Jim Hellwig’s rise in the WWF (now called WWE) can be accurately described as meteoric. Hellwig made his primetime debut in Green Bay, Wisconsin on October 24th, 1987 versus Terry Gibbs. On April 1st, 1990 he pinned WWF legend Hulk Hogan in the Toronto Skydome at Wrestlemania 6 to win the WWF Championship belt. In less than three years he had gone from wrestling debut to the face of WWF.
To put the Ultimate Warrior’s WWF rise into context, let us compare his transition to heavyweight champion with other iconic wrestlers of his generation. Hulk Hogan made his WWF debut in November of 1979 and won the title from Iron Sheik in January of 1984, just over four years later. Bret Hart debuted with WWF in 1984 and was given his first heavyweight championship in 1992, eight years later. Shawn Michaels began his career with WWF in 1988 and took his first title in 1996, also eight years after his debut. “Macho Man” Randy Savage debuted for WWF in 1985 and won his first title in early 1988, less than three years later. However, one major difference between Savage and Hellwig is that Savage began wrestling in the early 70s while Hellwig began in 1985. Perhaps the only more impressive rise to the top belongs to Mark Callaway, “The Undertaker”, who debuted in 1990 and won his first heavyweight title in 1991.
Hogan, Hart, Michaels, Savage and Callaway are all icons of the business and all were contemporaries to Hellwig. Yet one fundamental difference that stands between Hellwig and these other performers is how quickly he fell from the top of Olympus. Hogan was a five-time champion who carried the title for extended periods of time. Bret Hart was also a five-time champion who won and lost the title 10 times between 1992 and 1997. Shawn Michaels was a three-time champion, Randy Savage a two-time champion and Callaway a four-time champion. Jim Hellwig became champion at Wrestlemania 6 in April of 1990 and lost the title to Sgt. Slaughter in January of ’91 at the Royal Rumble, a mere 9 months later. He would never again possess the championship belt and would be fired later that same year.
The question that looms over his career is this: Why did Jim Hellwig rise and fall so quickly through the ranks of the WWF? This question is paramount to understanding the legacy of the Ultimate Warrior as a character in professional wrestling and understanding Jim Hellwig as a human being. However, an answer to this question is not easy because it requires looking at the social and political dynamics of the professional wrestling industry and the climate of the early 1990s. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of trying to find an answer is dealing with the reality that a remarkable diversity of opinions exists about Jim Hellwig, who is a deeply polarizing figure.
World Wrestling Entertainment is a juggernaut in the sports entertainment industry, an unquestionable business triumph for Vince McMahon. Therefore, understanding the dynamics involved in decisions surrounding the WWF’s talent requires understanding that WWF is business, theatre and sports all combined to create what was in the early 90s family entertainment. What comes with these dynamics are matters of monetary gain, career ambitions and the egos of both the talent and the company. All of these factors will play into Jim Hellwig’s story. Therefore, the best place to start is at the beginning of his wrestling career leading up to his arrival in WWF.
Arguably the key figure responsible for bringing Hellwig into the industry is Rick Bassman, an entrepreneur who at just 23-years-old marketed a concept for a new wrestling team. According to an interview he did with SLAM! Sports (read here) he wanted to create an all-American squad, "The idea was one black guy, one blonde haired, blue-eyed American boy, one Italian-American, and one American Indian". The four recruits were bodybuilders who had no knowledge of wrestling, which led to their quick disbandment. However, from that group two wrestling icons would begin their career. The blond haired-blue eyed wrestler was Steve Borden who would later become Sting, while the American-Indian was Hellwig.
Powerteam USA quickly disbanded, but the quartet sent out flyers to a variety of promotions, one of them being the Memphis Territory where Jerry Jarrett decided to give the four a try-out. With the minimal training the four had received from Red Bastien and “Big” Bill Anderson, they travelled to Memphis in the hopes of finding a spot in the CWA (known as Continental Wrestling Association and Championship Wrestling Association). The CWA was run by Jerry Jarret and legendary wrestler Jerry Lawler. At that time in 1985 Jarrett had a large house with a ballroom where he hosted the four bodybuilders and told them to lock up. It was clear they had little wrestling savvy, but given their look he agreed to bring them on, offering to give each of them the $50 a night minimum. In less than a week Garland Donoho and Mark Miller would leave the quartet, but Hellwig and Borden remained.
Hellwig was clearly fresh from his bodybuilding days as can be seen in this still from his initial CWA promo.
