My Life Without the Ultimate Warrior

On Saturday, Ultimate Warrior was inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame after a lengthy exile from the company. On Sunday, he appeared at Wrestlemania XXX to salute the crowd whose imagination he captured 24 years earlier. On Monday, he appeared live on Raw for the first time in 18 years, donned his trademark jacket and face mask, and addressed the audience about legacy and remembrance. On Tuesday, he was dead.

As was the case for more than 20 years, Warrior’s departure and absence was even bigger news than his participation in wrestling.

Warrior, like a disturbingly large number of wrestlers from his generation, was far too young. He was 54 and leaves behind a wife and two young daughters. Early reports indicate that he likely died of a heart attack outside his hotel in Arizona. Without any judgment attached, I think it is fair to posit that the combination of a massively oversized body, huge amounts of steroids and painkillers, and high-intensity, high-stress lifestyle on the road is uniquely taxing on the human heart. He also came to prominence as a walking billboard for the cocaine-fueled ’80s. Warrior, like Randy Savage, Big Boss Man, Crush, Bam Bam Bigelow, British Bulldog, Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig, Hawk, and many others, fell victim to the same combination of factors that brought him to the pinnacle of wrestling.

When Warrior beat Hulk Hogan cleanly at Wrestlemania VI in Toronto, he was the king of professional wrestling. He was the first man to clearly gain the upper-hand over Hogan in WWE when the company was a monolith that overwhelmed Ric Flair, Lex Luger, and the NWA. Warrior’s charisma and energy were unparalleled in the moment and made whatever he lacked in mat skills irrelevant. Nonetheless, within a few years, squabbles with management and inconsistent performances returned Hogan, Savage, and Flair to the top of the WWE card and demoted Warrior into feuds with Papa Shango and Sid Justice, and eventually out of the company.

They mythology of his exit became far more interesting than what he did in his closing stanza in the company. Fans whispered that the original Ultimate Warrior died and the short-lived reincarnations in WWE in 1996 and WCW in 1998 (remember the corny nWo inversion “One Warrior Nation?”) were rumored to be stand-ins with similar physiques, tassels, and hair spray regimens. It was always the same Warrior, but the thought that the wrestler who captured fans’ imaginations in 1990 was still mysteriously absent did much more for his mythology than rehashed programs with Hogan.

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On March 3rd, 1990- about one month before Warrior’s Wrestlemania win over Hogan- I attended my first live wrestling card at the Fargo Civic Center. Warrior was the headliner and he was my guy. I had the Ultimate Warrior action figure, the Ultimate Warrior wrestling buddy, and I rented the VHS tapes of every major event as soon as they came out on Coliseum Home Video. I was a sucker for the pageantry. Demolition was my favorite tag team, and flashy costumes were as crucial a criterion as shiny muscles when I evaluated new wrestlers. As I grew up, I re-watched Warrior’s matches that enraptured me as a child and struggled to believe that someone with such a raw wrestling style was so impressive to me and the rest of the wrestling fans around the world. It didn’t matter. He was just too exciting.

Before I went to the event, I made a giant sign with glitter and balloons to support Warrior. My mom painted my face and tied streamers around my arms, even though they were about 20” smaller than Warrior’s. I wore my favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle hologram t-shirt because I was four and it seemed like holograms would be in Warrior’s wheelhouse. Outside of that day, there are dozens of other photos of me posing and flexing like Warrior because his look and energy embodied coolness to me as a young kid.

Alas, there was a sign on the door of the Civic Center that told us that Warrior was sick and his mom told him he could not come to wrestle that night. The fact that the sign said that it was Warrior’s mom who kept him from the arena gives you an idea of the crowd demographics at the show. Even without Warrior, who had been working an Intercontinental Title program with Hennig in the build-up to Wrestlemania, I got to see plenty of stars. The Hart Foundation interrupted The Bolsheviks’ rendition of the Soviet National Anthem. Earthquake sat on some guys. The Genius read us poetry before the Hennig match. “Playboy” Buddy Rose pulled a sandwich out from under the ring and ate it while his tag team partner got bludgeoned by the Bushwhackers.

