Who Was Pro Wrestling Superstar The Ultimate Warrior?
In the history of professional wrestling, few athletes have lit up the sport like "The Ultimate Warrior" did in the early 1990s. He was an absolute shooting star of a pro wrestler who at one point saw his fame rise to the point that he threatened to eclipse the greatest wrestlers in the sport's history.
While The Ultimate Warrior's career didn't have the longevity of some of his contemporaries, his impact over the ensuing decades has stretched well beyond his all-too-short career and made him one of the most enigmatic yet beloved professional wrestlers of all time.
The Ultimate Warrior was the ultimate 1-of-1 in his sport — all the way to his tragic end.
Who Was James Brian Hellwig?
James Brian Hellwig — the man who would ultimately become known as pro wrestling's The Ultimate Warrior — was born on June 16, 1959, in Crawfordsville, Indiana, as the oldest of five children.
Hellwig's father left the family when he was just 12 years old, so he was raised by his mother and stepfather after the family moved to tiny Veedersburg, Indiana (pop. 2,180). Hellwig graduated from Fountain Central High School — a self-described "small, shy kid who wasn't into sports."
Hellwig attended one year of college at Indiana State before leaving to pursue his true destiny ... although the road to it wouldn't be anything he could have imagined.
The Ultimate ... Bodybuilder
Hellwig, who had trained with weights since he was 11 years old, moved to Georgia to attend Life University's chiropractic school and begin a career as a bodybuilder, inspired by the legendary Robbie Robinson, a former Mr. Universe who was featured in the documentary "Pumping Iron" alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Hellwig, now 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds, was no longer the "small, shy kid" from Indiana. He won the 1981 AAU Collegiate Mr. America, won the 1983 AAU Mr. Coastal USA and won the 1984 NPC Mr. Georgia championship.
In 1985, Hellwig spent six weeks training with a group of bodybuilders in Los Angeles who convinced him to join up with them to pursue professional wrestling careers and abandoned his plans to be a bodybuilder and chiropractor.
Making His Bones in Pro Wrestling
Hellwig began his pro wrestling career in the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) as part of Powerteam USA alongside the group of bodybuilders he'd met in California and went by Jim "Justice" Hellwig. Also in the group of bodybuilders was another future pro wrestling superstar, Steve "Sting" Borden, and the two ultimately joined forces on a tag team called The Freedom Fighters, in which they were simply known as Justice and Flash.
The Freedom Fighters left the CWA in 1986 to join the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF), where they changed their name to The Blade Runners, and Hellwig went by Blade Runner Rock, while Borden went by Blade Runner Sting.
Hellwig left the UWF after less than one year to join World Class Wrestling Association (WCWA) and became known as Dingo Warrior — more commonly known as Warrior — and won WCWA titles in tag team and ultimately became the WCWA Heavyweight Champion in 1987.
The Ultimate Warrior Is Born
Hellwig's rise to fame in the WCWA caught the attention of World Wrestling Federation CEO Vince McMahon, who recruited him away from the WCWA to the WWF.
While all parties agree on when The Ultimate Warrior was created, the genesis behind the name change is very much a gray area. McMahon has said he told Hellwig he didn't want a "dingo" warrior because he didn't know what that was and instead "wanted an ultimate warrior."
In cutting a pre-taped promo for the WWF, Hellwig said he was simply instructed to drop the "dingo" name and came up with the name, The Ultimate Warrior, in the promo.
Either way, pro wrestling was about to change forever.
The Ultimate Warrior Becomes a WWF Superstar
The Ultimate Warrior made his WWF television debut on Oct. 25, 1987, and quickly became a fan favorite for his unique face paint and entrance to the ring — he would race into the ring at full speed and violently grab and shake the ropes. His almost-incoherent interviews added to the mystique.
Less than one year later, The Ultimate Warrior defeated The Honky Tonk Man for the WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship. He spent the next year stoking feuds with Rick Rude and Andre the Giant at WrestleMania V and SummerSlam and became fast-tracked to the WWF main event, where he would square off with pro wrestling's greatest superstar, Hulk Hogan.
In 1990, at WrestleMania VI, The Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan finally squared off in the ring at the Toronto SkyDome, with The Ultimate Warrior coming out on top and becoming the first person to hold the WWF Championship and WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship at the same time.
