the next three months, Warrior dominated feuds with cowardly Intercontinental champion Goldust (he won all the matches by countout or disqualification, so as not to win the title) and then with semi-retired commentator Jerry Lawler. The WWF was understandably reluctant to put Warrior in the ring with any of their top stars, as he was no longer willing to even attempt to make his opponents look at all like credible threats, wanting to preserve the “power of the Warrior” that had become very real and sacred in his own mind. Another big problem was that Warrior was very much “old school” in his in-ring approach, believing that a monster face such as himself should only work three-minute squash matches; but in Warrior’s absence, men like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart had raised the bar, introducing longer, higher quality matches as the norm, and Warrior stood out like a sore thumb.

As spring turned to summer in 1996, the WWF was falling into a deeper and deeper slump, and had just gotten hit hard, losing Diesel (Kevin Nash) and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) to WCW even as Bret Hart elected to take an extended vacation from the ring. Shawn Michaels, the World champion, though respected by smart fans, was not going over well to the main audience. The rest of the World title scene was hurting as well: Ahmed Johnson, the Intercontinental champion, was still too raw, heel challengers like Davey Boy Smith and Owen Hart were not seen as legitimate threats, The Undertaker was busy redefining himself in a feud with newcomer Mankind, and the most viable heel challenger to Michaels, Vader, was still recovering from a lackluster exit from WCW. While he was seen as more of a curiosity or a “special attraction” by most fans than as a serious wrestler, Warrior still had enough name recognition and fired up a crowd well enough that the WWF thought inserting him back into the main event scene would at least provide a temporary solution until a better one could be found.

So after the main event of King of the Ring 1996, which saw Michaels successfully defend his title against Davey Boy Smith and then get attacked by Smith’s teammates Owen Hart and Vader, Ahmed Johnson and Warrior made the save and the next night on Raw, a six-man tag team main event was announced for the next pay per view. The six-man tag team main event would indeed go down, and Vader, Smith & Owen got the win over Michaels, Johnson & Sid.

Sid was brought in as a last minute replacement after Warrior once again abruptly left the WWF. Again, the circumstances over Warrior’s parting of the ways with the WWF in 1996 are not fully known; Warrior has claimed that he took time off to spend time with his dying father and was fired/quit as a result, the WWF claims Warrior missed dates for no reason and the two sides agreed to terminate their working relationship. Regardless, Warrior was once again gone from wrestling, but this time, he did not fade away so thoroughly. Jim Hellwig had an ongoing lawsuit against the WWF for various infringements over the Warrior name and likeness, which he claimed the WWF used without his needed permission. And while Warrior University and the Warrior comic book quickly floundered without the support of the WWF, Hellwig used his considerable free time to create Warrior Web, a massive web site that espoused his bizarre philosophies on life, virtue, and living through “destrucity” (not actually a word, in case you were wondering). I could try and describe Warrior Web to you, but I could not possibly do it justice; it is truly something you have to see to believe (and hopefully, if I’m lucky, Widro or Ashish will throw a link to said site right here if not, enjoy this pointless parenthetical statement).

It would not be long before Warrior won the lawsuit against the WWF, which made him a nice sum of cash and also freed him of any remaining contractual observations. By 1998, it just so happened that WCW, which was now the home of many of Warrior’s old colleagues from his early WWF days, most notably Hulk Hogan, was starting to feel the effect of a resurgent WWF under the direction of Steve Austin and others. Eric Bischoff, the creative head of WCW, figured to use the same strategy that had won WCW a two year stranglehold on the ratings once more: he’d a buy another former WWF star, in this case, The Ultimate Warrior.

The creative marriage of The Warrior (no longer Ultimate) and Eric Bischoff was one made someplace even fouler than hell. In Bischoff, Warrior found a yes man willing to go along with his bizarre, over the top ideas, and a guy who actually favored flashy theatrics over actual wrestling (he did bring Kiss, Megadeth and others onto Nitro after all). Warrior was brought in to try and recreate his legendary rivalry with Hulk Hogan, who was now one of the most hated men in wrestling. I’ll say this much: I remember the night Warrior debuted on Nitro, and it was electric. From Warrior’s entrance, to his face-to-face confrontation, it was a real treat for fans that had been around in 1990 (myself included). But from the minute the Warrior uttered his final “Speak to me Warriors!” (his WCW catchphrase) things fell apart, and quickly.