The image is blurry but Hellwig is noticeably larger than during his Ultimate Warrior days. Throughout his career the 6’2” Hellwig was typically billed as being 275 pounds (probably a slight exaggeration), but in this video (watch here) he is billed at 285 pounds with 22 inch arms, both of which are accurate. Hellwig and Borden go by their real names, though the theatricality of wrestling is evident during the interview. Hellwig claims he is originally from Atlanta, not Indiana, while he also panders to the women in the audience claiming he and Borden are single, when in fact Hellwig had been married for three years at this point (see Before Wrestling). Following the promo the pair moves straight into a match where they wrestle David Johnson and The Invader. It is interesting that the Invader is billed as being from “Parts Unknown”, a mysterious location Hellwig would later adopt for his Ultimate Warrior gimmick.
Images Provided by Mark James
He was invaluable for helping piece together Hellwig’s time in the Memphis Territory. Hellwig and Borden, per the official documentation, wrestled in Memphis from October of 1985 through January of 1986. While it was only four short months the pair wrestled approximately 90 matches during that time as CWA wrestled Monday through Saturday, only had some Sundays off and did double shows every Saturday. Hellwig and Borden were made baby-faces and called the Freedom Fighters, but they did not fit well into the Memphis style. Memphis wrestling contained typically smaller wrestlers and more action packed wrestling styles. Hellwig and Borden were both massive and as James explains were big and clunky in the ring, making it hard to get them over.
For two full months Jarrett tried to use them as mid-level baby faces performing in the B towns on the circuit, but it was not working. James explains that they were received well by fans as it was the big body era and they looked great on TV, but they were stiff and missed moves in the ring. The two were not mid-level talent; they were given a mid-level status simply based on their look. Since it was too difficult to get them over as baby faces, Jarrett decided to use the pair as massive heels in an effort to help them find a more credible approach to their size. Mark James searched the official documentation and found that on December 2 of 1985 the Freedom Fighters were wrestling as baby faces, but then on December 16th the Freedom Fighters had made the transition to heels and had Dutch Mantell as their manager. By December 30th the pair had switched from the Freedom Fighters to the Blade Runners, the gimmick they would take into their next job in Bill Watts’s territory.
James thought the Blade Runners gimmick was a Road Warriors rip-off, and it was, but the two were trying anything they could to make their way in the industry. Jerry Jarrett did not keep his low to mid-level talent long as he liked to frequently refresh the roster. Jarrett began making calls in January of ’86 to find Hellwig and Borden a new home. He contacted both Bill Watts at Mid-Southern and Fritz Von Erich in Texas about the pair. Watts got back to him first, liked the pictures and decided he would take them. Four months into their careers Hellwig and Borden packed up their belongings and headed to Louisiana for a brief run with Bill Watts.
During their brief stint in Jerry Jarret’s CWA, Hellwig and Borden had acquired some valuable in-ring experience, but something that was clearly lacking was any sense of developing a gimmick, a character that would be valuable for any wrestling promotion to create a storyline around. Professional wrestling, especially in the 80s, was something between a soap opera and a comic book. These larger than life personalities did not just go in the ring and use their athleticism; they were actors in a larger saga. Professional wrestling involves, planning, writing and developing archetypes of good and evil to elicit an emotional response from an audience immersed in the story and in the wrestling.
When looking at Jim Hellwig’s life biographically I am not addressing these brief stops in his wrestling career simply for informational sake. There are many excellent wrestling websites that contain exquisite information about his various wrestling gigs. The importance from the vantage point of this research is to see Hellwig’s evolution as a wrestler, which means watching the evolution of his gimmick. What led Jim Hellwig to create the Ultimate Warrior? What were the influences? Where did the ideas come from to create to his supernatural, superhuman alter-ego? In the CWA Hellwig was not much of a character. Though he may technically have been Jim Justice of the Freedom Fighters, sometimes they just simply used his real name and did nothing to create a persona. Hellwig was a hulking, good-looking man in his mid-20s who was clearly into bodybuilding and did not have a clue what he was doing in the ring or the business. That is not a criticism as he was young and had just started what he thought would be a short-term working gig to make money before becoming a chiropractor. It was only at the very end of their brief stay with Jarrett that they developed the Blade Runners.
“Cowboy” Bill Watts is a well-known promoter and classic wrestler who helped found the Universal Wrestling Federation. When Jerry Jarrett began trying to find Hellwig and Borden a new wrestling home, Watts responded and had an idea in mind for the tag team. In 1983 Michael Hegstrand and Joseph Laurinaitis (father of St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis) debuted as The Road Warriors in Georgia Championship Wrestling. This classic wrestling tag team was known for their muscular physiques, painted faces and high octane demeanor. Going by the names Hawk and Animal, the two became a sensation and had an impressively long career in professional wrestling.
