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Remembering the Ultimate Warrior

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Originally, this space was going to be used to look at the fallout from this past Sunday’s Wrestlemania and Monday’s Raw. I was going to give my take on Undertaker’s streak ending, the decision to give such an honor to Brock Lesnar, and what the future holds for both men. I was going to praise WWE for pushing so much young talent on Monday, and putting Daniel Bryan and The Shield in a position to go over the veteran unit of Triple H, Randy Orton, Batista and Kane in their feud. I was going to speculate on which young stars will make the most of their opportunity, and which talent was going to move down the card as a result.

The Ultimate Warrior? Honestly, he wasn’t going to be a big part of the column. I was planning on mentioning how nice it was to see him, ala Bruno Sammartino last year, come back “home” for a Hall Of Fame induction, and how I got a kick out of getting one last “crazy Warrior promo” on Raw.

Now, he is gone, having passed away yesterday at the age of 54.

Warrior (his legal name, which he changed from Jim Hellwig many years ago), first came on my radar as a fan through wrestling magazines, part of the Blade Runners tag team with the man we’d come to know as Sting in the mid-80’s. That team split, and Warrior went to World Class Championship Wrestling as the “Dingo Warrior” which is where I saw him on television for the first time. Eventually, he made his way to the then-WWF, and I remember watching him wrestle (still using the Dingo Warrior name) Terry Gibbs on the undercard of a house show in Staten Island, New York in front of a few hundred fans. He was fast, intense, and got a huge reaction from the crowd (including me) who weren’t used to the big, muscled-up guys being so frantic in the ring.

The story of his career from that point is well known. Quickly working his way up the card, the Intercontinental title feud with Rick Rude (I was in attendance at Summerslam ’89 when he won the title back from Rude with the aid of Roddy Piper shooting the moon at Rude to distract him), and then the big push (including a slew of wins over my all-time favorite, Andre The Giant) that resulted in Warrior becoming the first man to ever defeat the mighty Hulk Hogan at a Wrestlemania. I was cheering for Warrior that night, wanting to see someone other than Hogan at the top of the card. Warrior had an intensity that was so different from what I was used to seeing in WWF main events.

A year later, Warrior defeated Randy Savage in arguably the best match of his career at Wrestlemania VII. That match really marked the end of Warrior’s run as a childhood favorite for many fans. He left the company, came back at Wrestlemania VIII (as Hulk Hogan was exiting) for another run. Then he left again, came back many years later, left again, popped up surprisingly in an independent company in Las Vegas in the mid-90’s, had the bizarre WCW run where Hogan “got his win back” and eventually settled into a role as one of the most outspoken critics of WWE, Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan that you could find, while still occasionally popping up for autograph signings and events (including the occasional match). He also dipped his toe into politics, and Warrior became known for his rants, many of which can still be found all over YouTube.

Those rants, along with his name change, pretty much labeled him as a “psycho” and a “nut”… something WWE was happy to confirm with their “Self-Destruction Of The Ultimate Warrior” DVD release a few years back. Still, there was this bizarre mystique about the Warrior that kept fans interested in him (and made a popular choice as a video game character). He was often absent from the wrestling scene, but never forgotten.

When he was announced as entering the WWE Hall Of Fame, it was a bit surprising. However, after Bruno went in last year, it wasn’t totally shocking. Seems WWE has made a point to reach out to their past stars in recent years and extend olive branches to those who have criticized them. Warrior appearing in WWE video game ads showed that the “ice had thawed” and his speech at the Hall Of Fame showed that while all was not forgotten (he made it a point to bring up the DVD) all did appear forgiven. The photo of Warrior hugging Vince McMahon certainly was one many fans never thought they would see.

At Raw this past Monday, Warrior made what turned out to be his final public appearance, addressing the fans who supported him, and those who only know of his legend from digging into past matches. His words that night were like a classic Ultimate Warrior promo (intense, a little confusing), but bizarrely, he ended up giving his own epitaph.

“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 into 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.“

No one will ever list Warrior as the greatest wrestler of all time. Realistically, his career as an active star and main event talent was a short one. However, he made a memorable impact on the fans, and for the generation that lived through his run at the top, he was someone you will never forget. Sitting in an arena, hearing that machine-gun guitar line, jumping up to watch him run to the ring, shaking the ropes and looking like he was going to explode. If you ever experienced it, and I did many times, it was totally unique and that is what truly set Warrior apart. In a business filled with people who are “different” than everyone else, Warrior stood out. There was only one. Rest In Peace.

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