Always Believe: Warrior 1959 – 2014
As a child, I could often be found sprinting around the house with coloured shoelaces tied to my arms, beating my fists against my chest, as I mimicked my idol, the Ultimate Warrior. What was he, anyway? Space philosophiser? Ancient Mayan deity? Escapee from one of Charles Manson’s peyote trips? That’s what was so great about the Warrior; he belied comparison, in a cartoon landscape where gimmicks were easily definable in a few words or less. Jovial fat sailor; puffing barber; real-life giant; coked-up symbol of God-fearing Americana. But Warrior? Warrior was some crazy alien who’d crash-landed into our planet like a meteor and clawed his way out of a crack in the desert to fry our undeveloped human brains.
A startling combination of cosmic sixties beat-poetry and eighties self-help aggression, his promos involved snorting, talking into his hands, and breathlessly spouting thesauric fairytales of cod-mysticism and old gods, in one of his two speaking volumes; purple-faced yelling or a throaty stage-whisper. Should future civilisations unearth tapes of 1980’s WWF, between the acid-cowboy dervish of Randy Savage, Hogan’s bug-eyed non-sequiturs, and these three-minute bursts of biblical concept album performance art, they’ll think that Erich Von Daniken was probably onto something. Even amongst that company, Warrior’s interviews stood out as notably insane. Asked to do an impersonation of a wrestler, most people would shout “Next week, I’ll kick your ass!” into an imaginary camera, but his most infamous, to build up the most iconic match of his career, revolves around his daring “Hul Ko-gan” to hijack and crash a plane, as a means to testing his mettle. With its strangely measured cadence, it plays like Brando’s speech in Apocalypse Now, and increasingly in the era where teams of writers hand WWE performers a script before they give them the mic, it now feels like something we all dreamed.
An enigma in every way, truly he was the product of his billed hometown, Parts Unknown, and the term ‘larger than life’ has never been more apposite. How could someone like that even be real? Looking at him when you were kid, with muscles so swollen that his body was a criss-cross of pulsating veins, and with things — tassels, boots, hair — rippling in his wake as he blustered through our world, you felt he belonged in the pages of a comic book. So strong was this mythic status, that when he returned after the steroid scandal, many pounds lighter and with a new haircut, there was playground talk the world over of his death, with rumours another wrestler had replaced him beneath the paint. Even the manner of his alleged passing — eaten by a shark — suggests he was considered far too post-human to go out like any normal mortal. Sadly though, his real death is another grim run-through of wrestling’s hard reality that we’ve seen dozens of times before, and will again.
But as ludicrous as the whole colourful package was, he made it work, exploding through the curtain on the cymbal crash of his music, with the crowd instinctively raising as one to see a luminous blur streaking down the aisle. Sure, he was usually gassed by the time he hit the ring, and you could count the moves in his arsenal on the fingers of one hand, but should an unstoppable caveman-genius really be conscientiously tying his opponents in complicated knots? Quite rightly, he moved like an animal that’d broken free of its cage, and his blows looked as though they needed a flashing POW! on impact. The gimmick worked because — like the catchphrase of his post-wrestling Warrior brand — he truly believed, and consequently, you did too. Like Bray Wyatt today, there was never a moment when you felt it possible that beneath the Warrior, there was a Jim Hellwig, someone who ate, drove, watched TV and took a shit when he wasn’t on our screens. His 100% commitment to the character is what made a snarling, facepainted maniac with neon tassels on his biceps spitting black metal poetry monologues and shaking the ropes completely believable. How many people could have pulled that off?
Though pro wrestling, at its best and worst, can evoke a lot of emotion in its audience, it’s rare that that stretches beyond the usual sports response of anger or elation, into grander, movie-like territories of feeling, and it’s uncommon wrestling even makes an attempt at walking that path. A notable exception is the post-match to Warrior’s retirement bout with Randy Savage. At the time, in a sexist way, it was considered a moment “for the gals,” as Miss Elizabeth ran from the crowd to reunite with Randy, after saving him from a Sensational Sherri beating, and though it’s soapy, the embrace of wrestling’s golden couple remains one of the genre’s most memorable tableaux. Twenty-three years on, all of its players are now dead. Apart maybe from the kid with the big glasses and enormous floppy orange hat, who was seen weeping with joy.
Warrior’s later life will inevitably turn his passing into a moral argument about whether or not we can separate art from the artist (although even as a fan, it’s a push to categorise Ultimate Warrior matches as ‘art’). Perhaps seeing the hungry market for it, his retirement years are marked by the unabashed peddling of right wing bile against homosexuality, or trolling the internet over celebrity deaths, turning current events into rambling, multi-thousand worded online rants with the same all-or-nothing passion and incomprehensible fervour as his promos. Conversely, there are myriad Youtube videos of Warrior interacting with fans, adults and children alike, with a gentle, humble manner, going out of his way to put them at ease and seemingly genuinely thrilled they’ve taken the time to come and see him. In seeing these, it’s hard to settle the two sides.
In the final 48 hours of his life, he buried a lot of hatchets that’d been sticking into open wounds for the better part of 20 years, and emerged, like you imagine the character did as he came snorting and pacing into arenas back in the day, out from the wilderness and back under the bright lights. Maybe that freakish physique — even at 54, broad-shouldered in a Hall of Fame suit — and melon-sized bodybuilder’s heart had been hanging on all this time until he could make his peace and say his goodbyes to the fanbase he genuinely adored. And in hindsight, it’s hard to take his speeches at anything but that — a goodbye. Once the rabid crowd reaction had died down, he spoke of a man’s heart taking a final beat, and lungs taking a final breath, and of the spirit of the Ultimate Warrior living forever, thanks to the fans. Never has a speech sounded more like a eulogy. Less than 24 hours later, he collapsed and died in front of the wife and young daughters who’d sat so proudly and lovingly in the front row on Saturday night.
I have a vivid memory of watching Summerslam ’88 for the first time with my cousin. When the Honky Tonk Man did his open challenge — “Get me somebody out here to wrestle, I don’t care who it is!” — I turned to him and said “Imagine if the Ultimate Warrior comes down,” and we both laughed, because what a dumb idea. Honky Tonk Man against that guy? He might as well let someone run over him with a tank. That’s the core of the Ultimate Warrior. Utterly unique, both in the crazy world of pro wrestling, and the normal world outside, he always stood out as something more. More than a wrestler. More than a man. He was Warrior. Right to the end. And beyond.
My new book, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal, featuring a detailed look at Brian Pillman’s Loose Cannon character, and its place in the funhouse mirror world of kayfabe, and the crazy lies and delusions of Hulk Hogan is available now on the Amazon Kindle.
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