Jim Hellwig had found a home in Texas with World Class Championship Wrestling. Jim and his wife Shari had relocated to Irving, and the Dingo Warrior was growing in popularity. Originally brought in to be a heel that could work opposite the Von Erichs, Hellwig’s bizarre Dingo Warrior grew in popularity to a degree that his manager, Gary Hart, felt Dingo should be made a face. The move worked and Hellwig’s evolution toward wrestling superstardom was firmly in motion.
In February of 1987, the Dingo Warrior became the Texas Heavyweight Champion, and photos of this accomplishment show the prototype Ultimate Warrior look had come into existence. Hellwig had been in professional wrestling for less than two years when he came onto the WWF’s radar (WWF is being used since the promotion was still called World Wrestling Federation at the time). The summer of ’87 was approaching when Hellwig first learned that the office at WCCW had been speaking with WWF about him. Hellwig had the kind of size that worked well with WWF talent, contrary to the Memphis territory where Hellwig was oversized and out of place among wrestlers who were more proficient in wrestling skills. McMahon’s success with Terry Bollea’s Hulk Hogan character had revealed that WWE’s more “cartoonish” take on wrestling with large, charismatic, muscle-bound characters, made it a place Jim Hellwig could thrive.
Michael McCurdy, a WCCW historian, has records that show Hellwig’s last match for the Texas promotion was on June 8, 1987 in a battle royal. Nine days later on June 17th, the day after Hellwig’s 28th birthday, he wrestled Steve Lombardi at a WWF house show in Wichita Falls. Hellwig started in WWF as the Dingo Warrior, and Lombardi was an enhancement talent, traditionally called a “jobber”. Jobbers are wrestlers who have the job of making upper-talent look good in the ring while losing the match. Lombardi jobbed regularly for Hellwig in those opening months, often taking the brunt of Hellwig’s stiff wrestling abilities, getting knocked out on multiple occasions. Others who worked with Hellwig during these early months were Jose Estrada, Terry Gibbs, and Barry Horowitz (See Cagematch: The Internet Wrestling Database for an excellent summation of Hellwig’s career matches: Click here). Jim Hellwig was still relatively new in the wrestling industry, and though his skills had improved during the first two years, there was much to be desired. How much he actually grew in that department is still debatable, but his reception among fans is not in question.
After three months of working house shows, Jim Hellwig was given a contract to wrestle as the Dingo Warrior on September 23rd. Hellwig’s first WWF contract was a standard one, guaranteeing at least $150 for live arena events, $50 for promotional taping, and 25% of net proceeds on merchandise using the wrestler’s likeness. In other words, this contract was no guarantee of riches, but the potential to make the kind of money Hellwig had first dreamed of in 1985 was now real. Hellwig would be taping his first episode of “Wrestling Challenge” in early October, but there was still one problem to address: his wrestling name.
Vince McMahon knew how to market wrestlers, which is why he had no intention of putting the Dingo Warrior on his television show. McMahon did not care for the name, and did not understand what a dingo warrior was supposed to be. The reports are that McMahon was not terribly interested in using any form of warrior, given there was already Kerry Von Erich, “The Modern Day Warrior”, and the “Road Warriors”, which Hellwig had tried to emulate alongside Borden early in their journey. The likelihood is Vince probably wanted to separate Hellwig’s WWF persona from the WCCW character, while also giving him a more marketable name. A production meeting was held prior to Jim Hellwig’s primetime debut, which aired on October 25th, to come up with a new name. The idea of dropping the use of warrior altogether was allegedly considered, but then someone, possibly Jack Lanza, suggested the character could be better than all of these warriors as the “Ultimate Warrior”. Like capturing lighting in a bottle, the name Jim Hellwig would be known as for the rest of his life, and beyond, was cemented.
The Ultimate Warrior’s television debut was in front of an audience in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was a short match against Terry Gibbs that was a basic display of power moves. There was no theme song at this point, nor did the Ultimate Warrior sprint to the ring in his signature fashion, nonetheless the Ultimate Warrior was born. Gorilla Monsoon took notice of the massive physique while Bobby Heenan commented that the Ultimate Warrior was not “all there” mentally.