Feuding With WWE Boss Vince McMahon
Here's the thing about becoming the WWF champion — it makes you very, very famous.
It also makes you worth a lot of money. The Ultimate Warrior knew this and quickly entered into a nasty dispute over money with WWF CEO Vince McMahon, asking for a revised contract that included $550,000 for his appearance at WrestleMania VII and included a number of superstar-level provisions like guaranteed working days, specific travel requirements (i.e., better hotels) and a cut of merchandise sales. He also wanted to make sure that no matter what, he was WWF's highest-paid wrestler.
Fearing The Ultimate Warrior might miss SummerSlam over the pay dispute, McMahon quickly agreed to the new deal so he could fight in the pay-per-view event ... then suspended The Ultimate Warrior almost immediately afterward.
Into the Wilderness of Pro Wrestling
The Ultimate Warrior spent his last few years in the WWF under various clouds of controversy. First, after a suspension over a pay dispute ultimately went The Ultimate Warrior's way in 1991, he came out on top after WWF boss Vince McMahon became desperate to make WrestleMania VII a success and brought Warrior back into the fold.
After McMahon came under scrutiny for allegedly providing steroids to WWF wrestlers in 1992 and a federal investigation was initiated, The Ultimate Warrior emerged as one of the main targets. An admitted steroids user, Warrior failed a drug test for steroids and human growth hormones and was suspended, then released from his WWF contract by the end of 1992.
Just 33 years old, Warrior entered into the vast wilderness of pro wrestling for the next six years, wrestling sporadically in one-off matches in the U.S. and in Europe while making brief returns to the WWF in 1996 and wrestling in the WCW in 1998. He would wrestle professionally just one more time in a one-off match against Orlando Jones in Barcelona, Spain, in 2008.
The Ultimate (Right-Wing) Blogger
The Ultimate Warrior legally changed his named to the mononym Warrior in 1993 — mainly to muddy the waters when it came to who owned the rights to his wrestling monikers. The dispute over the rights to The Ultimate Warrior went to court twice, in 1996 and 1998, with Warrior coming out on top both times and clearing his way to profit off The Ultimate Warrior and Warrior names in any way he saw fit.
The WWF — now the WWE — was also allowed to do so. This resulted in the release of the DVD "The Self-Destruction of The Ultimate Warrior" that led both parties to court once again, this time with Warrior suing the WWE for libel in a case that was ultimately dismissed.
Over the ensuing decade, Warrior became more known for his blog "The Warrior's Machete," in which he espoused his views on his former opponents, current celebrities, politics and sexuality — most notably a stance against homosexuality where he took the stand that "the human race would die out if everyone became homosexual."
The Tragic Death of The Ultimate Warrior
The enmity between The Ultimate Warrior and the WWE eventually faded to the point that he was brought back into the fold in the late 2000s and early 2010s — mainly through his character being used in a series of hit video games over the years released by the WWE.
Eventually, the WWE released a follow-up DVD on The Ultimate Warrior's career that painted him in a more positive light — actually a three-DVD set that encompassed 540 minutes of footage called "Ultimate Warrior: The Ultimate Collection" released in 2014 ahead of his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame on April 5, 2014.
On April 6, Warrior made an appearance at WrestleMania XXX in New Orleans, Louisiana. On April 7, he made his first WWE Raw appearance since 1996. On April 8, while walking outside of his hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Warrior suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Warrior's father had died when he was just 57 years old, and his grandfather, when he was 52 years old. The Ultimate Warrior was 54 years old.
The Ultimate Warrior's Legacy Lives On
In the years leading up to his death, The Ultimate Warrior had seemingly turned the corner when it came to personal relationships with his former colleagues and shook off the image of being bitter over how his career ended.
After his death, an outpouring of support came from former adversaries and rivals like Vince McMahon, Hulk Hogan and Jake "The Snake" Roberts. In 2015, the WWE introduced "The Warrior Award" for the wrestler "who lives life with the courage and compassion that embodies the indomitable spirit of The Ultimate Warrior."
Two documentaries on The Ultimate Warrior were released in 2021, one from A&E and one from Viceland's "Dark Side of the Ring" series that is available on Hulu.
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