Ultimate Warrior had gained exceptional popularity for his showmanship in much the same way Hulk Hogan had captured audiences. McMahon’s intuition about taking WWF fully into sports entertainment with Bollea had made his wrestling promotion the biggest in the world. Bollea was limited in wrestling ability, appealing more to appearance and charisma to win over audiences. His career had largely been made in matches against gigantic foes, like Andre or King Kong Bundy, though he had benefited from others like Roddy Piper and Randy Savage, who were far more skilled in-ring technicians. Considering how quickly the Ultimate Warrior had soared with fans, McMahon undoubtedly thought he had the perfect Hogan replacement.
Hellwig was summoned to a meeting with Vince late in 1989 only to discover Bollea in the office as well. Hellwig was thirty-years-old when McMahon told him that he wanted to make Ultimate Warrior the new champion who would carry the mantle of the company forward. The young wrestler was ecstatic for the opportunity, and had finally found a true father figure in his life. Vince McMahon had believed in Jim Hellwig more than Thomas Hellwig had ever shown, and had invested far more in his success. Hellwig had bonded with McMahon and trusted him in a way he rarely trusted people. Jim had even embraced Vince’s son Shane, who was almost twenty at the time, as a surrogate younger brother. Jim Hellwig was notorious for being aloof from the others, a reputation that would only grow after becoming champion, but he connected with Shane and even had him visit his home in Texas. The young man who had left Indiana feeling shunned by his community was about to become WWF’s heavyweight champion.
Executing the plan was going to require thinking outside of the standard wrestling conventions. Professional wrestling had long drawn on morality tales of good versus evil, but Hogan and Warrior were both good. One possibility would be to orchestrate a “heel turn”, making a good guy character into a bad guy. The problem is this plan made little sense as McMahon already had bad guys who could be champion. Turning Hulk Hogan bad was inconceivable in 1990. McMahon has spent years building equity with that character, and he would never sacrifice the Hulk Hogan commodity in such a way. At the same time, it made little sense to turn Ultimate Warrior into a villain if WWF was going to hitch their star to this popular young talent.
Dave Meltzer of the “Wrestling Observer” dealt with this conundrum in the January 15th, 1990 edition of the newsletter. He wrote, “It’s most likely that the end result of all this would be a Warrior heel turn. WWF booking is generally predictable and patterned…” Meltzer is correct about that approach being the customary fare, but this was not a customary situation. He continues, “If Warrior doesn’t turn, and there’s no way Hogan will, the other option is to throw them both in as faces and work a draw, and have them get back together after the match”. Meltzer’s expectations were understandable, but working a draw between the two icons was not going to resolve McMahon’s situation with Hogan. A promotion that thrives on live shows needs a champion ready to make the rounds on tour. Part of what draws audiences into the live shows, and the television shows, is the possibility that they will get to witness something momentous like a title change. WWF did not commonly due title changes at that time. According to their site, there were seven champions in the nineteen-seventies, and six in the nineteen eighties. That number ballooned to forty-one in the nineties, but when this plan was going into effect, the expected tenure of a champion was long. (Click Here).
Hellwig was going to be the “The One”, the face of WWF, and he was thrilled at the prospect. His colleagues appear to have had mixed reactions to the news that he would be champion. Some of them were undoubtedly envious as they had been in the business for several years longer and built more impressive resumes. The notion that Jim Hellwig was “just a body” being pushed based on look did not settle well with those who had honed their wrestling craft, and then sacrificed themselves to make the Ultimate Warrior look good. Others recognized that the character was popular, and if Ultimate Warrior sold tickets they were all enriched by his presence. The lack of guaranteed contracts meant bigger checks when the promotion made more money. These mixed feelings would manifest in various ways both during and after Hellwig’s career, but in the end, Vince McMahon was the decision maker and Ultimate Warrior was going to be the new face of WWF
Wrestlemania VI was scheduled for April 1st of 1990, which meant the plan had to begin months before to orchestrate a storyline leading up to the duel of WWF’s top two draws. At the January Royal Rumble, Hogan and Warrior ended up in a brief one-on-one showdown to tantalize the crowd with possibilities about the two superhuman characters squaring off. The next two months were spent creating a series of “misunderstandings” between the two, such as accidental clotheslines, to set the stage for the showdown. What made it even more exciting was that Hogan held the Heavyweight Title, and Warrior the Intercontinental Title, which made it a title for title match. One man was going to walk out with both of WWF’s most prestigious titles, like a boxer unifying the belts in their weight class. It was tremendous theater that was executed brilliantly by WWF’s think tank.
