clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This Day in Wrestling History (June 16): Ultimate Warrior is Born


NOTE: The Ultimate Warrior is one of wrestling’s most celebrated and controversial figures. For the benefit of the Cageside community, please keep the discussion respectful. Remember, disagreeing is okay. Being disrespectful about it is not. Thanks.

Today would have been the 58th birthday of James Brian Hellwig. Known most recently legally as Warrior, he is known to millions as The Ultimate Warrior.

Born in Crawfordsville, Indiana, Hellwig was the oldest of five children. He was raised by his mother and later his stepfather after his biological father left when he was 12. A graduate of Fountain Central High School in Veedersburg, Indiana, he attended Indiana State University for a year.

Hellwig took up amateur bodybuilding in the early 1980s after spending most of his early life training with weights (he began weight training at age 11). After moderate success, including winning the NPC Mr. Georgia in 1984 and finishing fifth in the Junior USAs the next year, Hellwig accepted an offer to join a group of wrestling bodybuilders: Powerteam USA.

Trained by Red Bastien and Rick Bassman, Hellwig made his professional wrestling debut as Jim "Justice" Hellwig. He would team with Steve "Flash" Borden (Borden would go on to great success himself as Sting) and form first the Freedom Fighters, but later the Blade Runners. Hellwig was Blade Runner Rock, while Borden was Blade Runner Flash. The duo teamed for about a year in the Continental Wrestling Association, and later in Bill Watts' version of the UWF. The group disbanded when Hellwig left UWF in 1986.

Hellwig went to Texas-based World Class Championship Wrestling in 1986, adopting the name "Dingo Warrior" after someone in the locker room remarked the looked like a warrior. In late 1986, Dingo Warrior and Lance Von Erich defeated Master Gee and Matt Borne to win the WCWA Tag Team Championship. They only held the title for two weeks before losing them to Al Madril and Brian Adias.

In early 1987, Warrior won the WCWA Texas Heavyweight Championship. Two months later, he vacated the title when he left the company. He briefly returned, but would leave again for good later in the year to join the WWF.

Initially promoted as the Dingo Warrior, Hellwig made his WWF debut in June 1987. By the time he made his television debut in October, he would be known as The Ultimate Warrior. Where the name came from exactly depends on who's telling the story. Bruce Pritchard remarked that Vince McMahon didn't know what a Dingo Warrior was, and that since there were more than a few warriors around (i.e. Kerry Von Erich, the “Modern Day Warrior” and the Road Warriors), there should be an Ultimate Warrior. Warrior himself claimed that after an early match, he cut a promo, but was instructed not to say Dingo. Then Warrior proclaimed he wasn't this warrior or that warrior, but The Ultimate Warrior.

Warrior feuded with Hercules Hernandez and Bobby Heenan (the latter mostly on the house show circuit in a series of weasel suit matches) through most of the year. In August at the first Summerslam, fortune smiled on the Warrior. Substituting for the injured Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, Warrior ended the longest Intercontinental Championship reign in WWF history by defeating the Honky Tonk Man in just 27 seconds.

Warrior would spend most of 1989 feuding with "Ravishing" Rick Rude. After a "super posedown" at the Royal Rumble PPV, Rude attacked Warrior with a steel bar and attempted to choke him. The two met at Wrestlemania, where with the help of Bobby Heenan, Rude defeated Warrior to win the Intercontinental title. This was Warrior's first televised pinfall loss (Warrior by this point had a few pinfall losses on the house show circuit, most notably Andre the Giant in Italy, Dino Bravo in Montreal, and Rick Rude in Richfield, Ohio a couple months after his TV debut).

He wouldn't be without the title long; Warrior got it back just four months later at Summerslam. He spent the remainder of the year feuding with Andre the Giant, defeating him in short bouts to establish him as a main eventer. The highlight came when Warrior eliminated Andre at the 1989 Survivor Series via countout, then getting the final two falls of the match, defeating Arn Anderson and Bobby Heenan.

The build to Ultimate Warrior as a main eventer was no accident; he was to be the successor to Hulk Hogan, who had been the WWF's top star for most of the 1980s. After a teased confrontation at the 1990 Royal Rumble, the two met at Wrestlemania VI in a match billed as "The Ultimate Challenge".

