Written under duress by Critical Bill (@williamrenken83)
My six a.m. alarm goes off with the usual intro to Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” which snaps me to attention immediately. The challenge is to dismiss it before the heavy guitar kicks in. Two gongs. Not a lot of time. No worries, though, in disabling it. One message on the phone. It’s my future co-host but current friend THE Jason Keisler (He thinks he’s Ohio State in nomenclature). The message reads “God must be assembling the ultimate incarnation of the NWO: Andre, Savage, Eddie, and Warrior.” He might have mentioned others; not exactly positive.
It doesn’t hit me, though.
I read the message two to three times, and I still don’t get it. But the temporary early morning grogginess wears thin. I’m back to my senses. Andre, Savage, Eddie…They’re all dead. Why would he include Warrior…No…Don’t you tell me…
I get Twitter open immediately. The only true news source for the 21st century (or so they tell me). Warrior is trending. Maybe it’s just because of Raw.
On April 8th, 2014, the Ultimate Warrior had passed away in what was incomparably the most dramatic event of the year in the world of professional wrestling. Even beyond wrestling. This was a blow to the Gen X and Y’ers who so vividly remembered the thundering presence of the quintessential resident of Parts Unknown. Quite simply, it was a blow to the lexicon of pop culture, which from the era of classic professional wrestling is no stranger to tragedy.
This wasn’t like the others, though. Not to say death is a competition. I can’t say and, for that matter, no can say that one death ranks higher or is more worthy of mention than another. Eddie Guerrero’s death came out of nowhere too and still has fringe reminders to this day. Chris Benoit’s death was a horrifying reveal that too still has fringe reminders to this day (contrary to the power of editing). These were deaths that reached out to a large number of people, some outside of the world of wrestling.
But neither reached as far and wide as the wakeup call that Jim Hellwig was gone.
Numb. Not a single thought. Not one. It’s the comprehension that’s prohibiting this process. I can’t comprehend what I’m reading.
Wow. He’s really dead. The Ultimate Warrior is dead.
That’s when the power comes back on. The sudden shock was like a momentary black out. A rush of emotion comes over me, and I’m not talking like I’m Niagara Falls, but I’m a little misty eyed. Alright, maybe a little more than that. No shame in admitting it, and it’s not in that pretentious way that “oh, I’m an actor, and I can dial into emotions.” Yes, I am an actor, but that doesn’t make me any more or less of an emotional person.
My wife breaks my balls about how I cry in movies. I don’t shy away from it. You hit the play button on the movie “Up,” and I’m grabbing tissues by minute eleven. (If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.)
Warrior’s death strikes me because I, like many kids growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, have such vivid memories of what might have been one of wrestling’s most vivid characters. It wasn’t like the Warrior was a Bret Hart that you believed was an absolute machine in the ring. Warrior was the guy who created an honest-to-god, larger than life personality without hitting one gorilla press. The hair, the make-up, the bright colors, the body. You believed this guy was other worldly.
A lot of memories start flooding in. I think back to when I first started watching wrestling with my dad, a major bonding moment for us. My dad loved the Ultimate Warrior; way more than I did, in fact. I liked Warrior, don’t get me wrong, but first and foremost I was a Hogan guy. But my dad marked out for when the music hit and out of the back, sprinting like a mad man, the Ultimate Warrior hit the ring. I’ll never forget how he used to joke that the Warrior would come back to the ring for a match, then disappear in the gym for six months. Hmm, dad was smarter to the business than I thought. Then again, I believed everything about wrestling during that time. I couldn’t believe it was a work back then.
Re-reading the news of the heart attack Warrior suffered is so Shakespearean in its climax for a guy who seemed all but guaranteed to be as distant as he could be from WWE for the rest of his life. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case here. It doesn’t take long for the negativity to settle in that the steroids caused his demise, which inevitably leads to more criticism of the wrestling industry’s treatment of the “steroid problem.”
I stray away from that, though. That is so sadly irrelevant that it seems like political jostling for the sake of higher gain. This was the real life ending to the perfect ending in the world of fake wrestling. Who would have thought in 2014 that the Ultimate Warrior would not only make amends with Vince McMahon and WWE but be inducted into the Hall of Fame and on top of that, return to Monday Night Raw?
It was such a feeling of positivity, which is rare in wrestling, especially in the lead up to WrestleMania 30. A very humbled, yet proud Warrior hulking around the hallways of the SuperDome, dampening the heat he’d had with the likes of Hogan, showing his daughters the life he was once apart of and thrived in. What a proud, proud, man and equally proud children in the wake of their father’s Odysseus-esque return. I think about how devastated they must feel now. So sad and sudden; gone in an instant. I can’t imagine what they must be feeling. Then again, I can…
But most of all, I’m thinking of that moment on Raw, when a somewhat frail looking Warrior delivered his best promo of all time, which might have been eerily foreshadowing what was to come, but became a proper final image for a man previously disgraced in the eyes of WWE.
Days later I watched the documentary that appeared on the WWE Network, and it’s such an emotional journey in its own right to see Warrior journey to WrestleMania for the Hall of Fame, and for all of Triple H and Vince McMahon’s faults and conceptions/misconceptions, they seemed like real men…sons and fathers in their own right who shed the cloak of the wrestling work to express real exposed emotion.
But the real takeaway in the wake of the Ultimate Warrior’s death and the end of 2014 is how there can be happy endings in a world where they seem to be more tragic ones. Jim Hellwig was a man who passed away well before his time, but the true credence under the surface of his loss, is he got to have at least one last moment in the sun; a moment in the sun Randy Savage never got. Undoubtedly, he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, himself, at some point. But we won’t get that moment at WrestleMania with him in the flesh or in the ring for a returning Raw promo. We got that moment with the Warrior, as fans of WWE, and it means there is always room to come back for those who seem to be so far out of the WWE picture who might have been previously beloved.
I call my sister, who works in high ranking position at Fed Ex, but remembers quite well the Ultimate Warrior and how we used to watch wrestling together. She’s never forgotten the things we loved as kids, and I love her for that. We talk about Warrior’s death and then our father’s death, which strangely enough is marking its 20th anniversary in 2014. We laugh and joke about our dad’s love of Warrior, even to the degree of his own workout regiments. It’s an amazing reminder of what it was like to be a kid back then, but most of all, it gives me a hell of a recall to my dad. That’s why I don’t think about the crazy Youtube videos where he’d rant into a webcam. I’m beyond all that. The journey of the Ultimate Warrior in 2014 ultimately represented not just what it was like to be a kid, but to be my father’s son, and the amazing times we had.
That’s why when my wife asks me why I love wrestling, I tell her it’s for those moments. Moments born out of sadness and tragedy that also take you back to the what might have been the best of times.
Thank you, Ultimate Warrior…