As a kid, two things completed my Saturdays: morning cartoons and late-night wrestling. This was America’s testosterone golden age, where a little boy with big dreams could turn on a television and see larger-than-life men with big muscles. So for me, reading about the loss of James Brian Hellwig, known more famously as the Ultimate Warrior, made me stop and mark yet another end to a piece of my childhood.
Wrestling is ultimately about personalities. Whether it be the strutting Koko B. Ware, the brutish Undertaker, or the smooth but powerful Shawn Michaels, the personality of the performer drives the connection. Watching the Ultimate Warrior rise to fame in the late 80s was an exciting pleasure for a skinny kid with a penchant for flexing.
This man, decked out in face paint and native-like garb, did not so much enter the ring as land in it, ready to take over every inch of the squared circle. Displaying an intense yet graceful athleticism, he dispatched with star after star on his way to the championship belt. One of my fondest memories of wrestling history was his comical feud with Ravishing Rick Rude, who I admired for his brashness and way with the ladies.
But for me, the hero remained the Ultimate Warrior, an energetic amalgamation of pageantry and power, of creativity and precision. Technically as sound as any wrestler before or since, the Ultimate Warrior used his cunning, charm and sheer charisma to enthrall a loyal generation of wrestling fans like me. To know now that he is gone after having just become a recent inductee into the WWE’s Hall of Fame is stunning.
It is stunning, and it is profoundly sad. You will no doubt read about speculation and the sport’s sordid past; as this is an eyeballs-based business, you can count on manufactured controversy as well. But not here; this is about the thanks an adult gives to a man who entertained him, educated him, and inspired him in unquantifiable ways.
The sun may have set on the Ultimate Warrior, but the Ultimate Warrior’s light burns on in all those thankful for a bit of clarity in their lives. Sometimes a kid needs a black hat and some facepaint to pick and choose his heroes. Wherever you are Warrior, I hope the ropes can be shaken forever.