1996 WWF Last Run
Hellwig’s second run with WWF had ended unceremoniously in November of 1992, eight months after reuniting with McMahon. The United States government had been looking closely at McMahon and his company for possible malfeasance concerning steroid use and distribution. The Ultimate Warrior had been heavily advertised in a tag team match as “The Ultimate Maniacs” (Ultimate Warrior and Macho Man) were set to wrestle Ric Flair and Razor Ramon at the Survivor Series event. Just two weeks before the event, McMahon fired Hellwig for elevated testosterone levels and an attempt to acquire human growth hormone.
WWF had enacted a drug testing policy earlier in 1992, hoping it would placate the government and help Vince avoid federal charges. Hellwig was tested eight times during the year, and though some of his tests showed elevated testosterone levels, and the presence of an anabolic steroid, none of them were deemed positive tests by Dr. DiPasquale, due to mitigating circumstances. WWF’s drug policy required Hellwig be given a suspension for his first positive test, yet despite no official positive tests he was outright released.
Hellwig felt scapegoated by Vince, but there was little he could do except move forward. He wanted to move beyond wrestling, and though he did work some independent matches with Hercules Hernandez (https://www.cagematch.net/?id=2&nr=84&page=4&s=0), he set his sights on Hollywood. In 2009, Hellwig wrote an email to his one-time mentor and friend Ed Connors, where he discussed his plans to become a movie star. He wrote, “By the way, I did change my name to just the one name of ‘Warrior’ back in 1993. At the time it had a lot to do with my desire to pursue an entertainment career in film. I had an agent with ICM, Jack Geraldi, and the plan was to sorta pick up with the Conan series where Arnold left off. The look I had was a perfect fit so, changing the name seemed a perfect ‘gimmick.’”
Hellwig appears to be talking about Jack Gilardi, who spent over sixty-four years with International Creative Management before passing at 88-years-old in 2019 (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/six-decade-icm-agent-jack-gilardi-dies-at-88-1241166/). It is unclear whether Hellwig was ever seriously being considered to take on the Conan role, though he did land an important part in a B film called “Firepower”. Set in a dystopian future, Firepower was a movie with a jumbled story about two cops penetrating a lawless portion of Los Angeles, called a Zone of Personal Freedom. The officers engage in cage combat to the death while trying to bring down the selling of fake AIDS vaccines. Hellwig plays “The Swordsman”, a master cage fighter and the villainous muscle of the story whose weapon of choice is a sword.
Firepower starred Chad McQueen and Gary Daniels, and though Hellwig says very little in the film, he receives ample screen time to display his massive presence. The film did not give him many opportunities to display his acting chops, but it gave plenty of opportunity to show him in action sequences, and using a sword. Gilardi and Hellwig may well have settled on this being his introductory film as a way of giving him some professional reel footage wielding a sword, in order to impress producers for a Conan film. It is also possible there were not that many roles available within Hellwig’s acting range. Terry Bollea had parlayed his Hulk Hogan gimmick into film and television, but that was the exception, not the norm.
In the same email to Connors, Hellwig wrote, “However, my midwestern sense of decency and my thickheadedness never let me see above the duplicity and phoniness of LA. I couldn’t stand it. I stayed out there for 6 months and then came home”. Six months is not a lot of time to make it in Hollywood, but Jim Hellwig did not have a reputation for being patient. Whether things did not move fast enough for him, or more likely the opportunities did not come as he though they would to someone of his public stardom, he left Hollywood dreams behind. However, he still had a number of entrepreneurial desires that were driving his life after wrestling.
Movies did not pan out, but Hellwig fully intended to use his Warrior character in his business dealings. On August 31 of 1993 his name was legally changed from James Brian Hellwig to Warrior. On the paperwork he filed with the court, Hellwig’s reason for changing his name was as follows, “PROFESSIONAL IDENTITY PETITIONER IS WELL KNOW TO THE PUBLIC AT LARGE BY HIS PROFESSIONAL PEN NAME AND THEREFORE DESIRES TO CHANGE HIS PRESENT LEGAL NAME TO THAT OF THE PEN NAME”.