Wrestling is notorious for borrowing ideas from the larger corpus of pop culture and The Road Warriors were no exception. Looking at early photos of The Road Warriors one is inclined to think the look and edgy attitudes were inspired by Hall of Fame band KISS.
That look and attitude was exceptionally popular into the 80s when The Road Warriors captured that popularity. Watts saw the opportunity to duplicate that success and wanted Hellwig and Borden to become The Road Warriors of the Universal Wrestling Federation in the Mid-South Territory.
Watts wanted to use the Blade Runners and all parties involved agree they were brought in to become the UWF’s Road Warriors. Jim Ross acknowledges this in the “Self-Destruction” documentary, Hellwig acknowledged it in Ultimate Warrior: The Ultimate Collection and even in their first match with UWF the commentator strategically compares them to The Road Warriors (watch here). The look for The Blade Runners was very simplistic: black pants and a little mascara around the eyes. The Blade Runners did not last long as Hellwig would leave the UWF after a short stay for WCCW. It is interesting though how this brief experiment deeply impacted both Hellwig and Borden who spent the rest of their careers performing with their faces painted as the Ultimate Warrior and Sting.
Life in professional territorial wrestling was extremely difficult for reasons that go beyond the physical damage. If you read a professional wrestling biography you are likely to come across stories where they talk about the hardship of their days in smaller territorial promotions. The talent was responsible for getting to events via their own transportation and on their own dime. Additionally, the talent is paid based on gate revenue (how much money the event was able to bring in wherever they performed). This means that the talent gets paid after expenses and after the promoter gets his cut. If you ever watch footage of these events you will frequently see very sparse crowds, which means there was not a lot of money to be shared at the end of the night.
Often times the talent would lose money at the end of the night when their cut of the box office was minimal after they had paid for their travel, food and additional expenses. The journey in-between shows was commonly hundreds of miles, so the talent typically carpooled to save travel expenses and may well have gone with minimal food and slept in their vehicles. This is the life Jim Hellwig discovered in the UWF.
While I have read many of these accounts I did not understand the gravity of this lifestyle until two years ago when I visited family in southern Illinois. For approximately 15 years I have had a cousin, who is now in his latter 30s, that has wrestled in independent promotions throughout the Midwest. I found out he was wrestling in a Sunday matinee match in a town that was an 80 minute drive from where we were staying. My dad, my grandparents, my cousin’s mother and my cousin’s grandparents all made the trip to go see him perform.
We arrived at the venue, an old brick building in the middle of the town that based on the bulletin board hosted a lot of different events. I thought we would arrive to a busy show as it was live wrestling in a small Midwestern town on a Sunday afternoon. What else did people have to do? As we walked into the performance area there were 8 people in attendance. Eight! Our party of 7 almost doubled the attendance. There were 6 wrestlers, an announcer, a referee and a promoter that afternoon. Each of the wrestlers did a 1 on 1 match then all 6 took part in a three on three tag team match for the finale. Ticket prices were something like $8, meaning they brought in $120 to split amongst the group. After the show my cousin and one of his other colleagues were so overwhelmed by all of us coming that they came over to express their sincere gratitude. After the show he had to go work the night shift at the factory he works for.
In the recently released Ultimate Warrior: Ultimate Collection set Hellwig talked about his time in the Mid-South Territory and how this very lifestyle forced him to leave. The money was not coming in. He was driving used taxis to make ends meet and his goal of going back to school was dashed as he had not chance to afford the cost of education. Hellwig always uses “I” in his interview but he was also a young married man at the time, about five years into his marriage to Shari Rowe. He does not say what she was doing during this time but clearly the young couple was struggling to make ends meet. Hellwig finally realized UWF was not going to accomplish what he wanted. Things changed though when the legendary Von Erich family extended him an offer to come wrestle in Texas with World Class Championship Wrestling.
WCCW: The Evolution of a Warrior
Jim Hellwig was less than two years into his wrestling career and he was struggling. After being recruited into the industry by Rick Bassman he had made brief stops in Jerry Jarret’s territory and Bill Watt’s territory but was no better off than when he had started. He and Steve Borden’s dream of jumping into the wrestling industry and making quick riches had not panned out. It did not take long for Hellwig to become disenfranchised with Bill Watts’ territory as he struggled financially to make ends meet. The end result would not only be his departure from the UWF, it would also be the permanent end of working with Steve Borden.
