The Ultimate Warrior's Death Gives Perspective to Past Issues with WWE

David BixenspanFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2014

FILE - In this April 5, 2014 file photo provided by the WWE, James Hellwig, aka The Ultimate Warrior, is escorted by his daughters to the stage during the WWE Hall of Fame Induction at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. The WWE said Hellwig, one of pro wrestling's biggest stars in the late 1980s, died Tuesday, April 8, 2014. He was 54. (Jonathan Bachman/AP Images for WWE, File)
Jonathan Bachman

The timing of the death of the man best known as The Ultimate Warrior (real name Warrior, born James Brian Hellwig) at 54 years old is, at best, eerie.

The day after his first appearance on Raw and three days after he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, he passed away outside of a hotel in Arizona. TMZ is reporting that he clutched his chest and collapsed, which are signs of a heart attack.

Throughout WrestleMania weekend, when he appeared on WWE programming, it was not uncommon to see concern for his health on social media sites. His face turned red and he was sweating profusely during his Hall of Fame speech.  

TMZ reported that the concern was shared by those around him.  

On Raw, he was out of breath after a short walk to the ring and an attempt to shake the ropes. In general, he looked older, puffier and much less healthy than he did when doing publicity for WWE 2K14 last summer.

On top of the change in his appearance, Hellwig dying when he did has obviously led to a lot of speculation about if he made amends with WWE because he knew he was on borrowed time. Barring his wife or someone he was dealing with in WWE saying that, we won't know.  

Future admissions from a confidant aside, he had admitted to fearing an early death in the past. In a 1999 deposition (PACER Case 2:06-cv-00535-ROS, Document 180-1), he addressed this in the context of his father's passing at 57 years old three years earlier.  

“I’m thinking about, you know — I just had my 37th birthday. I got 20 years left in my life maybe. I mean, you know, I’m doing these calculations in my head. My grandfathers die at 52,” he said.

The death of Hellwig's estranged father was at the center of the end of his last run as an in-ring wrestler with WWE.

Just under three months after returning to the company, he missed a few shows. Warrior insisted it was because he needed to mourn his father's passing.  

Vince McMahon insisted in 1999 (Document 180-11) and 2009 (Document 185-2) depositions that Warrior was walking out due to a contractual dispute having to do with their licensing agreements.

WWE took the issue public on Raw, turning its legitimate demand for an appearance bond into a storyline. Warrior never paid, was held in breach of contract and that was the end of his in-ring WWE career.

In the 1999 deposition, McMahon referred to the dispute as "strike three," as both of Warrior's previous stints with the company edited with bad blood on both sides.

In 1992, per McMahon in another 1999 deposition session (Document 185-6), he was fired for violating WWE's drug policy when he admitted to having attempted to illegally import human growth hormone from England. Warrior admitted to trying to purchase the drugs in a 1993 grand jury testimony (Document 180-11).

With the company being investigated by the federal government, which led to the aforementioned grand jury testimony, firing him was the only move that made sense.

Hellwig's first stint in WWE was by far the longest, lasting a little over four years from 1987 to 1991. After a quick rise to the top, his WWE Championship reign didn't do well at the box office. He was used in key positions afterwards, but was dissatisfied with his pay, leading to a series of letters (Document 180-5) between him and Vince McMahon.

Warrior demanded the same pay as Hulk Hogan or else he'd go home after SummerSlam advertising was already out. McMahon got him back to work, only to suspend him for the breach.

The 1992 and 1996 issues both led to Hellwig filing lawsuits, the latter of which ended with him and WWE agreeing not to disparage each other (Document 64).

Whether either side lived up to it is up to legal interpretation, but WWE's The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior DVD released in 2005 led to yet another lawsuit (the aforementioned PACER Case 2:06-cv-00535-ROS). According to, most of the claims were thrown in out in 2009.

With all of this baggage, it was pretty shocking when Hellwig and WWE came to a deal last summer that involved him appearing as The Ultimate Warrior in WWE 2K14 and commercials for the video game.  

Bruno Sammartino coming back into the WWE fold last year made it less surprising than it would have been in the past, but Bruno had different reasons for being on bad terms with the company for so long. His concerns about sexual content, unrealistic body images and so on had largely been dealt with. His own spinal surgeon, Dr. Joseph Maroon, is now serving as WWE's Medical Director.

Warrior/Hellwig's case was different.

When Bruno was on bad terms, WWE ignored him for years before eventually starting to acknowledge his history when the DVD boom made it, as it no longer made sense to pretend he didn't exist.

Hellwig had a very public split from the company in 1996 and felt it put out a hit piece as the primary historical record of his career. Even during his Hall of Fame induction, he constantly went back to to the subject. According to The Times-Picayune, he said, "The DVD was just wrong. It was hurtful."

From the deposition of his wife Dana in the lawsuit (Document 180-14), it's clear the idea of The Self-Destruction of The Ultimate Warrior being the primary way to find out about The Ultimate Warrior hit a nerve. She even cites a neighboring family obtaining the DVD to learn about her husband and turning it off because "it wasn't what [they] were imagining."

In a world where his genre of celebrity has much of its history controlled by the company that released the DVD, you can see why it would cause some deep-seated issues.

With that in mind, this weekend was clearly a type of catharsis for the former Jim Hellwig and likely his wife.

He was honored during the wrestling business's biggest weekend of the year. WWE just released his new DVD set, which includes his side of the story. His daughters, who have only seen him wrestle live oncein his comeback match in Spain against Orlando Jordangot to share the moment by making his entrance with him.

In front of the passionate wrestling fans in New Orleans and watching live on WWE Network, he got a chance to show the person behind the face paint who dearly, dearly loved his family.

For all of his faults, it seems like the thing that ate at him most when it came to his issues with WWE was that his friends and especially his family wouldn't be able to see his career as more than how it was portrayed on that first DVD.

There's something weirdly admirable about that.


David Bixenspan is the lead writer of Figure Four Weekly. Some of his work can be seen in Fighting Spirit Magazine.