One challenge that appears to have loomed over this match was that it was between two wrestlers who were not great at wrestling. Bollea and Hellwig had both worked their superhuman characters to perfection, but that required something like battling a giant, or an opponent who had excellent wrestling skills to sell thei power. Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior had very similar “super powers”, being unnaturally strong, taking extraordinary amounts of punishment then suddenly reviving for a big turnaround, and at times being utterly impervious to any blow their opponent may land. Gorilla Monsoon would say it best during the match, “The irresistible force meeting the immovable object”. How does a match work with two superhuman characters that both rely on big power moves and have limited wrestling ability? The possibility for a disastrous match was real, but Vince McMahon had an ace up his sleeve with Pat Patterson.
Born Pierre Clermont in Montreal, Patterson came to the United States in the sixties and wrestled for years before joining the WWF in 1979, becoming the first “Intercontinental Champion” (Click Here). Patterson never possessed the popularity of contemporaries like Bruno Sammartino or Bob Backlund, but his wrestling genius enabled him to help Vince McMahon transform the wrestling industry. The Hogan vs. Warrior match needed an architect to play to the strengths, and hide the weaknesses, of its two superstars. Patterson was the architect of this match, engineering one of the most memorable main events in WWF history (Click Here).
Patterson orchestrated a match that made both men look incredible, and it lasted 22 minutes and 39 seconds according to Meltzer. Such pacing is a tribute to Patterson’s genius, especially considering Hellwig was not accustomed to extended length singles matches. To understand how bad this could have gone, one need look no further than 1998 when Bollea and Hellwig wrestle in WCW as the main event in “Halloween Havoc” and put on a horrific match. Patterson laid the groundwork for both men to look great, but it was also going to require Bollea take a hit to his ego. For the torch to be effectively passed to Ultimate Warrior, and for him to remain a good guy, he needed to beat Hulk Hogan fair and square.
There was a professional rivalry between Hellwig and Bollea, that is discussed further on the page “The Year It All Changed”. Both men were jealous of the other’s popularity, yet Bollea was in uncharted territory as he had never encountered someone who could challenge his status as WWF’s top draw the way Hellwig did. Bollea admitted in his autobiography “Hollywood Hulk Hogan” that he did not believe Hellwig could carry the load as champion. Of course, there was little choice in the matter given Bollea’s own desire to be mostly retired, and pursue other ventures, had precipitated the changing of the guard. Bollea’s admission is indicative of the ego that was part of having been at the top of sports entertainment for so long, but he was really in no position to argue.
Wrestlemania VI took place in the Toronto SkyDome, now called the Rogers Centre, with over 67,000 people attending the show. The methodical planning, the risk of doing a genuine champion vs. champion, all good guy match paid off wildly. Footage of the event shows how divided the audience was, erupting in applause for both characters as they were introduced. Hellwig and Bollea executed Patterson’s plan to perfection. Dave Meltzer was so surprised by how well it worked that he wrote in the April 9th edition of his newsletter, “This was probably the best booked wrestling match I’ve ever seen. The reason I say this is that they took two very limited wrestlers, neither of whom have the ability to carry an opponent, and managed to create a classic match with them”. It is difficult to disagree with Meltzer as Wrestlemania VI went down as one of the most memorable Wrestlemanias ever.
By the time Ultimate Warrior pinned Hulk Hogan to win the match, all of Hellwig’s face paint had come off. Perhaps it was fitting that the young man who felt written-off by his hometown should have his true face showing at the biggest moment of his life. In front of an international audience Hulk Hogan handed the Ultimate Warrior the heavyweight championship belt that had been his for so long. The two men hugged in what looked like a genuine a moment between them, and Hellwig hoisted both titles over his head. As Bollea made his way toward the locker room, fireworks erupted around the ring, encapsulating Hellwig’s silhouette with both titles, making for one of the most enduring images in WWF history.
Four years prior, Jim Hellwig had been virtually broke, driving taxis between wrestling gigs, and consumed by student loan debt. His goal of showing the world what he had to offer seemed incredibly distant, and likely unattainable at times. He was now thirty-years-old and had just done what no one else ever had: beaten Hulk Hogan fair and square by pinfall, on the biggest possible stage,. The Ultimate Warrior was now a wrestling legend, forever immortalized as a dual champion. Everything in his life would change in 1991, but in that moment, he was at the top of wrestling’s Mount Olympus.