Warrior did not leave the ring that first night on Nitro, he disappeared in a cloud of smoke. He would use the smoke trick several more time in his WCW stint. He’d also appear in the rafters holding hostage Hogan’s crony The Disciple (WWF veteran Brutus Beefcake), appear in multiple form, and at the low point of the feud, appear as a reflection in a mirror that only Hogan could see. All the theatrics made Warrior’s feud with Papa Shango from 1992 seem like Shakespeare, and Hogan’s absurd overselling of his fear of Warrior did nothing but erode his legend, as well as the memory of their great 1990 feud. WCW viewers tuned out in droves, but at this point, there was no getting through to Warrior. He was convinced that he knew what was entertaining and what the fans needed more than they did and continued to push the envelope, creating his cult-like “One Warrior Nation” (of which The Disciple became the only other member), and emerging from smoke at the widely reviled Fall Brawl 1998: War Games to chase off Hogan after Hogan had single-handedly knocked out no less than Kevin Nash, Sting, Bret Hart, Diamond Dallas Page, Roddy Piper, and Lex Luger (on a tragic sidenote, the trap door Warrior used to enter the ring was the very same one that on the same card would cause the late Davey Boy Smith to injure his back, leading to his addiction to painkillers, his firing from WCW, and perhaps his eventual death). The entire direction of WCW shifted towards building the “biggest return match in wrestling history” (taking over from Hogan-Piper and Hogan-Sting, other matches WCW had given the same billing in the two years prior), Hogan-Warrior II at Halloween Havoc 1998, and the fans continued to turn away in massive numbers.

Warrior was officially a part of three matches in his WCW stint: War Games, a tag match in which he brought his career full circle by teaming with his old tag team partner Sting against Hogan and Bret Hart (a match I believe Hart later said he was ashamed to have been a part of), and the match with Hogan at Halloween Havoc. Whereas in 1990 Hogan and Warrior shocked the critics by having a superb match, their second meeting was tempting fate, and ended up being more hokey and more ridiculous than anybody could have predicted, ending when Hogan’s rookie nephew Horace (whom Hogan had inexplicably beat to a bloody pulp only one week earlier). One week after Halloween Havoc (which ended up a good pay per view despite the awful Hogan-Warrior match, thanks to superlative efforts by Rey Misterio Jr., Eddie Guererro, Diamond Dallas Page, and Bill Goldberg), seeing the direction the ratings were headed, Bischoff politely informed Warrior his services were no longer needed and he disappeared from WCW television with no explanation whatsoever.

Following his disastrous stint in WCW, with nothing better to do, Warrior went on his web site and began to blame everybody from Hogan to Bischoff to the fans to Vince McMahon for the failure of his WCW rebirth. When he ran that issue into the ground, Warrior went back to his keyboard and blamed everybody else he could think of from Sting on for the disappointment of his career in general. Warrior took a brief break from the blame game when it was rumored that Paul Heyman of ECW might be interested in signing him, and basically came right out on his web site and said he’d join ECW only if he would be allowed to do whatever he wanted creatively, still somehow thinking his ideas were entertaining, despite the fact every angle he had ever booked had been an unmitigated disaster. Heyman politely declined, and Warrior went on a tirade against Heyman, one of wrestling’s all-time most respected creative minds, claiming he had no idea how to entertain the fans.

