What the Ultimate Warrior Taught Me About Life While Lifting Weights

What the Ultimate Warrior Taught Me About Life While Lifting Weights

I remember hovering over the barbell most.

In the basement of the Gold’s Gym on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC, the Ultimate Warrior told me to imagine my arms as hooks and my back muscles as arms lifting those hooks. Approaching bent-over rows, lat pull-downs, and seated rows from this perspective allowed me, after nearly two decades of weightlifting, to finally perform the repetitions correctly. The back exercises truly exercised the back instead of conscripting the arms as allies in the effort. It took the Ultimate Warrior much time, trial, and error but he ultimately got things right.

The gym clearly played as a spiritual place in the life of the Ultimate Warrior. “When I was kid,” he confessed to me. “I stumbled into the shabby weight room at my high school and befriended this old rusty weight machine and that launched me on an incredible journey of self-discipline and self-motivation.” His dad never stuck around to teach him lessons. But he stuck around the weight room, and learned much. One lesson the iron taught the boy, and that the boy would teach others when he became a man–the maturation point achieved by his soul far later than his body–was that the way you do things matters.

On that early morning DC workout, his personality played brighter than his familiar face-paint and his voice strained to out-decibel entrance music heard only by him. His louder-than-life persona allowed others to recognize him even without the costume. But he lifted weights inconspicuously. Rather than grunt through the repetitions by putting three plates on the barbell, the former WWF champion put one on and ensured that he performed the movement perfectly. His obsession with weight-room form–doing things right rather than doing things for show–works as a metaphor for his too-short life. 

The Ultimate Warrior died suddenly last night walking with his family at an Arizona hotel. That he did so a day after appearing on WWE’s Raw, following years of alienation from the promotion and a bitter lawsuit against the McMahons, seemed a very Ultimate Warrior thing to do. Relationships might sour, just as his life might meander into poor places. But he would ultimately square the circle. Just as when he ran away with a twenty-eight-year-old woman when he was thirteen, the Ultimate Warrior came home again on Monday night.

“Hey, when we are young it’s built into us to think we’ll never die, that you’re invincible,” the Hoosier-turned-desert rat told me ten years ago. “And truth is you, your body, can get away with behavior when you are younger that later in your life you and, again, your body can’t take. There are ways other than hard work, diet, and discipline to achieve a healthy look on the outside, yet be messed up and damaged on the inside. This is what definitely happened to some of the guys I worked with who have since died.”

Did the younger Warrior let the older Warrior down Tuesday night? It’s possible. He acknowledged using steroids as a body builder and as a professional wrestler in our conversations. “Steroids,” he said, “Talking about them is always a Catch-22. They aren’t all bad and they aren’t all good. Athletes are going to do them–or whatever else–to be the best at what they do.” The performance-enhancing drugs certainly clashed with his code of doing things the right way. Alas, we wouldn’t be people but caricatures if we didn’t possess these contradictions. The bombastic Warrior was, of course, as close as a caricature as they come. He may have set off a timebomb in his chest placed there by a younger version of himself eager for results and impatient for doing things the right way. But it’s also possible that, like other outwardly healthy fifty-four-year-old men, he just dropped dead.

When I interviewed him for close to two hours ten years ago this spring to help launch, death loomed large over the conversation just as it did over the industry that made the Ultimate Warrior famous. Rick Rude, Curt Hennig, Davey Boy Smith, and myriad other wrestlers had recently passed, and the Ultimate Warrior had strong opinions about wrestling’s morbid glorification of its dead heroes.

“People have criticized me about what I wrote in some posts when some of those guys died–like I didn’t have any sympathy,” Warrior explained. “Anybody who wants to can read them. Frankly, I’m sick of all the sympathetic praise we throw around adults who screw up their lives. Life is about finding the strength day in and day out to make it work. Most people do. I’d rather praise them than people who don’t. We are a society, today, where we pathetically place praise of vice above praise of virtue and, as an adult, I’m not okay with it. My kids, if no one else, deserve better out of me, deserve better out of the world they will have to grow up in.”

Warrior had certainly grown up. But others remained in the moment he once occupied. Passersby couldn’t pass by his wrestling days. He had moved on. I engaged him in conversations about the WWF’s infamous “Papa Shango” angle or his departed friend Kerry von Erich. He preferred talking about a book I had just published. The part of his life people were interested in he wasn’t very interested in. We shared a fondness toward conservatism, a commitment to physical fitness, and a passion for the Great Books. During his wrestling comeback with the WCW in the late 1990s, he toted Aristotle and Aquinas around in his gym bag as other wrestlers stored pain pills and fitness magazines in theirs. He spoke more eloquently about Herodotus than Hercules Hernandez. “It pisses a lot of people off that I have gotten on responsibly with my life,” he observed. “Like I’ve said numerous times, if I had ended up a pitiful, drugged bum I’d be better appreciated for what I did in the business. If I OD’ed in a Budget hotel room doing dirty little street drugs, my wife and kids at home, I’d be a real superstar.”

For wrestling fans–which Warrior, even as a child, was never one–the WWF superstar would always appear as an enigma. Prior to his actual death, rumors of his death abounded for years. Since he wasn’t in a wrestling ring like Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, where else could he be but the grave? But the key to understanding Warrior lies in his attitude toward life’s peaks. Once you climb one, it’s time to find another one to climb.

“Many people don’t understand, many in the industry just don’t want to hear it,” he told me back in 2004. “But when I got in the business, I got in it to pursue success. If after a certain amount of time that would not have happened, I sure as hell wasn’t going to stick with it just so I could be a professional wrestler, like so many others in the business do. And when I got in it, [Hulk] Hogan was the guy. The facts are I set a goal and achieved it. Did the work, turned the eyes of those who mattered, and made it happen. And like I’d done my whole life up until then, once I had reached a goal, I began setting others. In some ways, having that match with Hogan was anti-climatic.”

He didn’t sit around, Sunset Blvd.-style, watching his old matches since that climactic point of his wrestling career at Wrestlemania VI in Toronto’s Skydome. He raised a family in New Mexico, read The Great Books of the Western World, painted pictures, delivered speeches, made appearances, wrote, and, yes, worked out.

“They don’t do the exercises properly,” Warrior observed about gym rats. “You’ve got to learn the form. The strength will come. They do half-ass movements.” Ultimate Warrior–the man more intense than his character who cleanly pinned Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania, connoisseur of the great books, father, husband, artist, athlete, and friend–did nothing half-assed.

When he appeared earlier this week on Raw, Warrior prophetically noted that every man’s heart “beats its final beat, his lungs breathe their final breath,” and his actions will determine whether “his spirit will be immortalized.” He announced to the cheering throng, “The spirit of the Ultimate Warrior will run forever.” Tonight, when my back brings that lat-pull-down machine’s bar past my nose, the form-over-show spirit of the Ultimate Warrior will live on in the place that he loved and lived so much of his life: the gym.

Life is too precious to fake your way through. Don’t cheat yourself by cheating. Do it right.