The classic saw Ultimate Warrior defeat Hulk Hogan to win the WWF Championship. However, WWF rules at the time prohibited him from holding that and the Intercontinental title at the same time, so the Intercontinental Championship was vacated. Warrior's primary feuds would be Rick Rude (leading to a steel cage at Summerslam), Mr. Perfect, and Macho Man Randy Savage.

In January 1991, Warrior was defeated for the title by Sgt. Slaughter thanks in part to Sensational Sherri and Randy Savage. The two would face off in a "career ending" bout at Wrestlemania VII, with Warrior winning. The match came just two days after Warrior's divorce to his first wife, Shari Lynn Tyree, was made final.

Warrior was set to feud with Undertaker and Jake "The Snake" Roberts after Roberts tricked Warrior into trusting him for his battle with the Undertaker. The feud never launched, as Roberts left for WCW.

About a month before Summerslam 1991, Warrior requested a new contract in a letter written to Vince McMahon. McMahon acquiesced to most of his demands a few days later, including a $550,000 bonus for Wrestlemania VII. But following Summerslam, Warrior was handed another letter: a letter of indefinite suspension. Warrior refused and left the company altogether in October 1991. He offered his resignation, but it wasn't accepted as he was still under contract for another year.

Warrior returned to the WWF at Wrestlemania VIII rescuing Hulk Hogan from an assault by Sid Justice and Papa Shango. He looked drastically different from the last time he was on WWF programming: he was shorter, his hair was blonder, and his physique was smaller, leading many to believe it was someone else playing Ultimate Warrior. It wasn't. Despite rumors of his death, it was Warrior all along.

His return came with some creative control; one storyline involved Papa Shango cursing Ultimate Warrior, causing Warrior to convulse, bleed, and vomit. Warrior claimed he had no control over that storyline. Warrior was set to have another run with the WWF Championship, but his return came around the time of a federal steroid investigation. About a month after defeating Randy Savage by countout in a WWF title match at Summerslam, Warrior was popped for steroids and/or HGH, Warrior was suspended and/or released (the story changes depending on who's telling it).

In 1993, Warrior would become Jim Hellwig's legal name. The one-word name appears on all legal documents, and his children carry his surname. He remained mostly retired for the next few years, opening a wrestling school in Scottsdale, Arizona, and wrestling for the International Wrestling Federation in late 1992 and touring with the Catch Wrestling Association in Europe in 1995. Warrior also had a small role in the movie Firepower in 1993.

Warrior returned to the WWF at Wrestlemania XII in 1996. He made quick work of Hunter Hearst Helmsley at the event, then went into a feud with Goldust. Warrior tried unsuccessfully twice to get the Intercontinental title from Goldust, both resulting in countouts. Warrior's last PPV match for the WWF came at King of the Ring when he defeated Jerry Lawler.

Warrior was set to take part in a six-man tag team match at In Your House: International Incident in July, but the WWF fired Warrior—-again, allegedly after missing some house shows to grieve the death of his father. McMahon saw this as a move to hold out for more money; however, Warrior claimed he no showed those events due to a breach of contract.

Warrior and the WWF would be in litigation over the next two years over who owned the rights to the Ultimate Warrior trademark and name. In the end, a court ruled that Warrior owned the rights and he was legally entitled to use the character as he saw fit. One of those ways was writing his own comic book series. Five issues were released in 1996, including a Christmas special.

In 1998, Warrior was signed to WCW. He would form the One Warrior Nation; its acronym, the oWn, was a play on the nWo (New World Order). The group would have just one other member: a kidnapped and converted Disciple. His storyline with Hollywood Hogan was seen as controversial and hokey, particularly in part due to use of "magic smoke" that would incapacitate anyone other than Hogan. He would move appear and disappear through a trap door; said trap door nearly paralyzed Davey Boy Smith in September 1998.

Warrior wrestled all of three matches in his brief run in the company: a three-team trios War Games match won by Diamond Dallas Page at Fall Brawl, a tag team match where he and Sting defeated Hogan and Bret Hart, and a rematch of their classic Wrestlemania VI encounter at Halloween Havoc. The Havoc bout is considered among the worst main event bouts in professional wrestling history. Hollywood Hogan would win the bout with help from Horace Hogan. Warrior's final appearance for WCW came in November when he rescued the Disciple from the nWo. Warrior would retire from wrestling in early 1999.

