It was 1991. Ultimate Warrior was at the top of the wrestling world. A year earlier, hulk hogan had passed the torch in the form of the WWE title to Warrior at WrestleMania 6, still among the top five WrestleMania matches of all time.
He had lost the title to Sgt. Slaughter at Royal Rumble, but at WM7 he won a retirement match against Macho Man Randy Savage, and was about to start a feud with Jake the Snake Roberts that never happened.
Why it never happened is a subject of wrestling lore and various conspiracy theories that still linger to this day. The conspiracy theories all had to do with Warrior having died suddenly; the much less conspiratorial truth is that Warrior wanted more money and less work, and that he and Vince McMahon could not come to terms, and so Warrior bolted.
It was a classic test of wills that would persist for most of the next 23 years. Warrior, his legal name, after changing it from his birth name, James Hellwig, in 1993, holding to his principles that he should be paid more and be able to set his own work schedule, and McMahon, holding to his principles that, hey, I’m paying you gobs of money, and if I’m paying you gobs of money, you work when I tell you to work, and get paid what I say you get paid.
Warrior made a couple of brief and completely un-noteworthy comebacks in WWE and WCW over the years, but until it was announced earlier this year that WWE was inducting him into the WWE Hall of Fame in its Class of 2014, it seemed like the stasis between the two sides would persist, and that Warrior would forever be left on the outside the ring looking in.
As recently as the moment when Warrior walked to the microphone in New Orleans Saturday night to accept induction into the Hall of Fame, there was speculation about what he would say, whether he would use the opportunity to shoot, as he had done in videos and on his blog for years.
Turns out there was nothing to worry about, maybe in part because he announced toward the end of the speech that he had signed a multi-year contract to serve as a WWE ambassador, maybe more essentially because he seemed to have finally mellowed a bit after years of acrimony. He didn’t shoot; instead, he showed a vulnerability that had not been seen in the ring, on TV interviews, on his videos and blogs, commenting that he was, sure, upset when he saw the 2005 WWE DVD on his career, but that the negative things that other wrestlers had said about him in the DVD had saddened him.
Then we saw his triumphant return to the ring on Monday Night Raw, which featured him coming down the ramp to the familiar late ‘80s metal Warrior theme song and even a moment of him bouncing the ring ropes as he did in his heyday.
He thanked Warrior fans for their clamor for his return, which he credited with making his rapprochement with WWE possible, and then walked off into the sunset, sadly, literally so.
Which gets us to the saddest thing about the Ultimate Warrior’s passing. Yes, it’s incredibly sad that Warrior passed just days after his return to the business that he had fought with for more than 20 years, and sadder still that before he passed we were able to meet on the Hall of Fame broadcast his two young daughters, Indy and Mattie, who presented their father for his induction.
But the saddest thing about Warrior’s passing is that by all accounts, he had done things the right way. His dispute with McMahon was over money and time, which probably sounds familiar to fans who have followed the ongoing dispute between WWE and CM Punk, who left the company in January over similar issues. Wrestling is an unforgiving business: wrestlers in WWE are on the road 250 days a year, basically being chewed up while they’re hot and spit out when their usefulness has come to an end.
Warrior, at the height of the game, saw that, and took a stand, and when McMahon called his bluff, basically said, Good for you, but I’m driving the money train, and if you want on, I have to punch your ticket, Warrior stayed in the station.
It’s widely assumed that Warrior, like other musclemen of the 1980s and 1990s, used steroids, and without knowing at this writing the cause of death, that’s the first thing that comes to mind as a possible cause, heart failure related to past steroid use. But all other accounts had Warrior living his life post-wrestling the way you’d want to see any past megastar live out his retirement.
Compared to his contemporaries, thinking here of Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Jake the Snake Roberts, and any of a number of others who were at the top of the wrestling world in the 1980s and 1990s, who were chewed up and spit out many times over, Warrior had seemed to have actually beaten wrestling, in a sense. He didn’t blow through millions of dollars to end up wrestling in endless high school gyms for a few hundred bucks a night, didn’t end up in rehab, didn’t end up a shell of himself, didn’t end up dead of an overdose.
Saturday night at the Hall of Fame, and Monday Night at Raw, Warrior had his hand raised in victory, with wrestling his vanquished foe.
Turns out, tragically, that it was only a near-fall; wrestling always wins in the end.
– Column by Chris Graham