This coming weekend, WWE will be inducting the Ultimate Warrior into their Hall of Fame as part of the Wrestlemania XXX festivities. For many longtime fans of the WWE brand, this is an overdue accolade for one of the most popular, if not most controversial and divisive, wrestlers to ever be a part of the fanatical WWE Universe (as it likes to call itself now). WWE’s Hall of Fame itself a rather arbitrary concept: There is no actual “hall” for the Hall of Fame and the requirements and accomplishments that earn a wrestler a place in the Hall are not 100% clear. There is no academy or committee that votes for inductees, nor are there any polls that ask WWE fans to vote for who they want in the Hall of Fame.
The induction of mega-stars such as Hulk Hogan, ”Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and Andre the Giant are obvious, especially considering they entered the pop culture canon with crossover appeal that transcended the professional wrestling business. However, the Hall’s legitimacy is rather perplexing when considering that certain wrestlers, like perennial “losers” Koko B. Ware and Johnny Rodz, are in, while major stars have been snubbed every year, with “Macho Man” Randy Savage being the most obvious omission. Even more dubious is the Hall’s “Celebrity Wing,” which has honored luminaries as diverse as Mike Tyson, Pete Rose, uh, Donald Trump and, oh dear, Drew Carey.
Although there is not a whole hell of a lot that has ever made sense in the fictional world of the WWE, the Hall of Fame might be the oddest duck in a pond supremely odd ducks. A wrestler’s induction seems to hinge on the fact of whether or not they remain in WWE mastermind/owner Vince McMahon’s good graces. Which is what makes the Ultimate Warrior’s sudden induction the most surprising of all, considering their tumtulous relationship. The induction also ends a chapter to a truly fascinating narrative filled with big successes, failed experiments, and a lot of (real) nasty fighting that fans and non-fans alike can appreciate.
Before I discuss the weird and twisted tale that is Ultimate Warrior’s history with the WWE, I would like to take a moment and discuss why I think wrestling itself is so interesting. Wiping away any preconceived notions of what it is on the surface, professional wrestling is a theatrical performance of exaggerated masculinity and heroism unlike any other form of media. While it is far easier to write-off professional wrestling as something lacking cultural distinction, its massive impact on popular culture cannot be ignored (Although, it often is). There currently exists a defecit of serious cultural evaluation, which critically evaluates wrestling’s cultural value, apart from Roland Barthes’ seminal essay in his Mythologies. This can be owed to the fact that it is presented as a “sport” with predetermined outcomes, which negates any notion of legitimacy. If professional wrestling could be viewed as a form of theater, which it most certainly IS, its mainstream perception would likely be very different.
There’s resistance, though, within the professional wrestling industry to simply present itself as a work of living fiction. Much of this attitude can be owed to the surviving members of wrestling's old guard, who view their profession as a carnival trick, where the secrets of the trade need to remain “secrets.” While Vince McMahon’s WWE has occasionally broken through the forth wall for the past 30-some years, the efforts have never been quite enough to allow wrestling to surpass its cultural expectations. Thus, professional wrestling remains a highly marginalized and mostly disrespected medium. Of course, it should be acknowledged that WWE’s characters and storyline content often traffic in racial stereotypes and misogyny- this is problematic, of course. But professional wrestling is unique in that it functions as a wholly interactive experience- very vaudevillian. So much of WWE’s content is subversive, and it is almost entirely reliant on the reactions of the audience. Without that role of the fans, the characters and stories are a moot point. Beyond the points made here, though, establishing professional wrestling as a legitimate entertainment medium worthy of discussion beyond the “Wrestling is fake garbage” discourse is something that would probably be best suited for a entire dissertation (Hmmm...).
These issues aside, WWE itself is a major multi-media corporation that is far more powerful and influential than many may realize. The fact that it’s publicly traded and an industry onto itself is even more fascinating. But an in-depth look at WWE as a media corporation is worthy of its own tome. Now that I’ve established context for why professional wrestling is more than what appears on the surface, so let’s get back to the Ultimate Warrior.
