The Year it All Changed

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Jim Hellwig’s career reached its apex on April 1, 1990 when had his iconic match with Terry Bollea’s “Hulk Hogan” character in the Toronto SkyDome.  This shining moment was the culmination of his incredible rise to the top of the sports entertainment world.  The choice to have Hellwig’s Ultimate Warrior defeat Bollea’s Hulk Hogan was part of a larger plan for WWF moving into the future.  Bollea had spent the better part of the previous six years as WWF’s premiere draw, and was looking to enter into a semi-retirement from wrestling that would allow him to pursue other ventures.  Meanwhile, Hellwig’s star was burning bright and his character was the only true rival Bollea had in merchandise sales and popularity.  Being nearly six years younger, and with a lot less miles on his body, McMahon believed the Ultimate Warrior could be the WWF’s future.  However, Jim Hellwig’s personal life was about to collide with his career in a profound way, that would forever change his professional trajectory in 1991. 

Being a WWF superstar entailed an exhaustive work schedule that required travel to house shows, TV tapings, appearances, and other duties.  According to court records, the relationship between Hellwig and Titan began to erode in August of 1990 due to the demands of his championship status.  Hellwig was working an average of 27 days per month during this period, and claims in the document he was not permitted to return home to attend to family matters.  Indeed, there was a personal crisis developing as Hellwig’s marriage to his first wife, Shari Rowe, was coming apart. 

The couple had married on October 2, 1982 when they were both in their early twenties.  Their marriage had begun before professional wrestling was on Jim’s radar, when he was still aspiring to win Mr. Olympia.  Jim and Shari had seen lean times in their early years as they navigated the difficult terrain of breaking into both professional bodybuilding and professional wrestling.  Ed Connors, one of the architects of the successful Gold’s Gym franchise, had been a mentor and friend to Jim during his bodybuilding days, and had assisted him in the transition to professional wrestling.  He remained in contact with Jim into his WWF championship days and conversed with both Jim and Shari during the period when friction in their marriage was reaching its peak. 


The Ultimate Warrior’s success meant fewer days at home, and Jim’s constant absence was a bone of contention for Shari.  In conversations with Connors, she blamed wrestling and expressed her frustration with Ed that he had helped Jim get into the industry.  Connors spoke with Jim and suggested he take Shari on the road with him to ease the tension.  However, Jim refused to do so because he feared if his wife saw the drug use and adultery happening with other talent on the road, she would tell their wives and cause him trouble he did not want to deal with.  Hellwig had a reputation for ostracizing himself from the other wrestlers, but there were barriers he was unwilling to cross when it came to the rules of what happens on the road. 


By late 1990 the Hellwigs’ marriage was unsalvageable and they began the process of getting divorced.  Amidst the greatest professional high of his life, Jim Hellwig was dealing with the most difficult personal circumstances of his life since his father had abandoned the family when he was twelve-years-old.   He had made in excess of $1.3 million that year, but money could not fix the deteriorating relationship.  Compounding the crisis in his personal life, McMahon had begun to doubt his decision that Hellwig’s Ultimate Warrior could carry the WWF in the way Hulk Hogan had through most of the 80’s.  Mere months after Hellwig and Bollea had their legendary match at Wrestlemania VI, Vince began to lose confidence in Hellwig and made plans to strip the Ultimate Warrior of the championship.


January of 1991 launched a year that would forever change Jim Hellwig’s life, both privately and professionally.  Two major events occurred that month: divorce papers were filed and Hellwig lost his status as WWF champion.  At the January 19th Royal Rumble event, the Ultimate Warrior would lose his title to Robert Remus’s Sgt. Slaughter character.  That same event saw Hulk Hogan win the Royal Rumble, which was a prelude to making Hogan champion again.  As will be seen, this did not sit well with Hellwig as the mutual, professional rivalry between the two was at its zenith. 