On “The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior”, there was speculation, and some derision, regarding Hellwig’s name change. Vince theorized it was Hellwig’s attempt to bypass the intellectual property laws surrounding the Ultimate Warrior character and continue wrestling for a competitor. There is little evidence that Hellwig had any interest in continuing to wrestle, but he did have an interest in the name Warrior for other projects. In later years, Hellwig would claim that the name change was associated with his philosophical ideology, “I live by a warrior philosophy of life”. His candid comments to Ed Connors, and his legal name change paperwork, confirm that his initial motivation was to use the Warrior name to build a career on his established celebrity. Terry Bollea had done the same when he used the Hulk Hogan name in cartoons and movies.
Hellwig returned to Arizona and began a gym in Scottsdale called “Warrior’s Gym”. The legal change to his name made any effort by Vince or the WWF to stop him from using it a grey area, but WWF seemed to care less. In the summer of 1994, Vince was preparing to spend up to a decade in federal prison on charges related to illegally distributing steroids, but was ultimately found not guilty. That same summer Hulk Hogan signed on with Ted Turner’s WCW, making Hellwig’s use of the Warrior name the least of Vince’s concerns.
Warrior’s Gym was a natural step for Hellwig given his professional bodybuilding background. He had the knowledge and capital to start his new endeavor, though interestingly he never called Ed Connors for wisdom on launching the gym. Connors was one of the architects of the Gold’s Gym franchise and was hurt that Jim had never called him for advice. Connors stated that Scottsdale was not the right market for Hellwig to open a gym, but he could not share this with Jim as he only discovered its existence after it had closed down.
Opening a gym was only part of the entrepreneurial plan Hellwig envisioned. Warrior’s Gym was also going to be the home of Warrior University; part wrestling school and part center for motivational living. The idea of Jim Hellwig running a wrestling school has been the subject of mockery by some of his contemporaries, but Hellwig believed he would be able to give aspiring wrestlers insight into training, nutrition, and creative advice for their perspective gimmicks.
Hellwig also had a vision for making the Ultimate Warrior a mainstream character outside of wrestling. Jim wanted to transform his beloved character into the protagonist of animated movies. To make that leap, the Ultimate Warrior needed an artistic platform to demonstrate the character’s depth and ability to be transmogrified into an animated medium. Hellwig made the decision to use comic books as his means of making the case for an animated Ultimate Warrior film.
The early nineties had bore witness to the possibility of comic books making national headlines. DC had shaken up their universe by running “The Death of Superman” in 1992, followed by “The Knightfall” series, in which Bruce Wayne had his back broken by the nefarious Bane, and thus christening a new Batman, Jean Paul Valley. These stories garnered major media attention at the time, with Superman’s death quickly selling out and going through multiple reprints to meet the demand. Following the death of Superman, ABC launched “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” in 1993.
Ed Connors has reminisced about the many bodybuilders he saw that were intrigued, and inspired, by the physiques of comic book characters. Many of Hellwig’s contemporaries have referred to the Ultimate Warrior as a cartoon character come to life in both appearance and frenetic energy. The idea of an Ultimate Warrior animated movie may seem far-fetched now, but at the time there was merit to the idea, given both the national notoriety of comics had received, and the Ultimate Warrior’s own popularity.
A comic book would also be a natural step toward an animated movie as it could provide substance to the mythology of the Ultimate Warrior. Examining the Warrior promos through time gives a glimpse of the character origin story, though it is not a developed idea. Ultimate Warrior comes from a place called Parts Unknown, and he was granted his power by the gods of Parts Unknown. Hellwig was constantly thinking about creative elements to his character, and it seems these brief glimpses from the promos were the proverbial tip of the iceberg as to the story he imagined. Hellwig enlisted a comic artist named Jim Callahan to help him bring his comic project to life, while he would serve as his own writer.
