Before I get started, I realize that the name “Ultimate Warrior” has been tarnished and he may not have been a nice guy in real life, but to 5-year old me, he was a superhero. All the adults in my family who watched wrestling were big Hulk Hogan fans. I guess I was too but only because my dad was. Kind of like when you are a kid and whatever football team your dad likes, he forces you to like.
(There was also a brief period of time in my childhood where I was a Raider fan, a time which my therapist tells me it’s okay to talk about now.)
During the first ever SummerSlam, my whole family gathered around the TV at my grandma’s house to see The Mega Powers (Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage) take on the Mega Bucks (Ted DiBiase and Andre The Giant) with Jesse “The Body” Ventura as the special guest referee in the main event. That was a huge match and a big time feud that captivated the adults (my dad had six brothers), but the kids in the house watching that day all remember one moment the most; the Ultimate Warrior destroying the Honky Tonk Man in seconds to win the Intercontinental Championship. We were hooked. The bright colors, the face paint, the ripped muscles, and screaming promos had completely captivated my imagination. I literally believed that he was super human and that he was from another planet sent here to beat up wrestling bad guys. Other kids had Spiderman, Superman, and X-Men. I had the Ultimate Warrior.
After that moment I wanted Ultimate Warrior everything. I had lunch boxes, puzzles, t-shirts, wrestling buddies, posters, video games (WrestleMania Challenge), etc. If the Ultimate Warrior was on it, my parents tried to buy it for me. And this was despite the fact we were really poor. Fast forward to Wrestlemania VI with Hulk Hogan vs. the Ultimate Warrior in the main event. This was the last wrestling event that my whole family gathered at my grandma’s house for as shortly after this, the adults moved on from wrestling. There was a clear divide in the house during this match. All the adults were rooting for Hogan, but we kids were all on board for Ultimate Warrior. When Warrior won, the kids celebrated and cheered and went crazy and honest to God, that’s the first time I remember someone breaking the news to me that wrestling was fake. One of my drunk uncles who was pissed about Hogan losing attempted to destroy my imagination and ruin the celebration by saying, “Doesn’t matter. It’s all fake anyway.” Dick.
His attempt failed, but I was more hooked than ever. My imagination went wild after that. I distinctly remember telling all my friends about how when Warrior raised his arms up in the air, squeezed his hands and pulled the air down, that he was stealing his opponents energy and using it against them. The following year Warrior lost the title to Sgt. Slaughter and I was crushed. Hulk got the title back at WrestleMania VII but the true main event for me was Warrior vanquishing Savage in one of my all-time favorite matches. Later that year at SummerSlam 1991, Hogan and Warrior formed a super team to take on Slaughter and Col. Mustafa (Iron Sheik) and then he vanished. I learned the real story later in life, but back then as weeks went by and he was not on TV that was the first time, I heard that Warrior died. For the life of me, I can’t remember who told me that he died. But then he appeared at WrestleMania VIII and despite people trying to make me believe that someone else was playing him now (one rumor going around the Gilbert house was that it was Kerry Von Erich) I knew it was really him and all was right in the world.
Later in 1992, he left wrestling again and so did I. I focused on playing little league baseball and got in to sports and just watched sparingly for the better part of three years. I didn’t start watching religiously again until I heard that he was coming back at WrestleMania XII. His match against Hunter Hearst Helmsley was only three seconds but I remember watching that show and falling back in love with wrestling again. I went to my local video store and rented tons of videos from the previous years that I missed out on. He left again shortly after that but I didn’t really care. I was 13 years old and the NWO and Stone Cold Steve Austin had completely taken over for me.
When he turned up in WCW in 1998, I remember being excited and definitely interested. I watched Halloween Havoc that year and was legitimately excited to see the Hogan-Warrior rematch, but it was perhaps the worst match I had ever seen. I knew it was all bullshit by then but my inner 5-year old still wanted to see his first hero beat up some bad guys, but I was left kind of feeling badly for him. Of course, he left once again and teenage me thought it was a great idea because I was full of insider by this time and thought he was stealing the spotlight from my new favorite wrestler during that time frame, Chris Benoit. Now that I think of it, a lot of my childhood heroes turned out to be assholes.
When Warrior came back to WWE in 2014 to be inducted in to the Hall of Fame, I was torn. Social Justice me was like, “Screw that guy. He’s homophobic and said that Bobby Heenan deserved to get cancer.” Lots of wrestlers had come out over the years and said negative things about him and how he was was unprofessional, so I snubbed my nose at it. But, I watched his Hall of Fame speech and was genuinely happy for him and seeing him on WWE TV made me feel like a kid again. Two nights after the Hall of Fame on RAW, he was back in front of fans in a ring and I had actually hoped we would get to see him beat up a couple bad guys. But it never happened. The next morning, Warrior died, this time for real, and so did a part of my childhood. When looking back at my heroes, I try my best to differentiate between their TV persona and their real life behavior. When I look back on the Ultimate Warrior, I will always remember the way my family gathered around my grandma’s TV to watch him perform and how he helped jump start my imagination and creativity at an early age. There will never be another one like him.