In a court deposition that McMahon gave in April of 2009, he said it was his belief that the two men were jealous of each other.  McMahon was accurate as seen by comparing various sources from Bollea and Hellwig on the subject of this period in time.  The 2002 autobiography “Hollywood Hulk Hogan” features a section with Bollea discussing the decision to make Hellwig champion.  Bollea acknowledges that he had grown tired during the seven-years of being WWF’s main attraction, and that his “attitude started to suck”. 


However, despite acknowledging he was in need of a break, he did not agree with giving Hellwig the title, believing could carry the load.  In a telling passage, Bollea claims that handing Hellwig the title after the match was not scripted, rather he did it to “steal back everything he had gotten from me”.  Of course, Hellwig had not stolen anything from Hogan, but it is a reflection of the jealousy Bollea felt for his only true rival in terms of popularity.  Bollea concluded his reflection by writing, “It turned out I was right about the Ultimate Warrior.  He couldn’t carry the load as heavyweight champion, not the way Hulk Hogan had.”


Hellwig’s divorce was finalized on March 22nd, and two days later he participated in Wrestlemania VII.  The event saw one of his most memorable matches against Randall Poffo, better known as Macho Man Randy Savage.  However, main billing went to Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter, with Hogan reclaiming the title.  Bollea was approaching thirty-eight-years old at the time, while Hellwig was not quite thirty-two.  Both men had been chosen by McMahon to be the face of the company in their early thirties, but there was a stark difference in the amount of trust McMahon showed between them.  Bollea’s first run as champion had lasted 1,474 days, just over four years, which is still the third longest reign ever.  He then held it for an additional 364 days before losing it to Hellwig at Wrestlemania VI.  In contrast, Hellwig’s first, and only stretch as champion, lasted just short of ten months. The contrast in time between these title runs shows the difference in McMahon’s belief pertaining to the ability of the two performers to carry Titan Sports. 


Hellwig’s divorce showed an amicable split of the property, with Shari listed as the petitioner for divorce, and Hellwig the respondent.  Both parties received land, vehicles, personal property, and cash in their sole possession. There was no prenuptial agreement as they had married in 1982 before any fame or riches had been foreseeable, thus a reasonable division of finances was likely. No house is listed in the settlement, which is an important detail.  Despite having made over $1.3 million the prior year, the divorce settlement, and likely natural debts most accrue, left Hellwig in need of money to purchase a new home.  The available documentation does not indicate he was broke, rather he did not have the cash to purchase the new home he wanted in New Mexico.  Hellwig needed $550,000 to purchase the home he wanted, which likely included the purchase of land, at a time when the average home in New Mexico cost approximately $110,000.  To make this purchase he decided to borrow the money from Vince McMahon as opposed to taking a bank loan.


Hellwig was no longer champion, but his Ultimate Warrior character was still enormously popular with the public.  Behind the scenes he was personally dealing with the sense of loss that came from his divorce, and a growing frustration with McMahon.  Hellwig believed he deserved more money for his dedication to the WWF and his popularity with fans.  On multiple occasions he attempted to speak with Vince about increased compensation in the first half of 1991.  These various attempts had not resulted in the outcome he desired.  Hellwig was trying to simultaneously navigate the natural depression that results from a marriage dissolving, and his anger with Vince choosing to go in a different direction by making Hogan champion again.  Hellwig also became aware of what Bollea’s financial compensation was, including his payout for Wrestlemania VII, and in July his frustrations boiled over.  On July 10th, McMahon received a hand-written letter from Hellwig that would forever alter the relationship the two men had. 


The Letter

The five-page handwritten letter arrived at Titan headquarters on a Wednesday by fax. The letter begins with Hellwig expressing his frustration over repeated attempts to talk with Vince that Jim felt led nowhere.  He says Vince always needed, “Time to stew things over to work them your way”.  He continues, “I have been from day 1 different from the others. I have sacrificed myself enough both in my personal life and physical well being.  The fairness you say you want everyone to have is unfair to me.  I grew in 5 (five) years to become what the ‘Ultimate Warrior’ is today.”  Hellwig says it would have taken others ten to fifteen years to accomplish what he did in five, and then in the third paragraph an important and telling theme develops.


