I was at a bar when a friend told me that the Ultimate Warrior, born James Hellwig but known legally as Warrior since 1993, had passed. Of course we were in denial; we asked our bartender about the Ultimate Warrior, and he believed we were speaking of Saturday’s Hall of Fame induction, or maybe his appearance on RAW a little over 24 hours earlier. Of course, we also might have been talking about our childhoods, when the be-tasseled wild man briefly became a legitimate hero to us all.
Said friend and I had, just minutes before, discussed the Ultimate Warrior’s “retirement match” against Macho Man Randy Savage from WrestleMania VII. As the storyline went, Savage lost to Warrior, but reunited with his former valet (and then-wife) Miss Elizabeth after Sensational Sherri attacked Savage -- an admittedly complicated storybook ending to what was already a memorable match. It was a little bit before we realized that Warrior was the last of the four people in that match left alive.
I did not watch Warrior’s Hall Of Fame speech when it first aired. That was less because of his known anti-gay point of view, and more out of sheer fatigue after listening to Mr. T rhapsodize at length about his mother. I can only assume Warrior was at once sincere and self-serving during this speech, as he generally was; what I have seen of it confirms such. I did, however, tune in to this Monday’s RAW, where Warrior made what was to be his final public appearance.
Even as an adult, there remains a stubborn habit of imagining your childhood heroes to be immortal. I was not even thinking about physical mortality that night, so much as my disappointment when Warrior did not run to the ring, as he did to promptly dispatch Intercontinental Champion Honky-Tonk Man during SummerSlam ’88. I knew Warrior was in his mid-fifties, and like most wrestlers of his age not in peak physical form, but still held out hope that at least he would be wearing his warpaint, and not some souvenir mask that could have been cut out of a cereal box. But Warrior, for better or worse, wasn’t wearing that costume anymore, though he did sport a nifty black denim jacket with his likeness on it.
I remember at the age of seven or eight, getting a WWF coloring book. It was already out of date. Several wrestlers in it were, by the time it got to me, either retired or had died or had left the sport on other terms -- Randy Savage, Kerry Von Erich, and the Ultimate Warrior. Still, there were their cartoon bodies in cartoon form, ready for America’s children to fill what were already apparitions.
This was near the end of my first period of wrestling fandom; I’d started to learn that wrestling was fake, but had no idea exactly what that entailed. It was also during a part of my childhood where I could sense I was different, yet already imagined myself to be different in so many other ways as to almost completely ignore my attraction towards my own gender.
It took me years to completely realize that I was gay, but even then I realized that something about these cartoonish bodies that made me feel different, and that this was especially true about the Ultimate Warrior’s. Nothing further came of these thoughts at the time, but upon hearing Warrior’s later opinions on LGBT rights, including his bizarre anti-eulogy of Brokeback Mountain star Heath Ledger, I could only frown at what a former childhood hero believed in, and then laugh at the sheer irony of one of my formative early crushes being a rampant, raving homophobe.
Warrior’s official blog, which appears to have been dormant since at least 2009, still includes a longform post describing a visit to DePaul University. It mostly rails against the “queer” attendees disagreeing with his political platform, deems a Catholic university that has an LGBT studies program to be hypocritical, and consistently tries to take back the term “queer” as something to mock non-heterosexual individuals. It’s hard to take someone too seriously who takes himself too seriously, and so it’s easier to sigh than seethe with rage upon reading this article.
As I near 30, I appreciate pro wrestling in different ways than I did growing up. To wrestle is to risk shortening your life in order to perform dramatic yet supremely childish acts; it is, often, to take drugs which will screw your body and your mind while still having to cut promos about the dangers of cigarette smoking. There are heroes, and there are survivors, and by the end of the Ultimate Warrior’s life, he seemed to me more a survivor than a hero.
It makes sense, in a way, that it would be a professional wrestler -- a man who was outsized and overstuffed for a living -- who so well embodied the vast hypocrisies within ourselves as individuals and as a nation, and who showed how, within this hypocrisy, we all find ways to be truly alive. This is a good way to eulogize Jim Hellwig, the man, the warrior, The Ultimate Warrior. Walt Whitman’s line about containing multitudes would’ve sounded both great and strange in Warrior’s booming voice. But it would’ve been something if we could have heard him say it. It might have helped us to understand just what these words truly meant. At least until he asked about Whitman’s wife, at which point it would be time to change the subject.