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Popping the Marks

Ultimate Warrior, Rest in Peace

The WWE wrestler's spirit will live on, forever.
April 10, 2014, 6:29pm

In the first half of the 80s, Hulk Hogan sparked the “Rock 'n’ Wrestling Connection” by hanging out with Cyndi Lauper. In contrast, the Ultimate Warrior was a turn-of-the-90s metal fantasy: big muscles, big hair, tassels hanging from his arms and boots, face paint, and a vaguely Nordic mythology of warrior ancestors and transcendent warrior gods. He brought all of the unstoppable-superhero charisma of a Hulk Hogan, but with something more—not just an amplified intensity but also a darkness. Hogan, after all, was supposed to be an inspiration for the kids. Warrior never said anything about prayers and vitamins. Warrior just stormed the ring like a force of nature and destroyed whatever he found. It appeared that Warrior defeated the right people, and perhaps for the right reasons, but he never had to articulate his argument with the ideological coherence of Hulkamania. Warrior was awesome in ways that transcended the rational and the moral.

For me, the Ultimate Warrior’s most essentially Ultimate Warrior–like moment was his appearance at SummerSlam ’88. The Honky Tonk Man, by then the longest-reigning Intercontinental Champion in WWE history, was without an opponent after his scheduled challenger, Brutus Beefcake, had been brutally attacked days before. The Honky Tonk Man stood in the ring, awaiting the unknown wrestler who would replace Beefcake. Announcer Howard Finkel gave a solemn “And his opponent…” that was followed only by a throwing up of his hands as the broadcast commentators played up the fact that Finkel had no name to announce, knowing no more than anyone else in the building. The Honky Tonk Man took the microphone and boldly announced that he didn’t care who was coming to challenge him.  We waited. The crowd went quiet. Then the music hit, and everyone went nuts—the fans erupted, the Honky Tonk Man and his manager, Jimmy Hart, panicked, and the commentators put over the fact that something big was happening.

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The Ultimate Warrior ambushed the ring in a full sprint, fists pumping and tassels flying. Finkel tried to announce the Warrior as the opponent, but cut it short and fled the ring, leaving the microphone behind. The Warrior bounced off the ropes as Finkel tried to make his way out, knocking the announcer to the arena floor. What happened next wasn’t exactly a wrestling match. It lasted roughly 30 seconds, and the Honky Tonk Man never even had a chance to shed the Elvis jumpsuit that he wore for his ring entrances. There were some punches, a shoulderblock, a clothesline, and a splash off the ropes. The Warrior flew back and forth across the ring, hitting the Honky Tonk Man from every side and sometimes swinging at the air, as though the Honky Tonk Man had invisible tag-team partners who were attempting to save him. The referee had to jump out of the way. Anything within range of the Warrior’s pinwheeling fists was going to be destroyed. At the end of those 30 seconds, there was a new Intercontinental Champion.

Prior to SummerSlam ‘88, the Ultimate Warrior had already been a rising star, established enough that when his music hit, we all knew that it was the end of the Honky Tonk Man. But the Warrior hadn’t yet become sufficiently relevant that his absence from the scheduled card had been noticed. It was at SummerSlam ’88 that the Ultimate Warrior first achieved his authority.

In the way that he was booked, the Warrior’s authority as a hero perhaps exceeded that of Randy “Macho Man” Savage, as Savage needed Hogan’s help to win the championship and could not confront monsters like André the Giant, Akeem, or the Big Boss Man with a power equal to Hogan's. Warrior fit the Hogan superhero mold in ways that Savage could not, though his surreal promos and wild colors were more in harmony with Savage's than the Hulkster's aesthetic. Warrior’s ascension as a potential top hero corresponded with Savage turning heel and losing his championship to Hogan.

For both Hogan and Warrior to enter the 1990 Royal Rumble made this annual event a dream match for perhaps the first time. By the start of 1990, it was inconceivable that either Warrior or Hogan could be cleanly eliminated from the match. At 11 years old, I was already cynical enough as a fan to assume that in no way would the WWE script a physical confrontation between the two. They were both good guys, and good guys fighting each other was mostly beyond the realm of possibility. Warrior ran down the aisle as the 21st competitor, eliminating Dino Bravo almost immediately and no-selling most of his opponents’ blows. Hogan entered as the 25th, to an uproarious crowd. As Hogan went about eliminating guys like Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Haku, and Honky Tonk Man, while Warrior eliminated Tito Santana, Rick Martel, and Shawn Michaels, it slowly became apparent what was happening: The WWE’s two dominant champions were clearing the ring of lesser men, leaving room only for each other.

The audience went insane at the realization that Hogan and Warrior, after having inhabited the same ring for several minutes, would finally have to face each other. It started with the kind of “This is living history” staredown that presented the confrontation at a Hogan-André level. The matchup was brief and served primarily to demonstrate Hogan and Warrior as exact mirrors of each other. They paced around the ring, pumping their fists and beating their chests. They shoved each other. They failed at identical attempts to knock each other down, until running the ropes ended with a double clothesline that put both flat on their backs. More competitors then entered the Rumble, ending the brief one-on-one skirmish. Hogan assisted a group effort to eliminate the Warrior and went on to win the Rumble, but the real story of the night was the WWE’s tease of what had been unthinkable.