"The points and suggestions you have made over the last 5 years were very well taken. Now I look at other individuals with less than 1/3 the creativity, desire and hunger I had (have) and wonder how you can look and see them as The One. For you as a friend I pray all the things you believe in rise to the surface and present themselves."


This paragraph marks a transition in the letter where four times he will mention “The One”.  What does he mean by the “The One”?  As the letter develops it becomes clear that by “The One” he is referring to the individual chosen to lead the WWF as the champion, and the person with 1/3 the creativity and hunger is Terry Bollea. 


"Then there is the side that says "What the f man?" When I was thought of as The One the topics of conversation were - "Treat the veterans with respect". The veterans you spite are the very ones who will fuck it up for you. No matter I listened. I would go to ring push myself to the brink of a heart attack and you would say "When you go to the corner - SMILE?!?! you spoke of the Ultimate Warrior appealing to all, old, young, ugly, beautiful, fat, skinny, black, white."


Here he refers to himself as “The One”, but in the past tense.  Then he begins to describe his efforts to please Vince as “The One”.


"A character who would show ups and downs emotions and intensities, sensitivities and cold-heartedness when it was needed. Like a yo-yo I obliged so I could be The One. Where the hell are this man's ups and downs. - Total jugular-vein popping yelling at all times. Is this the Total Picture, character, or presentation that can be The One? I learned with you to show intensity at this level but also to show just as much intensity with the look of my eyes or with the whisper of my voice or even better - extreme intensity in total silence. I did all you asked."


When Hellwig was “The One”, he says he gave Vince his all and did everything he was asked.  The mounting frustration in the letter is evident as he believed he should have continued to be “The One”, but that did not happen. 


"Then the long-term plan changed. At first I was reluctant for what I believed were the right reasons - but once again I went with what I knew I could believe in - "Vince has never fucked me".  I dealt with what you thought was best no matter what the cost to me. , no matter the countless # of sleepless nights there were to come, no matter the # of times I had to knock on your door with questions I should never have had."


The straw that broke the camel’s back came when McMahon required Hellwig to tape an apology for mistreating fans.  This requirement did not sit well, “For the last 2 1/12 years I should have never had the questions I did. To stand and make a videotaped apology for something I never did made me realize all we have is business.”  The gravity of this sentence needs to be examined in greater detail.


Vince McMahon was far more than a boss to Jim Hellwig; he was closer to a father figure.  The fallout they would experience in later years is largely a product of this paternal feeling he had toward McMahon, and maternal feelings for Linda.  Hellwig affirmed this sentiment in 1999 during the trial over the rights to the Ultimate Warrior character.  “You know, I was thinking about the almost parental relationship that I had with Vince and the two previous occasions there.  I was thinking about the relationship I had established with Linda where she’s signing letters ‘mom’ you know”. 


It was only natural for Hellwig to see Vince in a paternal light.  As a child he had learned abandonment from his father.  When he was around the age of twenty, he had gone to Florida and lived with his father for a time, trying to connect with the man who had left him, but the effort failed.  The man who should have believed in him the most had never shown an interest in Jim’s well-being or dreams.  On the other hand, Vince McMahon had seen in Jim the potential for greatness.  McMahon had invested substantial resources in the young wrestler and given him the largest stage he could manage to display his young protégé.  Vince McMahon believed in Jim Hellwig the way that Thomas Hellwig should have believed in his son.  With his personal life in pieces, the feeling that Vince had lost faith in him was utterly devastating.  He lost his temper and unloaded on Vince the years of pain and scars his father had left with him.  Now that they had nothing left but business, and then Hellwig dropped a sledge hammer.


"In reaching this conclusion I ask for these things. You say 500,000 for Wrestlemania is unfair, then I say the last 8 1/2 years of not being compensated equally when I meant as much or more to the company was total bullshit and most definitely unfair. I have sacrificed more than 500,000 more than 1 million dollars, even more in monies that should have been paid to me in receiving equal compensation as Hulk."


