I’ve been thinking a lot about The Ultimate Warrior lately. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the man, Warrior (or Jim Helwig, if you’re not into calling people by the names they choose to self-apply). I was at WretleMania XXX in New Orleans, and despite everything on the card being custom-designed to appeal to my lizard brain, there was no bigger reason for my being there than the promise that The Ultimate Warrior’s music would play, he would charge down to the ring in full gimmick—face paint and airbrushed duster—and shake the ropes a bit before once again disappearing into the recesses of my memory, where he exists in an odd liminal zone I’ll eventually come around to discussing. His music played, and what emerged was a middle-aged man in a tuxedo. I would have to wait until I was at home on Monday, watching Raw, to see The Ultimate Warrior. He shook the ropes a bit. He put on a plastic mask that approximated his famous warpaint (but wasn’t half as satisfying). He cut a promo about his legacy that, in all honesty, ranked among his absolute best even without its later context. He left the ring. He went home. He died.
The Ultimate Warrior has always been in my life, even in the spaces that are filled in largely by old photographs or memories that may have actually been dreams. There’s a picture of my sister and I from one Christmas. I was four, I think, and she three. We’re tearing open our gifts. Mine is a WWF Brawling Buddy of Hulk Hogan. Her’s is The Ultimate Warrior. My mom would put us in a crib with these things, me an avid Hulkamaniac and wrestling lunatic even that young, her accepting the Warrior because he had make-up on his face and tassels on his arms, and we’d put on impromptu steel cage matches.The first wrestling event I can remember seeing is WrestleMania VI, The Ultimate Challenge, on a bootleg tape at my babysitter’s house. Warrior won the WWF Championship from Hulk Hogan that night and every weekend thereafter, until I learned that there was such a thing at new wrestling on TBS. But there was always the Warrior. Always his music, his sprinting, his paint, his tassels, his shaking the ropes. Forever.
I was disappointed that Warrior—this is the man I’m talking about, now—didn’t appear at WrestleMania XXX in The Ultimate Warrior’s face paint because I’m petty, maybe, and because I expect nostalgia acts to play their part in my satisfaction. But Warrior wasn’t there for nostalgia’s sake. He was there to settle old scores. I don’t care about long-held grudges in wrestling and just don’t have much use for Warrior beyond nostalgia, so no number of DVD releases, tell-all interviews, or motivational speeches would have made up for his appearing at WrestleMania as Warrior, husband and father and inspiration, and not the character that allowed him to do this. Still, I found it hard to be too bitten by this—The Ultimate Warrior was always something of an enigma; unlike Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage or Bret Hart or Jake “The Snake” Roberts, he was a figure from the tapes I devoured who came and went as he pleased, too frequently for me to attach the role of childhood hero to. I wanted that face paint—I needed that face paint—because anything else was a reminder that The Ultimate Warrior was just a man, just Warrior, and Warrior wasn’t enough.
Looking up to wrestlers as a kid, I think, taught me a valuable skill. It taught me to distinguish a human being from their work, the art from its artist. Most of my childhood heroes are dead now. One of them died having murdered his family. It isn’t easy, going back and watching these men work, knowing what I now know about the body, the brain, why it’s a bad idea to take a steel chair to one’s face. But this doesn’t stop me. It’s difficult art that I appreciate the most. Difficult artists, however, I can do without. Warrior, the man, was a difficult artist. I don’t mean that in the sense that I watched WWE’s hatchet-job DVD The Self-Destruction of The Ultimate Warrior and thought “Wow, this guy was an asshole.” I mean that he was a difficult artist in that he was a homophobe in an extremely public manner, taking money to give lectures about how “queering doesn’t make the world work,” and penning missives about how Heath Ledger’s child was better off without a father who’d stoop to playing a faggot cowboy in some Hollywood film with a queer liberal agenda. This from a man who, in 1989, participated in an angle where his opponent was rubbed down with oil in front of 15,000 men who were asked to vote, with their full-throated cheers, for the wrestler they believed to possess the better physique.
I tend to cry when wrestlers die. At least the ones from my childhood. The ones who’ve always been there. The video package for “Macho Man” Randy Savage that played the Monday after his passing is the last thing that made me weep openly. The Chris Benoit tribute episode of Monday Night Raw, the one for Eddie Guerrero, the one for Owen Hart—each one had me inconsolable. With the exception of Benoit, whose transgressions became public during the course of the event held in his honor, I think what unified these men, what made their passing significant for me, was that I didn’t know them as human beings, but as something more than human. I knew them as wrestlers. The Ultimate Warrior I know as a wrestler. Warrior I know as a man. I’m able to separate the two, and, given Warrior’s attempt to launch a reality show where he yelled at swoop-haired nu-metal bands about not being in shape and enjoying alcohol too much to be “real men,” I can even appreciate what the lesser being had to offer. But Warrior was a man, a public figure who I knew through shoddy videos of him saying one thing or another that I didn’t merely disagree with, but that violated some part of me, or would have, could something like a viral video violate my autonomy as a queer man. The Ultimate Warrior exists in too many hours of archival footage to truly die. Warrior is dead, and it’s only a little weird because I was there, occupying the same space as him. I watched him at the Hall of Fame ceremony. I saw him at WrestleMania. I listened to him on Raw. He seemed fine, if a bit wounded. Then he simply wasn’t.
This is fate, of course. As he said, every man’s heart one day beats its final beat, his lungs breathe their final breath. And I owe the man, Warrior for being the man inside The Ultimate Warrior, who was no small part of my early infatuation with professional wrestling, which was the beginning of my infatuation with words. His words. Ric Flair’s words. Paul Bearer’s words. Randy Savage’s. Mine. When a wrestler dies, there is generally the temptation to burnish the legacy of the man who occupied that wrestler. This is something that I have been guilty of in the past, and will probably be guilty of in the future. But I’ve been thinking a lot about The Ultimate Warrior lately, and I find myself unable to do the same for him. Because I can’t think about the man too much. Because I won’t. So instead, I’ll think about wrestling. I’ll speak to it and of it and for it. Because there is nobody there to speak to. Because he wouldn’t listen were he there.