James Hellwig, who wrestled as the Ultimate Warrior, has passed away at the age of 54, just days after being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. He is survived by a wife and two daughters.
Those are not easy sentences to understand. Or, rather, those sentences contain a complexity that is not readily apparent. James Hellwig has died, and with him his wrestling persona, the Ultimate Warrior. Few wrestlers have encouraged fans to so clearly think of the man and the wrestler as different beings than Mr. Hellwig over the years, and this despite legally changing his name to “Warrior” and merging the two personas during his Hall of Fame induction speech. The Warrior’s stock in trade was a kind of primal mysticism, while James Hellwig’s approach was less philosophical, more political, and often repugnant. The night before his death, in his last public appearance, Hellwig appeared on Monday Night Raw, and walked to the ring.
The Ultimate Warrior seemingly never walked anywhere. Bursting from the Gorilla position and tearing to the ring as his theme music rocked whatever arena the WWF Caravan had pulled into that night, the Ultimate Warrior was the living personification of what every energy drink has ever promised you with. The Warrior shook the ropes and yelled to the audience as the audience shook the arena and yelled back.
On this Monday night, Hellwig, his body clearly no longer able to do what it once did, walked to the ring, took the microphone in his hand, and seemed to struggle with what to say. It was only when dawning a Warrior mask and turning control of his body over to his alter ego that the words began to flow in classic Warrior fashion: heartfelt, passionate, living on the edge between philosophical and incomprehensible, and often focused on death.
In hindsight, it’s hard not to see the Warrior’s final address to the WWE Universe as a self-eulogy:
No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe a final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, and makes them bleed deeper, and something larger than life, then 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, you, you, you, you, 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 Ultimate Warrior will run forever!
There’s more here, though, than a man offering a final rumination on death. For the first time (and along with his Hall of Fame speech two nights before, for the only time), the Warrior had evolved into an elder statesman.
It was a stunning moment in a weekend of stunning moments. WrestleMania XXX began with the three most important (meaning, the three wrestlers who made the company the most money and garnered the most mainstream media attention) wrestlers in WWF/E history: Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the Rock. They stood in the ring at the center of the Superdome, trading catchphrases and sharing in the glowing adulation of 75,000 fans. Hogan defined the early years of WrestleMania, the Rock and Austin defined the Attitude Era, and the stars that the WWE hopes will define the next decade spent the night announcing their arrival on the “showcase of the immortals” to the welcoming cheers of fans ready for new players at the top of the card.
And there in the middle of the night, the Undertaker fell.
To say that fans were stunned is as great an understatement as saying they were pleased with the ascension of Daniel Bryan to the top of the company at the end of the night. We expected Bryan to become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion because we’ve spent eight months watching him denied that moment. On a night when the WWE was bringing back the big guns to open the night, there was a clear indication that they were going to send us home happy.
We just didn’t really believe they’d crush us in the middle of the night.
The Undertaker fell.
To Brock Lesnar?
As I discussed in my review of XXX, the storyline between him and Lesnar was booked for a Lesnar victory, and we would have seen it coming if it involved anyone other than the Undertaker. Taker has earned the right to call his own ending and if this is what he wanted, that’s what I wanted. What’s important to this discussion of the Warrior is how the Warrior took on the guise of elder statesman in the aftermath of the company’s true elder statesman having lost for the first time at WrestleMania, and having spent the night in the hospital with a severe concussion.
The Undertaker has long set the tone in the WWE locker room, and even though he’s spent the past few years wrestling only a few times, it’s hard to imagine anyone being more respected inside the industry and inside the locker room. As he recovered from his injuries suffered the night before, here was the Ultimate Warrior stepping into a self-appointed leadership role and offering what seemed like very genuine and heartfelt words of encouragement to the fans and to the wrestlers in the back.
The Warrior and Taker stand in stark contrast to one another; while both men started off with cartoonish gimmicks, the Undertaker evolved over the years while the Warrior stayed functionally the same. The Warrior blitzed his way to the ring, battling his opponents with a manic energy, while the Undertaker stalked to the ring, ready for a brawl. One became a legend in a flash while the other rose by being the constant in an ever-changing WWE landscape. It was telling on the night after we learned the Undertaker was, in fact, mortal at Mania, that the Warrior offered a self-eulogy that could also have been spoken at the funeral of the Streak.
As a kid, I hated the Ultimate Warrior. Whenever his music would hit, I’d roll my eyes and shake my head as he ran to the ring and acted the fool.
As an adult, he’s still not anywhere near my favorite wrestler, but I appreciate him to a much greater degree. Me hating him? That was him doing his job and getting a reaction out of the audience. While most fans rallied behind him, my dislike for him proved the effectiveness of the character. Love ‘em, hate ‘em, wrestlers who last are the wrestlers who can create those reactions.
The irony of the Warrior is that he didn’t last – at least not inside the ring. After being asked to leave the WWF, the Warrior made a few returns over the years, but none of them lasted very long. It’s perhaps because of this that he’s still held in such high regard by so many fans. We never saw the Warrior slowly deteriorate in front of us as time eroded his skills. When you have a flash of greatness and then disappear, no one can remember you for anything other than those moments of greatness.
Whether it’s Vince McMahon’s mellowing or the rise of Triple H in the WWE hierarchy, there has been a clear effort in recent years to bury the hatchet and build new bridges with wrestlers who have had an uneasy relationship with the company. Going back to the reconciliation with Bret Hart (which seemed driven by Vince) through to the recently restored ties with Bruno Sammartino (driven by Triple H), the Ultimate Warrior is probably the most surprising of all the “welcome backs,” but his reinstatement to the good graces of the WWE highlights the importance of the Hall of Fame in giving older wrestlers a chance to be appreciated by the fans of today.
Timing is a funny thing. Had the Warrior died a month ago, the public reaction would have been much less respectful. By coming back and being elected to the Hall and then speaking so glowingly of the fans, the Ultimate Warrior and James Hellwig both had a chance to bask in the adulation of fans and reinvent themselves for the modern audience.
Most importantly, on a weekend designed to immortalize the heroes of yesteryear, Hellwig humanized the Warrior, and the Warrior acknowledged Hellwig. His passing serves as yet another tragedy of wrestlers dying too young (and, let’s be honest, a great number of these deaths have been from what we shall non-judgmentally call “the bodybuilding crowd”), but coming when it did, and not so little as four days earlier, the Warrior and Hellwig and the the WWE and the WWE Universe all got to make peace with one another.
I never really much liked the Ultimate Warrior’s wrestling. I never really liked most of James Hellwig’s politics. But I am glad that I was reminded this weekend that he was a very real man with a very real wife and two very real daughters.
Godspeed, Mr. Hellwig.