Saying goodbye to the Ultimate Warrior

It took him 18 years to come to terms with his legacy in pro wrestling. Now wrestling fans are trying to come to terms with his passing.

The man legally named Warrior and better known to legions of wrestling fans (and plenty of non-fans for that matter) as the Ultimate Warrior passed away on Tuesday night in Arizona. His death came three days after being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Two days after appearing at WrestleMania XXX to soak in the cheers of over 75,000 fans. And one day after appearing on "Monday Night RAW" to deliver this speech:

Wrestling fans -- hell, even people who haven't watched wrestling since they were 10 years old -- are trying to process the death of the Ultimate Warrior, who appeared to have finally come back home where he belonged. At his moment of his redemption (or perhaps the WWE's, depending upon who you ask), he was suddenly, inexplicably gone.

To fully take stock, it's first necessary to take a step back and retrace the road the Warrior took to return home.

The Ultimate Warrior had a tumultuous relationship with the professional wrestling industry in general and the WWE in specific. He entered the then-WWF in 1987. His meteoric rise culminated with him defeating Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania VI in 1990. It was meant to be a passing of the torch, the ushering in of a new era of wrestling, with the Warrior supplanting Hulkamania as a worldwide phenomenon.

The following year's WrestleMania had Hulk Hogan winning the WWF Championship from Sgt. Slaughter in the main event. By the fall, the Ultimate Warrior had left the company. He returned at WrestleMania VIII in 1992 (to rescue Hulk Hogan), but was gone by November. Fans didn't see him again until 1996. He lasted about four months in the company that time. He popped up in WCW to terrify "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan with the "One Warrior Nation" (the acronym was "nWo" backwards) and stayed for four matches. Then he was gone. For American audiences, he was gone for good.

While the Warrior stayed off the radar -- save for an occasional vitriolic interview or controversial comments -- he was badmouthed by former colleagues in innumerable shoot interviews, books, magazines, and pretty much anywhere anyone asked about the Ultimate Warrior. In 2005, the WWE officially sanctioned, compiled and released a glorified hatchet job; a DVD release entitled The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior. The DVD, now out of print, detailed the history of the Warrior as WWE at the time wished to tell it. It told the story of Warrior as greedy, egomaniacal, not a little batshit crazy, and lacking the talent to back up his popularity.

The DVD drove a wedge between any hope that fans could see the Warrior back in the WWE any time soon. So from 1996 until 2014, the Ultimate Warrior and WWE stood at a remove from one another. The Warrior left WWE when he was 38 years old and only wrestled four matches for a major company before never wrestling in front of American audiences again. For the sake of perspective, John Cena is 36 years old.  Randy Orton is 34. Batista is 45. The Undertaker is 49. Triple H is 44.

But the Ultimate Warrior spent 18 years in exile, hearing nothing but insults coming his way from the company that made him famous. Until last year, when the divide was finally bridged. The Ultimate Warrior popped up in July of 2013 to hype the new WWE video game. It was a precursor to his being announced as the headliner for the WWE's 2014 Hall of Fame class.

This is where we began our story and is also, tragically, where it ends.

I was unaware just how large the Warrior had loomed in my own childhood until just this week.

I spent WrestleMania weekend on the scene in New Orleans. Before I left, I wrote about that Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Hogan match at WrestleMania VI as one of my favorite WrestleMania matches of all time. When I chose it, I honestly surprised myself. I was unaware just how large the Warrior had loomed in my own childhood until just this week. Truth be told, I had always considered myself a Hulk Hogan guy. Like Elvis and the Beatles, there was always only one right answer to hardcore fans.

As soon as I got off the plane on Thursday, when I went to claim my luggage, Warrior (born James Hellwig, but legally changed his name to "Warrior" in 1993) was the very first thing I encountered. I've run into a lot of wrestlers at airports at this point. Many try to slink by without being noticed. Most will be cordial with fans, but eventually (rightly) announce that they need to get going and will go about their business, extricating themselves from the press of wrestling enthusiasts.

But the Warrior was standing in the middle of the baggage claim area at New Orleans International Airport, smiling broadly, greeting each fan in the impromptu line. Fans would step forward, offer a hand, thank him, ask for a picture. Warrior in turn would smile, thank THEM, then make sure they took the time to check the picture and make sure they were happy with how it came out. That was important to him. If it came out blurry, he'd happily take another.

Warrior's wife, Dana, stood to one side with their bags. Her smile was just as wide as her husband's. If a fan was timid about approaching Warrior, she waved them on. "It's okay, go ahead. Take your time." She also insisted they make sure they were happy with their photos. Warrior never seemed anything other than calm, patient, gracious ... and happy.

Over the weekend, I spent a lot of time at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which housed the annual "WWE Fan AXXESS" event as well as the WWE Superstore, which is always set up in the host city of WrestleMania and features just about every last bit of WWE merchandise on offer. Prominently displayed were both retro and new designs of Ultimate Warrior T-shirts, as well as Ultimate Warrior prints, action figures, decals, posters and Ultimate Warrior masks that were molded plastic, with an elastic band. Warrior donned one in his "Monday Night RAW" appearance a day before he died. Slip one on and you emulate the classic Warrior facepaint, without any of the mess. You couldn't turn around all weekend without seeing Ultimate Warrior merchandise, either worn or being sold. Performer and stage were, after 18 years, once again reunited and the result appeared to be a phenomenal success for both sides.