Full disclosure: I grew up a huge fan of the World Wrestling Federation, now WWE. Huge is perhaps an understatement, since it truly was an intensely integral part of my world. But even at a young age, I was always keenly aware that it was all a work of fiction. I hesitate to use words like “real” or “fake,” but I will say that knowing it wasn’t all “real” made me enjoy it much more. This meant that there would always be opportunities for literally anything to happen, as long as the writers were creative and listened to what the fans wanted. It also meant the wrestlers could assume any sort of personality and they would create these astonishing characters filled with distinctive traits few could conjure up in their wildest imaginations. The results were often out of control and appropriately ridiculous. It toed the line between hilarious and brilliant and the entertainment it provided was (and still is) unlike anything you could see anywhere. And within this quirky crew of overly muscled superheroes, no one was nearly as unique or original as the Ultimate Warrior. To this day, you have to wonder, “How, who, why and what the hell is this?”
When you’re between the ages of 4 and 10, there’s something intriguing about seeing a grown man act like that in the above clip. It seemed completely normal then and perhaps what’s even stranger is that it still seems normal to me at 30 years of age. The Ultimate Warrior is a character that could not have existed outside of the insane world of professional wrestling. He was a constant spectacle of muscle, face paint, day-glo bright tassels and crazy hair, who sprinted around the ring like a madman and effortlessly threw poor schlubs over his head. Even in the fictional world of professional wrestling, he was, and still is, beyond human.
Beyond the, dare I say it, “supernatural” powers he seemed to possess, he also exuded an incredibly rebellious spirit. He didn’t do the things everybody else did. He was a modern day loner, who did not give a shit about anybody in an era where all of the heroes would command us to “train, say your prayers and take your vitamins.” Instead, Ultimate Warrior would just yell and snort between nearly speaking in tongues, but you always “got” him. He was the antidote to the staleness of good guys like Hulk Hogan, whom I personally was never a fan of.
This contributed to his immense popularity in the WWE in the late-80s and early-90s. By the time of WWE’s flagship pay-per-view card, Wrestlemania VI in 1990, he was put in line to perform with World Heavyweight Champion Hogan in the main event. This was the first time that two “good guys” would wrestle each other. This would also be the first time Hogan would let anybody pin him, as he passed the proverbial torch to the Ultimate Warrior. For the punk-rock equivalent of WWE fans, this was a big moment. The personality holding the championship belt is viewed as the most important piece of the WWE storylines and it’s often viewed as a reward not only for the performer’s hard work, but also for the fans that admire him.
However, the championship reign, and the remaining career of the Ultimate Warrior, was rather short lived. As much as what happens on the professional wrestling stage is pure fantasy and pageantry, there’s a whole “real” world filled with politicking, greed and big business decisions that go on behind the curtain. As much as the Ultimate Warrior was a rebellious wrestler in the ring, behind the scenes, Warrior the man was just as intense. This has caused resentment towards him from many of professional wrestling’s elite. Ego certainly got in the way of Warrior’s career as well, both his own and that of the men he worked with. In particular, Warrior would begin the 1990s clashing with his boss, Vince McMahon.
The professional conflicts came to light in the summer of 1991, when Warrior demanded equal pay to the company’s other main attraction, Hulk Hogan.Recently, the written correspondence and contract negotiations between McMahon and Warrior “leaked” online and, if you’re interested, they can be viewed here.
Despite what appeared to be a satisfactory monitary agreement between them, at that August’s Summerslam pay-per-view, McMahon suspended Warrior indefinitely. Months later, Warrior's contract was effectively terminated altogether. To WWE fans at the time, who had little to no access to any wrestling zines with inside source information, let alone access to the still-forthcoming Internet rumor mill, it was as if the Ultimate Warrior simply vanished without a trace. The biggest star of the company outside of Hogan was gone without any formal farewell address, nor any further acknowledgment on WWE programming. It remains a very bizarre way to do business and it was certainly a little heartbreaking for the industry’s fans. Imagine if the producers of HBO's Girls suddenly fired Lena Dunham and the series carried on without acknowledging her absence. Not only would it be a big deal, but also it would completely change the dynamic of the product.
Never one to totally lose sight of what makes his audience happy (*sounds of irony dripping*), it wasn't long before McMahon hired the Warrior back for a return to the company at 1992’s Wrestlemania VIII. Warrior's surprise appearance at the event remains, without rival, the biggest surprise in the medium’s history before the dawn of the surprise spoiling Internet. For the WWE product in this period, Warrior's return was an especially big boon, considering Hulk Hogan was going on hiatus and, well, the Ultimate Warrior still had massive drawing power. Unfortunately, he was immediately booked into some overly ridiculous storylines, most notably an angle where he was placed under a voodoo curse by blatant Baron Samedi rip-off, Papa Shango. At one point, Shango's infamous "curse" caused the Ultimate Warrior to do his best Exorcist impression, much to the (hilarious) horror of then-pre-teen kids everywhere:
Even by the oft-bizarre standards that wrestling storylines follow, this was a bit too much and began a slow decline in the quality the Ultimate Warrior character. By November 1992, with McMahon suddenly finding himself under federal scrutiny over allegedly distributing steroids to his talent, Warrior was again terminated. It has been stated that Warrior failed a drug test, but he has never corroborated this claim. To the product’s audience, though, it was a moot point since once again, one of the top WWE attractions disappeared from television without a trace.
