Wednesday, April 9, 2014

RIP Ultimate Warrior

So we all heard about the shocking death of Jim Hellwig, also known as the Ultimate Warrior, on Tuesday at age 54.  For fans in may age group, the Ultimate Warrior was one of the most exciting performers we'd ever seen.  He was also the first man to get a clean victory over Hulk Hogan during his heyday.  Warrior's heyday was brief, lasting from 1988 to until 1991, but it was memorable as hell.  The ring entrance, the way he just crushed jobbers every week, the 30 second win over the Honky Tonk Man for the Intercontinental Championship, the surprisingly good matches with Rick Rude, the quick victories over Andre the Giant, the WrestleMania triumph over Hulk Hogan, and the retirement match win over Randy Savage at WrestleMania VII a year later.  That was a hell of a ride.  In less than 18 months he effectively ended the singles career of all-time great Andre the Giant, scored a clean victory over the biggest star in the business at the biggest show in the business, and retired another all time great.  Has anyone done anything like that in the history of wrestling?  I doubt it.  It's one of those things you don't realize until you look back on it twenty years later.

Each milestone I mentioned was huge in its own way.  Honky Tonk Man was the longest reigning Intercontinental champion of all time and had developed into a great heel who had no business being champ of anything but managed to escape each title defense by hook or by crook.  He'd been champ for over a year, and it all came crashing to a thud that night at the first ever Summerslam when the Warrior's entrance music hit and a look of horror appeared on Honky Tonk Man's face (he played it up about as well as you cold ask for).  30 seconds later, the Warrior demolished him and became the new champion.  It was such a big moment, and was the most memorable thing about that whole show.  It meant that Vince had seen what an increasing number of fans were also seeing: a potential legend and a man who could be world champion one day.  He defended the title successfully until WrestleMania V where Rick Rude scored a tainted victory; the match was way better than it was supposed to be and the two men had pretty good chemistry together, so much that it made sense for them to work together again when Warrior was World Champion.

Before getting to that, you can't overlook the matches that took place between Warrior regaining the Intercontinental Title and challenging Hulk Hogan against Andre the Giant.  These were house show matches, completely off the grid because pay per view had come to rule the day.  But it was Andre's last real program as a singles competitor, and given Andre's history in the business it meant a lot that he would put an up and comer like the Warrior over in such decisive fashion.  This paved the way for the match with Hogan at WrestleMania VI and can't be overlooked.

And then, WrestleMania VI, the Ultimate Challenge.  The buildup for this match was like no other.  Hogan was still in his prime as a performer and the Warrior was just hitting his.  Hogan hadn't lost a match cleanly since his return to the then-WWF in late 1983, and hadn't shown any real signs of vulnerability.  He'd mowed through everyone else on the roster, and the Warrior was the last guy left who could pose a credible threat in the eyes of the fans.  And then there was the unprecedented hero vs. hero angle; more than any other organization the WWF and Vince McMahon stayed hard and fast to the good guys vs. bad guys rule of making matches.  In the past every other good guy challenger to Hogan's title had to turn bad to set up the feud and the big match.  Paul Orndorff, Andre, Savage.....but not the Warrior.  Vince rolled the dice and kept it good guy vs. good guy, letting the fans decide on their own who to stand by as the match happened.  And a great match it was, one of the best of his career.  Two guys who were known for being limited as far as wrestling skills were able to put together a match that lived up to the hype.  And the ending where Hogan went into his customary comeback flourish, only to miss his big finisher while Warrior followed up with the big splash for the 1, 2, 3.......magic.

This was one of the biggest moments of my life as a fan.  When I started watching as an 11 year old I was a big Hogan fan like most kids my age at the time.  By the time WrestleMania VI rolled around I was done with him, tired of the complete lack of suspense in his storylines, tired of him mostly mailing it in knowing that his little formula was good enough to keep the money rolling in, and tired of him getting win after win over more talented performers from Savage to Bad News Brown to Ted DiBiase.  I wanted him to lose in the worst way, and finally got my wish.  It was the first WrestleMania I watched live as it happened, and it left a lasting impression me to this day.  Unfortunately, the months that followed diminished the accomplishment.  Warrior proved to be less of a draw than Hogan as champion to the degree that Hogan's subsequent program with Earthquake, the latest in a procession of fat guys that Hogan feuded with and beat handily, got more pub and drew more money.  This led Vince to take the belt of the Warrior at the January Royal Rumble, having him lose it to a washed up Sgt. Slaughter so that Hogan could regain it at WrestleMania VII the following March.  It looked like the party was over.

But not before one last hurrah. Warrior's title loss was caused by interference from Savage, setting up a program between the two of them.  It culminated in an excellent match at WrestleMania VII, with the stipulation that the loser had to retire.  It was the last truly great match of his career, and from that point he was a sporadic performer who didn't stick around for more than a few months at a time.  His big 1998 comeback attempt in WCW to face Hogan again was a major dud.  He went to become the star of his own obscure, rambling video rants where he pontificated about God knows what.  He'd also fallen out with Vince over everything from his unreliability as a performer to steroid use.  It wasn't until a few weeks ago, when his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame was announced, that he appeared to be back in the good graces of the business.  And just like that, it's all over just a day after his final, chilling address to the fans on Monday Night RAW. As fans we mourn his passing but we cherish the excitement he gave us for those three years he was at the top of his game.

Rest in Peace, Ultimate Warrior, and thanks for the memories.

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