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Ultimate Warrior's rise to WWE stardom

In this in-depth article, we look at the fairly smooth path the Ultimate Warrior took to cleanly defeating Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VI for the WWF World Heavyweight title, becoming the first man to do such a thing in almost a decade.

Remembering the initial upward trajectory of Warrior's career
Remembering the initial upward trajectory of Warrior's career

A private man, not much is really known about The Ultimate Warrior's upbringing other than the basics. He was born on June 16th, 1959, in Crawfordsville, Indiana, as the oldest of five children and that his father walked out on his family when he was just 12 years old. Growing up in a broken family can obviously be a very traumatic, emotionally scarring experience, which may very well at least partly explain the pent up rage that was successfully channeled into his wrestling persona initially, but later exploded into a series of bust ups with Vince McMahon and outspoken rants against the world.

Clearly, Warrior's lifelong passion was not professional wrestling, but bodybuilding, which he gravitated towards as a "small, insecure kid who wasn't into any sports". He quickly became a gym maniac, believing that people who rested between sets of weight lifting exercises were lazy, and thinking that every work-out had to hurt.

In the early 1980s, Warrior went to college to study to become a chiropractor, but spent his spare time competing as an amateur bodybuilder, winning local contests and placing in national events. It's likely this was when he started using anabolic steroids as without them he wouldn't have been competitive.

Warrior never watched wrestling growing up, so the idea of it being a potential career never came to him until a contact on the bodybuilding circuit, Ed Connors, who had brought him to California and paid him to train there as a bodybuilding prospect in 1984, told him about an opportunity of being a member of Powerteam USA that was Rick Bassman's brainchild. Bassman, who had no background in pro wrestling but was a young live events promoter and a fan of the entertainment form, thought that a stable of kick-ass, patriotic studs would be a big hit and set about looking for four men to fit his vision. Realizing he wasn't cut out to be an elite professional bodybuilder and looking for a way to make money with his impressive physique, Warrior leapt at the chance, joining Garland Donoho, Mark Miller and Steve "Sting" Borden in being trained by Red Bastien on Bassman's behalf.

In the end, Powerteam USA lasted only a handful of training sessions. Upset that Bassman didn't have enough money to pay them properly nor any insider contacts to aid them in their wrestling quest, Sting and Warrior decided to form a babyface tag team of their own called The Freedom Fighters and sent their pictures to all the promoters in the country looking for a break.

If it wasn't for Jerry Jarrett giving them a shot despite never having seen them work, then both their careers could have ended here. Their stay in Memphis only lasted a month, as it didn't take long for Jarrett to realize they were green as grass and there wasn't much he could do with them at that stage in their development, but it got their feet in the door of the wrestling business and led to another opportunity in Bill Watts' Mid-South territory in early 1986.

There they were repackaged as Gothic hulking heels The Blade Runners with Hellwig being called Rock and Borden being given the Sting name that he kept for the rest of his career, where they were managed by the charismatic "Hot Stuff" Eddie Gilbert. They were intended to be pushed as Mid South's version of The Road Warriors, but given Watts' reputation for being a strict disciplinarian who liked things being done his way, it was unsurprising that he soon butted heads with the equally stubborn Warrior. According to an interview with Daniel Flynn in 2004, Warrior quit the promotion after he refused to put himself in a position where Watts could take liberties with him, a common tactic at the time for trying to weed out the "weak" and punish the disobedient:

"We came in and Watts had this reputation for roughing up new guys, especially muscle guys; especially muscle guys that really wanted to make it in the business and showed deference to him because he was the boss. After about two or three months, there was an instance where Watts wanted me to get down in the locker room in front of all of the other guys. I’d heard the story through the grapevine about what he did. He wanted me to get down on all fours like a dog and he was going to show me how to throw a "working" kick to the underbelly (so he makes you think).

