I suspect he knew it was coming. And that that's why he made everything right with WWE and his fans to preserve his legacy before it did. It was one last battle in which he knew the finish, and as usual he went all out and scored that final victory.
I was 15 the year I became an Ultimate Warrior fan. I was tired of Hulk Hogan - sick of the way he demanded cheers, never even thanking his fans like the supposedly evil Honky Tonk Man did; sick of the excessive flag-waving, beating up on evil foreigners and exhortations to say my Christian prayers. And yet I knew he was, unfortunately, unbeatable. Then, in the lead-up to WrestleMania VI, he and Warrior were paired as a tag team on Saturday Night's Main Event, and I got excited because I knew the booking pattern at this point: Warrior was going to turn on Hogan.
Of course that was what happened, but in a break from the norm, Warrior did not become a bad guy. hero versus hero was unheard of, and even though all my friends believed it was the new guy's time, I was prepped for the same boring outcome of Hulk Hogan winning yet again using his stale formula and three signature moves (sound familiar, modern fans?).
Not having pay-per-view, I came to school the next morning to hear the good news: Warrior won, and Hogan lost clean. I returned home yelling "Hulkamania is dead!" Though I was mostly rooting for bad guys at that stage, I made an exception for Ultimate Warrior. He was an honorary bad guy, having finally made Hogan beatable.
The first time he disappeared from WWE, I got a plastic jacket with his photo on the back at half price. Years later, at a Fox Searchlight party, Hollywood wrestling fan Darren Aronofsky would ask me how much I wanted for it, though he didn't stick around to hear my answer - "a speaking part in your next film." I wore a fanny pack, years before those things became a total fashion crime, with Warrior's logo on it. I was highly active in the school drama club at the time, and whenever I would get nerves backstage, I'd get into character as the Ultimate Warrior, because I knew he wasn't afraid of anything. On days when we were allowed to wear costumes in school, I'd wear the jacket and paint my face like his.
When he came back the first time, false rumors circulated that this was a new guy and the real Warrior had died. I went all-in again as a fan, even quoting his signature snarl in my high school valedictory address. There was nothing remotely nerdy about the Ultimate Warrior (except maybe his comics - we'll get to those), but he inspired this one to feel empowered.
When he left WWE a second time, I tried to channel my fandom into backing Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, but while both were vastly superior in-ring technicians, their characters were recognizable human beings, rather than the elemental force-of-nature superhero that Warrior portrayed. He came back one final time during my senior year of college, and I got to watch his comeback at WrestleMania XII live, after desperately running back to my seat from a failed T-shirt quest (the match I decided to skip featured Savio Vega and some new guy who had just changed his name from "The Ringmaster" to "Stone Cold Steve Austin"). Warrior squashed Triple H in less than a minute, which was what we all wanted - and still do.
I cannot count the times I drove home from high school with my 8-minute WWF fan club cassette cued right up to this particular number...
I bought my first PlayStation One so that I could buy the WWF In Your House game that had Warrior on it. That, and I thought it would persuade friends to visit me. It didn't. It was around this time, after relations semi-permanently went south between Warrior and Vince McMahon, that he started to do bizarre comic books outlining a philosophy called Destrucity, and featuring himself beating up Santa Claus and forcing him to wear bondage gear.
After a brief, terrible stint in WCW, the man formerly known as Jim Hellwig (now legally changed to just "Warrior") became a convert to conservative politics, and started speaking and blogging from a social-Darwinist libertarian point of view. College Republicans would invite him to speak on college campuses, only to be horrified and embarrassed when he'd bust out some "zinger" like "Queering don't make the world work." Alienating himself ever further from his former wrestling brethren, he made a habit of speaking out any time a wrestler died young, blaming the deceased for living badly and making poor decisions. One Thanksgiving, he wrote a column advocating that all liberals be punched in the face. Yet as offensive as it could be, it was still oddly compelling. He had that "it" factor, and never lost it.
A few years back, though, it really seemed like there was a change in his perspective, as he stopped being political and focused on being motivational; many of his more shocking columns were semi-disavowed as misunderstood attempts at humor. Having not wanted to talk about his wrestling past and focus on his present, Warrior started acknowledging his old fans again, and began making personal appearances at conventions and such. Initially his prices were super-high, but when he came to L.A. three years back, Julia and I waited in line for hours to meet him at a record store on the Sunset Strip. The reason it took hours is because every fan in line, one by one, was ushered into an upstairs area individually, where Warrior took the time to share an anecdote with each fan individually. When it was my turn, and I told him how his persona helped me in acting, he responded with a story of a boy raised by a single mother who knew he had to be brave because otherwise, she said, the Warrior would set him straight.
He had at that time rejected an offer by Vince McMahon to be in the WWE Hall of Fame, stemming from a DVD entitled "The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior." Long story short, WWE wanted to make a Warrior DVD and Warrior didn't fully cooperate, so they made a negative retrospective, in part I think to send a message to other estranged talents like Bret Hart. Subsequently, Warrior refused to join the Hall of Fame unless that DVD was formally disavowed - he had previously, during his political phase, been extremely derisive toward any former talents who claimed to have found religion and morality but gone back to work for Vince again.
So I was surprised when the deal was made for this year - and I suspect it's because he knew he didn't have long. He did not appear to be in good shape at the Hall of Fame, though he still summoned the trademark intensity for brief spurts, and for a final goodbye to the crowd on Raw the next night, to whom he gave a suitably bizarre split-personality promo as both Warrior the man and Ultimate Warrior the character. Timothy Burke on Twitter posted some of that final speech online, and it seems incredibly apt, even knowing:
And there's this, from the back of the shirt I bought at WrestleMania XII and still have:
""You must show no mercy...nor have any belief whatsoever in how others judge you...for your greatness will silence them all."
I Always Believed, Warrior. You crazy, awesomely weird SOB.