"I paid my goddamn dues long ago. I need not pay anymore. I have given everything and never once was there a knock on my fucking door. Whether to bullshit as a friend or help me thru my times of need or you trusting me to help you thru yours."


Hellwig then turns to a series of financial demands, which reveal a major source of his anger as it pertains to being “The One” and the change to the “long-term plan”.

"I ask for these things Vince and the answers must come for the next event is upon you. It has been for me the 5 years, and for you to tell me you need to evaluate whether or not I'm cost-effective and this takes time us unfair. A show runs at a given time and date - I have always been there, never asking for time to see if I have the rest, food or whatever it takes to make it. Now I ask the same of you.

I want (1) $550,000 release from the monies allotted me to purchase my home. This will suffice as my Wrestlemania VII payoff, but let it be noted it is not fair. I meant as much or more to that show as Hulk - I deserve to be paid the same (I know what Hulk will get)

(2) 4 days off every other time off period - except Pay Per View only.

(3) I want the same pay cut as Hulk gets on all Pay-Per-Views, SNME, FRIDAY PRIMETIME, house shows and proof as such. The same pay cut applies to what Hulk has been paid with relationship to past events Wrestlemania V, VI, VII i.e when Hulk was top draw.

(4) I want numbers and proof of monies done on 1-900-Hulk and likewise same pay cut.

(5) Same pay cut on all forms of merchandising."


These demands astonished and infuriated McMahon, but they were also telling of Hellwig’s own anger.  He makes reference to Bollea’s “Hulk” seven times in this section of the letter, revealing that he has grown tired of being compensated less than Bollea.  It appears that Hellwig had become aware of how much Bollea was making, both for events and merchandising.  He was indignant that he had needed to borrow money from Vince, and he demanded the debt be wiped completely clean for his work at Wrestlemania VII.  It also provides further insight into his discussion of “The One”.  Hellwig believed he should have continued as the face of the company, but Vince had gone in a different direction, once again investing his trust in Hulk Hogan. 


However unreasonable McMahon felt the demands were, there was a more nefarious issue that made the letter unforgivable. “I ask these things Vince and the answers must come for the next event is upon you.”  It was approaching mid-July and the SummerSlam event was scheduled for August 26th.  Hellwig and Bollea were headlining the event in a tag team match, “The Match Made in Hell”.  WWF had been developing the angle for months, and had invested a substantial amount of money to promote this pay-per-view event that was taking place in Madison Square Garden.  Not only did Hellwig warn Vince that the event was upon him, he concluded his letter with a business threat.


"I have tried to speak as a friend, but maybe I don't have the qualities you required to seek me out as a friend. The videotaped apology was the icing on the cake - you see it as business so whether I like it or not I must do the same. Whatever your decision I can and will live with it. Till Then I remain home with one who cares"


Jim Hellwig had just told Vince McMahon, the head of the most powerful wrestling promotion in the world, that unless the outlined demands were met, he would remain at home, and not perform in his scheduled matches.  This is what has been described as the SummerSlam ’91 “hold up”.  In the documentary, “The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior”, the controversy was discussed at some length.  The documentary gave the impression that Hellwig had gone into McMahon’s office the day of the event and made financial demands.  This is clearly not accurate, but the threat was real and McMahon was incensed that Hellwig was threatening to no-show an event that he was headlining.  With six weeks until the match, McMahon enacted a plan to both save his show and ensure Jim Hellwig would never forget the response.


The Response


Vince McMahon was in a difficult position as the second biggest draw in his company had just demanded $550,000, and a sizable increase in his compensation, six-weeks before a major event he was headlining.  For a promotion like WWF to advertise a character with the popularity of the Ultimate Warrior, and for him to not show, would be devastating to the company’s credibility.  If McMahon had given in to the demands, he would set a precedent for other popular talent to do the same.  If he suspended or fired Hellwig, there was still no Ultimate Warrior for the show and it would have harmed the WWF.  McMahon spent three days preparing his strategy, then made his response on July 13th. 