Well, I heard about what he did—he would kick the shit out of you and bust your ribs up. It was like a test to see if you would take the crap. And I knew what he was going to do and I said, "Look, if you want me on all fours you’re going to have to put me there." Of course, he wasn’t man enough to go for that. He wanted me at a disadvantage to begin with. This is something that the whole locker room didn’t expect, because guys come in the business and they really want to make it and they do whatever it takes. Steve just stood there and didn’t really back me up, even though we had like this bond between ourselves that we were in this—good or bad—together. I was bothered by that. We really started splitting ways after that, thinking differently about goals, etc. Eddie Gilbert and some of the others there got in Steve’s ear, and our relationship quickly fell apart after that. I was never afraid to think for myself, Steve more liked to be handled."

Maybe a few years earlier, Warrior might have struggled to find work after disobeying a command from his boss in front of the other boys, but with the disunity and eventual collapse of the NWA cartel in the face of nationwide competition from the WWF juggernaut, this wasn't a problem. He merely picked up the phone, called World Class and was immediately offered a starting date in Dallas.

With Kerry Von Erich being The Modern Day Warrior, Hellwig was repackaged as the face-painted and tasseled Dingo Warrior and brought in as a heel managed by Gary Hart in preparation for a feud between the two Warriors. However, with the people cheering him for his similarities to Kerry, like the Greek God physique, rather than booing him, he was quickly turned into an undercard babyface. With the territory's business in the toilet and his lowly position, Warrior was only making $50 a night, so it's a bit unfair to say he never paid his dues.

Despite not having improved much in the ring, by late spring 1987, Warrior was starting to draw attention from the major leagues due to his obvious marketability. He was New Japan Pro Wrestling's first choice to be Big Van Vader, the role that Leon White eventually played and became an international star with, but before a deal could be finalized, he caught the eye of Vince McMahon too, who thought he had unbelievable potential and offered him a WWF contract after a couple of tryout matches in Texas in June of that year.

Given the greater emphasis on athleticism, stamina, skill and stiffness in Japan, it would have been highly unlikely that Warrior would have gotten as over there as he did in the WWF. Apparently he did contemplate working in Japan a couple of years later when he was growing tired of the extremely demanding WWF road schedule of the time, but his good friend Owen Hart talked him out of it, by politely telling him Japan wasn't for everyone. Indeed, when he made his Japanese debut in the Tokyo Dome on a combined All Japan / New Japan / WWF super show in April 1990, the local fans treated his match with Ted DiBiase as a comedy interlude. So it's for the best for everyone involved that he went to New York instead.

For three months, Hellwig was kept out of site in dark opening matches as the Dingo Warrior, allowing him to gain further in-ring experience while Vince McMahon and his creative consultants Bruce Prichard and Pat Patterson racked their brains for a new name for their latest acquisition. Thinking out loud to them, Vince's vision was for a character that was so much more than The Road Warriors, more than The Modern Day Warrior, that he was The Ultimate Warrior and then he realized he'd come up with the perfect name for Hellwig's act. However, it was well known at the time that Bad News Allen was regularly using that very same moniker in interviews for Stampede Wrestling, so Vince might have just stolen the idea, but no-one would ever admit to the all powerful creative genius doing that.

Given how green he was, the original plan was for Warrior to be kept off TV for much longer than he was, but as he immediately got over at house shows due to his look, presence and power

The Ultimate Warrior made his television debut on the Oct. 25th, 1987 episode of Wrestling Challenge in an emphatic drubbing of jobber Terry Gibbs:

Until January 1988, Warrior spent most of his time honing his repertoire and persona in bouts with other enhancement talent like Steve Lombardi, Barry Horowitz and Iron Mike Sharpe. Despite his reputation for being an ungrateful jerk who didn't respect the people who made him look good, Warrior seemed to be genuinely thankful for all the jobbers who allowed him to throw them around the ring like a sack of spuds and helped make him live up to his boastful billing.

His entrance soon became the most exhilarating in the business, running to the ring and shaking the ropes like a madman to the frenetic beat of Jim Johnston's music. He kept the tempo up in the ring when the matches were kept short on TV with his thunderous clothesline, impressive flying tackle and impactful finishing combo of a monstrous gorilla press slam that put over his serious strength and big flying splash that put over his speed. His promos were a series of intense crazy soundbites that sounded ultra cool even though they often didn't make much sense when strung together. It was really the perfect package to get over in the squash match dominated formula of the syndicated WWF television programs of the time.

