With World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and A&E airing their documentary on James Brian Hellwig, better known to pro wrestling fans as the Ultimate Warrior, this past Sunday, social media has been abuzz about how this week’s Dark Side of the Ring episode, also focusing on the late superstar, would compare. Time to find out.
Entitled “Becoming Warrior,” the episode opened with Hellwig’s first and ex-wife, Shari Tyree (the two were married from 1982-1991; Hellwig would marry his second wife, Dana, in 1999). Hellwig’s widow, Dana, made it very clear on social media this week that she would not be participating in this production although she appeared throughout the A&E documentary. This episode also features interviews with Eric Bischoff, Jim Cornette, Jim Ross, Jake “the Snake” Roberts and David Manning.
Tyree begins by showing off some personal photos. Tyree is really the strength of this episode. The personal photos and reflections she has on Hellwig provide a perspective that has been missing from many of the documentaries on Hellwig as she was with him during the pinnacle of his pro wrestling career. Tyree recalls that Hellwig, known for having one of pro wrestling’s most impressive physiques, was already “massive” when she first met him due to his participation in amateur bodybuilding.
This first segment also features a recorded interview of Hellwig, but the date and source are not identified. Hellwig describes having the goals of continuing to build up his body and studying to become a chiropractor. In an eerie premonition, Tyree recalls Hellwig telling her that his grandfathers had died in their early ‘50s. Hellwig would die on April 8, 2014 at the age of 54.
“His whole drive since the beginning, since the first night I ever met him was to be somebody and to be something,” revealed Tyree. “His drive was to be rich, to be famous. And he was so driven and dedicated like nobody I have ever seen in my life. And he told me what every woman wants to hear. He told me he’d protect me for the rest of my life.”
Sadly, we know things didn’t exactly turn out that way.
Hellwig and Tyree married on October 2, 1982. Hellwig decided to put his academics on hold to pursue bodybuilding in Los Angeles. There he teams up with Steve Borden (Sting) and the two decide to pursue pro wrestling. The very green team end up getting their first crack at the squared circle from none other than promoter Jerry Jarrett in Memphis.
Cornette makes his appearance and in his trademark bluntness, says he was not a fan of the Ultimate Warrior. He also candidly describes Borden and Hellwig’s early days as “rotten” and “you wanted to look at them, you just didn’t want to see what they ended up doing.” Cornette says Hellwig and Borden were then sent to mid-South as a means of getting rid of the rookies.
It’s now time for Ross to get his anti-Hellwig shots in by saying, “I’ve never met or seen a wrestler with less ability than the Ultimate Warrior.” It’s at this time that I check to make sure I haven’t accidentally inserted the WWE’s 2005 total diss via DVD, The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior, instead of watching the Dark Side episode I’ve been assigned. I had a feeling this show was going to have a lot less of the heart and redemption themes prevalent in the A&E offering. But with such a complicated subject as Hellwig, it is to be expected.
Tyree comments on Borden being more likeable to his fellow wrestlers, with Hellwig being more “hard-headed.” She also points out that this was the time in their relationship when she saw her husband change and become “more selfish.” Hellwig’s interview recording confirms he was focused on his own success rather than that of him and Borden. The two part ways and Hellwig heads off to World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW).
Former WCCW booker/promoter/referee Manning is up next, but is more diplomatic in his Hellwig bashing. It is here that Hellwig makes his debut under the Dingo Warrior gimmick, complete with his face painted, although not as elaborately artistic and detailed as he would get in the future during his time with WWE. Manning also makes reference to Hellwig’s continuously growing ego and being difficult to work with. It looks like Hellwig will be making another jump on his resume soon.
Hellwig heads to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) and Tyree cleverly predicts that the dynamic of their marriage is going to change. Tyree at first would attend some of her husband’s wrestling matches, with Hellwig even encouraging her to share the crowd’s feedback with him. Unfortunately the concession stands seemed to be more appealing to the fans than watching the Dingo Warrior in the ring. It was time for Hellwig to make some changes. On the urging of Vince McMahon, the chairman and CEO of WWE, Hellwig drops “Dingo” for “Ultimate,” starts energetically shaking the ring ropes during his matches, creates an aura by claiming to hail from “parts unknown,” comes to the ring with exuberantly memorable entrance music, and delivers promos that were so unique they are still imitated, but rarely fully understood, to this day.
Warrior’s rocket to stardom has officially launched, complete with merchandise. Tyree shares that Hellwig’s favorite item was the wrestling buddy in his image and she gets emotional showing a photo of him posing with one. This success also means that the couple are able to buy their first real house. Money is pouring in, the two are happy. But Tyree points out there is some friction between her husband and his fellow grapplers.
Enter Roberts who reiterates that Hellwig would “fly off the handle,” was “hard to get along with” and that he was “a complete jerk in the ring,” going against the sacred pro wrestling oath of always looking after your opponent in the ring.
“I’m not trying to be a prick here when I say that literally he couldn’t wrestle, he couldn’t talk,” offered Cornette when analyzing Hellwig’s overall pro wrestling career. “He got over because he looked like a million dollars and the most successful promoter in the world (McMahon) pushed him to the moon. And there’s nothing else to say.”
