In the '80s, the success of the Road Warriors and Hulk Hogan sent more bodybuilders into pro wrestling than ever before. California independent scene mainstay Rick Bassman wanted in on the action. In 1985, he came up with Power Team USA, a group of patriotic, heroic wrestlers whom he hoped he could parlay into success.
Bassman settled on filling the group with Steve Borden (Sting), Jim Hellwig (The Ultimate Warrior), Garland Donoho (you don't know him), and Mark Miller (him either).
They were sent to train with the legendary Red Bastien (who was also training "Strangler" Steve DiSalvo and "Angel of Death" Dave Sheldon) and took a bunch of publicity photos. Power Team USA got a surprising amount of attention in the many wrestling magazines available at the time, but Borden and Hellwig lost patience. They wanted to get started and sent their photos to various promoters.
Jerry Jarrett, promoter of the Memphis-based CWA, was the only promoter to show any interest. He gave the two rookies their start date as "The Freedom Fighters."
There was just one problem. Well, maybe two.
Not only were they far from ready for a push, but they still hadn't had any matches in front of fans on actual wrestling shows. Sting eventually got good and Warrior...well, he got better, but at the time they had no idea what they were doing. Both were very bulky and stiff-moving in the ring.
Over the next few months, they quickly turned heel, were accused of only knowing how to "pump steroids into dem booties" on live TV, left Memphis for the UWF in Louisana, and had something of a falling out, with Sting staying put and Hellwig (then known as "Rock") leaving for WCCW in Dallas, which had just been raided by the UWF.
Hellwig was dubbed "The Dingo Warrior" by his manager Gary Hart, who noted in his book "Playboy Gary Hart: My Life in Wrestling" that the character was something he initially conceived as a guy "who looked like [he] came from the Bowery in New York City." Initially just a mustachioed bodybuilder (who had thankfully dropped some bulk after leaving the UWF), Hart worked with Hellwig to fine-tune the gimmick.
Soon enough, most of the Ultimate Warrior trademarks were there: Face paint, shaking the ropes, running to the ring, and so on. He caught on enough that Mark Miller even got a look as his tag team partner "Socko," but that didn't last.
In spring 1987, Hart had made a deal for Warrior to go to New Japan Pro Wrestling. The idea was for him to debut with an instant main event push as a top heel feuding with Antonio Inoki.
Japan wouldn't have been a great fit, though, and before he made the trip, he signed with the WWF. NJPW went in a different direction with the character, going with burly super heavyweight Leon White for the new monster heel, who was named Big Van Vader.
At the time, the WWF ran up to three shows a night: the A-show, the B-show and the C-show. The C-show crew went to high school gyms and similar venues with cards light on big stars, with the cards consisting of lower-level TV wrestlers, jobbers, and newcomers who hadn't started on TV yet.
Dingo Warrior started on the C-show crew with a pre-"Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase (fresh off UWF TV), Bam Bam Bigelow as a heel (he showed up on TV as a babyface months later), and Tom Magee (too much to explain here, just read this).
The belief at the time was that the WWF audience was pavlovian to a fault, only reacting to entrance music and big muscles.
Crowds cheered for the Dingo Warrior in a way they never got behind the C-show newbies, so he was brought up to as the Ultimate Warrior after about three months. He quickly caught fire, and by WrestleMania IV in spring 1988 he was clearly being protected: Most of the card was the WWF Title tournament, and he was in a non-tournament match where he could get an impressive win over Hercules.
The first annual SummerSlam was that August. The Honky Tonk Man had been scheduled to defend the Intercontinental title against Brutus Beefcake, but the challenger was "injured" when Ron Bass cut him up on TV with his spurs, made more memorable by the giant red X that censored the proceedings. At the pay-per-view, Honky Tonk Man still wanted a match. "Send anyone out here! I don't care who it is!"
Warrior's music hit. He rushed the ring, squashed Honky Tonk Man, and won the title in 30 seconds as the fans in Madison Square Garden went nuts.
While he lost the title to Rick Rude at WrestleMania V, it was all part of the grand plan to push him to the top, as he regained the title in possibly the best match of his career at SummerSlam '89. He went on to build more momentum by squashing Andre the Giant in short matches at house shows across the country.
He had a simple formula and stuck to it: crazy otherworldly promos, running to the ring and shaking the ropes, mostly short matches that he won in dominant fashion, and so on.
The big-picture direction was revealed at Royal Rumble '90: He faced off with WWE Champion and eventual Rumble winner Hulk Hogan (there was no title shot on the line back then) for the first time, putting them on a collision course for WrestleMania VI at the SkyDome in Toronto.
The match was billed as "The Ultimate Challenge: Champion vs. Champion, Title vs. Title." The stipulation was seemingly just because the tag line had a nice ring to it. What did they expect Hogan to do with the IC Title if he won?
The match was one of the most memorable of the era. It needed to be a long, epic match, which was neither man's strong suit, but Hogan (with help from Pat Patterson in laying it all out) was able to carry the action and pace it perfectly.
Hogan missed his trademark legdrop, Warrior hit his big splash, and both titles were his.
Hogan played up his sportsmanship, and the image of him hugging Warrior (holding both belts with his face paint sweated off) is one of "those" WWE moments. The world was Warrior's to take...right?
Hogan was sticking around as the legendary star, the Bruno Sammartino role when Bob Backlund was champion. To some, it seemed like Hogan stole the show with his emotional "display of sportsmanship" in surrendering the belt to Warrior.
