—Ultimate Warrior, earlier this week
August 29, 1988 was, at least at that point, the best day of my eight-year-old life. My parents took me to Rocky Point Amusement Park. I played Super Punch-Out!! I rode the Scrambler so many times, every turn on the way home made me a little barfy. At night, my two closest friends and I watched SummerSlam 88, the inaugural edition of the WWF’s (as it was called back then) third big Pay-Per-View event.
It really doesn’t get any better for a kid who just turned eight.
Two weeks prior, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, one of my favorite wrestlers and the man slated to challenge the Honky Tonk Man for the Intercontinental Championship, got brutally taken out by “Outlaw” Ron Bass. They never announced a replacement opponent for Honky Tonk Man, but every intelligent adult fan (called a “Smark” and a much rarer thing back in 1988) must have known who was coming down the aisle. No one, except maybe Hulk Hogan, was nearly as popular as the Ultimate Warrior was at that time.
In a squash, the Ultimate Warrior went over “the greatest Intercontinental Champion of all time” in 31 seconds.
It meant more to me than video games, roller coasters, or even salt-water taffy. The Ultimate Warrior was my childhood hero, the first hero that I ever had.
Unlike Hogan, he wasn’t a hypocrite. His character reflected his real-life values rather than being a sick sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy or maladaptive coping mechanism. And unlike scores of men, he was able to walk away from the business precisely because he was such a well-adjusted person outside the ring. Intense? Sure. “Crazy,” as many of his detractors have attempted to paint him? The hell he was. As far as personal gurus go, you could do much, much worse.
At his peak, Warrior stood at the forefront of where the WWF was headed. Clean-cut faces such as Hulk Hogan were on their way out. Edgier heroes were on the way in. The world wasn’t quite ready for the anti-heroics of men such as Steve Austin and HHH yet, but Warrior paved the way. For a kid such as me who was constantly pissed off, a raging mountain of muscles spouting torrents of motivational mysticism was just what the doctor ordered.
No prayers, no training, no vitamins—just a desire to rise above through the will to power.
Warrior got pushed too hard, and he peaked too soon. His lone run as WWF champion was ended by an over-the-hill Sgt. Slaughter doing his pro-Iraq gimmick after a tepid revival of his earlier red-hot feud with the late Rick Rude. It was an uneventful run that inaugurated the current era of quick-and-dirty title changes.
You can see what the man called “Warrior Wisdom” in his promos. You can also see it in the hours of shoot videos he’s left to the world. These videos include inspiring words lying somewhere between motivational speaking and philosophy. Think of a Henry Rollins without all the silly leftist claptrap. Think of a weightlifting Tony Robbins. Warrior pays respect to those worthy of it and takes apart people who have it coming. His tribute to Randy Savage and systematic destruction of Hulk Hogan are required viewing for hardcore wrestling fans, regardless of their interest in Warrior.
Cute little alternatives to “rest in peace” tend to irritate me. They seem forced and above all trite. However, in the case of Warrior, “rest” isn’t fitting. “Rest” isn’t what his life was about. Rather, it was about the constant intensity of pursuing goals, overcoming challenges, and relishing in the moment of struggle, not the cessation of it. When Randy Savage died, Warrior wished for him to enter a Road Warrior-type afterlife. For Warrior, if there is anything beyond mortal existence, I hope for the glory of battle and the thrill of physical exertion, a world without hypocrites and charlatans where he is surrounded by true peers.
His family can hopefully find some small comfort in the fact that he helped change the lives of millions for the better.