In 1993, James Hellwig had his named legally changed to “Warrior.” It was this sort of deep devotion to his character that made WWE Superstar the Ultimate Warrior so popular and so very successful. Warrior committed so fully to his own on-screen development that he actually became the character to some degree in his personal life, and now his family carries on the Warrior surname, including his wife Dana Warrior who has spoken frequently on WWE’s behalf following Warrior’s death in 2014.
The Ultimate Warrior had a professional wrestling career which thrived despite quite often seeing turbulence. It is said that if Warrior’s falling out with WWE had never come to be, he would have become as big a name, if not a bigger one, than his rival Hulk Hogan. Warrior inspired children and adults alike with his unmatched, intense energy and moving, at times poetic, speeches before matches. If there is one word to describe Warrior’s approach to wrestling, it is “passionate.”
That passion was unwavering; whether one chooses to laud the decisions Warrior made in his personal and professional life or criticizes him for arrogance, there’s simply no denying that he tackled no issue at half capacity. Warrior was one of the defining members of an era which built WrestleMania from the ground up, in a time when professional wrestlers were larger than life heroes held to great reverence. This is a look at the ups and downs of the often tumultuous and always colorful career of the Ultimate Warrior.
15 Up: Rivalry with the Undertaker
Having gone to war many times with nearly all of WWE’s biggest stars in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Ultimate Warrior’s multitude of battles with the likes of Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage may have resulted in his rivalry with the Undertaker being somewhat lost to the history books. Warrior’s life energy was already pulsing through the veins of the WWE Universe when the iconic Undertaker made his debut in 1990.
One early feud which helped establish the Undertaker as a creepy threat in WWE was with the Ultimate Warrior, which at one time saw him using Jake “The Snake” Roberts to lure Warrior into a room full of snakes. They were trying to kill the man with snake venom! It was great television for the time, if a little cheesy. As was often the case with both the Undertaker and Warrior, there were plenty of special effects involved that helped keep you interested, but the two also had some really good matches throughout the rivalry.
14 Down: Rivalry with Papa Shango
It’s funny how the same WWE Superstar can have a supernatural rivalry with one scary wizard guy and create something great, but his rivalry with another scary wizard guy becomes a running gag for the rest of time about how lame the ‘90s could be. While Warrior’s antics with the Undertaker in 1991 were seen as fun and memorable, his run-ins with a man named Papa Shango sometime later are cringe-worthy.
Papa Shango was a face-painted shaman type of character who carried a smoking skull and used voodoo magic to curse his opponents. One such curse was placed on the Ultimate Warrior, and the key difference between this and Warrior’s rivalry with the Undertaker was that the Papa Shango feud traded all subtlety for outright wackiness. Warrior’s head oozed dark liquid and at one point Shango’s magics resulted in Warrior projectile vomiting on television. It very deservingly won the 1992 Wrestling Observer award for “Worst Feud of the Year.”
13 Up: WrestleMania XII versus Hunter Hearst Helmsley
At WrestleMania XII in 1996, the Ultimate Warrior was scheduled for his big return to the World Wrestling Federation after several years away from the company. The main event for that show was Shawn Michaels versus Bret Hart for the WWE Championship in an Iron Man match, a showdown that is widely considered one of the best wrestling matches of all time. But apparently, Warrior’s return to the ring was what sold the event, because some fans were reportedly leaving the arena after Warrior’s match.
His opponent was Hunter Hearst Helmsley, known today as future WWE Hall of Famer and authority figure Triple H. That sounds like a dream match to our ears now, knowing what Triple H went on to accomplish, but in 1996 his career was just getting started and he would lose to the Ultimate Warrior in less than two minutes. It was, in essence, not even a real match, but it was a crowd pleaser and a special moment for Warrior and his fans. At the time, it seemed like the start of a special new relationship between the legend and WWE, oh how wrong that was.
12 Down: Fall Brawl 1998
In 1998 Ultimate Warrior signed on with World Championship Wrestling. The event was a very big deal at first; WCW was WWE’s prime competition and they now had two of WWE’s biggest stars of all time, Hulk Hogan being the other, under contract. Not only that, Warrior and Hogan were set to rekindle their epic rivalry from years prior. WCW was surely about to turn WWE’s success against it and wrestling fans were pumped.