The passion to make the Ultimate Warrior a mainstream character beyond wrestling was not lacking, but the plan had some major obstacles. First, the comic was not being financed or distributed by a Marvel or DC, rather it was Hellwig’s self-created “Ultimate Creations”, meaning he would have to finance the production. Second, he did not own the Ultimate Warrior character, something that WWF had made abundantly clear to him when they dismissed him after SummerSlam 1991. Despite changing his name to Warrior, any use of the name Ultimate Warrior, or the related insignia and story that were produced on WWF programs, was the intellectual property of WWF according to the contracts of 1987 (with addendum to include Ultimate Warrior name in 1989) and 1992. Printing a comic about the Ultimate Warrior would leave him vulnerable to a lawsuit. Third, he needed a large platform to distribute his comic, and with the Internet still in its infancy, independent projects such as this were a major uphill battle. Such can be the case even today as the marketing and financial powers of a major publisher can be the difference between success and failure. The odds were stacked high against Hellwig in 1995.
While Jim Hellwig was struggling to bring his vision for the Ultimate Warrior to life, Vince McMahon was facing his own challenges. WWF’s flagship protagonist Hulk Hogan had done the unthinkable in 1994, joining Ted Turner’s WCW. Terry Bollea was by no means at his peak popularity during the time, but his name and persona had enormous value. McMahon had successfully poached Ric Flair in 1991, but Flair had returned to WCW in 1993, then in 1994 he lost his flagship character to the competition as well. Likewise, Randy Poffo, Macho Man Randy Savage, had also left for WCW in 1994, making his television debut on the same day Vince was expecting him for a WWF taping. Three major stars had left for WCW in a year, which was a trend McMahon could hardly ignore.
Billionaire Ted Turner had purchased Jim Crockett Promotion in 1988, giving birth to World Championship Wrestling (https://www.cagesideseats.com/2016/11/21/13666614/today-pro-wrestling-history-nov-21-ted-turner-buys-jim-crockett-promotions-wcw-is-born). WCW had posed no threat to WWF in those first years, but losing Bollea, Poffo, and Fliehr to Turner was an unsettling development. Turner had his own broadcasting network and deeper pockets than McMahon. Meanwhile, Eric Bischoff was quickly rising through the ranks of WCW, becoming a VP in just three years, and Turner became interested in the possibility of competing with WWF (https://prowrestling.fandom.com/wiki/Eric_Bischoff). By late 1995, wrestler Scott Hall, who had become popular as Razor Ramon in WWF, was growing frustrated with his place in the company. Hall had been stuck in mid-card territory between 1993 and 1996, occasionally serving as the Intercontinental Champion, but never getting the chance for a bigger push. McMahon had also put Hall in an angle with Goldust, which Hall was reportedly uncomfortable with given the sexual nature of the Goldust character (https://www.sportskeeda.com/wwe/5-times-that-wrestlemania-plans-went-awry-sstl).
Hall and the WCW began discussing the possibility of him jumping ship to Turner, which McMahon became aware of in early 1996. Hall was prominently advertised for Wrestlemania XII against Goldust, but once McMahon got word that Hall was planning to leave, he pulled him from the show. Perhaps McMahon saw the writing on the wall that he was also about to lose Kevin Nash. He decided that despite Hellwig not having been in WWF for three years, there might be some magic left in the Ultimate Warrior.
McMahon and Hellwig began exchanging messages about a possible reunion in January of 1996, which led to a February meeting in Scottsdale to discuss the details. Conrad Thompson has conducted podcast interviews with both Jim Ross (Grilling JR Episode 60) and Bruce Pritchard (Something to Wrestle Episode 4) about the Scottsdale meeting. WWF approached this meeting with a high level of dignity, sending Vince and Linda McMahon, Jim Ross, Bruce Pritchard, and Jim Cornette all to meet Hellwig in Scottsdale.