A one-page memo was to Hellwig in which McMahon agrees to every one of Hellwig’s demands.  He concludes by writing:


"I regret the turmoil you’ve put yourself through and your agonizing over what you feel is fair compensation.  And even though we have a difference of opinion over some of these matters, I am resolved to work with you in the same honest and equitable way that I always have.  Furthermore, I would like to express to you my deepest appreciation and admiration for you as a performer, as a member of the WWF family, as a man and as my friend."


McMahon told Hellwig everything he wanted to hear, but he meant virtually none of what was written.  He did forgive the loan for Jim to buy his home, but this response was entirely orchestrated to give Hellwig the impression that all was well when, in reality, Vince immediately began planning to replace his second biggest star.  Fortunately for him, a backup plan called his office right around the time Hellwig made his demands.


WWF’s largest US competitor, World Championship Wrestling, had a star named Sid Eudy who was interested in making the jump from WCW.  Eudy portrayed the popular Sid Vicious character, was a member of the Four Horsemen with Ric Flair, and had become a main event attraction for WCW.  At 6’7” and 300 pounds of muscle, Eudy was a looming and intense presence whose character was commonly described as being unhinged.  The Ultimate Warrior and Sid Vicious were by no means the same character, but they both had an excess of intensity and presence. 


WCW was attempting to renew Eudy’s contract with a sizable increase in pay, but Eudy used the opportunity to call McMahon.  Eudy had the size McMahon loved, and even more, the growing issues with Hellwig and uncertainty about Hogan’s future, made Eudy a godsend.  As Eudy describes the conversation, Vince asked him what he wanted to make the move, “I want Hogan’s spot”.  Vince agreed, which makes sense given Hellwig was supposed to be the new leading man in place of the semi-retired Hogan.  Vince had lost faith in this plan, and given the title back to Hogan, but he still needed a long-term solution for life after Terry Bollea.  Sid Eudy fell in McMahon’s lap, and now he could enact a plan to both replace Hellwig, and get revenge for threatening to not perform.


Eudy was announced as the special guest referee for the SummerSlam main event, under the guise of keeping order in the “handicap match”.  The fact that Hogan and Warrior were outnumbered by Slaughter, Mustafa, and Adnan had nothing to do with the need for a special referee.  McMahon was going to replace Hellwig live on pay-per-view and simultaneously expel him from the WWF.  Various interviews have revealed that everyone in the match, and several other members of the WWF crew knew what was coming.  Hellwig was completely in the dark.


As the match was coming to an end, the Ultimate Warrior chased Adnan and Mustafa back to the locker room with a chair, then Hogan pinned Slaughter to win the match.  Slaughter and Eudy, now called Sid Justice, left the ring area, while Bollea played to the crowd alone in the ring.  Bollea then motioned toward the curtain where performers emerge for their matches.  The natural reaction to the crowd was that he was waving for Warrior to return, but in fact, Sid Eudy emerged and the two closed the show in the ring together.  The whole scenario looked odd as the crowd had to be wondering what had happened to the Ultimate Warrior.  What they were unaware of was that the fiction of wrestling story had given way to the reality of the wrestling business.


When Hellwig came backstage as part of the chase, McMahon was waiting for him and handed him a four-page letter to inform him he was officially suspended.  McMahon had told the others that Hellwig was getting fired, and he maintained that view on “The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior” documentary.  In practical terms McMahon was firing Hellwig, but officially he called it a suspension for strategic reasons.  Hellwig was under contract through September 23, 1992, and he was unquestionably a major name and draw.  McMahon had just poached Sid Eudy from the WCW, and he had no intentions of Hellwig wrestling as the Ultimate Warrior for anybody else. 