Over the course of a decade, The Ultimate Warrior went from the expression of primal rage, to enjoyable attraction, to failed champion, to possible star, to deluded superhero, to bizarre curiosity, to laughing stock, to bitter internet writer. There are those of us who still wonder what happened to the potential of the man who was to be Hulk Hogan’s handpicked successor, but perhaps after reading this retrospective, even those people have a better idea. Nevertheless, let’s take a closer look

THE MARK: Mark fans loved the Warrior in the 1980s. As covered early on in this piece, what fans loved about Warrior was the same thing that first attracted fans to Bill Goldberg: he was an expression of the primal instincts civilized people were forced to keep internalized. Warrior was a form of escapism. Even when he resurfaced in the late 90s, marks got a kick out of Warrior on at least initial viewing either due to the nostalgia factor or because frankly, in addition to a great wrestling physique, all the face paint and airbrushed accessories really are pretty visually stunning. However, it’s the theatrics that turned off even the most casual marks in Warrior’s later years. There is no denying that wrestling is a show, and fans love the pyro, the lights, et al. Suspending disbelief is a key part of enjoying professional wrestling. But the “only Hulk Hogan can see Warrior’s reflection” bit was insulting to anybody over the age of ten (and probably most under). Wrestling fans have matured over the last fifteen years, but Warrior’s view of them doesn’t seem to have done the same.

THE SMART: Give me five smart fans who like The Ultimate Warrior and I’ll be both surprised and impressed with your detective abilities. The Warrior has never had anything going for him that smarts like or respect. He has never been a student of the game, just a power lifter who had more talented guys occasionally carry him to a good match. His interview skills are near non-existent. Warrior provides mark fans with either a jolt of energy or at least a chuckle, but for smart fans, he is a waste of five minutes (or however much of their time he takes up). Perhaps worst of all in the eyes of the smart fan is Warrior’s work ethic, or lack thereof. He is yet another guy with a great look who was given instant and many chances to be a huge star in wrestling while smart darlings have had to claw and scratch their way to the top over the course of years of hard work.

And finally

THE MEAN: Any of you who have read my work on any sort of regular basis (which of course has been impossible as of late, but you get the gist) know that I’m usually an optimist when it comes to most things wrestling-related. In this column, I’ve always tried to see the positive aspects of each of the subjects. The Ultimate Warrior gave me chills when he made his 1996 and 1998 comebacks because they reminded me of when I was a kid; this is about the only nice thing I have to say about The Warrior. Jim Hellwig is a guy who was given opportunities time and time again, despite failing, despite being difficult to work with, despite the fact that he would never admit he screwed up. He had guys like Vince McMahon, Paul Heyman, and others who were willing to create a character for him that worked and who had proven track records, but he insisted he could do it himself. Guys like Randy Savage and Rick Rude shot their credibility to hell for him (he kicked out of like four Savage elbow drops at Wrestlemania VII) and he did nothing with their work and never returned the favor. The most irritating thing about The Ultimate Warrior was his sheer stubbornness, his refusal to accept that he was simply wrong. When he had McMahon booking his storylines or Savage walking him through a match, he was entertaining, and this would be a dream come true for most wrestlers who worked their entire lives to get to the WWF, but not for Jim Hellwig, bodybuilder turned wrestler who thought he was the savior of professional wrestling even after he solidified himself as a complete joke.

Honestly, the whole savior complex, it doesn’t bug me; I find it kind of amusing. It’s the way The Ultimate Warrior always considered himself above the wrestling business. The wrestling business is a myriad of talented individuals, in front of and behind the camera, past and present, who have worked hard to create something spectacular. The minute you choose to become a wrestler, a booker, a referee, a ring announcer, whatever, you get the honor of being part of a truly fantastic team. You’ve got the best teammates in the world watching your back. But just like the kid in little league who thought he could do it all, Warrior thought he was a one-man team. There’s nothing that bothers me more than people who refuse to admit they’ve screwed up; just accept it like a man and then work to improve. Warrior will never accept the blame for the mess he made of his career; he will always pass the buck to whoever is available. I understand now that the new NWA is looking to hire him (I thought the Jarretts were smarter than that). Prediction if The Ultimate Warrior joins the NWA: his act becomes a joke even quicker, the Jarretts ask him to leave, and we get another brand new column about how Jerry Jarrett is denying the wrestling industry greatness because he won’t let Warrior shoot fireworks out of his fingertips, all in made up words of course.

Wow. I do believe that was my first real rant Scott should be proud. I guess we shall see what happens with the Warrior and the NWA.

In the mean time, thanks for reading.