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Two months later, the Ultimate Warrior, in his second reign as Intercontinental Champion, and WWE Champion Hulk Hogan faced off in the main event of WrestleMania VI. Both men put their championships on the line. The unprecedented match was billed as the “Ultimate Challenge: champion vs. champion, title for title.” The opening package at the start of the show presented Hogan and Warrior as constellations in the night sky, while Vince McMahon’s voice-over declared them the “two most powerful forces in the universe.” It resonated with the metaphysical promos common to both Hogan and Warrior. In their pre-match videos, Hogan articulated Hulkamania in Evangelical vocabulary, asking if Warrior wants to live forever, and referring to the power of Hulkamania to “save” Warrior and his fans by bringing them out of the “darkness” and into the “light.” Warrior, meanwhile, had given a series of snarling and snorting promos that seemed to flirt with the possibility of his turning heel. In his final promo, however, Warrior revealed that he had come not to destroy Hogan’s beliefs but to serve as their new vessel.

WrestleMania VI was the climax of my childhood as a wrestling fan. After Hogan’s defeat and passing of the torch, leaving the Ultimate Warrior simultaneously possessing the WWE’s two most prestigious championships, it seemed that there was nowhere else for the WWE to go. The Ultimate Warrior had broken the WWE’s boundaries of the unthinkable. The fictional universe in which WWE existed seemed to have detonated the logic that held it together. I had fallen in love with wrestling after watching Hogan beat André the Giant, who had been presented in the WWE as unbeatable, and now Hogan himself was the beaten unbeatable. Hulkamania had not exactly been destroyed, but it seemed unclear how Hulkamania could function on the margins of the Warrior’s era. Even though I was as big a Warrior mark as any other 11-year old, I drifted away from the WWE. For the next five years, I stayed away from wrestling, choosing instead to invest my energies for hero-worship into more explicitly religious figures.

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The Ultimate Warrior vacated the Intercontinental Championship—because WWE rules prohibited one wrestler from holding both titles simultaneously—and lost the WWE championship almost a year later to Sgt. Slaughter. Slaughter served as a transitional champion, surrendering the belt to Hogan at 1991’s WrestleMania VII. Warrior also appeared at WrestleMania VII, defeating Randy Savage in what was billed as a “retirement match,” in which the loser must leave wrestling forever. It might have been Warrior’s best match in terms of ring craftsmanship. However, the unsaid narrative of WrestleMania VII centered on the WWE returning to its purest state of being, with Hogan on top.

Warrior would spend the 90s coming and going, showing up like a meteor—the classic example is his surprise run-in at WrestleMania VIII—and never staying too long before heading back to Parts Unknown. When he came back with a different haircut, more defined muscles, and new ring gear, a popular urban legend claimed that the original Ultimate Warrior had died and was replaced by an imposter. The Warrior’s career would best be defined by his shocking returns, the adrenaline rush when his music surprised the fans and he burst into the arena, sprinting to the ring—his instant obliteration of the Honky Tonk Man at SummerSlam ’88, his coming out of nowhere to rescue Hogan at WrestleMania VIII. The surprise entrance represents Warrior at the height of his power, which could be the reason that his 1996 comeback was largely a bust: To announce the Ultimate Warrior’s return weeks in advance and subject it to promotional hype might have added buys to that year’s WrestleMania XII, but it gets the Warrior’s energy wrong. Warrior is supposed to come out of nowhere, annihilate everything, and then disappear.

Of course, Warrior’s career instability wasn’t simply part of his character’s narrative, but reflected the real complexities of a human being. Jim Hellwig, who would eventually adopt “Warrior” as his legal name, portrayed his character as an independent contractor for big wrestling companies. Because the wrestling business fiercely guarded its secrecy for so long, fans now tend to fetishize access to stories of locker-room beefs and ego-driven backstage politics. Remembering Warrior, I’m not interested in the “real” reasons behind his numerous departures. Nor am I particularly interested in his post-wrestling career as a conservative motivational speaker, political commentator, and blogger. The relationships between wrestlers and their characters is complex. Sometimes the fictional character corresponds with the life of the performer who embodies it, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes fans can choose to see only what’s inside the ring. I think that in my perspective on the Ultimate Warrior, I need to be always 11 years old. I need to stay in the period from 1988 to 1990, before I used terms like “no-selling.” The perspective of the “Internet Wrestling Community” offers no lens through which an Ultimate Warrior match should be engaged. The Ultimate Warrior is one of those characters who must in fact remain a character. He’s like the Undertaker in that way. What he demands is not exactly a suspension of disbelief, anymore than the performer himself has to suspend disbelief; he demands that we take part in the character’s creation. We don’t surrender to passively receive the myth and accept it as real—we actively make it real through our participation.

Appearing on Raw this Monday, Warrior gave the kind of promo that might have dissolved the boundary between Warrior the character and Warrior the real guy who made “Warrior” his legal name, if such boundaries ever existed for him. On the one hand, it had the vague esotericism of an old-school Warrior promo. On the other, he talked about how we’re all going to die someday, and the real human being who said these words actually died less than 24 hours later. He remarked that people can become immortal through the impressions that their passion and intensity leave on others, and that the spirit of the Ultimate Warrior will run forever.

Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of nine books, including Why I Am a Five Percenter and Tripping With Allah: Islam, Drugs and Writing. Follow him on Twitter.