WWF was experiencing great success in 1987, having achieved new heights of popularity with Wrestlemania III on March 29th of that year. McMahon’s vision of making WWF mainstream began coming to fruition in a profound way at Wrestlemania III, which featured celebrities like Aretha Franklin, Bob Uecker, Mary Hart, and Alice Cooper. The event featured two iconic matches: Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat and Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant. The success McMahon was having with his Wrestlemania shows opened the opportunity for more pay-per-view events. November 26th of that year would see the first “Survivor Series”, followed shortly by the first “Royal Rumble” on January 24th of 1988. McMahon would also add “SummerSlam” to his pay-per-view lineup on August 29th of 1988, giving the WWF four major events a year, in addition to weekly television shows, and a constant stream of live performances.
The WWF’s expansion gave Hellwig a variety of opportunities to both better his wrestling abilities and gain national exposure. The Ultimate Warrior was not incorporated into that first Survivor Series, but he was gaining notoriety and experience. Shortly after Ultimate Warrior’s prime time debut, Jim Johnston was given the task of crafting a theme song for the eccentric new character. The result was the rock anthem “Unstable”, one of the most iconic wrestling theme songs in the history of the industry. Few songs would better capture the very essence of a character, or elicit a more powerful crowd response than Johnston’s pulsating masterpiece. However, Jim Hellwig got more than a theme song, he was also getting an upgrade in opponents.
McMahon’s interest in pushing his new acquisition is apparent from the advanced talent he was assigned to work with. Harley Race was in his mid-forties and had established himself as a wrestling legend. On eight occasions between 1973 and 1984, Race had been the world champion of the National Wrestling Alliance during the era of territorial wrestling. Race was given the moniker “The Greatest Wrestler on God’s Green Earth”, and was one of the most legendary NWA champions in its history. In 1986 he joined the WWF and was portraying the heel character “King Harley Race” when he and Hellwig started working together in December of 1987. In an interview for this part of Hellwig’s life, Race spoke fondly of young Jim Hellwig and their work together. Race felt Hellwig was respectful of him, and the veteran says he called 90% of what they did in their matches.
Hellwig would never be known for his technical proficiency as a wrestler, but his skills had unequivocally improved in those first two years. Race commented that Hellwig was ahead of his time as a talent that was more showman than wrestler. Nevertheless, working with Race gave the budding young talent a chance to work with a legend who could deepen Hellwig’s knowledge of how the industry works.
The Ultimate Warrior was given a spot in the first Royal Rumble that ran on January 24th of 1988, and though this first iteration was not a pay-per-view event, it was his first chance to be part of a WWF special event. The next opportunity came at Wrestlemania IV where he was matched against Raymond Fernandez, known as Hercules or Hercules Hernandez. Fernandez was another large, heavily muscled wrestler, who could be paired with Hellwig for matches about displays of power. It seems evident that the goal of this exposure on, on the WWF’s biggest stage, was to begin transforming the Ultimate Warrior character into something superhuman. In the buildup to Wrestlemania IV, Ultimate Warrior snaps Hercules’s chain. During the match itself Hercules requires three clotheslines to knock down the Warrior, while Warrior in turn can drop the mighty Hercules with a single blow. Unlike the matches with Harley Race, these battles of power were about creating an aura of mystique around this unusual character.
Something noticeable about these early months in the WWF is how quickly the Ultimate Warrior rose in popularity with fans. Footage shows strong crowd reactions to his introduction, especially once Jim Johnston’s theme song became attached to the muscular phenom. The WWF took notice and Hellwig received matches against Hercules, Andre the Giant, and was put into a series of gimmick matches with Bobby Heenan where the loser had to wear a “weasel suit”. Other strong men characters, like Dino Bravo and One Man Gang, were part of this first year of experimentation, but McMahon was about to make a change to give Hellwig an even bigger push.
Wayne Farris was a wrestling veteran with over a decade of experience by 1988, and was portraying the Honky Tonk Man for the WWF. Farris’s Honky Tonk Man was an arrogant Elvis impersonator who carried a guitar, danced, and even recorded his own theme song that declared, “I’m cool, I’m cocky, I’m bad”. The Honky Tonk Man was at the tail end of his tenure as the longest running Intercontinental Champion in WWF history, which lasted 453 days, 179 days longer than the next best tenure. Hellwig’s quick ascendency in the WWF was about to get a big boost.
