The Ultimate Warrior was one of the most popular, iconic, innovative performers in the history of professional wrestling.
The Ultimate Warrior was a loving husband and a devoted father. No one who witnessed his final series of public appearances this last weekend would doubt that this man's heart, which would in a matter of days stop beating many years too soon, overflowed with affection for his family.
But as he reminded us far too often in the last decade of his life, the Ultimate Warrior's heart also overflowed with prejudice, bigotry and intolerance. For the purposes of this exercise, there is no need to dredge up the specifics, because most everyone here knows what they are. Suffice it to say that during his years as a right-wing firebrand speaker and blogger, Warrior's public statements often reached depths of impropriety, insensitivity, and outright callousness that the world would have been better off without, and which served no practical purpose but to stain his character and reputation.
So how are we supposed to reconcile these wildly disparate traits and qualities as we mourn the man's passing? Is it even possible to find an appropriate medium between our appreciation and reverence for him as a performer, our respect for him as a family man, and our well-warranted revulsion at some of the things he said and thought about certain of his fellow human beings?
I'm not here to pretend I have an authoritative answer for the above questions. I do, however, think it would behoove us to take this opportunity to reflect on the manner in which we, as members of the public, cope with the deaths not of sports entertainers specifically, but of public figures in general.
As we well know, public mourning today is a profoundly different exercise than it was just 15 or 20 years ago. When a sudden celebrity death happened before the advent of the internet, the only people with whom you shared the experience were your family and close friends, maybe your co-workers, but that was pretty much it. Only in the case of a very high-profile public figure dying in a very shocking manner would people actually gather in public to share their grief with complete strangers. In my own case, and probably for the very reason that it caused such an unusual outpouring of public shock and sadness, the earliest major event of which I have a vivid recollection was the murder of John Lennon.
Nowadays, we become aware of celebrity deaths by way of the internet, then we use that same internet as the means by which we commiserate with others who share in our mourning. Oftentimes we find ourselves consoling, and being consoled by, people we don't know and whom we likely will never meet.
We each have different coping mechanisms and different means of venting our shock, or our anger, or our sorrow, or even our indifference, depending on whom the decedent happens to be, how we each personally felt about them, and what the circumstances were surrounding their demise. In the absence of an immediately clear cause of death, as happened with Warrior, there are always those whose first instinct is to speculate (Steroids? Suicide? Spaceship crash? Trampled by elephants?). Then, like clockwork, come those who plead with the speculators to stop speculating, and who assert that it's reckless, irresponsible, and disrespectful to the deceased to propose such theories when the actual facts are still unknown.
As heated as things sometimes get between the speculators and the anti-speculators, it often gets even worse between the members of two other main factions: the apologists and the objectivists. The former group is comprised of those people who fervently believe that no negative or critical remarks should be leveled against the recently deceased under any circumstances. The latter group's members, on the other hand, believe just as strongly that death should not absolve a public figure from reasonable scrutiny and, when appropriate, well-warranted criticism.
Quite often, these opposing groups get so caught up in antagonizing one another that they lose sight of an exceedingly important fact; namely, that they are all ultimately (no pun intended) doing the same thing. They are, in whichever way seems right to them, grieving the loss of someone who, on some level, they cared about. And even though they may not realize it in the moment, they're assisting one another in coping with that loss in a very real way.
For people in my particular age bracket, the loss of the Ultimate Warrior meant the loss of another bridge between us and our childhood. He was the guy who took the belt off Hogan, who none of us had ever seen pinned before. He was the guy who had heavy metal entrance music when heavy metal still wasn't socially acceptable. He was the guy in whose honor we tied plastic streamers around our arms and tried to press slam our friends on an old mattress in the back yard. For us he was a guy who gave truth to the axiom "If something's cool when you're 12, it will never not be cool."
But for some of the more fresh-faced denizens of CSS, Warrior may have merely been a guy who they're sick of hearing middle-aged fans talk about; who cut hokey, incoherent promos and whose in-ring work falls woefully short of 21st century standards; who, for the better part of their lives, has been nothing but a batshit insane conservative blogger who says terrible, repugnant, indefensible things about minorities and gay people.
The Ultimate Warrior was all of those things. The measure in which he was one or the other, or the extent to which one thing does or should override any of the other things, is a judgement for each of us to make individually.