Crawfordsville, Indiana is a tiny town of 16,000 people but home to some larger than life individuals. Lew Wallace, the writer of Ben Hur was a resident there and spent his final resting days in the town. Astronaut Joseph Percival Allen was born there. He was a mission specialist on the first fully operational flight of the Space Shuttle in 1982. James Brian Hellwig grew up there. Hellwig was a bodybuilder who left the sport to pursue other endeavors. He spent the height of his professional career working as a character and blurred the lines of reality of and fantasy more than anyone I can remember. Under his professional guise he was called ‘The Ultimate Warrior’. He died this week.
I didn’t know Hellwig. But I knew Warrior.
I, like most wrestling fans, was the biggest wrestling fan growing up. I had all the dolls, watched all the events. When I would fall sick and stay home from school I would rent WWF VHS tapes and watch them over and over again.
The Ultimate Warrior came along and immediately he was my favorite. He was larger than life – a real life cartoonish superhero. Long shaggy hair, muscles upon muscles, completely incoherent ramblings that made you think maybe he is the smartest guy in the room.
I’m not the only one, but Warrior turned me from hardcore wrestling fan to absolute wrestling lunatic. Embarrassingly, I spent many a day wrestling with a 3 foot stuffed teddy bear with commentary coming from the one participant that could speak.
And then along came the face paint.
I had asked my mother to buy me face paint. I wanted to be like Warrior. It boarded on insanity when I would act out Warrior’s famous rants in the mirror, my face covered in paint barely recognizable as I screamed complete nonsense into my reflection.
I was still very young when Robert Goulet sang a laughable rendition of O Canada in front of 67,000 people at the Skydome in Toronto at Wrestlemania 6. Forgotten stars like Steve Allen and Mary Tyler Moore patrolled the audience. Future wrestling superstars Edge and Christian were in attendance. The large crowd dwarfed the tiny ring.
Hulk Hogan vs The Ultimate Warrior was the main attraction. For the first time (in my life anyways) it was two good guys facing off for a title and determining who to cheer for was like selecting between your two favorite chocolate bars – impossible yet rebellious.
The rumors were that Warrior’s makeup would come off during the show and we would see his face – as though his paint would fade away and under would be another person entirely. I bought into it all.
Warrior beat Hogan in Toronto which was likely the high point of his career inside the ring. No one can be sure when he hit his low point. He had warts – we all do. His were on display more than the rest of us. In this new digital age every remark noted, every rant recorded. Warrior didn’t hide from this. He even spent time recording videos yelling, screaming and taking occasional bathroom breaks while the viewer waited patiently for him to return. It was laughable and in a way very sad.
He wasn’t perfect. He offended the gay community, feuded both publicly and privately with a number of wrestlers and had bizarre political stances on a variety of subjects. He released ‘exercise’ videos where no actual exercise took place – just him yelling at you to workout harder.
We can kick Hellwig while he is down for the permanent count, but once he is dead and gone, what’s the point?
People will remember the craziness. That was part of his charm.
How do you remember someone who was just an actor on a stage?
For me I remember the character and how he became an unusual obsession. The Ultimate Warrior was the greatest.
You never knew what was real and what was fake. Surely somewhere along the way his lines got blurred too. His life seemed like his rants – a bit all over the place.
I didn’t know James Hellwig. He may have been a bad guy.
The Ultimate Warrior was a good guy. I’ll remember him for that.