Tyree points out that the viewpoints of his peers really affected Hellwig. And while she agreed with some of the assessments, she doesn’t think everyone realized there was so much more to her husband “and that he did have a sensitive and a very insecure side.” Tyree mentions that Hellwig didn’t always resemble the chiseled man we saw on our television screens. The reality was that Hellwig grew up as a scrawny kid, whose father abandoned the family when he was only 12 years old leading to plenty of trauma, pain, Daddy issues and a severe anxiety disorder.
Naturally it’s time to get into Hellwig’s WrestleMania VI bout against Hulk Hogan where it was decided Hogan would lose his championship clean and thus pass the torch onto Hellwig. While it’s a momentous occasion in Hellwig’s career, Tyree, with heartbreak etched all over her face, reveals that after that match “Jim Hellwig left and Ultimate Warrior came home.” Tyree describes her husband as becoming more “erratic,” “altered” and would choose to spend more time on the road. And like many pro wrestling wives before her, Tyree discovers that her husband is being unfaithful. She lets Hellwig know she will be filing for divorce.
It has been reported that one of the women that Hellwig was unfaithful with was Melanie Pillman (before she met and married the late Brian Pillman). With Melanie appearing in the Dark Side episode on Brian that opened this current season, I found it interesting that she wasn’t mentioned nor did she appear in this episode. Seems like a missed opportunity.
Anyway, things aren’t going well for Hellwig career wise either. According to Roberts, McMahon approaches him about having a feud with Hellwig leading to Roberts finally getting the title. But in a twist, Roberts says that McMahon wants him to clear this with Hellwig first. Roberts reluctantly approaches Hellwig, who decides to dictate rather than co-operate with Roberts.
According to Tyree, Hellwig would go on to buy himself a million dollar mansion and confide in her that he wants everything that Hogan has moneywise. Hellwig has even gone so far as to have already written a letter stating all his demands to McMahon. And Hellwig intends to deliver said letter to his boss prior to his match at SummerSlam 1991. Tyree tries to talk him out of it but to no avail.
Roberts shares that he saw McMahon fire Hellwig after his match at SummerSlam (Hellwig would actually be suspended by McMahon, but would eventually be fired after engaging in some legal battles with McMahon). With his dreams of a title run officially dashed, Roberts comments that he wanted to kill Hellwig and carried that anger with him for a long time.
Oddly, we next see Cornette reading the “you’ve become a legend in your own mind” termination letter McMahon sent to Hellwig. I’m not sure what the thought process was behind this, but Cornette looked like he was really enjoying this task. So good for him I guess.
“Jim’s greatest downfall of all time was his inability to see things from somebody else’s perspective,” Tyree voiced. “He always thought that his way was the right way.”
Facing the competition of World Championship Wrestling (WCW) at the time, McMahon, with his executive team in tow, decides to meet with Hellwig about coming back to the WWE for another run. According to Cornette and Ross, the meeting is beyond odd with Hellwig fixating on Warrior jargon, comic books and becoming a motivational speaker. McMahon rehires Hellwig and decides he’ll make his return at WrestleMania XII against Triple H. The result is a lackluster and forgettable squash match. Hellwig is thus soon released from the WWE again.
Hellwig moves on by opening his own gym and according to Tyree the two exes are able to rekindle their friendship. But they decide to part each other’s lives for good after they both find love again and marriage with other people. Tyree says Hellwig apologized to her and they parted amicably. It was the last time the two would ever see each other.
The final segment of the episode has Hellwig’s turn as a conservative speaker/talking head which results in such notorious and hateful quotes, delivered both in person and on his website, such as “queering doesn’t make the world work.” Hellwig would also publicly speak disparagingly about his peers in pro wrestling, most notably Hogan.
But as we all know, you can never say never when it comes to anything in pro wrestling. So despite all the controversies, unprofessionalism, demands, firings and legal battles, Hellwig was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014. Roberts admits he intended to take the opportunity to attack Hellwig, but his intentions were thwarted when he says Hellwig approached him and apologized. “He disarmed me,” confessed Roberts with intensity. “Another lesson in life, man, that’s what I got. A lesson.”
Hellwig would go on to give his last promo on the RAW following WrestleMania 30, only to die the next day.
“I was sad for his family,” expressed a visibly emotional Tyree on hearing the news of Hellwig’s death. “The children weren’t going to have a father. I mean just everything about it. Just so bad. Nobody should ever have to see their loved one die like that. I was sad for the fans. I was sad that people had lost something that meant so much to them. This character. This gimmick. The Ultimate Warrior. Everything about it was so horrible.”
Dark Side has definitely delivered a, pardon the pun, darker and less glamorous portrait of Hellwig. I, for one, could have done without Ross’ comments as his views on Hellwig have been prominently shared before. He didn’t add anything new, of note, nor enlightening and for that matter neither did Bischoff. Those two should have been shown the cutting room floor. But I was thoroughly moved by the honesty and emotions of Tyree and Roberts. Those two make this episode a great companion piece to last week’s A&E documentary. I say companion piece because to be fair the A&E documentary was able to go more in depth on Hellwig as it had double the running time of Dark Side and access to his widow, daughters and mother. But Dark Side still gave me further insight into the many facets of Hellwig. I can’t say I fully comprehend who Hellwig was as a person after both of these documentaries, but just maybe part of his legacy is for aspects of his personality to remain unknown and/or debated.
Slam Wrestling’s Ultimate Warrior story archive
Slam Wrestling’s Dark Side of the Ring story and review archive