On the Feb. 7th, 1988 Wrestling Challenge, Warrior's lengthy feud with Bobby "The Brain" Heenan's Family begun when the almost as muscular strongman Hercules (who died in his sleep from heart disease on Mar. 6th, 2004) soon attacked him with his steel chain to lose their match together via disqualification. This led to a memorable angle where Warrior caught the chain and snapped it in two during a tug of war over the weapon, Hercules choking Warrior with his half of the chain until several prelim wrestler dragged him off, and Warrior then recovering, running after Hercules and choking him with the chain until he had dragged him all the way backstage. Although the setup was great, the matches largely sucked, as Hercules was pretty mediocre in the ring and couldn't carry Warrior.

Much better were his Weasel suit matches against Heenan, who was a master at working the crowd, bumping big and selling the humiliation of waking up in the furry costume after Warrior had knocked him out cold with a sleeper hold and dressed him up.

Warrior was making good progress as a rising star, but what put him over the top as the next big thing in wrestling was the decisive manner he won the WWF Intercontinental Championship from the hated Honky Tonk Man at SummerSlam 1988 in Madison Square Garden. Honky had amassed the longest reign in WWF history thanks to his manager Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart and an assortment of cheap, underhanded tactics, which allowed him to retain the title over established stars like Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake. Indeed, Beefcake was scheduled to face Honky at SummerSlam, but was written out of the match with a graphic angle on WWF Superstars where "Cowboy" Ron Bass busted his head open with his spurs. This allowed Warrior to shock the world by being Beefcake's surprise substitute and mowing down Honky in a blistering 31 seconds of action, which blew the roof off the building:

Warrior spent the rest of the year kicking Honky's ass from arena to arena, as they milked the feud for as much as it was worth.

Warrior's next program was arguably the most important in his development as a superstar, as "Ravishing" Rick Rude was the first wrestler to crack the enigma of how to have a watchable series of matches with the headstrong young lunatic without losing all his heat. Many of his colleagues thought Rude had the patience of Job, as he led Warrior by the hand through the most exciting and competitive of his career, masterfully hiding his weaknesses and exposing all his strengths. Indeed, if it wasn't for Rude proving that Warrior could have good matches with the right opponent, then Vince McMahon may not have put the rocket on his back right to the top of his promotion over the next 15 months.

With the two being the most chiseled specimens in the wrestling world, the feud was initiated with a posedown at the 1989 Royal Rumble, which Warrior naturally won being the babyface. Equally as predictably, a jealous Rude then attacked Warrior with a steel bar and choked him out with it, setting up a match for the WWF Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania V.

Given that Warrior hadn't lost on television up to this point, annihilating everyone in his path, Rude pinning Warrior thanks to manager Bobby Heenan tripping Warrior up when he went to suplex The Ravishing One back into the ring and holding onto his limb for dear life until the three count was registered, must rank up there as one of the biggest upsets in WrestleMania history. The result elevated Rude to headliner status for the next five years in both the WWF and WCW until his back gave out on him. Warrior didn't care about dropping the strap to Rude, as by this point he was so confident in his character that he believed he didn't need a belt to get over.

But, nevertheless, he got the title back at the first available major opportunity by pinning Rude with his finishing combo in an amazingly well laid out match at SummerSlam 1989. Rude was given the out by being distracted by a returning "Rowdy" Roddy Piper mooning him in the aisle way, which allowed them the option of going back to the feud in the future.

