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For much of the 1980s into the early ’90s, Hulk Hogan served as the supreme champion of World Wrestling Entertainment and the recognizable face of an industry that was rapidly gaining global appeal.
Sure, he lost the title belt (in underhanded fashion) at one point to the also iconic Andre the Giant. And for a while, the snarling, unpredictable “Macho Man” Randy Savage loomed as a credible threat to the reign of Hulkamania.
But it was Ultimate Warrior who received the first opportunity to legitimately knock the Hulk from his throne, their matchup bringing out the best in the beast “from parts unknown” but also sparking a professional and personal rivalry that fueled his fall from grace.
Warrior quickly climbed to pro wrestling’s top echelon
Ultimate Warrior enjoyed a rapid rise after transitioning from bodybuilding to professional wrestling in the mid-1980s. Initially paired in the Memphis Wrestling circuit with Steve Borden, later known as Sting, the intimidating muscleman soon made a name for himself in World Class Championship Wrestling as the Dingo Warrior.
By 1987, Ultimate Warrior was ready for the big time in Vince McMahon’s WWE. Fans immediately took to the face-painted phenomenon who bolted to the ring at top speed and shook the ropes with demonic fury, his maniacal charisma on full display when he ambushed the Honky Tonk Man in 30 seconds to claim the intercontinental title at SummerSlam in August 1988.
The meteoric ascent reportedly rankled other wrestlers, many of whom had spent more than a decade toiling in the sport’s various promotions, but this mattered little for the purposes of the WWE storyline. By fall 1989, when Warrior completed the superhuman task of body-slamming the 500-plus-pound Andre the Giant, he was clearly positioned as the No. 1 challenger to Hogan’s heavyweight title.
Warrior took the title from Hogan at WrestleMania VI
Warrior’s defining moment came before nearly 70,000 fans at Toronto’s SkyDome on April 1, 1990, his championship match with Hogan billed as the main event of WrestleMania VI.
Teasing the audience with the possibility of an upset, Warrior shrugged off several powerful blows as if he were impervious to pain, before finishing off his opponent with his signature “Warrior Splash.” The defeated Hogan then graciously handed over the belt and held the new champ’s arm in the air, formally marking a changing of the guard in the professional wrestling universe.
But while Hogan’s original title defense in the 1980s had lasted four years, Ultimate Warrior learned that his own reign would endure for a far shorter duration – just nine months after WrestleMania VI, Warrior was pulled back to the pack of challengers with a loss to Sgt. Slaughter at the January 1991 Royal Rumble.
He sent WWE CEO McMahon a list of demands
Whether he was affected by the pending divorce from his first wife, or not used to taking a back seat after his quick path to the top, Warrior did not handle his demotion well. He went along with the WWE game plan for a while, but the frustration boiled over and he snapped at a young fan in an airport.
McMahon forced Warrior to film a personal apology to the boy, prompting the disgruntled wrestler to write his boss a letter in which he insisted on being treated as he deserved; namely, the same as Hogan, still pro wrestling’s most popular figure.
“I have sacrificed … more than 1 million dollars, even more in monies that should have been paid to me in receiving equal treatment as Hulk,” he wrote, reeling off a list of demands that included the sum of $550,000 in order to participate in the 1991 SummerSlam.
“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,” he continued. “Whatever your decision I can and will live with it. Till then I remain home with one who cares.”
His career declined after his first suspension
McMahon said they would work out a deal, though he had no intention of acquiescing to the demands. Instead, he penned his own letter and handed it over during a scripted moment in SummerSlam when Warrior chased two other wrestlers backstage.
Referring to Warrior’s comparisons to the organization’s biggest star, McMahon wrote that Hogan “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,” before revealing that Warrior would be suspended for at least 90 days for unprofessional conduct.
It was the beginning of the end for Ultimate Warrior, who made a grand return at 1992’s WrestleMania VIII – during which he aided Hogan, of all things – but was handed another suspension before the end of the year for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Following another comeback in 1996, he was booted from WWE for skipping matches, and his brief revival in World Championship Wrestling ended after a loss to Hogan in October 1998.
WWE released a documentary critical of the former champ
No longer donning his trademark costume and face paint, the erstwhile wrestler remained a public figure by expressing his conservative ideals on a public speaking tour. Adulation was less forthcoming from audiences this time around, however, particularly the University of Connecticut students who objected to his viewpoints during one contentious event in 2005.
Seeking to distance the company from the Warrior brand, WWE released a documentary, The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior, which featured unflattering testimonials by many of his peers.
“When the Ultimate Warrior won the [WrestleMania VI] match, 68,000 people watched me leave the building instead of watching the new champ in the ring,” Hogan says at one point, suggesting that his successor was unworthy of the belt. “I don’t want to be the one to say, ‘I told you so.’”
Warrior patched things up with Hogan before his death
Whatever acrimony Warrior held toward Hogan and other former colleagues, he proved willing to bury the hatchet when he accepted the invitation to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in April 2014.
Coming face-to-face with Hogan for the first time in years, Warrior embraced his old foe as they put aside their differences, with Hulk expressing regret for his part in the Self-Destruction documentary.
Days later, after Warrior died of a sudden heart attack, Hogan showed he had nothing but respect for the competitor who, at one point, stood taller than all the other behemoths who set foot in the squared circle.
“RIP WARRIOR. only love,” Hogan tweeted. “We talked, both forgave each other, we hugged, we shook hands as we told each other I love you, I am so sad, God bless his beautiful family HH.”
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