Jim Ross has been vocal that he was offended by Hellwig’s use of foul language, particularly because Hellwig used the “F-Bomb” and “C-Word” in Linda McMahon’s presence. “This son of a bitch had no respect for anybody, including women”, said Ross about Hellwig’s behavior. Both Ross and Pritchard talked about the discussion regarding Hellwig’s theory of “Destrucity”. Ross went so far as to say the meeting was predominately focused on Destrucity, but both JR and Pritchard agreed nobody except Hellwig seemed to understand what Destrucity meant.
Destrucity was the centerpiece of the Warrior comic, with the entire inside of the cover dedicated to defining it, and even providing an essay on its meaning. Destrucity was Hellwig’s attempt to relay motivational ideas, and tie these ideas into the Ultimate Warrior’s mythology. Destrucity (di-stroo’sit-i) has three meanings according to the initial definition in the comic book. “1. The name of the Galaxy in WARRIOR wherein the ‘Terrain of Testament’ lies. 2. The Living of one’s life in the Way of a Warrior according to a Warrior’s 8 disciplines. Those are as follows: 1) Physical, 2) Beliefs, 3) Moment of Mastery, 4) Attitude, 5) Commitment, 6) Association, 7) Integrity, 8) Wisdom. 3. The creating of a truce between one’s Destiny and one’s Reality. Promising to stay true to what one is destined to be, yet accepting what is the now…one’s reality.”
While Hellwig explained this philosophy, Ross, Pritchard, and Cornette were listening and thought it was nonsense. However, Jim Ross claims, “Vince was buying it”. Whether Vince truly bought into Destrucity, or he was simply willing to run with it because he felt signing Hellwig was a necessity, he bucked the advice of his confidants to pass on Hellwig and proceeded to sign him. The Ultimate Warrior was set to return, but the parties first had to agree an on exhaustive booking contract.
Contrary to Hellwig’s two previous contracts with the WWF, there would be no standard boiler plate contract in 1996. Analysis of the agreement shows what both parties were angling for, and the overall lack of trust they both had for the other. Hellwig was only obligated to fourteen days of work per month, a far cry from the past or what most talent on the WWF roster were required to do. Both parties were obligated to promote the “Warrior World Tour”, a series of events focused around the Ultimate Warrior that would allow Hellwig to sell comics and merchandise with his “Always Believe” slogan.
A section of particular importance is “Intellectual Property” and its various provisions. As described, WWF accepted all rights to the Original Intellectual Property that was the Ultimate Warrior character during the term of the contract. Yet it was also agreed that Hellwig was allowed to “exploit the character, marks, indicia, personal performances, and/or image and likeness of ‘Ultimate Warrior’, in any capacity except in live wrestling or the promotion of live wrestling…” This arrangement seemed to be ideal as WWF had exclusive rights to Ultimate Warrior in wrestling events, but Hellwig had the right to use the character in his comic book ventures and other entrepreneurial endeavors.
One final provision of significance is that after the termination of the agreement, all rights to the Original Intellectual Property were to revert to Hellwig. This was a significant departure from the previous contracts where WWF held those rights. However, WWF did still exclusively own all of its productions and merchandising regarding the Ultimate Warrior, even to the exclusion of Hellwig. Essentially the McMahons and Hellwig decided that WWF owned the rights to all shows and merchandising they licensed containing the Ultimate Warrior. Jim Hellwig was then the owner of non-wrestling related endeavors such as comic books, animated films, and any merchandising licenses he secured through his Ultimate Creations company. It seemed like the McMahons and Hellwig were back on target, with Linda signing things “Mom”, and mutual expressions of love. The relationship came apart only five months after the contract process began.
The Ultimate Warrior was set to make his stunning debut at Wrestlemania XII. While the crowd was riveted to see the wrestling legend return, the problems backstage had already begun. Hellwig was slated to wrestle Paul LeVesque who was an up-and-coming talent wrestling as Hunter Hearst Helmsley in his first Wrestlemania. The experience of working with Hellwig left LeVesque bitter and angry for years as he felt Hellwig had ruined his first Wrestlemania.
