“Jim Hellwig died years ago. He died so the Warrior could live.” Dan Friedman looks at the complexities of the man that didn’t just create a wrestling character, but lived the life of one.
The draws of wrestling are obvious to the young male: the comic book physiques and costumes, the status that physical superiority holds among early peer groups. The hyper-masculinity of it all, to those first identifying and defining what it means to be a male of the species, is powerfully captivating. It’s the concrete judging of good versus evil – a black and white morality play, dressed in hyper-colored spandex.
As adults, increased awareness to the jingoistic, chauvinistic, sexist, and often racist culture of the sport that, at best, professional wrestling embraces and at worst promotes, alienates many. But, wrestling’s popularity marches on, perpetually replenished with a new generation of young fans and older ones comfortable compartmentalizing their enjoyment of it, or unwilling to recognize the sport’s more problematic characteristics.
Apt to his moniker the wrestler known to most as the Ultimate Warrior embodied all of these aspects, helping him soar to rarefied heights of popularity, and ultimately alienating everyone around him. This past Tuesday, the Ultimate Warrior died at the age of 54.
Over the last decade so many stories of professional wrestlers dying at unnaturally young ages have surfaced that rarely are these deaths shocking. Reasons for this tragic phenomenon are a murky blend of years of steroid use and abuse, accumulated physical injury and head trauma, and an industry that places very little value on emotional and mental health. Many of these deaths pass fairly unnoticed.
Yet the Ultimate Warrior, known as Jim Hellwig when not covered in face paint and tassels, has resonated on a different level with the public. Partly this is because he died just three days after his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, capping a tumultuous career, but also because he led one of the more perplexing and polarizing lives both in and out of the wrestling ring.
The Ultimate Warrior came on the scene in 1987, less as a new character and more as a force of nature. He was something completely different. Neither the hero nor the heel, but both.
His promo interviews (the key expositional tool in the wrestling world) were often somehow enigmatic, incoherent and rambling, and at the same time exhilarating and almost mystical in nature. He growled speeches of great light warring with total darkness. Rumbling up from magma in his belly, veins popping out the neck, came the words:
“Now you must deal with the creation of all the unpleasantries in the entire universe as I feel the injection from the gods above!”
He spoke about himself as if he was answering a calling; hell, he named himself THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR. We had seen nothing like him before. By all our casual measures he was insane and fans loved it!
With his spasmodic, intoxicating persona, it didn’t matter that he was not the most skilled performer or technically proficient wrestler. What he lacked in precision and accuracy he made up for with unfathomable energy. His charisma was, well, scary. He wasn’t an actor, but a star.
He was not transcendent the way Hulk Hogan was, and certainly never had the longevity Hogan enjoyed, but one has to believe that was the WWEs plans in 1990, when they had Warrior beat Hogan on the sport’s grandest stage, Wrestlemania VI. If Hulk Hogan had been the WWE’s Magic & Bird rolled into one, The Ultimate Warrior was envisioned to be their Jordan.
This never came to pass. By 1991 his career had peaked, and would begin a rapid fade. Not due to lack fan interest. The fans could not get enough. But the same over-the-top, confrontational and enigmatic force that made him soar as the Ultimate Warrior in the ring, was the downfall of Jim Hellwig outside of it.
By all accounts Hellwig was incredibly difficult to work with. He had well documented arguments with WWE management over contracts, storylines and control. Multiples lawsuits were filed over ownership of the name “The Ultimate Warrior”. Much like his spandexed persona, Hellwig positioned himself as separate, a loner by choice, by moral and divine superiority.
The Warrior couldn’t stop being a warrior after the match was over. He went into semi-retirement in 1992, had a brief comeback in 1996, bounced around a bit and was completely out of wrestling by 1998. Hulk Hogan, on the other hand, just started his thirty-fifth year.
By the mid 2000’s Jim Hellwig would show up in the public eye for very different reasons. He positioned himself as Conservative commentator, where he continued to war against the evils he perceived in society. Just a few sample comments from his blog, “The Warrior’s Machete”:
On Hurricane Katrina –
If we could be shown what general conditions they lived in before the hurricane, we would see that had little respect for what they did have. We would see just how unorganized, unclean and dysfunctionally they lived….Their lives were already in ruin — self ruin. Ruined by the bad choices they made over and over.
And they are fat. Have you ever seen so many fat people? Poverty? Poverty of what? Having enough to buy so much food to eat that you become obese — this is poverty?
On MLK Day –
Martin Luther King can have his own self-titled birthday recognized as a National Holiday, but not our country’s First President? …Martin marched a few times from Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL. It’s only about 40 miles and he walked along paved roads with security escorts and modern comforts and conveniences. He wrote a few jailhouse letters, plagiarized a great many speeches, and played up his last name “King” as if he was ONE. He led his best rally amid the monuments of Washington, DC. He preached proper, righteous behavior while he at the same time committed adultery many publicly verifiable times — oh, and he had “a dream.”
On Heath Ledger’s death –
By today’s standard, though, I do have to agree that he was a great father. Perhaps even greater then the father of the year, Hulk Hogan. After all, Leather Hedger did what it took to kill himself. His kid is without a father, yes, but the negative influence is now removed and his own child has the chance for a full recovery.
Years after leaving the ring he could not abandon those same distasteful isms that are ingrained in so much of wrestling culture. He couldn’t ever turn it off.
I’ve written 1150 words so far, but here is everything you need to know: In 1993 Jim Hellwig legally changed his name to the Warrior. It is still the legal last name of his now widow and his children. Warrior.
How did someone so volatile, so confrontational and frankly unlikable, craft such an iconic wrestling character? He didn’t. It was never an act. He was so captivating as the Ultimate Warrior because he BELIEVED it. So, we believed it. Again, from “The Warrior’s Machete”, written a decade after his last professional match:
My name is Warrior. I live by a warrior philosophy of life conceived by unique physical life experiences, serious introspection, and many years of enlightened self-study. My Creator endowed me with naturally high testosterone levels, unusual self-discipline, stalwart refusal to compromise right with wrong, and a very low tolerance for hypocrites, liars, enablers, piecemeal practice of principle, emasculated males, political-correctness, and oppressive, anti-freedom caca that doesn’t work in the private backyard of my own individual life. I am a “Being” Created with the ability to judge, so I do. I am a male also inspired by men who have held greater ideals and have done much greater things than any of us who are living today.
Taking creative liberty here, exchanging razor for a warrior’s more appropriate cutting weapon, I deliver the beliefs, inspiration, ideas, thoughts, critiques and opinions on this blog with the chunk-removing force of a Machete swung by a warrior male who believes that, to sever off the unnecessary ambivalence, potentially confusing equivocation and inane relativistic entrenchment, the swing must be carried out with a mighty and annihilating follow-through.
He was never a performer playing a role – he was simply the Warrior.
The internet has been flooded with pieces concerning the death of the Ultimate Warrior. The headlines have almost universally mentioned Jim Hellwig as a passing note, a mere set up to talk about the Ultimate Warrior. This is not sloppy writing, or a callous commentary on the obsession with celebrity culture. It is because Jim Hellwig died years ago. He died so the Warrior could live.
On April 5, 2014, the Ultimate Warrior was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Closing the chapter on 25 years of strife, rumors, and ill will. Warrior died on April 8, 2014 of heart failure.
What does the warrior live for when the fighting is over?
Photo: Mr-iGFX / DeviantArt