To make matters worse, Warrior had no credible challengers lined up, especially since he needed a certain caliber of opponent to have decent main events. He was left to face Ted DiBiase (long removed from main events but not rebuilt), Mr. Perfect (the Hogan challenger who sold the fewest tickets), and Rick Rude (repackaged to be more "serious," he was still disposed of at SummerSlam).
The WWF tried a number of changes to Warrior's look (less paint, different hair, etc), thinking it was the answer, but nothing worked. Warrior was soon playing second banana to Hogan.
By the summer, plans for a rematch at WrestleMania VII were dropped, as Sgt. Slaughter was introduced so he could be the transitional champion between the two.
Royal Rumble '91 set up WrestleMania nicely: Warrior turned down Queen Sherri when she propositioned him as means of getting "Macho King" Randy Savage a title shot, Savage helped Slaughter win the title from Warrior, and Hogan won the Rumble match.
For the first time (but far from the last), WrestleMania had something resembling a double main event in Slaughter-Hogan and Warrior-Savage. With Savage planning on taking time off to start a family, the latter was made a loser-must-retire match.
As good as the Rude and Hogan matches were, Savage's performance and a notch of good old WWF-style drama (taking cues from the previous year's main event) made this the greatest match of Warrior's career.
Savage was Savage, a one-of-a-kind dynamo who tried to destroy Warrior with multiple elbow drops. Warrior injected his own unique brand of theatrics by talking to the gods who live in his hands when his usual finishers didn't win the match.
In the end, good still triumphed, with Warrior defiantly standing on Savage's chest. He then left the ring to Savage, who stopped being evil anyway, as former manager Miss Elizabeth ran from the crowd to save him from an attack by Sherri.
Warrior was a state of flux. He was at least a clear No. 2 babyface, but after a strong start (where he was trapped in a casket), his feud with The Undertaker didn't go anywhere.
Bret Hart was being groomed for a push after years of teases. Warrior was in the main event at SummerSlam that year (teaming with Hogan vs Slaughter and his lackeys Gen. Adnan and Col. "Iron Sheik" Mustafa), but the spotlight was on Hogan and referee Sid Justice (Sid Eudy/Sid Vicious/Psycho Sid).
Immediately after the show, Warrior was out of the company after what can kindly be described as a "contractual dispute." Vince McMahon insists Warrior held him up for money to appear on the show; Warrior denies the charge The truth is probably somewhere in between.
Warrior wasn't gone for long, returning as a surprise at WrestleMania VII since Hogan was going on hiatus. Appearing much smaller than before, this started the rumors that Warrior had died and was replaced by someone else, which WCW used to their advantage when promoting Warrior knock-off "The Renegade" a few years later.
For months, Warrior was back where he was before he left, feuding with a big mystical heel, this time in the form of voodoo master Papa Shango since Undertaker had turned. He was "cursed" in a storyline that turned many fans off as Warrior mysteriously fell ill and vomited a green substance onto WWF officials.
Still, Hogan was gone and the WWF needed a SummerSlam main event for the U.S. market (Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog was the "real" main event since the show was in England), so he got a title shot against Randy Savage.
Even then, the buildup was more about the idea that Savage or Warrior had aligned with Mr. Perfect and Ric Flair to secretly turn heel. Neither turned, and it led to them forming the Ultimate Maniacs tag team...for just a few weeks before Warrior was gone again. The reason commonly given is that McMahon found evidence that Warrior and Bulldog (also fired) were beating WWF drug testing.
Warrior kept a low profile for a few years, occasionally emerging to shill merchandise in wrestling magazine ads, do a direct-to-video movie, and wrestle for promoters who could pay his high asking price. Only a few bit, like T.C. Martin in Las Vegas (a relationship that quickly got ugly) and the legendary Otto Wanz in Germany.
In 1996, the WWF was only a few months removed from WCW declaring war by launching Monday Nitro opposite Raw when McMahon decided to bring Warrior ("Warrior" was now his real name) back at WrestleMania XII to help strengthen his front line.
The "Warrior is dead" rumors were used to promote the show, but he showed up looking like the old Warrior (the bigger 1991 version) and squashed Triple H, then up-and-comer Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Once again, he wasn't used on top and left within months after disputes over missed dates and licensing agreements, leading to years of lawsuits between both sides.
He went to WCW to lose to Hogan in 1998, but the feud was a disaster, with a big rating for Warrior's return dwindling in subsequent weeks amidst a series of bizarre angles.
It was such a disaster that in spite of having plenty of dates left on Warrior in his big-money guaranteed contract, he was never used again.
That was basically it for him as a wrestler. He stayed in the public eye this time, though, eventually becoming a controversial political/motivational speaker, and he eventually did one last match in Spain for the NWE promotion so his family could see him wrestle live.
WWE also put out the bizarre "Self Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior" hit piece DVD, which cannot adequately be described in any more detail without its own article.
If he were to go further than his current video game license deal and actually set something up with WWE (like a Hall of Fame induction), it would be a nice bow on his career, especially since his last match kind of happened in its own little world, only being mainstream where it happened.
I wouldn't necessarily bet on it, but Bruno Sammartino's detente with WWE shows anything can happen, so I guess time will tell...
Special thanks to Dave Meltzer and his Warrior bio in last week's Wrestling Observer Newsletter (subscribers only) for giving me something to work off of so I didn't have to go digging for back issues to reference for the dicier topics.