It was August 29th when WWF ran its inaugural “SummerSlam” event in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Honky Tonk Man emerged at the midway point of the event, but his supposed opponent, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, was “injured” and unable to come out for the match. Honkey Tonk stood in the ring with his manager Jimmy Hart, a referee, and announcer Howard Finkle, all playing equally dumb as to who the opponent was supposed to be. At one point Farris’s character grabs the microphone, declaring “Get me somebody out here to wrestle! I don’t care who it is.” The moment was played to perfection as an extended, awkward period where no apparent competition was forthcoming finally broke with the sound of Warrior’s theme music. The crowd roared with excitement, but only seconds later they broke into a complete frenzy as Hellwig sprinted to the ring, slid in, and began pummeling Farris. The action happened so quickly that poor Howard Finkle was not able to even announce the Ultimate Warrior, and had to all but dive out of the ring. Truth be told this was not much of a wrestling match, but it was tremendous theater. The crowd never took a seat during the thirty-one second bout, about half of which seemed to be Hellwig frantically running around the ring and flailing his arms. The match was little more than a couple of punches, some clotheslines, a body slam, a shoulder tackle, and an Ultimate Warrior big splash. In half a minute the longest Intercontinental reign in the history of the WWF and WWE was over, and the crowd ate up every moment of what had transpired.
The Intercontinental Championship was a mid-level accolade, but one that marked an important step in Hellwig’s rise toward WWF fame. The Ultimate Warrior was a highly marketable character, and Vince McMahon knew how to market wrestlers. It was easy to see how crowds responded to the frenetic character who sprinted to the ring, shook the ropes, and commonly seemed to be in a world of his own. Jim Hellwig had found the kind of popularity he and Steve Borden dreamed of when they first began wrestling late in 1985. He was making more money than he ever had in his young life, and his creative nature was only beginning to flourish.
Ultimate Warrior’s interviews have become a focus of his legacy since the release of “The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior” documentary in 2005. Many of his contemporaries did not care for the bizarre nature of his interviews, believing they were unintelligible and said nothing of substance. Hellwig’s interviews as the Ultimate Warrior were utterly bizarre, but they were also in keeping with the character. As he continued to refine the Ultimate Warrior, he incorporated creative elements of myth and origin into his supernatural character. The Warrior spoke of “Parts Unknown”, the mythical world he came from. His interviews were full of references to receiving the power of the gods, being tested by his ancestors, the power of his warrior fans floating through his veins, spaceships, and a medley of other creative and bizarre features.
Any notion that Jim Hellwig was simply unable to do a normal interview is not accurate. During his time in WCCW, Hellwig’s Dingo Warrior gave many interviews that were nothing more than basic wrestle-speak, talking about an upcoming match and wanting revenge in a straightforward manner. It is clear that Hellwig was exercising his creative abilities when crafting his interviews. The Ultimate Warrior had a language of his own, and the bizarre expressions matched the strange character perfectly. Considering his frenetic actions, and the announcers consistently stating he is crazy, it would have made little sense for Hellwig to do generic interviews, while behaving in a maniacal fashion in the ring.
Far from being incoherent or useless, the interview style he developed was both brilliant and fitting for his character. Watching the footage also shows how Hellwig strained to maintain the excessive intensity he exerted performing his character. In various post-wrestling interviews, he spoke of having to psyche himself up to portray the Warrior, consuming large amounts of coffee, and isolating himself to get into what could be termed a “performance state of mind”. The criticisms of his interviews may reflect the views of those who had a more traditional background in how the business was “supposed” to work, but the WWF was not traditional wrestling. Terry Bollea’s Hulk Hogan character was the standard of WWF success at the time, and it was not because of traditional wrestling skills and abilities. Bollea was a good-looking, oversized man who portrayed a classic “good guy” in an entertainment medium that promoted basic morality tales of good versus evil.
Memphis wrestling historian Mark James captured the essence of these differences perfectly in his interview describing what wrestling was to him and to his kids. James was a fan of classic territorial wrestling where the performers were technically proficient in-ring talent, possessing a barrage of wrestling skills. His children grew up watching WWF, which James says was more “cartoonish”, but that was wrestling to them. The Ultimate Warrior blended well into this cartoonish marketing machine, and based on his soaring popularity, it is evident his bizarre interviews were not a detriment. On the other hand, his wrestling skills were of deeper concern for his colleagues.
