Every once in a while, we here at Paste are going to try and slough off the lens of irony through which so much modern entertainment is viewed. We’re going to take the so-bad-it’s-goods and give them their sincere due, and take an earnest look at the things you might think can only be enjoyed ironically. It’s Irony-Free Friday.
Remembering the Ultimate Warrior
On Tuesday, a man who had legally changed his name to Warrior collapsed in a parking lot, underwent a massive cardiac event and died. A day earlier, he had appeared in-character in front of a wrestling audience for the first time and cut a promo about how the spirit of the Ultimate Warrior—the character portrayed by Jim Hellwig (before changing his name) in the early ‘90s WWF—would live forever, long after blood stopped pumping in his own veins. It wasn’t anything unexpected, which is to say that it was totally insane and therefore exactly like any other time Warrior had access to a microphone.
If Irony-Free Friday had a patron saint, it would be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Commando, muscular to the point that he transcends both physicality and sexuality, doing the right thing regardless of circumstance or whether the laws of physics and biology technically allowed it. The Ultimate Warrior was that character brought to life in a slightly different irreality. Commando is a movie that a few dozen serious academic papers could be written on, but that can be enjoyed just as easily with a few beers and not much thinking at all. The Ultimate Warrior was of a similar duality.
He rose to popularity based mostly on his preposterous musculature and incomprehensible interviews where he’d refer to Hulk Hogan as “Hoh Khogan” and not even face the camera. Unlike most wrestling fans my age, I was late to the party. I didn’t start watching until I was 16, which was 2004, and so I cut my teeth on Undertaker and Eddie Guerrero and the watered-down Booker T that SmackDown, but my friend Drew had grown up with it. He lent me a tape of the Survivor Series where Warrior lost his WWF Championship to Sergeant Slaughter by underhanded means. I’m not going to pretend any early childhood allegiance to the Ultimate Warrior. He was never one of my favorites and by the time I was watching wrestling he’d been out of the picture for a while, serving mostly as a punch line to jokes about steroids and incoherence.
More recently, I would show his rambling interviews, about loading planes with pilots who had “already made the sacrifice” and the Warriors—his fans—if I wanted a good laugh.
Warrior was dead serious, though. He embodied the irony-free lifestyle. Here was a man who legally changed his name to more fully embody the character he portrayed, and who believed so strongly in the idea that self-actualization could come with enough confidence, determination and hard work that he signed everything (autographs, legal documents, presumably restaurant checks) “always believe.”
The man made a lot of people mad—he left the pro wrestling business unceremoniously, having burned a lot of bridges, and spent the time between then and his return to the WWE this past weekend saying crazy things and being the subject of DVDs and disgruntled “shoot” interviews. I wont’ be speaking of those. Firstly, because I think that to assign sane standards of reasonable public discourse to a man whose job it was to jump on people, pretend to be electrocuted by ring-ropes as he pumped up to clobber an opponent and wear tassels on his insane muscles, is a self-defeating enterprise designed only to give the assigner an excuse to be angry.
Secondly, because to do so would be tantamount to upsetting the Warrior Spirit, which is surely floating in the ether.
Thirdly, because if we’re deciding to apply guilt to people, and if the cause of his untimely death is as linked to steroid use at it seems like it could be, some of that guilt needs to be turned around on us. The man’s job was essentially to be a superhero, and he was willing to put whatever he needed to into his body to be as believable a superhero for us as he could be.
He spent the last couple of years, by most accounts, repairing the bridges he’d burned over the years, re-making old friendships and making amends. He was a popular enough pro wrestler that grown men will spend $300 on his drawings, but he considers his greatest legacy to be his two daughters, and in his own Warrior way he said as much during his acceptance speech at the WWE Hall of Fame.
You can buy drawings of Mark Twain and George Washington and assorted Phoenixes from his website. He leaves behind a complicated legacy, but irony’s nowhere to be found in it. Because here’s another thing: people were always going to remember him forever, even if he didn’t get inducted into a hall of fame or deliver an impassioned monologue on the subject, but by repairing the bridges he outright destroyed, the last thing people will remember about him is his inspirational if largely incomprehensible speech about the longevity of legends.
I think the greatest compliment that I am capable of paying a fictional character has to do with necessity to my real life. My actual, blood-pumping, heart-beating enterprise would not be nearly as fulfilling, for instance, without Sam Hamilton or Spider-Man, and neither of those guys exist. I wasn’t watching wrestling in 1989, but if I had been, I’d have seen a living superhero behind intimidating paint telling me to always believe in myself, and there’s not a person who will live a life without a day where they need that.