Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Ultimate Warrior: Yes, He's Better Than You Remember (Though Not By Much)

"I am burdened with glorious purpose."
-- Loki, The Avengers

In the fall of 2005, World Wrestling Entertainment released The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior, a DVD retrospective painting the former World Wrestling Federation Champion in a less than flattering light.

It sold pretty well, and quite frankly, I was one of the people who bought it. Hell, I even enjoyed it. Self-Destruction was a laugh riot, a collection of anecdotes and videos from Warrior's career, absent any recent reflections from the man himself. It was a total hit piece, reportedly produced because Warrior rebuffed WWE's requests to cooperate on a more balanced documentary.

I must have watched that DVD a dozen times, but I made a crucial mistake while doing so. Many viewers made the same mistake. We bought into it. And why not? It's not as though the Ultimate Warrior was by any means a good wrestler, and his promos were hardly the work of a master on the microphone. Warrior's greatest attributes were his impressive physique and his frightening intensity. Yes, that was the company line, though it was also pretty obvious to those who grew up watching him.

Then again, this was the man who was tapped to succeed Hulk Hogan as the face of the WWF--and as such, the face of professional wrestling. This was a man who somehow captured the imaginations of millions of wrestling fans, especially children and teenagers. This was a man who continues to be remembered fondly, despite his prejudices and eccentricities. And as such, there's a question that bears asking: the Ultimate Warrior wasn't that bad, was he?

The answer is, "Not quite as bad you remember."

The man who would be known as Ultimate Warrior was born Jim Hellwig in 1959. He took to bodybuilding as a kid, and was something of a success on the amateur circuit. Hellwig decided to make the jump to professional wrestling in 1985, as part of Powerteam USA, a group of fellow bodybuilders training to be wrestlers. Among the other members of Powerteam was a man named Steve Borden. He and Hellwig split from Powerteam and formed a tag tandem called the Blade Runners. They split within a year; Borden would ultimately reach the heights of the industry as Sting.

Hellwig wrestled in Texas' World Class Championship wrestling through 1986 as the Dingo Warrior, before joining the WWF the following year. He used the Dingo Warrior name at first, before changing it prior to debuting on WWF television. Depending on who you believe, either he or Vince McMahon came up with the name, but either way, he appeared on TV screens as the Ultimate Warrior.

At the time, Hulk Hogan was firmly on top of the World Wrestling Federation, mostly because there really wasn't a top face who could carry the company like he did.[1] He was the family-friendly superman, the stalwart hero who stood for truth, justice and the American Way.

The Ultimate Warrior, while also a babyface wrestler, was about as far from the traditional good guy model as you could get. Where Hogan was gregarious and nonthreatening, the Ultimate Warrior seemed to quiver with barely contained rage. Hulk Hogan would march out to the ring and pose for his fans. The Ultimate Warrior put pedal to floor and raced through the curtain before each match. He roared, snarled, shook the ropes, and beat his chest like a savage ape. His matches were secondary to the performance, especially early on, when he would squash opponents in less than a minute. And his promos--oh, his promos...

The Ultimate Warrior's promos have a reputation for not making much sense. That's not entirely false. But no one seems to consider they were perfectly in context when you look at his character. Warrior was a man who claimed to be not from this world and couldn't identify with it or with normal people. He lived for one purpose, to test his abilities and prove himself worthy of his name. For him, "The Ultimate Warrior" wasn't just hype, but an earned honorific.

When you really think about that character and how he portrayed it, Warrior becomes all the more compelling. Was he really "sent in a capsule, from a place long from here"? Does he hold congress with "the gods above who hit [him] with the power of the Ultimate Warrior"? Or is he a madman with a martyr complex? Perhaps the burden of great power and greater promise wore on his mind until he became deeply unhinged.

Doesn't the Ultimate Warrior seem a lot more fun when you think about him that way?

It was harder to disguise his shortcomings in the ring, but Vince McMahon decided to pair him with veteran hands who could lead him to a good match, most of the time anyway. Men like "Ravishing" Rick Rude, "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, Andre the Giant and "Macho King" Randy Savage. The latter gave Warrior one of his best regarded matches, a meticulously plotted career match at Wrestlemania VII.