Another criticism that has been leveled at Jim Hellwig was his lack of wrestling ability. This assessment deserves greater attention as it runs deeper than mere preference. While wrestling fans will naturally gravitate toward certain styles, in-ring talent take such matters more seriously. Professional wrestlers train exhaustively for the sake of their craft, and part of that training is learning how to perform moves in a way that protects fellow performers. Wrestling is a painful lifestyle, commonly causing long-term damage to the athletes. Falling hard on the mat (called taking bumps), flying into turnbuckles, dropping elbows that commonly miss; all of these things hurt. Pain is an inherent part of wrestling performance, which is why it is even more paramount for wrestlers to take care of other wrestlers in the ring and protect them. During this era in the WWF there were very few guaranteed contracts, meaning if a performer does not wrestle, they do not get paid. Injuring a colleague prevents them from making a living in the industry.
Jim Hellwig had been rushed through his training process en route to performing in the ring, training for what amounted to mere weeks. Analysis of his performances from late 1985 into the WWF show that Hellwig did improve his skillset through in-ring repetition, but he also developed a reputation for working “stiff”, which is another way of saying he executed some moves too hard, putting his fellow performers at risk. Through 1988 and 1989, Hellwig worked angles with Bobby Heenan, Andre the Giant, and Rick Rude, all of whom expressed frustration with Hellwig’s stiff performances, according to various insiders.
Heenan directly complained on “The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior” about Hellwig dropping him improperly. Heenan also had a bad neck, and claimed Hellwig had hurt him by hitting him in the neck area when he was not supposed to hit the neck. When confronted about this, Hellwig would supposedly say something to the effect of, “I just get so amped up I can’t help it”. Andre Roussimoff, known commonly as Andrew the Giant, was said to have had similar experiences with Hellwig, though unlike Heenan, he would have no issues protecting himself.
Roussimoff was an established icon by 1989, having served as a foil to Bollea’s Hulk Hogan for several years. The French wrestler suffered from acromegally, commonly called “gigantism”, a disease that attacks the pituitary gland causing excessive growth hormone to be pumped into the body. Roussimoff was commonly billed at being 7’4” tall, and 550 pounds, though in reality he was closer to 6’11”, but his head, hands, and feet were disproportionately enlarged by his disease. Acromegally causes severe health issues, and those with extreme cases rarely have long lives. Robert Wadlow had the most extreme form of this disease recorded in medical history, standing at 8’11” and with size 37 shoes; the young giant died at the age of 22. Roussimoff was forty-three years old when McMahon asked him to pair with Hellwig. The idea was to make the young wrestler appear superhuman facing the gigantic phenom, but sources say Roussimoff did not take kindly to Hellwig’s stiff blows.
By 1989, Roussimoff’s acromegaly, in addition to years of wrestling, had taken a severe toll on him. His ballooning weight and disease had put him in desperate need of back surgery, and he was slowing down in the ring. Toward the beginning of their work together, Hellwig allegedly hit Andre with several hard clotheslines that angered the giant. When Roussimoff had had enough of the stiff blows, he waited one night until Hellwig came flying off the ropes to land a clothesline, then stuck his massive fist out and let Hellwig hit it full speed in the face. The hit caused the young wrestler’s knees to buckle, and he had to grab the ropes to keep from falling. The lesson did the trick as Hellwig significantly reduced the intensity of his hits on the veteran wrestler.
Richard Rood may have received the bulk of physical punishment wrestling Hellwig, Rood wrestled for the WWF as “Ravishing Rick Rude”. Rood and Hellwig had worked together in WCCW, at times as a tag team, and at times as opponents. The two men worked extensively together in 1989, with Rood winning the Intercontinental Title at Wrestlemania V, only to lose it back to Hellwig at SummerSlam a few months later. Hellwig and Rood produced memorable matches for a variety of reasons. Both men were in impeccable shape, with Rood having one of the few bodies that could rival Hellwig in appearance, though he was giving up twenty-five to thirty pounds against the former bodybuilding champion. They were very close in age, with Rood being seven-months older than Hellwig, and they were nearly the same height, with Rood appearing to be a touch taller. Perhaps more than anything, Rood had a skillset that could compliment Hellwig impeccably.