Unfortunately for Warrior and WCW, the whole thing was much less impressive in practice than in theory. Warrior’s first match for the company was at Fall Brawl ’98 as a part of WarGames, a famous style of match in WCW which involved lots of men competing in two wrestling rings surrounded by a steel cage. The contest involved a lot of Warrior-style special effects and not much in the way of Warrior himself actually wrestling. It was very anticlimactic and a huge missed opportunity for WCW.
11 Up: WWE Hall of Fame
An induction into the WWE Hall of Fame is a highlight of any pro wrestler’s career. It’s the most popular and renowned Hall of Fame in all of wrestling, and serves as a recognition of one’s accomplishments and sacrifices to WWE. For Warrior, it may have been the highlight of his career.
As a man who had had a consistently strained relationship with the company even during his prime, Warrior likely thought he’d never be recognized in WWE on such a respectful level. Many former WWE Superstars retain some form of grudge with the company after leaving, but the bad blood between Warrior and WWE was something fierce and fans were totally shocked when, in 2014, the two parties put aside differences once and for all to allow the Ultimate Warrior to take his rightful spot among the greats.
10 Down: Halloween Havoc 1998
The Ultimate Warrior’s aforementioned time in WCW was just awful. In every way imaginable the brief stint, which saw Warrior wrestle only three matches, failed to such an extreme degree that the collective time frame is seen as a major blemish on the WCW as a whole. It’s a shame that Warrior’s last hurrah in professional wrestling was so severely mismanaged.
Eric Bischoff later said he believed the WCW revival of the feud between Warrior and Hulk would be huge for the company. It was all awful though, especially when you consider it was partially just so Hogan could redeem his loss to Warrior years earlier at WrestleMania VI. Leading up to their match at Halloween Havoc in 1998, fans saw Warrior utilize his superpowers to play mind games on Hogan in skits outdated by at least five to seven years at this point, and then the match itself proved to be even worse. The mess of a contest has gone down as one of the worst main events in the history of pro wrestling, and obviously, stands as one of the Ultimate Warrior’s worst moments.
9 Up: Final Raw Appearance
The induction of the Ultimate Warrior into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014 was monumental because fans never thought they’d see the day the two parties could make peace and put the past behind them. The next night, Warrior was featured at WrestleMania for the first time in many, many years, as the Hall of Fame Class of 2014 was presented. Warrior would then show up on Monday Night Raw for the first time in eighteen years. That would be his final wrestling appearance, as he passed away the following day.
His appearance on Monday Night Raw the day before his passing was special for the inspirational sentiment of his farewell speech. For that brief moment, Warrior became his old wrestling personality. The peace he made and the recognition WWE finally gave him in the days leading up to his death were a beautiful form of irony in the eyes of his fans.
8 Down: Homophobic Speeches
The Ultimate Warrior had his share of classic wrestling matches including several legendary performances at WrestleMania. He was certainly a powerhouse in the ring, but he was also a gifted speaker when it came time to deliver a promo. Warrior was always known for his inspiring speeches about conquering your demons and never letting bullies get the best of you. As a wrestling character, it helped make him legendary. As an actual human being, however, it was filled with irony.
After retiring from professional wrestling, Warrior became a public speaker, often talking to groups of listeners about his political views which leaned heavily to the conservative side. He traveled to universities speaking to students about the perils of poor folks and gay people, and was quoted as saying “queering don’t make the world work.” He also came under fire for claiming that the death of actor Heath Ledger was not as bad as everyone made it out to be because he starred in a “gay propaganda” film. Those speeches greatly affected the public’s opinion of Warrior in a very negative way and stand as one of his worst career decisions.
7 Up: Winning the Intercontinental Title
There were plenty of instances when one could have said that the Ultimate Warrior made history, but that was never more the case than at the 1988 SummerSlam. At that event, Honky Tonk Man laid out an open challenge for his Intercontinental Championship, one which was accepted by the Ultimate Warrior much to the pleasure of the live audience who were eager to see the hated Honky Tonk Man lose the title.
Warrior managed to defeat Honky Tonk Man and win the Intercontinental Championship in a very short match, a big feat in itself considering how big a villain Honky Tonk Man had become. What made the moment even more iconic was that this was the end of Honky Tonk Man’s legendary Intercontinental title reign, which was the longest reign in history for that title. It was an incredible moment and the beginning of a lengthy title reign for Warrior as well.
6 Down: Leaving WWE in 1991
If the Ultimate Warrior’s run in WCW was a total tragedy, it can be blamed on his rocky relationship with WWE which led him to seek employment elsewhere. Warrior left WWE several times but the first came in 1991 as a result of disputes over Warrior’s paycheck. Apparently, Warrior was quite unhappy with how he was paid for his role at WrestleMania that year and started demanding more money in his contract.
