“Well, Vince asked me a couple years ago (to go into the WWE Hall of Fame)… and I said no. I said they had to tell the right story. So we negotiated for two years to get to the place where I knew they’re going to tell the right story.”
Ultimate Warrior (during an exclusive interview on WWE.com, posted April 5, 2014)
For almost two decades, Ultimate Warrior’s story was one without an ending. It had colorful, larger-than-life characters. It had stirring (albeit somewhat indecipherable) speeches. Most of all, it had conflict– and not just the “between the ropes” kinds of conflicts, but the “multiple-terminations/ protracted lawsuits/disparaging DVDs” kinds of conflicts. Yes, The Ultimate Warrior’s story had it all… just not an ending.
And honestly, it didn’t seem an ultimate ending was coming anytime soon, at least as far as Warrior’s relationship with World Wrestling Entertainment, the company that made him a star, was concerned. There was just too much bad blood between the two.
And just how bad was the blood? Well, in 2005, the WWE released a DVD entitled The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior, which alleged (among other things) that Warrior (a) couldn’t wrestle and was reckless with his opponents; (b) refused to go out for his SummerSlam 1991 match unless he got a raise; and (c) was a stand-offish jerk that none of the other wrestlers could stand.
Now, I admit: I bought the DVD and found it entertaining. But I also acknowledge it was completely one-sided and pretty mean-spirited. At the very least, it didn’t help mend any fences between Warrior and his former employer.
Then, several months ago, came the announcement wrestling fans thought they’d never hear: the Ultimate Warrior was being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Upon hearing the news, all members of the WWE Universe seemingly had the same reactions: (1) How cool is that? and (2) What is his acceptance speech going to be like?
Will he give a signature “speaking-in-tongues” promo, complete with a lot of snorts and bizarre imagery? Will he go off on an ultra-conservative political rant (as he was known to do in his “real” life)? Will he tee off on everyone involved in the Self-Destruction DVD? WWE promised they were going to give Warrior a live mic, so it was anyone’s guess.
As it turns out, on the night of the Hall of Fame, Warrior didn’t do any of those things. Yeah, he addressed the DVD, said that it angered him and made him sad (without ever really conceding that he may have played a part in the contentious relationship he had with WWE). But mostly he remained upbeat: he congratulated superstar John Cena for all the work he does with the Make-A-Wish Foundation; he suggested that the WWE use the Hall of Fame to honor not only the superstars on camera but the unsung heroes who work behind the scenes; he said he was excited to serve as an “ambassador” for the WWE; and most of all, he expressed his love for his wife and two daughters. (“The most awesome thing I will ever do,” he told his daughters from the podium, “is be your father.”)
That was Saturday night, April 5th. On Sunday night, April 6th, Warrior made an appearance at WrestleMania XXX, in front of 75,000 fans in the New Orleans Superdome chanting his name. And on Monday night, April 7th, for the first time in eighteen years, Warrior appeared on Monday Night Raw and delivered an old-school Ultimate Warrior promo– complete with rope-shaking.
And on Tuesday, April 7th, while walking to his car with his wife, Warrior died of a massive heart attack.
This isn’t the first time wrestling fans had to hear that one of their favorites dropped dead. (Warrior was 54, which sadly is a little on the old side as far as wrestling deaths are concerned.) But Warrior’s death is unusual for two main reasons.
First, his death comes right on the heels of his homecoming. Many wrestlers have been on the outs with the WWE at the time of their death. But Warrior came back– to the company, to the fans, to the limelight. That makes a big difference. Compare the attention Warrior’s death is getting to the meager testimonies given to Randy “Macho Man” Savage, who died back in May 2011 (also of a heart attack). Back in the 80s and early 90s, Savage had been just as big a star as the Warrior (if not a bigger star), but when he died, he had been gone from the WWE for seventeen years. Warrior came back, if for only a few days. But he came back.
The second thing that makes Warrior’s death so unusual is that we essentially got to hear his “last words”– not his actual last words, of course, but his character’s last words. And man, are those words bizarrely fitting. Here’s what he said in his eerily prescient final promo on Raw, April 7th:
No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe a 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 storytellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever.
You, you, you, you, you, 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 Ultimate Warrior will run forever!
When I think about that speech, that de facto eulogy, I keep returning to that line from Twelfth Night: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn in as an improbable fiction.” (Yep, I just quoted Shakespeare in an Ultimate Warrior tribute.) Truly, if this happened in a movie– the prodigal son returning home and then suddenly dying, not twenty-four hours after delivering a speech about beating hearts and eternal spirits– I’d dismiss it as hopelessly corny. But it actually happened. In real life.
In terms of years, Ultimate Warrior’s career in the WWE was relatively short. But he definitely made an impact. You can say the same thing about his death. It’s sort of like a pay-per-view event: if your last match is memorable, you can sort of forgive some of the less impressive stuff on the undercard. You need that great ending. And Warrior got that. It’s a tragic ending, certainly, but it’s a great one.
In an online interview that aired just three days before his death, Warrior said he wanted to make sure that the WWE told the right “story” as far as the Ultimate Warrior’s character is concerned. As it turns out, they didn’t need to. The Ultimate Warrior’s story– complete with its ultimate ending– tells itself.