Down The Rabbit Hole & Back Again With The Warrior
~Professional wrestling is a land of intrigue and controversy, an ever-changing landscape of shifting fan support and loyalties that wraps itself inside its cocoon of current events and steps out, completely different and yet exactly the same, just about every other week or so. So many things about wrestling are a mystery, and that frankly is a large part of its charm. Just like Saint Nick, magic tricks, or the Booty Pop, peering behind the curtain in the land of Oz might make you more informed but doesn't always make you feel too great about that information. It's fitting, then, that last night's Raw featured the long-overdue (and even-longer-rumored) news that The Ultimate Warrior will be headlining this year's Hall of Fame class.
A few disclaimers: Firstly, I was never the biggest of Warrior fans growing up. As anyone who's read my columns no doubt knows by now, the superhero archetype sat just about as well with me then as it does now, which is to say, not at all. While I'll never argue the excitement and energy of his entrance and the brutal mayhem of his matches, I prefer my mat favorites to be a bit more...complicated. Inside the ring, at least. Secondly, this column will not be assigning blame to either Warrior or the WWF/E for the frequent stops and starts of his legendary career there. Most of those "facts" are in the public record, such as it is, and as with just about everything in wrestling, it's hearsay of the highest degree that even the proverbial grain of salt would walk away from rather than be taken with. No matter which set of details you believe, you're siding with a rampant egomaniac with a long history of self-aggrandizement and about-faces. So good luck with that.
Those things said, not having The Ultimate Warrior in the WWE Hall of Fame was ridiculous from the start, an overt political power play orchestrated by the same souls who ran him down not so long ago with a wink and a nod in the infamous The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior DVD. That DVD, clearly directed and packaged from the viewpoint of capitalizing on the history and mystique of one very odd individual and larger-than-life character, while simultaneously laying all blame at the feet of the same guy for not taking advantage of his success, is a rarity in that it's one of the few presented with a very targeted opinion on its subject. Has that opinion suddenly changed? Is everything olive branches and rainbows? Likely not, but it's merely the icing on a cake of bizarreness that trumps just about anything in this decidedly odd business.
It's well-known that the WWE has always had one eye on the dash and the other firmly in the rearview mirror. Stops and starts will happen, frequently, as the most favored status changes and the decision is made to accelerate or decelerate one's push. You need look no further than the mystifying Daniel Bryan/Wyatt angle to see a current case study. The search for the next Hulk Hogan, then, started while Hulk was still going strong. Despite his immense popularity (which persists to this day, I might add), the WWE had to recognize that a great number of people were getting tired of his shtick. With the new decade of the 1990s approaching, the Ultimate Warrior presented the perfect opportunity for Vince McMahon to keep the spirit (and physique) of Hogan alive, while getting a more high-octane offense and merchandise opportunities aplenty.
This is evident in the nearly singular way that Warrior was booked in those salad days, being handed the Intercontinental Championship in squash match fashion against long-tenured Honky Tonk Man less than a year after first making his appearance in the World Wrestling Federation. Warrior's mega-push would continue a few months later at Survivor Series, as he was booked dominantly as team captain and sole survivor. While Warrior's feud with the incomparable Rick Rude resulted in the former Dingo Warrior dropping the strap at WrestleMania V, the match was marred with significant interference by Rude's cornerman Bobby Heenan, thus preserving his reputation as an unbeatable Olympian. By the time the 1989 Survivor Series had rolled around, the Warrior had firmly gained his revenge, taking back the IC Title from Rude and dominating Heenan's own imposing monstrosity Andre the Giant, both in singles competition and the Survivor match itself. Vince had found his hero.
WrestleMania VI and the "Ultimate Challenge" is one of the seminal moments in wrestling history, not just for what happened but also for what it meant to the business. On the surface, it marks one of the few times up until that point (and, honestly, since that point) that the WWE decided to play face against face on the biggest stage for all the marbles. It forced fans to choose between the American superhero who exhorted them to eat their vitamins and overcome every adversity, and the unstoppable freight train with facepaint that debilitated and decimated all in its path. It also allowed one wrestler to truly become the face of the company (sound familiar?) by simultaneously holding the IC and World championships. While there were those who read the tea leaves and saw the potential of a Warrior win, that pinfall and recognition of the potential beginning of the end of Hulkamania still holds power over me as one of those unbelievable moments that only pro wrestling provides.
This arc is one very rarely seen in wrestling. Guys come in like gangbusters all the time, plowing over the competition all the way into the main event picture. But this was different. This was a wrestler being pushed to match the trajectory of Hulk Hogan against Hogan himself. It was pulling Superman's cape and spitting in the wind simultaneously, and it was impressive to behold. And then, as wrestling is wont to do, it all fell apart. Warrior's interview skills, while entertaining, left quite a bit to be desired, and just as Hogan before him, the WWF had difficulty getting heels credible enough in the fans' eyes to compete with him. Other than an excellent steel cage match with Rude, there wasn't too much to write home about for Warrior's reign until he dropped the strap to the traitorous Sgt. Slaughter at Royal Rumble 1991.