Warrior believed he was as big a star for the company as Hulk Hogan and deserved all the same perks. WWE initially agreed to his demands but ultimately suspended him for ninety days due to unprofessional conduct and Warrior sat out the rest of his contract with the company. This was the beginning of years of back and forth between WWE and the Ultimate Warrior and created a toxic relationship between the two. What followed was years of Warrior’s career being surrounded in controversy and bad creative decisions.
5 Up: Rivalry with Rick Rude
One of the Ultimate Warrior’s greatest rivals was a man who is considered one of the greatest WWE Superstars to never hold the prestigious WWE Championship, “Ravishing” Rick Rude. It was an early rivalry for Warrior with one of the best technical wrestlers of the 1980s, and the two wrestled several great matches together. Rude having Warrior’s face painted onto his tights during this time serves as memorable imagery.
The two legends met several times over the course of their classic rivalry for the Intercontinental Championship; at WrestleMania V Rick Rude defeated the Ultimate Warrior for the title and then lost it back to Warrior at the 1989 SummerSlam. They met again the following year, once again at SummerSlam, with “Ravishing” Rick Rude unsuccessfully challenging the Ultimate Warrior after Warrior had become the WWE Champion. Rude and Warrior had incredible chemistry and each became great assets to the other’s career.
4 Down: Leaving WWE in 1996
Things really started going downhill for the business relationship between the Ultimate Warrior and WWE in 1991 when Warrior started making demands about his contract after noticing that Hulk Hogan’s WrestleMania pay was much higher than his own. In 1996 Warrior had made his triumphant return to WWE at WrestleMania XII, defeating Hunter Hearst Helmsley in a very short match, and fans were excited about Warrior’s future with the company.
As fate would have it, that future wouldn’t be too bright. Months after Warrior’s return to WWE, he began missing shows and attributed it to the fact that his father had recently passed away and he was in mourning. Vince McMahon called him out on this, stating that he knew Warrior hadn’t seen his father in a very long time and didn’t care very much for him. Eventually, things once again broke down into a contract dispute and WWE finally let Warrior go for good, at least until his 2014 Hall of Fame induction.
3 Up: WrestleMania VII versus Randy Savage
Above you read about Warrior's complaints about his payday at WrestleMania in comparison to Hogan. That’s an argument that can certainly be understood when you realize that Warrior’s match with “Macho King” Randy Savage at WrestleMania VII that year was the highlight of the show. Warrior and Savage are two of the top WWE Superstars to ever lace up boots and this match is one huge reason why.
It was billed as a “career ending” match where the loser would leave pro wrestling, although any wrestling fan will tell you “retirement” in wrestling is usually a load of baloney, especially when it’s used as a storyline. The match turned out to be an all time classic and saw Warrior coming out on top. It’s fondly remembered by many as their favorite match of all time for both wrestlers and helped turn regular stars into WWE Hall of Famers.
2 Down: The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior
In 2005, WWE released a DVD titled The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior. It was the result of years of well-documented troubles between Warrior and WWE. The company had come together to make money from the estranged Superstar one last time with a scathing documentary that really tore into Warrior’s character and business decisions. It was a brutal, unrelenting assault on a man who had helped the company build itself into a global phenomenon in the crucial years of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
So many of Warrior’s former co-workers joined together to discuss essentially everything Warrior did wrong to sabotage his own career. It obviously hit a sore spot with Warrior himself as he filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming they told many lies about him and were smearing his name in the DVD. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed but it was the rotten cherry on top of a relationship which was already spoiled.
1 Up: WrestleMania VI versus Hulk Hogan
The Ultimate Warrior is easily one of the most iconic performers in WrestleMania’s storied history. At the time, WWE had just broken into the mainstream and stars like Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage were very prominently featured as the faces of the company. Then the Ultimate Warrior came along and blew the main event scene wide open with what some call the greatest WrestleMania match of all time against Hulk Hogan for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania VI.
Warrior did the unthinkable that night, defeating Hogan to become a double champion as he already held the Intercontinental Championship. It was a magical showdown, one that stands as the perfect example of what made early WrestleManias so very special. Warrior versus Hogan was the essence of the spectacle of wrestling and is held up as the reason so many of the Superstars who followed them felt inspired to get into professional wrestling.