The story goes that the match between LeVesque and Hellwig was supposed to be a normal length match, around twelve minutes according to Bruce Pritchard. Backstage when LeVesque started talking with Hellwig about the match set up for them, Hellwig scratched the plan altogether. He decided that LeVesque would attack him with a quick flurry, use his finisher “The Pedigree”, which Hellwig would kick out of, issue some clotheslines, a shoulder tackle, then a press slam with splash finish. LeVesque was thrown for a loop as he knew this was not the match that had been set up for WWF’s biggest pay-per-view, but as a new talent trying to pay his dues, he knew he was supposed to listen to vets like Hellwig.
LeVesque was worried about making sure he did everything right as he was not yet a superstar. He went to booker Gerald Briscoe about the sudden change, and the two came to speak with Hellwig, but it was in vain. Years later, Hellwig would mock LeVesque for getting Briscoe to address the issue instead of standing up for himself. Realistically, LeVesque was trying to do the right thing, and if Hellwig had no issue tossing aside the match that the company had decided on, there is no reason to think he would have listened to just LeVesque, given he ignored both LeVesque and Briscoe.
The match began, and from the time of the first hit that LeVesque landed on Hellwig to the pinfall, it was one minute and forty seconds long. LeVesque was given twenty-nine seconds of office, including his finishing move, before Hellwig went on an offensive rampage. While LeVesque was praised for doing the right thing for the company, McMahon’s advisers were already seeing the red flags they feared when they advised Vince against the rehire. As Jim Ross said about Hellwig, “He went into business for himself”.
Between April and mid-June, Hellwig wrestled at approximately forty different events. These finals months of his WWF career would not be defined by the matches in the ring, rather the fallout that severed the relationship between the McMahons and Hellwig for nearly twenty years. Court documents from years of litigation between the parties reveal a pattern of distrust and frustration that began very early into Ultimate Warrior’s return.
Hellwig was anxious for the WWF to promote the Warrior World Tour. The company had pushed the Warrior comic on television and at live shows, but the tour was not coming fast enough for Hellwig’s comfort. The relationship fell apart once again in June over the use of Warrior’s catch phrase “Always Believe”. Titan Sports was participating in a licensing and promotion convention in New York City during the week of June 24th. Hellwig was eager to participate in the event, but Titan told him it was unnecessary to attend. The response made him suspicious, and he quickly booked a ticket to New York, belieiving Titan was engaging in some malfeasance. The two sides offer unique accounts as to what transpired.
Both sides agree that Titan’s booth included an “Always Believe” display, but the stories differ markedly from there. Vince McMahon testified that Jim Bell, who was in charge of licensing at the time, had set up an “Always Believe” insignia of some kind at the Titan booth. McMahon said he had heard nothing of it until it was set up, meaning it was not some strategically planned move on the WWE’s part. However, Hellwig showed up and, according to Vince, “went ballistic”.
Hellwig claimed that Titan and Vince had engaged in a deceptive act of malfeasance to keep him from attending the show, in order to reveal his “Always Believe” insignia, which was supposed to be kept confidential. It is unclear what exactly Hellwig believed the endgame was for Titan, perhaps stealing his phrase, but the response shows how little trust existed. Hellwig appears to have believed that the display of “Always Believe” was the very centerpiece of what Titan was doing at the convention, which is why they conspired to keep him from attending. While this cannot be completely eliminated, it seems unlikely as the WWF was much more than the Ultimate Warrior. However, Titan could have avoided the problem had they told Jim they wanted to put an Always Believe display up at the show. A furious Jim Hellwig demanded that Titan compensate him for the breach of contract and returned to Scottsdale.
Compounding the problem, and perhaps the deeper issue, is that Thomas Hellwig, Jim’s estranged father, had grown gravely ill in June. Jim had not spoken with his father for years and received the call about his health from the woman Thomas was married to at the time, whom Jim had never met. Thomas Hellwig died on June 30th at the age of 57, just after the Always Believe blowup had occurred. Hellwig missed several scheduled dates during this period, and the lack of trust between the McMahons and Hellwig was too much to overcome.