In recent interview material from the Ultimate Warrior Ultimate Collection, Hellwig stated that Borden liked to be told what to do, but he liked to think for himself. From Hellwig’s perspective this was the difference between the two as Borden stayed in UWF while Hellwig went his own way. As revealed in the “Self-Destruction” documentary, some perceived this attitude as arrogance and Hellwig’s unwillingness to learn the craft. This will be explored in greater depth later, but one reality that seems very difficult to dispute is that Hellwig’s departure was critical for the development of his character and the rise of his career.
Jim Hellwig had been in wrestling less than two years, had minimal training and was primarily being used for his size. What he needed was a place to foster growth and utilize his substantial creativity. When wrestling legend Fritz Von Erich gave Hellwig the opportunity to wrestle for World Class Championship Wrestling in Dallas, it was the catalyst he would need to create his legendary alter ego. When examining the evidence from his days at WCCW, it is difficult to imagine the Ultimate Warrior would have ever been created without this stop in Texas. As we shall examine, there is strong evidence that some of the key elements associated with the Ultimate Warrior character came together during the year Hellwig spent in WCCW.
World Class was home of wrestling’s first family, the legendary Von Erichs who were revolutionaries in the industry. WCCW had been home to such wrestlers as Bruiser Brody, Gorgeous George, Abdullah the Butcher and King Kong Bundy. However, all of these names paled in comparison to WCCW’s greatest showcase, the Von Erichs and the Fabulous Freebirds. The Freebirds had come into WCCW in 1982, which gave the Von Erichs a formidable foe and launched WCCW in ways it had previously not known. When the program became syndicated the Von Erichs became global icons throughout the world, but the show remained in Dallas as owner Fritz Von Erich held to the traditional territorial mentality.
By 1986 things had changed for WCCW as serious challenges were looming. The most critical problem at hand was the rise of Vince McMahon’s WWF (now WWF), which was more than willing to not only syndicate its program but also travel into any territory it could take its show. Fritz’s unwillingness to take his show outside of Dallas had cost his promotion as Vince McMahon began transforming WWF into the wrestling powerhouse. The success of WWF led to McMahon launching the first Wrestlemania in 1985, and as its influence grew promotions like WCCW suffered.
Another serious problem for WCCW was the loss of some of its best talent. The death of David Von Erich in 1984 had been a devastating blow as the three primary Von Erich sons (Kevin, David and Kerry) were paramount to WCCW’s success. Then other talent began leaving the promotion as Kamala, Bruiser Brody, King Kong Bundy, Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin all departed the promotion. Even worse, Michael Hayes, the charismatic leader of the Freebirds also departed leaving WCCW with a tremendous talent void to fill. Then in early 1986 wrestler Gino Hernandez overdosed on cocaine, which was another devastating blow to Fritz Von Erich’s empire. WCCW needed talent, they needed heels and the monstrous Hellwig had just become available.
Kevin, David, and Kerry Von Erich
Breaking away from tag team work and moving under the WCCW banner was the catalyst Hellwig needed to begin creating the Ultimate Warrior. By the time he left WCCW in the latter half of 1987 the character had not come to complete fruition, but was close. The face paint Hellwig first experimented with in Watt’s territory became a fixture to Hellwig’s look, only it would become more elaborate. Simultaneously Hellwig’s physique was starting to transform as he lost some of his incredible bodybuilder bulk and began developing a more defined look. But the gimmick had not quite come together in the way one would come to describe the Ultimate Warrior.
First, there was the name he adopted in WCCW, the Dingo Warrior. According to Hellwig the name came about from an early conversation he had with his new colleagues when he first arrived in Texas. Someone looking at his sheer size alluded to the fact that he looked like a warrior, then shortly thereafter someone came in with an actual dingo (a free-ranging dog found primarily in Australia) and that is how the name was born. To be sure it was an odd name and it is difficult to imagine the Dingo Warrior ever becoming a household name across either the nation or globe. Hellwig had also not developed the idea of his character coming from “Parts Unknown” as WCCW’s Dingo Warrior was from Queens, NY. This fact made the name even stranger as the Dingo Warrior could make sense if he hailed from Australia, but Queens is not a well-known habitat for the dingo.
Second, the look he developed early in his tenure at WCCW was not quite the same captivating look he would have by the end of his run in
When Hellwig started as the Dingo Warrior he continued to maintain short hair, like he had since he began wrestling the year before. Additionally, he grew a mustache as the Dingo Warrior, which was very conspicuous when he wore certain colors of face paint. However, the shape of the face paint he designed is pure Ultimate Warrior artistry, as were the variations he would do with the colors of his paint in coordination with the rest of his outfit.
