Jim Hellwig’s rise in World Wrestling Entertainment, formerly World Wrestling Federation, was meteoric compared to the careers of most. Hellwig made his primetime debut in Green Bay, Wisconsin on October 24th, 1987 versus Terry Gibbs. On April 1st, 1990 he pinned WWE legend Hulk Hogan in the Toronto Skydome at Wrestlemania 6 to win the championship belt. In less than three years he had gone from his wrestling debut to the face of the company.
To put the Ultimate Warrior’s WWE rise in context, compare his transition to heavyweight champion with other iconic wrestlers of his generation. Hulk Hogan made his WWE debut in November of 1979 and won became champion in January of 1984, just over four years later. Bret Hart debuted with WWE in 1984 and was given his first heavyweight championship eight years later. Shawn Michaels started with WWE in 1988 and took his first title in 1996. “Macho Man” Randy Savage debuted for WWE 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 seventies, while Hellwig began in 1985. Perhaps the only ascent more impressive than Hellwig's was that of Mark Callaway, “The Undertaker”, who debuted in 1990 and won his first heavyweight championship in 1991.
Hogan, Hart, Michaels, Savage, and Callaway are all icons of the business and all were contemporaries of 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 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 VI, then lost the title to Sgt. Slaughter in January of 1991 at the Royal Rumble, just ten months later. Vince McMahon would never trust Hellwig to be champion again, and would fire him later in 1991.
Arguably the most penetrating question of his career is: Why did Jim Hellwig rise and fall so quickly through the ranks of the WWE? This is paramount to understanding the legacy of the Ultimate Warrior, and understanding Jim Hellwig as a human being. Finding an answer requires looking at the social, and political dynamics of the professional wrestling industry in the early nineteen-nineties. It also demands analysis of Jim Hellwig's personal life, his motivations, and what took place when the cameras were off.
Jim Hellwig entered professional wrestling at a time when the landscape was changing. Hellwig began his journey working in traditional wrestling territories, yet the territory system was dying at the time. Vince McMahon was the architect who transformed World Wrestling Entertainment into a global powerhouse. Traditional wrestling territories operated by a code of not infringing on the territories of other promoters. McMahon had no interest in maintaining such a code, booking shows all over the country, and using television to expand the WWE's fan base. While Hellwig would spend time working in the grind of territorial wrestling, he arrived in the WWE at an ideal time to become an international star.
After Hellwig's disappointing finish in the Junior National bodybuilding championship, he returned to Georgia to finish his chiropractic education. Shortly after returning, Ed Connors, who had housed Jim in California at the Junior Nationals, called him about an opportunity in professional wrestling. Rick Bassman, a twenty-three-year-old entrepreneur, was looking to create 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. The four had received a few weeks of training from Red Bastien and “Big” Bill Anderson. With minimal knowledge they traveled to Memphis in the hopes of finding a spot in the CWA (known as Continental Wrestling Association and Championship Wrestling Association). 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 ladies in the audience claiming he and Borden are single, when in fact Hellwig had been married for three years at this point. 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.
Memphis Wrestling historian Mark James (visit his site) has authored several wrestling books and helped Jerry Jarrett write his autobiography.
Images Provided by Mark James
He was invaluable for helping piece together Hellwig’s time in the Memphis Territory. Hellwig and Borden, wrestled in Memphis from October of 1985 through January of 1986. While it was only four short months the pair wrestled approximately ninety matches during that time. 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 gigantic, and as James explains, were big and clunky in the ring. A couple of huge good guys beating up on much smaller bad guys did not resonate with audience.
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, which 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-South 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 clearly lacking was any sense of a gimmick, a character that would be valuable for any wrestling promotion to create a story-line around. Professional wrestling in the eighties was something between a soap opera and a comic book. These larger than life personalities did not just go into 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.
When looking at Jim Hellwig’s career, these brief stops on his wrestling journey show his evolution as he found an identity in sports entertainment. 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 was part of the Freedom Fighters, sometimes he just used his real name and did nothing to create a persona. Hellwig was a hulking, good-looking man in his mid-twenties who was clearly into bodybuilding, but he did not have a clue what he was doing in the ring or the industry. He need to mature, and he needed a persona.
“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 wanted the pair as his own version of The Road Warriors. In 1983 Michael Hegstrand and Joseph 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 eighties 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. Professional wrestling biographies are filled with stories of hardship in their territorial days. The talent was responsible for getting to events with their own transportation, and on their own dime. Additionally, the talent is paid based on gate revenue generated by ticket sales. If an event was poorly promoted, or not well attended, a wrestler could easily lose money buying gas and food. Many of them essentially lived in their cars as the cost of getting a motel room was not affordable. The journey in-between shows was sometimes hundreds of miles. This is the life Jim Hellwig discovered in the territories.
Hellwig's tenure in Mid-South also ended in mere months, but this time it was not amicable. When approached for an interview about this story, Bill Watts declined, commenting only that he had absolutely nothing good to say about Jim Hellwig. The general story of Hellwig's departure from the Mid-South perspective seems to be that he was unteachable, disrespectful, and hard to work with. Hellwig claimed the reason was because Watts had a reputation for trying to hurt the big, muscular guys. Jim had heard stories that Watts would tell guys to get on all fours, presumably to show them how to sell a kick, but then he would actually kick them and bust up their ribs. One day Watts told Hellwig to get on all fours, to which Hellwig said, "If you want me on all fours, you're gonna have to put me there yourself." Whatever the truth, not only did Hellwig depart, he also felt betrayed by Borden for not backing him up. Their partnership ended there, never to be renewed.