I swear, the only reason I personally followed the WWE product from 1993-1996- when its entertainment value was utterly abysmal- was to see if and when the Ultimate Warrior would come back. That’s one third of my own adolescence GONE and I doubt that I was alone. He eventually did come back, for a his briefest tenure yet, in March of 1996. By then, his star appeal had somewhat plummeted due to repeated exits from the company, but there was still potential that went “ultimately” unfulfilled. He was gone from the WWE by July of that same year. Depending on whose side of the story you get, McMahon claims he terminated Warrior for no-showing a few tour dates where he was advertised to perform. Warrior claims McMahon violated the terms of their merchandising agreement by selling Ultimate Warrior merchandise at an industry trade show, when Warrior himself was to be in charge of all of his own marketing and receive the vast majority of profit off all the sales of his t-shirts, comic books, etc. More than likely, they both screwed it up. Following his final departure from WWE, he disappeared again, only to briefly turn up in the then rival promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in 1998, where he performed in an embarrassing program with Hulk Hogan and then disappeared, AGAIN, seemingly for good.
I should note by this point I personally had completely given up on the guy, as well as professional wrestling itself. Maybe it was a sign of maturity, or I was just tired of being continually let down by my childhood hero. That’s not to imply that Warrior’s frequent departures were entirely his fault. WWE has a tendency to function like a revolving door of talent, with so many wreslters coming and going with astounding frequency. This is often due to a combination of the talents’ own greed and Vince McMahon’s stubbornness. Anyway, fast-forward to 2005, when I’m in college and I discover that my childhood hero is touring the college lecture circuit. I was dismayed upon discovering that Warrior was not doing talks on his experiences in the professional wrestling business, but rather expounding the virtues of his newly acquired neo-con lifestyle. I know that you are supposed to separate the artist from the art they’ve created, but considering Warrior the man has often admitted that the Ultimate Warrior was always just an amped-up version of his own personality…well, I feel like my childhood officially died when I watched this (particularly the bit that begins at about the 4:30 mark):
How the mighty have fallen…
Meanwhile, since 1996, WWE would pretend that the Ultimate Warrior never existed until, inexplicably, they felt that the time was right to fully tarnish his legacy with a 2005 feature length documentary. Now, in the WWE’s vast entertainment empire, their in-house produced documentaries function as rather spectacular oddities amid a seemingly infinite media library full of some extraordinarily crazy shit. Majority of these wrestler documentaries are essentially puff pieces that feature a gross amount of WWE’s revisionist history. They highlight the highest highs of their subjects’ careers, while they simultaneously make desperate attempts to put a positive spin on any personal or professional setbacks. When addressing a wrestler’s “fall from grace,” it’s quickly spun into a hopeful story of how they climbed back from adversity, or they claim that the subjects “still got it” if they’re trying to crawl back into the bright WWE spotlight. It should also be noted that in these documentaries, WWE carefully distances itself from any responsibility it might have for any wrestler’s lowlights, as if to say, “These men [or, in supremely rare, cases, women] are responsible for their own lives and the horrendous work schedules and stress we put them under has nothing to do with their [insert self-destructive behavior here].” In documentaries where the subject has passed away under the age of 50 (a sad and disturbing epidemic in the industry that is well-documented), the details of the death are barely discussed. In the case of Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig, who died of acute cocaine intoxication at 44, WWE has no spin at all, other than a tearful admission from Wade Boggs on how he feels he could’ve “saved (Hennig’s) life” had he known Hennig was in his town at the time of his passing. The circumstances of his death remain vague and glossed-over in the film, but the sentiment is touching, at least.