On Saturday night, I attended the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony. Speeches went long. The crowd was at times infuriatingly rude and obtuse, seeming more interested in hooting and cheering than in actually listening to what people were saying. When Jake "The Snake" Roberts hoarsely confessed there was a point a couple years ago where he would have killed himself, but lacked the strength to do so, the admission was met with inexplicable applause and assorted "WOOOO JAKEs."

The crowd grew restless. The night grew long. Warrior finally was introduced by Linda McMahon at around 10:50 p.m. CT. His speech didn't end until after 11:30. He rambled along the way. He started off being gracious, then things took a turn when he addressed what was -- for him -- clearly the elephant in the room; The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior DVD.

He was emphatic when he talked about how much it hurt him. It was a point he kept circling around to, insisting he was a "good guy" and that he was unfairly maligned these past 18 years. It was impossible for him to mask just how much that DVD has affected him all these years, as he continually skirted a line between saying what he needed to say in order to be at peace and saying what he wanted to say, because he'd just been hurt too much by the company that made him a household name.

He complained about WWE changing their name from the WWF, said he wished they'd change it back, mocked Vince McMahon's high-powered personal lawyer for getting his ass kicked by the World Wildlife Fund, then in the same breath announced he'd just signed a multi-year contract to be an ambassador for the company. The irony was not lost on the live crowd. Seems like it's getting off to a good start.

He sometimes stammered and stumbled over his words. Toward the end of his speech, he spilled his water on the podium. The crowd grew restless. When they responded to something he said with a Daniel Bryan "YES!" chant, he stared out at the crowd in disbelief. "It's clear I've been gone too long," he said. He didn't appear to understand the reference.

Finally, in the last few minutes of his speech, the large screens in the arena began cutting to current WWE superstars watching him deliver his speech. These cutaways produced loud cheers or boos, independent of what Warrior was saying. He visibly and audibly got the hint and quickly wrapped things up. The night ended in an anticlimax. The press section stretched and shuffled out, mumbling to one another that, although long and disjointed, at least the man got a chance to say what he wanted to say.

On Sunday, pastel purple and green light bathed the Superdome as the Warrior was introduced to the WrestleMania XXX crowd, the last name in the roll call of the 2014 Hall of Fame class. His theme music thundered out of the speakers and he soaked in the applause.

Ask any wrestling fan: after "RAW" on Monday night, it felt like the best weekend of all time.

On Monday, he appeared on "Monday Night RAW" in an airbrushed trench coat worn over his suit. He shook the ropes, asked a cameraman to hold his microphone while he donned an Ultimate Warrior mask and cut one last promo, talking about last breaths and final heartbeats. The crowd cheered again. It was just part of two solid days of absolutely perfect wrestling. Ask any wrestling fan, after "RAW" on Monday night, it felt like the best weekend of all time.

Then, on Tuesday night, Triple H announced via Twitter that the Warrior had died. Wrestling fans were stunned. Floored. Completely in disbelief.

And because we're wrestling fans, it only took about 10 minutes or so to start thinking, "Uh-oh." Because it's the last thing we want to think about. Because we outlived Chris Benoit. And Mike Awesome. And Crash Holly. And Chris Kanyon. And Larry Sweeney. And the Renegade; the man who was created by WCW to be "their" version of the Ultimate Warrior. Because we're wrestling fans, we started thinking back to that rambling speech at the Hall of Fame. To the eerily-specific and slightly "off" promo on "RAW." And we started hoping it wasn't what we thought it was. And then the Hall of Fame ceremony got pulled down from the WWE Network. And then all we could do was think about it and not think about it and not NOT think about it.

Because we didn't want the Ultimate Warrior to be dead, but the only thing we wanted more was for the Ultimate Warrior to not have committed suicide. It feels, looks and sounds awful to write that. But it's the truth. A man waits 18 years to clear his name, to be assured of his legacy. To have his young daughters walk him out to the Hall of Fame stage ... and then to be gone. Oh no, we thought. That Hall of Fame speech. That promo. Talking about death so much. To our grieving, survivors' brains, all the pieces, horrifically, seemed to fit. We held our breath, tried to hold our tongues and waited for clarity.

Late on Tuesday night, an hour or two after the news of Warrior's death broke, we got our answer.

So that was it. Not the thing we feared the most, but an unbelievably cruel twist of fate. He finally made it home, but his heart -- or some other vital part of the man -- just gave out.

We all got to say hello again to the Ultimate Warrior this past weekend. Now we're forced to say goodbye, as well.

Wrestling fans are dealing with the enormity of the situation today, but no one more so than Warrior's wife, Dana and his daughters, who looked so happy to see their father take his rightful place in the Hall of Fame on Saturday night. He looked at them in the crowd and, with the most moving and absolutely heartfelt moment of his speech, he said to them, "The most awesome thing I will ever do is be your father." I know my father felt the same way about me and my sister before he died. Thinking about the Warrior's statement to his daughters brings me peace. I hope it brings his daughters peace as well. I at least know they will believe it.

We all got to say hello again to the Ultimate Warrior this past weekend. Now we're forced to say goodbye, as well. At the Hall of Fame, the crowd chanted "ONE MORE MATCH," but he shook his head. "No more match," he said sadly. "No more match."

I'll keep thinking about his speech. I'll keep thinking about meeting him and how gracious and kind and happy he was. And from what I could see, he was finally home and he was finally at ease. Because now there's no more Warrior. And he was just here. I'm still trying to figure out how to say goodbye, so instead I'll just do what Warrior would do; turn it around and say, "Thank you."

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