Hellwig was also facing the difficult reality of making virtually no money, and having a wife at home. He was driving used taxis to make ends meet, and his goal of going back to school was dashed as he could not afford the cost of education. Hellwig always uses “I” in his interviews, but he was also a young married man at the time. He does not say what his wife Shari was doing during this time, but clearly the young couple was struggling to make ends meet. He departed UWF looking for a new home, which he found in Texas with World Class Championship Wrestling. Hellwig's career would take a new direction when he met the legendary Von Erich family.
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 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 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 Jim liked to think for himself. 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 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. The key elements associated with the Ultimate Warrior character came together during the year Hellwig spent in WCCW.
World Class was home of the legendary Von Erichs, a wrestling family that had achieved an international footprint. WCCW had been home to such wrestlers as Bruiser Brody, Gorgeous George, Abdullah the Butcher, and King Kong Bundy. However, all of these names were secondary 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 made WCCW successful in ways it had not previously 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.
WCCW was facing serious challenges by 1986. The most critical problem at hand was the rise of Vince McMahon’s WWF (now WWE), which was more than willing to not only syndicate its program, but also travel into any territory to run a show. Fritz’s unwillingness to take his show outside of Dallas had cost his promotion as Vince McMahon began transforming WWE into a wrestling powerhouse. The success of WWE led to McMahon launching the first Wrestlemania in 1985, and as its influence grew, promotions like WCCW suffered.
Another 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. 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, and Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin all departed the promotion. Even worse, Michael Hayes, the charismatic leader of the Freebirds, also departed leaving 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 was the catalyst Hellwig needed to begin creating the Ultimate Warrior. By the time he left WCCW in 1987, the character was close to inception. 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 bodybuilder bulk and began developing a more defined look. Yet the Ultimate Warrior would not truly come alive until he entered WWE.
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. It was an odd name to be sure, 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. His appearance would evolve in important ways during this period.
When Hellwig started as the Dingo Warrior he continued to maintain short hair. Additionally, he had a thick mustache, 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.
There are a number of influences from the period that appear to be catalysts in developing the Dingo Warrior. The face paint design looks like it was heavily inspired by Hawk from the Road Warriors, which would be a natural source to draw from given the Bladerunners were Road Warrior clones. Hellwig also did not incorporate the colorful string around his arms right away, it would take time for him to add these touches. Ed Connors says the arm bands were a way to cover scars on his arms that he was self-conscious about. 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, 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 stand out. The first is that Hellwig’s look had highly evolved as he now possessed an all-American eighties superstar persona. The second is how the Dingo Warrior had become a complete prototype for the Ultimate Warrior. It is evident that the Ultimate Warrior’s design was not a product of WWE, rather it was Jim Hellwig’s creativity. 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 was about 7 months younger than Jim Hellwig, but by the time Hellwig had entered the industry Kerry was known around the world. It is difficult to ignore the fact that Hellwig chose the word Warrior for his alter ego when Von Erich was known as “The Modern Day Warrior”. Further, notice how Hellwig’s appearance changed while in Texas. Comparing images of Hellwig at the beginning of his time in Texas, versus the latter half of his stay, demonstrates a shift in his appearance where he begins to look more like 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 would have influenced Hellwig as he searched for a wrestling identity. They were close in age, height, and both were devoted to working out. Of further importance is that Kerry and Jim became good friends, forming a brotherly bond. This would be natural a move for Hellwig, having recently felt betrayed by Steve Borden. Despite only being in his twenties, his search for belonging had been an ongoing process. Kerry and Jim remained friends until Kerry's death in 1993. There are claims that Jim pushed for Kerry's entry into the WWE in 1990, and multiple sources said Kerry was the only person Jim was close to in the WWE locker room.
Kerry had achieved success and popularity that Jim could aspire to when they met. 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. During their time together in Texas, Kerry and Jim worked out together. Kerry had a chiseled look, and according to WCCW official Jim Beard, he did not lift heavy weights, opting for lighter lifting with extra repetition to bring out definition. Photographic evidence shows Hellwig began taking on a more trim, athletic appearance between mid-1986 and early 1987.
Hellwig’s evolution as the Dingo Warrior provides evidence that he was drawn to Kerry’s look and began adapting that image in his own persona. Hellwig never admitted any of these influences, and it is possible these were sub-conscious influences. Regardless of what the catalyst was for these changes, Jim Hellwig was evolving his look and coming into his own.
As the Dingo Warrior changed, Jim Hellwig’s popularity in Texas began to grow. From early video footage against such opponents like Chris Adams, Hellwig had developed and created a maniacal, strange character that sporadically yelled and seemed to be in his own world. Dingo was a heel at the time, but as his popularity grew, he did not change that same strange, maniacal approach. What began to emerge was a unique baby face with long hair and face paint who would shout, shake the ropes and delight fans. 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 WWE, but the Ultimate Warrior was soon to be born.
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. The Dingo Warrior came to fruition in mere months with WCCW. When he was given the opportunity to be creative as a singles wrestler, Hellwig’s intelligence and creative acumen were on full display. As he lost some of his muscle bulk, he was able to move to move more athletically in the ring, though Hellwig would never be known for his athleticism. Undoubtedly his in-ring skills left something to be desired, throughout his entire career, but footage demonstrates he had gotten better since he began in Memphis. 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 toward wrestling immortality was imminent.
Vince McMahon is a notorious fan of bodybuilding and in the eighties he loved to hire talent with bodybuilder physiques. Hellwig had caught his attention in 1987, and that summer McMahon offered Jim 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 WWE 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.