I haven’t written much about the deaths of wrestlers in this space. Sometimes it feels like if I wrote about even half of those who die, that would take up most of my space time, and the sad truth is that they feel so commonplace now that you almost have to develop a thick skin to deal with it.

Brian Pillman was the first I can remember, and it shocked me. Owen Hart was another big one that hit me on a more personal level, as he had become one of my favorites– I remember wearing a makeshift black armband for that one, though no one around me really seemed to understand.

But as thick a skin as you might grow regarding it, it doesn’t stop being sad– you just try to learn to deal with it and don’t let it derail your life. But even then, some are simply jarring.

The recent passing of the Ultimate Warrior was one of those particularly jarring instances. Not because I was a huge fan, necessarily, but just due to the events which had transpired over the weekend prior, and then it seemed to come from out of nowhere. First was his WWE Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, an appearance with the new Hall of Fame class at WrestleMania XXX on Sunday, and then the following speech on Monday Night Raw:

The next day at a hotel with his wife in Arizona… he died.

It’s eerie, especially to go back and listen to the words of his speech. It’s as though he knew his time was coming, and he was seeking to make amends with those he’d fallen out with in the industry, including the fans. In addition to his wife, he left behind two young girls who he’ll never get to see grow up. It leaves one to wonder if he knew what was coming, and wanted to make sure he left a proper legacy. Word is he had just signed a WWE Legends contract, which to my understanding allows for royalties from his past work and for him to act as a company ambassador. While the latter won’t come to be, perhaps his intent was for the former to help care for his family’s expenses.

Again, the suddenness of it after seeing him just days before, seemingly well and active (if not in the same condition he was once in) was jarring.

And me? I’ve never been the biggest Warrior fan. Mostly, I’ve been kind of torn about whether or not to say something. The truth is, wrestling fan though I’ve been for many years, I wasn’t really around for the prime of Warrior’s heyday as others were, others who can offer a greater appreciation. With wrestling, a large part of many great moments is actually “being there” to witness them. The match that ended Undertaker’s WrestleMania unbeaten streak, for example, was lousy, but witnessing that moment is what will allow it to live on in the minds and memories of fans for years to come.

wrestlemania_12_ultimate_warriorI began watching wrestling in 1995, and I only knew of Warrior through commercials for various products such as Wrestling Buddies. So I knew he was kind of a big deal, but his time had seemingly passed by the time I began watching. Not so, it turns out.

As it turns out, my first-ever WrestleMania, WrestleMania XII, would see the return of the Ultimate Warrior to the then-WWF to face the Connecticut Blueblood, Hunter Hearst Helmsley.

It was electric, as Vince McMahon would (and probably did) say. The Warrior’s awesome rock music hit and he exploded from the entranceway, running with full intensity to the ring in a flurry of color, sporting a physique which looked straight out of a comic book.

Hunter wasted no time hitting him with everything he had, including his finishing maneuver, all to no avail. Warrior pumped himself up, hit his own set of moves on Helmsley, and the match was over within a matter of moments.

Before long, Warrior found himself aligned with two of my favorites, Shawn Michaels and– at the time– Ahmed “I Can Bodyslam the 640-Pound Yokozuna” Johnson in a feud against Jim Cornette’s stable of baddies. Unfortunately, the match they were building towards never happened, as Warrior came into some sort of dispute with the company, and was soon gone, replaced in the match by “Sycho” Sid Vicious.

warrior1coverPrior to that, though, Warrior was engaging in other endeavors he promoted through the World Wrestling Federation, such as a comic book which came included in an issue of WWF Magazine. It’s widely mocked and ridiculed today, and for good reason, it turns out. At the time, though, I didn’t know any better– I was young, and figured my lack of full comprehension meant it was something more “deep” and “mature” than it really was.

As it pertains to some of the crazier elements of the comic book’s later issues (which I was never able to get), such as where Warrior looked like he’d raped Santa Claus, commenter HeartBurnKid had this to say on sports blog Deadspin:

I met Warrior at PAX last year, and actually asked him about that comic. He basically said that, by that point, he’d had his fill of fighting with the artists on the book, and just let the artist on the Christmas comic draw whatever he wanted. He didn’t even look at it until years later, when people started talking about the “Santa Rape” thing, and he had to conclude they were right, it looked like he had raped Santa.

With moments like that, it’s no wonder he would want to mend his legacy.

Another venture he had at the time was “Warrior University,” a wrestling school. I was actually interested in attending, back when I was eager to get into wrestling, but I was still in school and basically too young at the time– too young to go out to Arizona for it, at least (just learning wrestling, on the other hand…). As memory serves, the program had finished before I was anywhere close to being able to try for such a thing, but the luster was lost for other reasons as well.

19981005_hulk_uwOne which comes to mind was his next return, though it wasn’t to the WWF, but WCW. There, he had creative control over his character, which I didn’t mind so much– even despite craziness such as Warrior-fied Batsignals and appearing in a mirror where “only” Hollywood Hulk Hogan could see him (though the announcers and literally everyone but Eric Bischoff, who was standing right there, could see him as well).

What got me more than that was the fact that to allow for his gimmickry, they had to do things such as install trap doors in the ring for him to “mysteriously” enter and exit through. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that the door itself wound up proving hazardous, and even came close to paralyzing and ending the career of Davey Boy Smith, aka The British Bulldog.

wwfsuperstarsBeyond that point, Warrior largely faded from the public eye– at least in wrestling, and my interest would turn elsewhere. One thing I remember was getting my hands on a copy of WWF Superstars for the Game Boy, which was basically a game which preceded my time as a wrestling fan.

A mere five wrestlers were featured, including Hulk Hogan, “Macho King” Randy Savage, “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, Mr. Perfect, and of course, the Ultimate Warrior. While DiBiase remains an eternal favorite of mine, I do tend to favor playing as the good guy, so Warrior was who I would tend to go with in some of these older games. I think when I initially played it, he was the most recent active wrestler who hadn’t jumped ship to WCW, who was “the enemy” at the time, thus making him the best choice for me.

Outside the ring, unfortunately, Warrior developed a bit of an unfavorable reputation in his role as a public speaker. I’d rather not repeat some of the things he’s been known to say and believe here, though it’s not at all hard to find. Over the years, this more than anything gave me a distaste for the man.

Warrior_altAlong with others, including Warrior himself, there seems to be a certain notion of separating the real life individual from the character he played. One almost has to wonder if he even had a split personality, as demonstrated in the final speech he gave on Raw above. His significance to the wrestling business cannot be understated, though, and that’s what people will likely remember him for. That said, if he did see his end coming and sought to make amends before it was all over for him, I can only hope he might have seen the error of his ways outside the ring as well as in.

In the end, I’m not sure what to think on the whole. Whatever he did or said, I don’t believe it was enough for me to take any joy in his death, nor would I wish such a thing upon him and his family. In truth, it’s his family I feel for right now, and I just hope that in the end, he was ultimately able to do right by them and others. The Warrior has earned his chance to rest in peace, and I can only hope the man behind him has, too.