I didn’t need to see Warrior that night because I was already hooked on wrestling. Sure, I was disappointed that my favorite wrestler could not make the show, but my most vivid memory of the night was the fact that he was not there. Even the fact that he was “sick” added to the mystery- was he really sick? Could he recover in time to face Hulk Hogan? What was actually wrong with him? As in his career, Warrior’s absence and mythology had the biggest impact of all.

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Aside from the uneventful runs Warrior had in 1996 and 1998, his wrestling career essentially ended when he was let go from WWE in 1992. It turns out that even mythological beasts have to feed their families, so Warrior became a political and motivational speaker. He made (minor) headlines for homophobic comments in the late ‘90s, but never had the same impact in the political world as Jesse Ventura, who was at the forefront of the wrestler-to-politician trend.

I was in college at Georgetown in 2004 when I heard that Warrior was scheduled to give a speech up the road at George Washington University. Again, I was highly intrigued by the potential appearance because I never got to see him wrestle and I assumed that he would not draw much of a crowd at GW. My scheduled forced me to leave directly from class, catch a shuttle to the GW campus, and find a room in an unfamiliar area to make it on time. My class went long, I missed the shuttle, and I realized that if I got to the speech at all, I would only see the tail end of it.

Instead, I found a live webcast and watched a grainy video of Warrior’s speech. He had a reputation for being unpredictable and unhinged that dated back to his days as a wrestler, but his speech was not so much unhinged as it was uninteresting. While he was labeled as a political speaker, the content mostly dealt with personal motivation and self-reliance. I guess if you squint, you could call it a libertarian philosophy, but no one would mistake him for Ron Paul. Just like my night at the Civic Center 14 years earlier, I remained more interested in my mental image of what the Warrior represented and could be than I was in the actual Warrior.

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Warrior finally got to address his long absence in his Hall of Fame induction speech on Saturday night. At times, he came off as sympathetic, like when he mentioned that the way he was characterized in the WWE DVD about his career hurt his feelings. At other times, he seemed petty and bitter, focused on bygone perceived slights that probably arose out of professional jealousy. Above all, I was left feeling that the Warrior’s triumphant return was far less impressive than I anticipated.

On Monday, Warrior gave what proved to be his farewell address to the WWE and his fans when he briefly appeared on Raw. I wrote in my Raw Review that it was surprisingly tame given the fear associated with giving Warrior a live mic for so many years. After news of his death spread, the theme of legacy became a hot topic because Warrior focused on the idea that his energy would live on through his fans after he was dead. The allusions to death were nothing new- this is a man who got his fans fired up for his match with Hogan by talking about putting them on a plane and crashing it into a mountain. If Warrior died every time he alluded to death in a promo, he would have died as often as wrestling fans assumed he was dead.

Yet again, Warrior’s presence was dwarfed by the specter and mysticism associated with his absence.

When news broke that Warrior passed away, there was an emotional outpouring from wrestlers, wrestling writers, and wrestling fans. Everyone from current wrestlers to old adversaries talked about how much he meant to wrestling and a shocking number talked about his influence on their development. Daniel Bryan, as far at the other end of the technical skill/pageantry spectrum as anyone, listed Warrior as one of his role models. The reaction was so immediate and so complete that it felt to me like everyone collectively accepted that there was no shame in being a fan of Warrior.

His presence made it awkward to point out that you loved his entrance and his rope shaking in spite of his frequently poor matches and strange behavior. Once he passed away, we all re-contextualized his life and career to focus on his incredibly positive contributions to wrestling. It is fitting that a man who was always more compelling for his mystical absence was finally recognized for his great contributions only in reflection upon his death. Now, as always, Warrior is gone.