A tribute to the Ultimate Warrior

In this Monday, April 7, 2014 photo, James In this Monday, April 7, 2014 photo, James Hellwig, better known as The Ultimate Warrior, addresses the audience during WWE Monday Night Raw at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. The WWE said Hellwig, one of pro wrestling's biggest stars in the late 1980s, died Tuesday, April 8, 2014. He was 54. (AP Photo/NOLA.com, David Grunfeld) Photo Credit: AP / David Grunfeld

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So-called "smart" wrestling fans aren't supposed to like the Ultimate Warrior. His reputation precedes him. He was sloppy inside the ring. He was hard to get along with outside of it.

But anybody who doesn't get what made the Ultimate Warrior one of the most memorable, important and inspirational wrestling figures in the last 30 years just doesn't understand the business.

I was devastated to wake up Wednesday morning to the news that Warrior had died at the age of 54, just three days after taking his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame, and about 24 hours after appearing inside a WWE ring for the first time in nearly two decades. More than anyone else, Warrior made me fall in love with the wrestling business as a child. I owe a lot to the wrestling business. It led me to my career in journalism. It's given me countless hours of joy over the years. And it's a love I'm now passing on to my two sons.

At its core, pro wrestling is show business, and there were few better showmen than Warrior. From his other-worldly promos, in which he would grunt, talk to his hands, and occasionally reference the rings of Saturn, to his lightning-bolt ring entrance, to his uncompromising destruction of his opponents, the Ultimate Warrior embodied excitement and entertainment every moment he was on a television screen.

His epic "Ultimate Challenge" showdown with Hulk Hogan in the main event of WrestleMania VI in 1990 remains a masterpiece of wrestling storytelling, but it's not his only great match. He'd have another instant classic with the late Randy "Macho Man" Savage the following year at WrestleMania VII, and also had memorable outings with Rick Rude, the Honky Tonk Man, Ted Dibiase, and Sgt. Slaughter. The Ultimate Warrior may never have been the picture of wrestling technique or athleticism, but his intensity, charisma and credibility and a real-life super hero instantly raised the stakes of any match in which he was involved.

Beyond that, the Ultimate Warrior character was a source of inspiration for legions of young fans. In his words and actions, the Warrior taught important lessons about the importance of charging toward one's goals with a full head of steam, pushing the limits of a person's will and ability, and never feeling sorry for yourself. I was a scrawny 12-year-old kid with no athletic ability, and the Ultimate Warrior helped make me feel, at times, not just valuable, but unstoppable.

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The Ultimate Warrior was also a source of inspiration for the man who was born James Hellwig, but legally changed his name to Warrior years ago. While his politics sometimes bordered on radical, Warrior always shot from the hip and had no tolerance for hypocrisy or dishonesty. It's what led to his 18-year falling out with WWE chairman Vince McMahon.

During that time, WWE and some wrestling historians tried repeatedly to tarnish the Warrior's legacy, telling fans he was never a big star, didn't have any respect for the wrestling business and caused his own "self destruction." But fans who remembered what they felt watching the Warrior in his prime knew better.

Thankfully, wrestling history was righted when the Warrior entered the WWE Hall of Fame Sunday night. Before the wrestling world, he professed his love and gratitude for his mother, his wife and two young daughters -- who all sat in the front row for the ceremony -- and for his loyal fans. And they more than made it clear the feeling was mutual.

Sadly, Warrior joins the tragically long list of wrestlers from the 1980s and 1990s who died far too young. But I take a little bit of solace in that he was able to have that special moment in front of all the people in the world who mattered most to him.

The following night on Monday Night Raw, the Ultimate Warrior shook the ring ropes one final time, and gave a final, chillingly poignant promo.

"Every man's heart one day beats its final beat, his lungs breath their final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them bleed deeper than something that is larger than life, then his essence, his spirit will be immortalized by the storytellers, by the loyalty of those who honor him and make what that man did live forever," Warrior said. "The spirit of the Ultimate Warrior will run forever."

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