Jim Hellwig was large and powerful, but his lack of initial training, and arguably a shortcoming of desire to learn more wrestling skills, limited his abilities. Rood was exceptionally athletic, and understood the mechanics of wrestling, while also bringing a level of fitness most did not possess. Additionally, Rood had honed his talent as a heel to perfection, knowing how to insult crowds in a way that made him hated as much as Hellwig was loved. WWF was fostering an image of the Ultimate Warrior as possessing superhuman strength, which meant a lot of matches where Hellwig performed high-powered moves with big impacts. This required opponents to take a lot of punishment, especially when Hellwig was careless, and to use their athletic abilities to make the Ultimate Warrior look supernaturally strong. An excellent argument could be made that no one did this better for Hellwig than Richard Rood.
Rood’s athleticism was on full display against Hellwig as he was constantly thrown around the ring, and at times outside of the ring. Rood was a consummate professional, selling Hellwig’s blows with terrific facial features and bodily reactions. Hellwig undoubtedly created a memorable superhero character, but it took men like Rood bringing their incredible talents into the equation to make the Ultimate Warrior look super heroic. Vince McMahon understood Hellwig’s popularity and limitations, which is why he used someone like Rood to help the Ultimate Warrior win over crowds. However, it appears that working with Hellwig eventually got to Rood.
Rumor has emerged that after taking repeated stiff hits from Hellwig, Rood finally confronted him in the locker room after a show in 1989. Variations of the story exist, (one version in this article: Click Here), but Hellwig is said to have either brushed off or dismissed Rood’s request to lighten up, which led to either an altercation or Rood threatening to physically harm Hellwig. Bret Hart claimed an incident like this took place in his book Hitman, while others made claims that Rood had endured more than should have in the “Self-Destruction” documentary. It is also rumored that Rood was insulted by the fact that after months of sacrificing his body to get Hellwig’s character over, wrestling slang for helping another gain popularity with the crowd, Hellwig began working with Andre and treated him to nightly bottles of fine wine (Click Here). Hellwig spoke of Roussimoff with great reverence later in life, and may well have treated the legendary veteran different than someone his own age.
How many of these rumors are true is difficult to discern, but when several sources claim there were issues with Hellwig working stiff, they are probably accurate to some degree. This was not an ubiquitous sentiment though as Lanny Poffo and Harley Race never expressed any issues with being hurt by Hellwig. Ted DiBiase had a number of personal issues with Hellwig, but never claimed that Hellwig had hurt him in the ring. Though as previously mentioned, Steve Lombardi said that Hellwig genuinely knocked him out on multiple occasions when they wrestled together at the beginning of Hellwig’s WWF tenure. Even Ed Connors, the man who got Hellwig into wrestling, knew of Jim hurting his colleagues in the ring because of a lack of skill.
The mixed reviews that Hellwig received rom his colleagues likely stem from a combination of factors. Jim Hellwig did have limited wrestling ability, but he also had little incentive to further his knowledge of technical wrestling.
Vince McMahon was WWF’s visionary who had been pushing Hellwig’s success since shortly after his arrival. McMahon could see the wrestling deficiencies as well as the others, but he also saw the popularity, which meant more. Years later, McMahon would criticize Hellwig for not developing the wrestling craft, and taking a showbiz route to success, but this critique seems hollow. Had McMahon truly wanted Hellwig to develop his wrestling skills, he could have required such development before advancing him through the company’s ranks.
Some were undoubtedly frustrated that they were put at risk working with Hellwig, but there was also a degree of jealousy at work. Other talent who had been in the industry longer, and knew how to work better, saw a newcomer getting backed by the company in a way they had not. A few of them, like Rood, had been used to make Hellwig look really good, yet they were passed over for opportunities. There were others who disliked Hellwig’s attitude, believing he thought himself smarter than everyone else and too good to learn from more experienced veterans. While Jim Hellwig could have embraced a more teachable attitude, or show more respect to his colleagues, he could not control Vince McMahon’s desire to push the Ultimate Warrior. Why would he want to stymie his character’s growth? Wrestling is a notoriously cutthroat industry and Hellwig had found himself in an advantageous situation. The charisma of the Ultimate Warrior had given Hellwig an opportunity to succeed, and any of his co-workers would have taken that same opportunity. That opportunity only grew when late in 1989, Terry Bollea informed Vince McMahon he wanted to enter semi-retirement and radically reduce his workload. This decision would forever change Jim Hellwig’s life.