Almost immediately following his retirement, Warrior married for a second time; this time to Dana Viale in January 1999. The couple would have two daughters: Indiana, born in 2000, and Mattigan, born in 2002.

Warrior became a motivational speaker following his retirement and often denounced left-wing politics and homosexuality; in a 2004 speech at the University of Connecticut, Warrior remarked "queering doesn't make the world work", and later echoed that statement saying that the human race would die if everyone in the world was a homosexual. He also maintained a personal blog where he commented on many topics from celebrities in the news to politics to his legacy as a wrestler and his personal life.

In late 2005, WWE released The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior, a less than flattering look at Warrior's WWF run. Considering Warrior alleged libel against WWE in the past, this was a seen as a highly controversial move. Warrior was asked to help with the production of the DVD, but he refused. In January 2006, Warrior sued WWE over the depiction of his career. The lawsuit was dismissed in an Arizona court in 2009.

Warrior would wrestle just one match following his retirement, a win over Orlando Jordan to win the Nu-Wrestling Evolution World Heavyweight Championship in Barcelona in 2008. Warrior immediately vacated the title and went back into retirement.

Largely alienating his peers in the wrestling business following his retirement, Warrior began to reconcile with the wrestling industry in his final years. In February 2013, Warrior announced via his Youtube Channel that he would appear at Wrestlecon. Demand was so great for him a second print run of tickets had to be ordered. He also spoke of Vince McMahon in a positive light for the first time on his channel. That summer, Warrior would be the star of a trailer for the WWE 2K14 video game (he was the game’s pre-order bonus).

In January 2014, The Ultimate Warrior was announced as the first inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame class of 2014. During the week of Wrestlemania XXX, WWE released a new DVD painting Warrior in a far more positive light. The DVD, entitled Ultimate Warrior: The Ultimate Collection, spans his entire career and includes stories from his career in an extensive sit-down interview with Warrior himself. Warrior was inducted on April 5, and made an appearance at Wrestlemania XXX the next night.

The night after Wrestlemania, Warrior appeared on RAW for the first time since June 1996 and channeled his inner motivational speaker—and inner Ultimate Warrior:

"No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man's heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them believe deeper in something larger than life then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized. By the story tellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever. You [...] are the legend makers of Ultimate Warrior. In the back I see many potential legends. Some of them with warrior spirits. And you will do the same for them. You will decide if they lived with the passion and intensity. So much so that you will tell your stories and you will make them legends, as well. I am Ultimate Warrior. You are the Ultimate Warrior fans. And the spirit of The Ultimate Warrior will run forever!"

It would turn out to be his final public appearance. The next day while walking with his wife outside of a hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, Warrior collapsed and was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was 54. Though he appeared to be in great spirits (he was seen taking photos with fans just hours before his death), many say he appeared frail, sweating profusely and breathing heavily in his final days.

The Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office concluded Warrior suffered from a heart attack due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Almost immediately following his death, WWE sent two senior officials to assist his widow in handling personal matters.

Posthumously, Warrior was given a ten-bell salute on the next week's RAW, and an entire week of programming was dedicated to Ultimate Warrior on the WWE Network's streaming service. A wrestling-themed episode of The Goldbergs and the 2015 animated film The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age Smackdown, was also dedicated in Warrior's memory. Warrior posthumously won the 2014 Slammy for Comeback of the Year.

In 2015, the WWE introduced the Warrior Award, given to one person who best embodied the spirit and passion of the Ultimate Warrior. The award, presented annually during the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, has gone to superfan Connor Michalek posthumously, journalist and breast cancer survivor Joan Lunden, and paralyzed ex-football player Eric LeGrand. The award has caused some controversy, as Warrior had originally intended to the honor to go annually to an unsung WWE employee.

A biography, Ultimate Warrior: A Life Lived Forever: The Legend of a WWE Hero, was released in September 2015.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Cageside Seats Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your pro wrestling news from Cageside Seats