It seems clear that Vince McMahon fully put his eggs in Warrior's basket at this point, as for the last six months of the year he booked André The Giant to put over Warrior at the house shows, usually in sub-minute matches after a series of clotheslines. In the recently released Ultimate Warrior - The Ultimate Collection DVD, Warrior claimed he was humbled by André so selflessly sacrificing himself to make his character look so invincible and noted that André could be grumpy and difficult to do business with if he didn't like you, but that he never had any problems with him, but that isn't how Bret Hart remembered things in his mammoth autobiography "Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling":

"For most of the summer André had been main-eventing the house shows with Warrior, and he was disgusted at having to lose every night to an arrogant and unskilled nobody who hadn’t paid his dues"

With the benefit of hindsight, people might question Vince's decision to go all the way with Warrior, but he was getting encouraging signs. Warrior was the first performer to come close to matching Hogan's merchandise sales. In the angles where they teased confrontations between the two before WrestleMania VI, the fans were clearly in Warrior's corner. He was six years younger, wasn't balding on top and had the bigger muscles at a time when that meant something. Plus, Hogan was looking to break into Hollywood, had downsized his schedule and was becoming increasingly difficult for Vince to deal with; the hope might have been that Warrior would have been more malleable to his demands.

Really, Warrior was just a pawn in the political game of chess that the master manipulators, Vince and Hogan, were playing at the time, as Bret Hart explained in his book:

"By Valentine’s Day that year, signs of strain between Emperor Vince and The Hulkster, those former soulmates, had begun to show. It looked like Hulk’s incomparable star power was starting to drive Vince crazy because it gave Hulk power over him. Vince, being Vince, prepared a first-strike policy, though the war was still in the head-game stage and Vince was fairly subtle about it. He let Hulk have control of his own bookings while he devoted all his time to Warrior; he had always been a mark for bodybuilders, and Warrior was a prime specimen. Vince would send little zingers Hulk’s way, joking that he was too old, too slow, always with a needle in it under the laughs. Since he had given Hulk control of his own schedule, it was hard for Hulk to complain.

Then Vince told Hulk to put Warrior over in their championship match right in the middle of the ring at WrestleMania VI. This was him practically daring Hogan into proving he could actually do a job straight up. Hogan agreed to do it but showed up in the dressing room with a long face and a distrustful look in his eye, clearly afraid that this was a sign that he was on the way down. It was the first time I saw Hulk Hogan second-guess himself. He was still the WWF’s biggest draw and worked whenever he felt like it. He still flew on a Lear jet and had his own limo, and a manservant named Brutus Beefcake who carried his bags. Basically he was in, out, and gone. Although Hogan was still deeply respected, to the boys he had become a guy we used to know.

On the other hand, most of us couldn’t stand Warrior, who had blossomed into a grunting prima donna. He flew first class with a paid valet, traveled to the arenas by limo and had his own private I’m-the-star dressing room. He never sat with us in the locker room bullshitting or playing cards. In the war Vince was launching, we were still rooting for Hulk...

Later that night Hogan went out and put over Warrior right in the middle of the ring, just as Vince had dared him to do, leading him through the whole match. The torch had been passed and only time would tell whether Warrior could carry the WWF as its new champion. After the match, Hogan said to me, "You watch. Warrior will fail. And Vince’ll be calling me, begging me to come back." I liked Hogan, and I hoped he was right."

In the end, Hogan checkmated Vince, despite doing as he asked at WrestleMania VI in the sold-out Toronto Sky Dome when he missed his legdrop and allowed Warrior to pin him for the one, two, three after his big flying splash. While Warrior was doing his typical celebration, Hogan put on his best sad face, grabbed the WWF World Heavyweight Championship belt and strapped it around Warrior's waist, ensuring that the story became all about The Hulkster losing the title, rather than The Ultimate Warrior winning it. The fans may have wanted to see Warrior beat Hogan before the match actually started, but at least in Toronto, they changed their mind when it actually happened.

As Warrior would quickly discover, staying at the pinnacle of the sports entertainment mountain can often be a lot harder than reaching the top. In the second half of this story next week, we'll discuss the more turbulent years of Warrior's career, where he regularly battled with Vince McMahon over his perceived worth to the WWF, his "repulsive" run in WCW, his trolling for attention, disappearance from the public eye and resurrection at WrestleMania 30, before his death a couple of days later.

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