Ultimate Warrior: Wrestler with a devoted following whose antics fuelled his sport's expansion across the US and the world

 

James Hellwig, better known as The Ultimate Warrior, was a body-builder who turned to wrestling and went on to win the World Wrestling Federation Championship after pinning down Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VI. He was also twice WWF Intercontinental Champion, making him the only wrestler to hold both titles simultaneously.

Warrior began his pro career with WWF in 1987, where he quickly became a superstar, instantly recognisable with his face paint, bespoke tasselled boots, fluorescent trunks and later his long, straggly, peroxide-blond hair. Accompanied by 1980s heavy metal music, smoke and fire, Warrior, with his huge physique and "über-tanned" body, entered the ring at breakneck speed, with deranged chest thumping, head-banging, snarling and shaking of the ring ropes.

Although not the most technically accomplished of wrestlers, Warrior stood out; his pre- and post-fight interviews – explosively loud monologues, of usually unfinished sentences – were baffling to most. "Load the spaceship with the rocket fuel," he once demanded.

By 1990, measured on merchandise and ticket sales, Warrior was considered Hulk Hogan's equal in popularity. However, after falling out with the WWF promoter (now World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE), Vincent McMahon, Warrior's appearances became more sporadic, though he never lost the often fanatical devotion of his supporters – despite, like many marquee wrestlers, later admitting to anabolic steroid abuse in the 1970s and '80s. It was his broad appeal, along with a few others, that fuelled the WWF's national and international expansion.

Born in Indiana in 1959, James Brian Hellwig was the oldest of five children and brought up by his single mother. Describing himself as "the small, insecure kid who wasn't into any sports," he began training with weights from the age of 11 and took up bodybuilding after seeing a former Mr Universe, Robby Robinson.

While studying to be a chiropractor and fitness trainer, Hellwig continued bodybuilding and even won a couple of events including the Mr Georgia title in 1984, after which, he was asked to become a pro wrestler. He fought for a number of different organisations under a number of pseudonyms including Blade Runner Rock, Dingo Warrior and Jim "Justice" Hellwig before settling on The Ultimate Warrior. He legally changed his name and his family's, in 1999.

The bouts were not genuine sporting contests, but were purely entertainment-based, featuring story-driven, scripted and choreographed match-ups which were often rehearsed, though they often included moves that could put wrestlers at risk of injury if not performed correctly. Hellwig was depicted as a "good guy" who played out "vendettas" and "feuds" with opponents such as the black-clad Mark "The Undertaker" Calaway, who once locked him in a coffin, which was eventually prised open by desperate officials to reveal Warrior's seemingly lifeless body, and "Ravishing" Rick Rude, who once choked him with a steel bar.

Warrior's emergence as Hogan's replacement as the sport's leading star was cemented when, in front of over 68,000 fans in Toronto and a worldwide television audience of millions, he was pitted against Hogan, another "good guy," in what was billed as "The Ultimate Challenge". After a close-fought contest, Warrior emerged victorious following his trademark move, the "gorilla press", in which he would hold his opponent above his head then slam him down on the canvas. He successfully defended the WWF title against several contenders, including Mr Perfect and Rick Rude.

Hellwig left the WWF in 1992, wrestling only periodically over next three years, and set up a short-lived wrestling school in Scottsville, Arizona, Warrior University. He had a supporting role as a swordsman in the 1993 action film Firepower. After a brief return to the ring with WWF's rival World Championship Wrestling, Hellwig retired in 1998, but wrestled one final bout in Spain in 2008.

Outside the ring he became a speaker on the political circuit and was involved in a number of lawsuits over the rights to the names and characters of The Ultimate Warrior and The Warrior, which ended in the court ruling that he had the right to use the costumes, face paint designs, gimmicks and mannerisms of the "Warrior" character.

He collapsed outside his hotel in Arizona and was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead, only three days after being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame at WrestleMania 30 and a day after he gave an impassioned speech on television's WWE Raw.

MARTIN CHILDS

James Hellwig (Ultimate Warrior), wrestler: born Crawfordsville, Indiana 16 June 1959; married Dana (two daughters); died Scotsville, Arizona 8 April 2014.

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