Ultimate Warrior, the last Death of Innocence

Part-obituary, part-childhood memoir, a whole lotta sad, Tom Spooner offers up some personal reflections on the legendary American wrestler:

I had never seen a real fight the first time I saw The Ultimate Warrior enter the ring. I had never seen violence. Never been threatened or punched. Never heard the sound of bone on bone nor bone on concrete. Never seen photographs of people bleeding, injured or dying from the actions of another. Never even knew about war. I was innocent. WWF was all I knew.

I would watch WWF with my granddad. It was something we did together once a week. My family did not have Cable television. They did not possess the key to this magical other place. Of the two Cable channels that I can remember, one showed WWF wrestling, K-9 and TJ Hooker whilst the other had ladies reading the news in their bras or playing darts without any bras at all, ably assisted by dwarves. Cable was unreal, a portal to another extra-terrestrial world.

Unlike me, my granddad knew violence. He had lived through World War II. He knew more about it in fact than I did then and I thankfully ever will yet he still shared my love of WWF. I imagine now that there was something in my blind unquestioning belief that what I was seeing was real that pleased him and gave him hope that innocence could still exist somewhere. Perhaps he just liked to watch as these ridiculous muscle men shouted spittle-flecked insults into the camera, pulled each other’s hair, jumped and fell about in their underwear, and generally carried on.

Back then I had neither the reference nor reason to doubt that these fights weren’t real, that Wrestlemania wasn’t a life-or-death battle between the forces of good and evil. After each show finished, my granddad would try, at my request, to put me in a half nelson and I would try and let him. My pigeon-chested body was too small and his arms too big though. In reality, it just couldn’t happen.

I collected the official WWF playing cards so that I could hold these giant wrestlers in my insignificant hands. So that I could spend time with them when I couldn’t see them on my granddad’s television. Unlike many of the possessions I should have treasured then, it was these blue cards that I looked after best. Those larger-than-life characters restrained by two thick elastic band, several wraps of toilet paper and locked inside a box.

Each wrestler had a back story, some unique motivation to inflict pain that burned constant behind their eight-pack stomachs. They also had their own theme music, signature moves, idiosyncratic ways of performing a suplex, bouncing from the ropes or wielding a chair menacingly from the ringside.

I liked the Natural Disasters tagteam – Earthquake and Typhoon. Two hairy, obese endomorphs squeezed into entirely unembellished girls leotards, angrily decrying their fate in circular stomps around the ring. I was mesmerised by ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan, ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, the ‘Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase, Hulk Hogan, and Jake ‘the snake’ Roberts. I was terrified by The Undertaker. But there was only one that I truly loved – The Ultimate Warrior.

In my pre-pubescent mind The Ultimate Warrior was just that – the ultimate warrior. With a long flowing mane, face brightly painted, multicoloured florescent frills dangling from over-sized triceps and rag rugs clinging to football-sized calves, he was part Apache, part psy-trance raver.

The Ultimate Warrior was fast and wild. He seemed in a constant battle to hold himself together in every sense – chasing the very molecules that made him, back into their leathery orange shell lest he evaporate or teleport to another dimension. He was a tribal shaman psychedelic adventurer with a half nelson that would split you in two and a clothesline that could take your head clean off. It’s safe to say you didn’t see men like The Ultimate Warrior in Wiltshire. He may as well have been from another planet, a comic book creation from ‘parts unknown’ living and breathing and ruling the ring.

When I learnt his real name, the Ultimate Warrior became mortal and in the same instance died. James Brian Hellwig had collapsed walking to his car with his wife and was pronounced dead at the local hospital on April 8th 2014. He was 54-years-old. Inside a part of me broke and fell away. Memories resurfaced and my body was flooded for a brief moment with what it was like to be a child and be innocent. As the news of his death circulated on social media that last remnant of innocence in me vanished, permanently this time. It was time to face reality.

tom spooner


Words by Tom Spooner.