That match did, at least, bring about the appearance of "Macho Man" Randy Savage, an absurdly entertaining heel and a man responsible for nothing but Kodak moments inside and outside of the ring. Savage's interference cost Warrior the gold, and started a feud to be reckoned with. Warrior would once again be booked strongly, defeating Savage in a retirement match at WrestleMania VII, another legend vanquished by the new kid in town. Would we see another Hogan/Warrior confrontation? Would the new hero send the old one to the retirement home right behind Savage? We'd never find out. A potentially excellent feud with The Undertaker and Jake Roberts (amazingly underrated and very ahead of its time in its tone and content) managed to take the silliness of the time and combine it with the incoming reality of the Attitude Era, but petered out in the first of many disputes between Warrior and management over all things financial. Warrior, the new "favored son," was gone from the WWF altogether before the end of 1991. Into the great wide open, indeed.
This tale would be the stuff of legend if it ended here, but that's not likely, is it? With old foe (real and imagined) Hulk Hogan on the verge of departure, Vince found a way to accede to some demands and had Warrior make the save for the Hulkster just in time for boffo box office at WrestleMania VIII. By the time '92 closed, all that the Warrior had to show for his triumphant return was a feud with Papa Shango, recognition that his retirement of Randy Savage had been the most temporary of temporaries, and steroid allegations. His final run with the company to this point ended even more ignominiously with a March to July '96 run that had its only shining moment in Warrior's squash of political adversary Triple H. From the top to the bottom to the top to the bottom, it was clearly a bumpy and eventful ride.
The less said the better of the divergent paths from here. Warrior's WCW "run" was mired in mediocrity, featuring some of the worst wrestling competing with potentially even worse storylines as one of the biggest sequence of time-wasting, mind-numbing main events to ever (dis)grace your television set. From smoke and mirrors (literally), to botched fireballs and trapdoors, this blatant attempt to recapture the glory of old foes sparring failed as miserably as the hairlines of all involved. Whether Hogan truly maneuvered to bring Warrior in to gain revenge for WWF booking is in question, but the results were not: ugly, ugly stuff. For all of his prestige in the ring and ability to sink his teeth into one of the more undefinable characters in wrestling, Warrior flitted from one failed business opportunity after another, punishing his foes on YouTube and making political remarks that at times came across as worse than tasteless.
WWE, for their part, matched the Warrior in lameness, fighting a protracted battle in court over his moniker and losing, and putting out the aforementioned DVD to make many of Warrior's rather spurious libel claims appear totally true. Lost in all of this, however, was the basic idea that neither side prospered without the other. For the WWE to pretend that they didn't have just as much invested in the Warrior's success is as silly as Warrior's claims that every misfortune was the result of endless scheming. One hand washes the other in this biz, and both of them were dirty. Following the patchwork done to the relationships with perennial fan favorites Bret Hart and Bruno Sammartino, how could a business arrangement with Jim Hellwig be far behind?
Which leads us to the present day. Removed from context and time, achievement stands alone. It remains, silent and imposing, awaiting recognition and placement. With the announcement of the WWE Network and the desire of Vince and friends to keep numbers high for their next fat TV contract, addressing the obvious gaping hole in their fictional hall is shooting the fattest fish in the barrel. As for Warrior, it's always been about things other than wins and losses for him. While he undoubtedly, like most of us, is driven by goals that are at least somewhat financial, his caretaking of his own character and legend is damned impressive. When you consider that his total run with the WWF/E was five years, give or take, it's remarkable how lasting his legend is. To not have him take his rightful place on that stage is to admit defeat. Vince McMahon is far too proud and too shrewd a businessman to allow even personal battles to overtake his desire for press coverage and payola. In a way, he found his muscle-bound match in the former Blade Runner Rock.
Inducting Warrior in this important year makes complete sense from a fan perspective. He remains one of the most polarizing and defiant forces in wrestling's history, a star-crossed superstar who somehow didn't wind up in a coffin (except in a feud) and did things his own way. He tasted the biggest glories the business has to offer, going toe to toe with the dominant dudes of his day and besting every single one of them. He hit the skids, came out on the other side, and lived to tell about it. And he will have the satisfaction of getting that long-awaited payday (and overcoming some of those DVD accusations, perhaps) when he takes the stage as the unquestionable focal point for the Hall of Fame portion. Hopefully Warrior responds in kind, putting aside his controversial statements and squabbles for the benefit of his Warriors, then and now. For a man who's been so driven for so long to explain exactly what his moniker means, he stands now at a moment when he can prove that in a way that perhaps no one else could.
Wrestling is a theatre of the absurd. It's difficult to determine what's simultaneously more real and absurd than this story, which has now come full circle. Even in the scuttlebutt of Hulk Hogan and his potential return, it's the Warrior story that WWE went full speed ahead with yesterday evening. And why not? It's a tale of heroism, of larger-than-life derring-do when everything defied proportion and context. It's a tale of bittersweet emotions, glory and revenge and animosity. It's a tale of renewal, inspiration, and acceptance. It's a tale that is only told in a wrestling ring, and only once in a long while at that. It's to be appreciated, enjoyed, and discussed. It's like the works of Lewis Carroll: brilliant but strange, academic but opaque, accessible but maddeningly inscrutable. It's down the rabbit hole and back again. And it's perfect.