Ultimate Warrior (born James Brian Hellwig; June 16, 1959 – April 8, 2014) was an American professional wrestler and bodybuilder. Best known by his ring name The Ultimate Warrior, he wrestled for the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) from 1987 to 1992, as well as a short stint in 1996. He also notably spent a few months in 1998 for World Championship Wrestling (WCW), where he was known as The Warrior.
After a career in bodybuilding, Warrior turned to professional wrestling. From 1985 to 1986, he would tag with fellow former bodybuilder Steve Borden as the Blade Runners, and split when Warrior left to pursue a singles career in World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW). Under the ring name Dingo Warrior, he was a one-time WCWA Texas Heavyweight Champion. In 1987, he joined the World Wrestling Federation, and became a two-time WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion within two years. At WrestleMania VI, Warrior won the WWF Championship in a title vs. title match over Hulk Hogan, making him the first wrestler to hold both titles concurrently. Posited as the new face of the company, he would fall out with Vince McMahon over a pay dispute, and attempted to leave the WWF, which was rejected. Warrior would return at WrestleMania VIII, but by November 1992, he had been released; it was later revealed that this was due to steroid use. In 1993, he legally changed his name to the mononym “Warrior”, and was credited as a co-writer for a comic book based around his name and likeness. Warrior returned to the WWF at WrestleMania XII, but lasted four months, as he began no-showing events. Two years later, he joined World Championship Wrestling (who had tried to hire him in 1995), being used in a much maligned storyline with Hogan, which culminated at Halloween Havoc. Warrior retired from professional wrestling and subsequently embarked on a public speaking career, but wrestled one final match in Spain in 2008.
Warrior died on April 8, 2014, at the age of 54 in Scottsdale, Arizona. On the preceding three nights in New Orleans, he had been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, appeared at WrestleMania XXX and made his final public appearance on Monday Night Raw, returning to the promotion after an acrimonious separation in 1996.
Warrior was born in 1959 as James Brian Hellwig, in Crawfordsville, Indiana, about 50 miles northwest of Indianapolis. He was the oldest of five children and was raised by his mother (along with, later, his stepfather) after his father left his family when he was 12. His father died at 57 and a grandfather died at 52. The family moved and he graduated from Veedersburg’s Fountain Central High School and attended Indiana State University for a year.
Prior to his career in professional wrestling Hellwig was an amateur bodybuilder, competing in a number of NPC contests and winning the 1984 NPC Mr. Georgia crown. Hellwig started training with weights when he was 11 years old and described himself as “the small, insecure kid who wasn’t into any sports” He moved to California where, after seeing bodybuilder Robby Robinson, he decided to take up the sport. His first contest took place in Florida, where he placed 5th. Later, while he was attending Life University in Marietta, Georgia, he won the Junior Atlanta contest and placed 5th at the 1981 AAU Collegiate Mr. America. In 1983, he won the AAU Coastal USA, before taking the Mr. Georgia title the following year. His last bodybuilding contest was 1985’s Junior USAs, which was won by future IFBB Pro, Ron Love. Hellwig finished 5th.
In 1985, after spending six weeks in California training for a bodybuilding contest, he was invited to join a group of bodybuilders – Garland Donoho, Mark Miller, and Steve Borden – to form a professional wrestling team. Warrior accepted the invitation and abandoned his bodybuilding career as well as his plans to become a chiropractor.
Professional wrestling career
Continental Wrestling Association (1985–1986)
Hellwig began his professional wrestling career as Jim “Justice” Hellwig of Powerteam USA, the group of bodybuilders trained by Red Bastien and Rick Bassman. Hellwig and fellow trainee Steve Borden (who later had success as “Sting”), formed a tag team called The Freedom Fighters (Hellwig was known as Justice and Borden was called Flash).
The Freedom Fighters debuted in the Memphis, Tennessee-based Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) promotion, run by Jerry Jarrett, in November 1985. The team played babyfaces at first, but fans were actually slow to take to the hulking duo in a territory that had featured sympathetic “good guy tag teams” like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express and The Fabulous Ones. They were quickly turned heel under “coach” Buddy Wayne and soon afterwards manager Dutch Mantel. They left the CWA in January 1986.
Universal Wrestling Federation (1986)
In March 1986, the Freedom Fighters – now known as the Blade Runners – joined the Oklahoma-based Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF). Hellwig was “Blade Runner Rock” and Borden was “Blade Runner Sting”. According to Joseph Laurinaitis (aka Road Warrior Animal), UWF owner Bill Watts created the Blade Runners and the intent was to make them a parody of The Road Warriors. They were part of Eddie Gilbert’s Hotstuff International group, before disbanding in June 1986 when Hellwig left the UWF.
