Load Up The Spaceship: A Eulogy For The Ultimate Warrior

One of Doc Zeus’ biggest inspiration is Sting Nobody stays dead forever in comic books. A superhero can ostensibly “die” in the story but the ceaseless continuity of the medium demands that...
By    April 9, 2014


One of Doc Zeus’ biggest inspiration is Sting

Nobody stays dead forever in comic books. A superhero can ostensibly “die” in the story but the ceaseless continuity of the medium demands that the dead will eventually rise again. Batman died, Spider-Man died, even the seemingly indestructible Superman died. They would all eventually resurrect to continue enjoying future adventures with little second thought about their mortality.

A common analogy for professional wrestlers is to compare them to comic book superheroes. The shared hulking physiques, colorful costumes and operatic combat makes the analogy almost inevitable as if it were a too perfect to resist. Of course, death is just as prevalent in the world of professional wrestling as it is in the world of comics, except professional wrestlers don’t get to resurrect after they die. All too often the physical and psychological toil of a lifestyle lived on the extreme leads to lives of our heroes cut way too short.

More so than any other performer, the Ultimate Warrior – born James Hellwig – was always the platonic ideal of the professional wrestler as superhero dichotomy. Warrior’s indestructible in-ring style was taken directly from the Hulk Hogan playbook portraying a character that was nigh-indestructible in the squared circle. Unlike the Hulkster – whose gradually receding hairstyle made him feel slightly more human – Warrior was pure comic book gimmicky perfection. His veiny, chiseled physique, feathered mane and flowing colorful tassels seemed carved directly from the imagination of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The Ultimate Warrior’s trademark promos were filled with a cryptic mysticism that seemed obsessed with death and fate. He was even billed from “Parts Unknown” as if to provide him with the appropriate mysterious origin story to complete his superhero mythos. He got to enjoy a de-facto comic book resurrection in his own sense after rumors of his “death” began to spread amongst 1990s school children after he made a surprise reappearance at Wrestlemania VIII several months removed from any sightings on WWE television.

On Tuesday, Ultimate Warrior died in perhaps the most deeply ironic tragedy to befall professional wrestling. Three days after he was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame, two days after appearing at his last Wrestlemania and a day after he gave a stirring final promo on Monday Night Raw, Jim Hellwig – who legally changed his name to Warrior in his later years – collapsed while walking to his car as he was leaving his hotel room in Scotsdale, Arizona. He was 54 years old.

Warrior’s career peaked in 1990 when he challenged and defeated his greatest professional – and sometimes personal – rival, Hulk Hogan, in front of 67,000 fans in the SkyDome at Wrestlemania VI . In a titanic, title-for-title clash that was billed as “The Ultimate Challenge,” Warrior beat Hogan to win his first and only WWE Title. For fans at the time, the battle was seen as something approaching Batman and Superman fighting for the world championship as the pair were easily the WWE’s two most beloved babyfaces in the company.

Warrior triumphed that day but his career soon began to spiral out of control from them on. His reign as the face of the company fizzled and after a series of grossly unprofessional incidents and bridge burnings, Warrior was exiled from the WWE completely by 1996. After a stint in WWE’s 1990s rival promotion WCW, where he attempted to rekindle his magical feud with Hogan had failed, Warrior was out of the sport for good by Fall 1998. It was an ignominious and embarassing end to one of the most popular stars of the 1980s.

In his retirement years, Warrior became something of a professional pariah and a living joke within professional wrestling circles as he devolved into something approaching a parodic and self-deluded ultra conservative quasi-motivational speaker – a muscular Stephen Colbert without the irony and twice the invective. He would post long, rambling and cryptic rants on his blog that served as a personal grinding stone to publicly air grievances both political and to those who wronged him in his life and career. In one nasty incident during a public speech, he declared that “queering doesn’t make the world work” to great controversy.

In 2005, the WWE infamously released a hatchet job documentary entitled “The Self Destruction Of The Ultimate Warrior” that painted Warrior in the most negative light possible. It was said to have been personally crushing to Warrior but he was hardly innocent. Grantland’s great professional wrestling writer David Shoemaker pointed out in his book, The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling, that despite Warrior’s obsession with death, he would often make fun of the tragic lives of his fellow wrestlers claiming that “I’m not like some of the idiots I worked with… I don’t have sympathy for him.” He had lived long enough to see himself become a real-life villain.

Despite his often ugly politics and uglier professional reputation, time began to heal his decades-old, self-inflicted wounds. Warrior was able to mend his relationship with the WWE. In Summer 2013, he appeared in a commercial for the company’s flagship video game, WWE ’14, in a hilarious send-up of his old persona. In January, it was announced that he would become the first inductee in the WWE Hall Of Fame Class of 2014 – an honor long overdue for one of the transcendent stars of WWE’s golden era. During the weekend of his Hall Of Fame induction, he began to mend fences with men in the industry he was in constant conflict with over the years. On the night that Warrior passed away, fellow reformed professional wrestling pariah Jake “The Snake” Roberts tweeted out that he was “Deeply saddened. We just had a great talk & buried a senseless hatchet. Talked working together. RIP Warrior. Taking solace we made peace”.

After giving a heartfelt and honest acceptance speech during his induction to the Hall on Saturday night, Warrior enjoyed one last Wrestlemania moment in the sun on Sunday and appeared on Raw for the first time in 18 years to give one last trademark Monday evening. It was genuinely heartwarming. When news broke that he had passed last Tuesday evening, the coincidence felt a little too morbid for reality. After years of horrible tragedy, fans of the sport had learned the hard way that their childhood heroes were not actual comic book characters, that they were indeed mortal and flawed. When news began to trickle out that Warrior died from natural causes, I still felt gutted by the news but oddly relieved that it was not something far, far worse.

For me personally, Ultimate Warrior was one of my childhood heroes but as the years went on and the occasional ugliness of what he had become began to trickle out, I was content to ignore him for what he was. If I did remember him, I chose to remember him for his constant energy, insane promos and epic encounters with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Rick Rude and Randy Savage. The irony of his death is almost too crushing, though. Thus, I’m not entirely sure if it’s good or bad thing Warrior got to leave the earth after three of the best days of your life but it’s certainly mythic storytelling of the highest order. Even in death, the Warrior remained the perfect encapsulation of his comic book mystique. Regardless,I’m glad that he got a chance to load up the spaceship with the rocket fuel one last time.

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