Titan was convinced Hellwig was using his father’s death as an excuse to sit out events because he was angry about the New York licensing show. McMahon felt missing shows was his way of leveraging the company for compensation, and the memories of SummerSlam 1991 came flooding back. Hellwig for his part was consistent in maintaining that missing shows was because he was trying to cope with his father’s death.
A June 1 interview with Prodigy, an America online post from the same date, a June 2 “Warrior Whereabouts” hot line message, and court deposition all consistently demonstrate his claim that missing shows was a result of his father’s passing.
On the “Self-Destruction” documentary, and the recent A&E Ultimate Warrior Biography episode, McMahon has continued his belief that Jim had no relationship with his father and was not truly mourning him. Vince’s assessment is short-sighted and fails to consider both Hellwig’s history with his father and the human element of loss. Jim Hellwig had spent a lifetime trying to fill the void his father had left in his life through abandonment. The memory of the man who should have been his greatest encourager followed him where ever he went. On a deeper level, his father’s death at the age of 57 brought to the surface a feeling that had lingered over him since he was in his twenties: he was destined to die young. Hellwig’s first wife, Shari Tyree, said in the Ultimate Warrior episode of “Dark Side of the Ring” that Jim knew there was a family history of early death among the Hellwig men. Though he would try to pass off the notion, it was a fear that stuck with him. Hellwig’s own court deposition discussing his father’s death is consistent with Tyree’s recollection. “I’m thinking about my own brothers and sisters. I’m thinking about, you know – I just had my 37th birthday. I got 20 years left in my life maybe…I’m doing the calculations in my head. My grandfathers die at 52.” Jim Hellwig felt he had fewer years ahead of him than behind him, and having just started over with the new love of his life Dana, time felt constrained.
Vince McMahon has never publicly seemed to consider that because a child is estranged from a parent means the death of one will not deeply impact the other. Quite the contrary, there are entirely different levels of grief and mourning to work through, such as the loss of what could have been. Vince was likely unaware as to how devastating Thomas Hellwig’s betrayal of his family had been on Jim. However, even without an exhaustive analysis of Hellwig’s history, it should be understandable that such a death can hit a person in profound ways, regardless if the relationship is in good standing. Much like Jim’s furious reaction to the licensing convention, the lack of trust Vince mutually felt for his one-time protégé quickly resurfaced in distrust and anger.
The WWF responded by publicly announcing the Ultimate Warrior was refusing to show at the venues where he was advertised to appear. These announcements were addressed in the various interviews conducted where Hellwig denied intentionally missing shows as part of a contract dispute. On June 8 Hellwig sent a fax to Vince and Linda that read, “Hello. The personal issues in regards to the recent death of my father have been resolved and I am ready, willing and able to perform in accordance with my scheduled events and the agreement we have between us at this time. I will await confirmation that this is what you wish me to do.” That very night on “Raw”, art imitated life as Gorilla Monsoon announced on the program that Ultimate Warrior was suspended indefinitely and would be required to post an appearance bond. This bond, said to be a six-digit bond, was a real stipulation Titan wanted if Hellwig was going to continue with them. His previously taped match against Owen Hart would air that evening and it would be his final match for Titan.
The events of February to July of 1996 forever altered the relationship between the McMahons and Jim Hellwig. The friendship they once had was severed for nearly two decades after this final attempt to recapture the magic of the Ultimate Warrior’s rise. Following this last break came years of lawsuits, embittered public comments, and a personal rivalry that made any notion of a reconciliation between the two parties seem like an impossibility.
Hellwig would launch a vendetta against Vince McMahon and the newly minted WWE in both writing and public speeches. WWE would respond by producing a documentary that demeaned Hellwig’s entire legacy. This war would be waged for the viewing public to watch and wonder if the parties involved had ever even liked each other. Beginning in 1996, Jim Hellwig would spend the next four years fighting a battle that, in many ways, seemed unwinnable. He was about to take on the deep pockets of Titan Inc. for ownership of the Ultimate Warrior character. The debate over who actually created the Ultimate Warrior was about to be waged on a very expensive stage, with lasting consequences for all involved.