But despite an early angle with Hercules Hernandez that led to a match at Wrestlemania IV [2], Warrior's stock truly began to rise almost a year after he joined the WWF. At Summerslam '88, he emerged as a surprise challenger for the Honky Tonk Man's Intercontinental Championship.

Honky Tonk Man was in the midst of a record-setting run with the IC strap--a record that still stands at 454 consecutive days--when the Warrior ran out to the ring and squashed him in 31 seconds to become champion.

I could talk about Warrior's program with Rick Rude and how the two traded the Intercontinental belt back and forth. We could talk about the surprisingly solid promos he could cut against guys like Rude and DiBiase. But when you think of the Ultimate Warrior, you think of only one man as his true foil. And when you really stop to think about the Warrior and this man, it all comes together--in a way, it's this man who helps define the Warrior's legacy, simply in contrast if nothing else.

You see, once the Warrior won the Intercontinental Championship, as soon as he was featured more heavily on television, it was only a matter of time before he would face Hulk Hogan. Warrior's rise was academic; he shot to the top like no one else had aside from Hogan. And when the two finally met face to face in the 1990 Royal Rumble, the fans felt the electricity between them. By that time, a collision was imminent, and the two faced down one on one before having to deal with other combatants. In the end, Hogan caused Warrior's elimination, which enraged the Warrior.

There's a built-in problem with a Hulk Hogan/Ultimate Warrior match. Neither man has a reputation as a great worker. Hogan could work, but he was really rather lazy except when in Japan. Warrior, on the other hand, was fast for his size, but hardly a technician...well, hardly a wrestler, period. Rather, he had a reputation for being stiff and unsafe. Enter Pat Patterson.

The first man to hold the Intercontinental Championship, and the man credited with creating the Royal Rumble (the greatest gimmick match of all time), Patterson worked with Hogan and Warrior to lay out every move, every hold, every aspect of their 'Mania main event. When you really pay attention to that match, it's very simple--two men exchanging an escalating serious of power moves in "can you top that?" fashion. And yet, it's utterly compelling and satisfying to watch--a match as mythic as its build-up.

Where Hulk Hogan was the WWF's Superman, its biggest name throughout the '80s, the Warrior was like a Rob Liefeld comic book come to life [3]. Between the face paint, the brightly colored ring outfits and his character's darker, disturbed edge, the Warrior was the embodiment of the '90s in wrestling. Maybe that's why his rise seemed particularly meteoric. It's almost definitely the reason he finally supplanted Hulk Hogan as the company's top face, at least for a while.

And despite the financial and interpersonal disputes that reportedly ended his original WWF run, perhaps that's why the Warrior quickly ran his course. The '90s didn't stick around in any meaningful way, and neither did the Warrior. He returned, of course, but each trip back met diminishing results, much like Rob Liefeld's career. Having his political views transmitted throughout the wrestling world thanks to the internet didn't help. Really though, the Warrior wasn't meant to last very long on top, or at all. Despite the small who's who of talent he'd face after Hogan, it was that program that cemented his place in the culture of the time. Just like the decade that found his greatest fame, the Ultimate Warrior, as a going concern, came and went.

It was better that way.

[1] There was "Macho Man" Randy Savage, who had a run as babyface champion in 1988, but during that period, he and Hulk Hogan became the "Mega Powers." Even as champion, he was a sidekick to Hogan until turning heel in 1989. He was a much better foil than friend, but it's still a shame he never had a chance to carry the company along with the belt. For the record, I think Savage is arguably the greatest of all time.

[2] Wrestlemania IV is known mainly for the tournament to crown a new WWF Champion (won by Randy Savage, with help from Hulk Hogan), for being the first of two consecutive Wrestlemanias held in the same location (Trump Plaza in Atlantic City), and for being one of the shitty 'Manias.

[3] It makes sense, then, that Warrior would launch his own Liefeld-esque comic in 1997.

Now, let's never speak of it again.

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