The iconic Ultimate Warrior, dead at 54

Grae Stafford Freelance Photographer
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The high intensity, neon face-painted professional wrestler Ultimate Warrior has died.

James B. Hellwig, who legally changed his name to “Warrior” in 1993, was 54.

The news broke on April 8th after the executive vice president of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Paul Levesque — better know by his ring name of Triple H — tweeted out:

His death marks a highly emotional end to the crown jewel of the professional wrestling world — Wrestlemania.

The week-long gathering in New Orleans for the thirtieth anniversary show brought fans from across the globe and saw the “Warrior” inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

At a star-studded black tie gala on Saturday night, the man who has not always seen eye to eye with WWE owner Vince McMahon gave a highly emotional speech where he thanked the fans and all the people involved in making him a star, saying, “I wouldn’t be here this evening if it wasn’t for all of you Ultimate Warrior fans.”

Many fans and commentators saw this as a thawing of relations between Warrior and the McMahons, especially after WWE co-owner Stephanie McMahon tweeted out a picture of her father and Warrior with the line “Never say never…”

“Warrior” was accompanied to the Hall of Fame event on Saturday night by his his wife Dana and two daughters Indiana and Mattigan, who were born after his wrestling career came to an end.

On Monday night, less than 24 hours before his death, they were sitting ringside to see their father come out to a rapturous reception on the post-Wrestlemania edition of Monday Night RAW, where they heard their father deliver a speech that, to wrestling fans, now has added poignancy.

“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their 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 the Ultimate Warrior will run forever!”

The former body builder’s ring style was notable for the sheer intensity of his performance, which often involved sprinting into the ring wearing neon face paint and tassels.

During his career, he won The Intercontinental Championship twice and the WWF Championship once. He is the only man in the history of professional wrestling to hold both the Intercontinental and the WWF Championship titles at the same time.

After his wrestling career came to an end, Warrior took his in-ring intensity into the corporate world where he became a motivational speaker.

Following his death, a statement released by police declared that “[o]n April 8 at 5:50 pm 54-year-old ‘Warrior’ James B Hellwig collapsed while walking with his wife to their car at the Gainy Suites Hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz. Scottsdale Fire transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead soon after arrival. At this point in the investigation, it appears as though a catastrophic medical condition caused his death.”

The wrestling world has reacted in shock at the sudden passing of one of its greats, with many of the current WWE roster expressing their sadness at losing someone they have seen as a hero, including fellow WWE Hall of Fame inductee Jake “The Snake” Roberts:

Current WWE Champion Daniel Bryan was in disbelief, tweeting, “Heartbroken. My sincerest condolences go out to The Warrior’s family. Seeing how much he loved his daughters and his wife this weekend makes it all the more heartbreaking. The Ultimate Warrior was my favorite as a kid, and getting to speak to him this weekend was one of my favorite moments. He was so nice to me.

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Grae Stafford