World Class Championship Wrestling (1986–1987)
In June 1986, Warrior debuted in the Dallas, Texas-based World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) promotion, where he wrestled for $50 a night. He has stated that he adopted the ring name “Dingo Warrior” after a member of the WCCW locker room remarked that he looked like “a warrior”. This stood in contrast with a claim made by Road Warrior Animal, who stated that the Dingo Warrior was a recreation of Warrior’s Blade Runner gimmick and was an attempt to present himself as an offspring of The Road Warriors.
Initially, Warrior was still a heel in the territory, managed by Gary Hart, although he was cheered during a heel versus heel feud with WCWA World Heavyweight Champion Rick Rude after the two fell out during a tag match. After switching managers to Percival Pringle III, Warrior turned babyface permanently after a falling out with fellow Pringle proteges Buzz Sawyer and Matt Borne after a six-man tag match. Warrior formed a tag team with Lance Von Erich, and the duo began competing for the WCWA World Tag Team Championship. On November 17, 1986, Warrior and Von Erich defeated Master Gee (substituting for champion Buzz Sawyer) and Matt Borne to win the title. They held the Championship until December 1 of that year, when they lost to Al Madril and Brian Adias.
In 1987, Warrior began competing for the WCWA Texas Heavyweight Championship, losing to Bob Bradley in a tournament final on January 12. He won the title from Bradley on February 2 of that year. The title was held up in April 1987 after Warrior left the WCCW. He was reinstated as champion upon returning, but vacated it once more upon resigning from WCCW to join the World Wrestling Federation, where he adopted the ring name The Ultimate Warrior. Warrior began appearing on house shows in June and was initially billed as The Dingo Warrior in house card promos by Gene Okerlund, but soon had his name modified. There is a dispute over who created the full Ultimate Warrior name. Bruce Prichard stated that Vince McMahon did not know what a “Dingo” Warrior was, but because there was the “Modern Day Warrior” Kerry von Erich and The Road Warriors there should not be one more simple warrior, but the ultimate warrior. Warrior claims after one of his first matches, McMahon had him do a pretaped promo. It was there Vince said we want you to do Warrior, but we don’t want Dingo. The Warrior then proceeded to cut the promo and stated that he was not this warrior or that warrior, he was The Ultimate Warrior. Warrior made his final appearance with WCCW in June 1987.
World Wrestling Federation (1987–1992)
Early push (1987–1988)
Hellwig joined the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in June 1987. First competing on house shows under his Dingo Warrior moniker, he defeated a series of jobbers, including Steve Lombardi, Barry Horowitz and Mike Sharpe. He made his television debut as The Ultimate Warrior on the October 25 episode of Wrestling Challenge, where he defeated another jobber, Terry Gibbs. As The Ultimate Warrior character, Hellwig became known for his impassioned babbling, incomprehensible commentary and high-energy ring entrances, which featured him racing into the arena full speed, bursting into the ring, and violently shaking the ring ropes up and down. He was also known for his distinctive pattern of face paint. After several months of defeating jobbers, he was pinned for the first time in the WWF by fellow WWF rookie/future rival Rick Rude on December 28, 1987. In early 1988, Warrior entered into his first real WWF feud with fellow strongman Hercules Hernandez. The two faced off on the February 7, 1988 airing of Wrestling Challenge, where Hercules was disqualified for using his steel chain. Warrior then grabbed ahold of the chain and in the midst of a tug of war over it, the chain snapped. This led to a match at WrestleMania IV, where Warrior was victorious in his pay-per-view debut. Warrior lost twice by pinfall shortly thereafter: cleanly to André the Giant in April in Italy, and to Dino Bravo, who put his feet on the ropes for leverage, in Montreal in June. In the summer of 1988, he wrestled Bobby Heenan in a series of weasel suit matches, in which Warrior won by sleeper hold.
After divorcing his first wife, Shari, Warrior met his second wife, Dana, at his Arizona gym. They went on to have two daughters, Indiana and Mattigan.
WWE Hall of Fame and Death
Following a near two-decade estrangement from his former employers, Warrior agreed to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and to assume an ambassador role for the organization in 2014.
Taking the stage with his daughters at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony of April 5, 2014, Warrior acknowledged his run-ins with McMahon and his peers and the long journey back into the WWE family. He attended WrestleMania XXX the following night and then appeared at Monday Night Raw on April 7, the occasion highlighted by another emotional speech from the former champion.
Shortly after his family arrived in Scottsdale on April 8, Warrior collapsed from a fatal heart attack, ending the life of the WWE legend at age 54.
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