Sometimes celebrities die when you haven’t heard from them in a while. Perhaps they’ve left the limelight and, as a result, slipped to the back of your mind. You receive the news of their passing with a raised eyebrow and a thought of ‘oh man, he was in that thing all those years ago’. Other people die at the prime of their careers, cut off without having a chance to show the world their best. The passing of wrestling legend The Ultimate Warrior this morning at the age of 54 is somehow a little bit of both.
At the age of 11 I knew nothing of steroid scandals and why they were a bad thing. All I knew is that wrestling was a new world, a live action cartoon full of bad guys and good guys doing battle. With Wrestlemania 8 in 1992 being my first of the WWF’s annual supercards I had no idea who The Ultimate Warrior was when he made his return. Tearing down the aisle to save Hulk Hogan from a battering dished out by Sid Justice and Papa Shango, he appeared a ball of muscle, facepaint and hair. He quickly tore into both before posing in the ring with Hogan and fireworks went off in the background. I had to pick up my jaw off the living room carpet, rewind the VHS tape and watch again. My favourites at that time in wrestling were The Legion of Doom and The Ultimate Warrior.
Of course at that age we know nothing of backstage struggles. This mystical entity vanished again from the company again in November of that year only to return again in 1996 to face the man who is now firmly in the management structure of WWE, Triple H, in one of the shortest Wrestlemania matches ever. He stuck around for a few months before going again. Looking back there were plenty of stories about disputed pay cheques and attitude problems. The WWE even saw fit during 2005 to release an entire DVD box set trashing the guy by saying he was money hungry, couldn’t work and expected everybody else to do the heavy lifting in matches. Three discs were spent running Warrior down which in retrospect seems crazy a company would spend the time, energy and money doing that to an ex-employee.
Not that Warrior himself was a saint, in his non-wrestling days he toured college lecture halls of America with views that were racist and homophobic including his infamous ‘queering doesn’t make the world work’ line. If there are any other homophobes who rose to fame by flexing their muscles on TV whilst wearing trunks then please let me know. He seemed to want to use the fame he had gained through wrestling to attempt to warn the youth of America about something they were never threatened by in the first place. There’s plenty of ex-wrestlers who hate the industry they made their name in, many of whom will sound off about their views if given a forum, but Warrior seemed the highest profile. To be honest though, I doubt many would have been thinking ‘I’m going to hate the gays because the man with the facepaint told me to’.
Any kind of reconciliation into the WWE seemed impossible up until Wrestlemania XXX this past weekend in which Warrior accepted the invitation to take his place in the WWE Hall Of Fame alongside names such as Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Andre The Giant and Ric Flair. The theme of this year’s Hall Of Fame seemed to be redemption as it featured not only Warrior but Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts and Razor Ramon as well who have both had drug and alcohol battles in the past and have turned their lives around in dramatic fashion in the last two years.
Not only did Warrior take to the stage at Wrestlemania itself but also on the next Monday Night Raw in which he said the following…
“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life what makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized. By the story tellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever. You, you, you, you, you, you are the legend makers of Ultimate Warrior. In the back I see many potential legends. Some of them with warrior spirits. And you will do the same for them. You will decide if they lived with the passion and intensity. So much so that you will tell your stories and you will make them legends, as well. I am The Ultimate Warrior. You are the Ultimate Warrior fans and the spirit of Ultimate Warrior will run forever.”
A day later he collapsed whilst walking back to his car and was pronounced dead in the hospital not long after. Those words suddenly go from words of advice to younger wrestlers in the industry to something beyond that. It seems like a call to everybody, no matter what you do in life, to do something that matters and that lasts when you’re gone. It seems like a man reading his own eulogy, it’s impossible to shake the idea that he knew something was up and this was his last chance.
The timing of his death is incredible. It was a mere two days after Wrestlemania 30 and five days from me being involved in a podcast talking about him. I’m often baffled as to why we have this outpouring of grief when a celebrity dies which results in messages saying how brilliant they were. I always think to myself why we don’t bother doing this when people are still with us. We’re all usually too busy attempting to bring people down. Warrior managed to see over the weekend how many people had loved what he did during his wrestling career. At least he left us knowing that.