What were the influences that led Jim Hellwig to begin tailoring his now iconic look? In terms of his face paint the design looks like it was heavily inspired by Hawk from the Road Warriors as seen here in the early 80s. Hellwig also did not incorporate the colorful string around his arms right away, it would take time for him to add these touches that would make his color scheme and look really pop. Then there is the matter of the long hair and smooth face he would have by the end of his time at WCCW.
On February 2nd of 1987 the Dingo Warrior won the Texas Heavyweight Championship, which was a prestigious title at the time. In this picture taken during the months he held the title two things really stand out. The first is that Hellwig’s look had highly evolved as he now possessed an all-American 80s superstar persona. The second of course is how the Dingo Warrior had become a complete prototype for the Ultimate Warrior. It is beyond evident that the Ultimate Warrior’s design was not a product of WWF, it was Jim Hellwig’s. Yet the question remains as to what influences led to that development from the beginning of his tenure at WCCW to the end. The most plausible answer is Kerry Von Erich.
Kerry Von Erich was about 7 months younger than Jim Hellwig, but by the time Hellwig had entered the wrestling industry Von Erich was known around the world. It is difficult to ignore the fact that Hellwig chose the word Warrior for his alter ego in WCCW when Von Erich was known as “The Modern Day Warrior”. It is also difficult to overlook how Hellwig’s appearance changed while in Texas when he was working with the Von Erichs. Look at these comparisons of the two and how at the beginning of his time in Texas versus the latter half of his stay he adopted a look strikingly similar to Von Erich.
It is neither surprising nor scandalous to assert that Hellwig took inspiration from Von Erich during his time in Texas. Kerry was exactly the kind of wrestler that could and probably should have influenced Hellwig as he searched for a wrestling identity. They were close in age, height and Von Erich had the same chiseled look Helwig did, just not as massive. The biggest difference of course is that Von Erich had a staggering resume by that time and was known all over the world, not to mention by 1987 he was handily the most popular of the Von Erichs. When Kerry Von Erich came down the aisle to wrestle crowds went crazy, women pawed at him and as soon as he got into the ring he possessed a powerful charisma that drew in audiences. Examining the photographic evidence of Hellwig’s evolution as the Dingo Warrior leads to the conclusion that he was drawn to Kerry’s look and began adapting his own persona’s look to match Kerry’s.
Though I have never seen Hellwig admit this, perhaps adopting Warrior was also borrowed from Von Erich, who was known as “The Modern Day Warrior.”
As the Dingo Warrior evolved, Jim Hellwig’s popularity in Texas began to grow. From early video footage against such opponents like Chris Adam, Hellwig had developed and created a maniacal, strange character that sporadically yelled and seemed to be in his own world. Of course he was a heel at the time, but the important aspect of this was that as his popularity grew, he did not change that same strange, maniacal approach. What began to emerge was an incredibly unique baby face with long hair and face paint who would shout, shake the ropes and fans loved it. The process of sprinting down the aisle and going nuts in the ring before the match would not come about until his time in the WWF, but the Ultimate Warrior was evolving.
By the time Hellwig won the Texas Heavyweight Championship in February of ’87 the look for the Ultimate Warrior was in place. It is unlikely that the Dingo Warrior from Queens, NY would have ever made it big in the wrestling industry, but Hellwig’s creative genius was just beginning to flourish. Consider for a moment that he developed the look for the Dingo Warrior, the Ultimate Warrior’s prototype, in mere months with WCCW. When he was given the opportunity to be creative as a singles wrestler, Hellwig’s intelligence and creative acumen quickly flourished. As he lost some of his muscle bulk, which allowed him to better show off his definition, he emerged as an impeccable physical specimen and looked like an amazing wrestler. Undoubtedly his in-ring skills left something to be desired less than two years into the industry, and some would say throughout his career. What cannot be disputed is that the unique look to the Ultimate Warrior was born in WCCW. All that remained were a few creative elements to complete Hellwig’s exclusive character package. What Hellwig was unaware of is that his step towards wrestling immortality was on the horizon.
Vince McMahon is a notorious fan of bodybuilding and in the 80s he loved to hire talent with bodybuilder physiques. Hellwig had caught his attention in 1987 and that summer McMahon offered Hellwig his first gig with the emerging wrestling colossus. Neither of them could have imagined that when Hellwig took that initial dark match as the Dingo Warrior in Texas it would be the beginning of a successful and tumultuous partnership that would involve rising to the top of the industry, lawsuits, twenty years of animosity and eventually a profound and beautiful catharsis that would cement Hellwig into the WWF Hall of Fame days before he breathed his final breaths. At that time, neither of them could have imagined what would become of the Dingo Warrior from Queens, NY.
Continued in WWF Premier.