McMahon’s letter is a combination of indictment against Hellwig’s behavior, and a stern reminder that he had better make no attempt to wrestle for a competitor.  What McMahon almost assuredly did not understand was how heavily his words would weigh on Hellwig until the end of his life.  Several key portions of the letter are worth examining.  After reminding Hellwig that WWF had spent considerable time and money investing in the Ultimate Warrior, he writes,


"Unfortunately, it now appears the fame that you have obtained through the efforts of Titan has gone to your head.  Frankly, you have become impossible to work with, and you have completely forgotten your obligations to Titan and WWF fans, both ethically, professionally and contractually."


McMahon continues:


"Although your contract provides you with substantial compensation, over the past several months you have expressed your continuing dissatisfaction with the amount of compensation which Titan has paid to you, despite the fact that Titan has paid you over $1.3 mil during the past year.  Your principal complaint apparently is that you are not being compensated at the same rate as Hulk Hogan, although “Hulk” is a living legend, is still much better known to the public, has wrestled longer, is the WWF champion, is in much greater demand for personal appearances, is a bigger star and draw at WWF events, is more dependable and is far more revered and respected by WWF fans and by the public at large."


These words had to cut Hellwig deeply, especially coming from Vince McMahon who had been more of a father to him than Thomas Hellwig had ever aspired to be.  At this point in their relationship McMahon likely did not grasp that his faith in Jim had meant the world to the 32-year-old superstar.  Years later, McMahon would give deposition during litigation concerning the “Self-Destruction” DVD, and when asked if he and Jim were good friends during this period in 1991, he responded, “I’d like to think so”.  Yet as discussed above, Hellwig spoke of the McMahon’s in a parental sense, which demonstrates that either McMahon did not feel the same, or did not fully understand how much he had meant to Jim.  It was as if the letter Jim wrote to Vince in July was that of an angry son telling a father he was in business with, “Our relationship is over, it’s just business now.”


Adding insult to injury, McMahon practically gushed over Terry Bollea’s Hulk Hogan, going on and on about how the Hogan character was superior to the Ultimate Warrior in every way.  Hellwig had made his feelings known that he believed himself to be more creative and devoted than Bollea, in addition to being equally as important to the WWF.  Vince responded with his own anger and spared no ink making it clear that Bollea deserved more because he was superior in every way.  The critique did not stop there.


"You have become a legend in your own mind; you are certainly entitled to your opinion.  However, you are not entitled to vent your feelings by breaching and threatening to breach your contract…You also threatened (that unless I met your demands) that you were going to “stay at home”, not appearing at the numerous events which Titan has booked for you (as far out as April 1992 and Wrestlemania VIII), unless and until you were given all of the perks and pay of Hulk Hogan…This was a serious mistake on your part...Your behavior has become unreliable and erratic, which behavior is intolerable in the WWF.  Because Titan can no longer feel secure in knowing when or if you would appear at events for which you have already been booked, Titan has no alternative but to make every effort to cut its losses now, and to mitigate against losses in the future…"


The rest of the letter provided specific details from Hellwig’s 1987 contract to make clear that he was strictly prohibited from using either the Ultimate Warrior, Warrior, or even a similar likeness for any other promotion.  According to the “Early Termination” clause in Hellwig’s contract,


"This Agreement may be terminated prior to the end of its term by a written instrument executed by each of the parties expressing their mutual consent to so terminate without further liability on the part of either.  In the event of such early termination, WRESTLER and PROMOTER shall share in perpetuity revenues derived from the use of the Intellectual Property and/or Name and Likeness…"


McMahon had enacted his revenge, and now Hellwig’s future as the Ultimate Warrior was completely up in the air.  As a final salvo McMahon wrote,

"Please be advised that I do not consider the purported modifications to your Contract dated July 13 and 22 to be valid or binding.  It is well established that contracts entered into under duress are voidable."


Jim Hellwig had risen to the top of the sports entertainment world at a rate that was unforeseeable in 1987.  His Ultimate Warrior character had brought him international stardom, and made the small-town boy from Indiana a success beyond anything he had ever imagined in his youth.  Despite having been to the top of Olympus, and having even supplanted WWF’s version of Zeus, the fall had been dramatic and swift.  The looming question was whether this was the end of the Ultimate Warrior.