WWE's 2005 Ultimate Warrior documentary, however, fantastically skips those tropes and functions as a odd media classic that anybody with any cultural cachet would be too quick to ignore: Self-Destruction of The Ultimate Warrior. Read that title out loud to yourself a few times. Is it possible to conjure up any positive spin on that title? Then, read this: The documentary had no involvement from its subject, Warrior. Yes, Warrior is the legal name of the former Jim Hellwig, who portrayed the character of the Ultimate Warrior. And sure enough, an entire chapter of the DVD is devoted to a host of various WWE-related talking heads, including Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon himself, ridiculing Warrior for his name change.
Of course, the ridiculing does not stop short there. The entire documentary is an attempt to bury the past accomplishments of a former employee who nobody seems to like or respect. That WWE pooled all of its resources together to produce a feature-length hit piece on a man who drew them a lot of money in the late-80s and early-90s is quite puzzling. Imagine any company producing a documentary on one employee, filling it with complete vitriol and contempt for that employee, and then releasing it for public consumption. Not even Hollywood is that maniacal.
Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior is, perhaps, the only existing example of a media corporation exhibiting self-muckraking, tele-journalism. WWE acts as its own Michael Moore, presenting a plethora of evidence that not only discredits the Ultimate Warrior character’s contributions to professional wrestling, but the actual human being Warrior as well. Nary a kind word is said about Warrior, the character and the human being, the latter of whom many interviewees consistently, and somewhat mockingly, refer to as “Jim (Hellwig).” I would go a little more in-depth with my discussion of the documentary here, but it turns out legitimate wrestling fans have already done a far better job of breaking it all down for even a complete novice.
After the DVD’s release, Warrior filed a suit against WWE, claiming slander and libel, in an Arizona court. However, the case was rather quickly dismissed. It turns out that Warrior had violated the terms of a previous case, where he had successfully sued the WWE for the rights to his name and character. Part of the ruling, though, required that neither party would discuss the case publicly or disparage the other in a public form. Well, Warrior would often publicly disparage the WWE in the early 2000s, most notably through blog postings on his official web site.As a result of Warrior’s negligence in honoring those terms, WWE literally had every right to produce a feature-length hatchet job on Warrior. In a weird way, the WWE may have lost many battles, but they won the emotional war over Warrior.
Which brings us to today. Whether enough water has passed under the bridge, or the WWE and Warrior feel they owe it to long-time fans, both parties are chummy once again. This past Tuesday, WWE released a new, 3-disc set commemorating the career of the Ultimate Warrior, this time with Warrior’s blessing and involvement. In just under 10 years, WWE transitioned from presenting a constant Ultimate Warrior smear campaign to now being eager to pay him tribute. It’s all almost too surreal.
In the end, the Ultimate Warrior’s 2014 Hall of Fame induction brings closure to what’s been a very long and frustrating situation for fans. This type of frustration could not exist in any form of entertainment outside of professional wrestling. Sure, your favorite actors may leave your favorite TV shows, or your favorite player may leave your hometown team, but they never completely disappear and they’re certainly never buried and rendered obsolete by the “powers that be.” Plus, a company like WWE is 100% in service and at mercy of their fanbase. To spend the better part of 20 years publicly shitting on a former employee is not only in bad taste towards the victim, but it also insults the intelligence and taste of their audience. Yet, maybe Warrior had it coming? Either way, it will be interesting to see how their renewed business partnership plays out. It may be the most exciting match to ever take place outside of a conventional ring.
It's surreal, yet somewhat poignant, that Warrior passed away yesterday. Much like the profession that made him famous, this past weekend was like a complete fantasy for him. The last four days of Warrior's life were beautiful, as he soaked in the adulation of his fans and colleagues. It was almost too good to be true, like a cliche Hollywood script. But...it's all too real. I have been reading the plethora of tributes and profiles that have been released in the mainstream media over the last 24 hours and they've all said far more than I could say on the subject now. I did feel that it was at least appropriate to address the situation. I also don't want to take anything away from the above piece, but I'll admit that the timing of my post and Warrior's sudden death has given me a strange, deeper connection to the subject. That seems oddly selfish, but I know that this is going to be with me for a while.
Also, I wanted to bring this up:
Wrestling legend the Iron Sheik was always a perennial social media bully to the Ultimate Warrior. In general, the Sheik's Tweets are littered with homophobic and racial slurs aimed at various pop culture personalities, but he always seemed to save his most vicious vitriol for Warrior. In other words, his Wrestlemania XXX Tweet shown above was not out of the ordinary and he has also said much worse things in the past. Then, last night, Sheik Tweeted this:
Seems like everybody always actually loved the Ultimate Warrior, even if they couldn't admit that before this past weekend.