The WWE said Warrior, who legally changed his name from James Hellwig to his wrestling moniker, died Tuesday. Scottsdale, Ariz., police spokesman Sgt. Mark Clark said he collapsed while walking with his wife to their car at a hotel and was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Hellwig was one of pro wrestling’s biggest stars in the late 1980s. He beat Hulk Hogan in a memorable match at Wrestlemania in 1990.
He was in the spotlight again earlier this week, making appearances at the latest WrestleMania in New Orleans and on “Monday Night Raw,” and being inducted into the WWE Hall of fame.
“WWE is shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the passing of one of the most iconic WWE Superstars ever, The Ultimate Warrior,” WWE said in a statement, adding: “We are grateful that just days ago, Warrior had the opportunity to take his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame.”
WWE Chairman Vince McMahon tweeted: “We are all so sad the Ultimate Warrior has passed away. Our heart is with his wife Dana and his two daughters.”
The Ultimate Warrior personified the larger-than-life cartoon characters who helped skyrocket the WWE into the mainstream in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Warrior dressed in face paint, had tassels dangling from his super-sized biceps and sprinted to the ring when his theme song hit. He’d shake the ropes and grunt and howl while the crowd went wild for the popular good guy.
He made his debut with the promotion when it was known as the World Wrestling Federations in 1987 and wrestled on and off for the sports entertainment empire until 1996.
The Ultimate Warrior became the first wrestler to defeat Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania when he used his finishing splash for the pin. He won the championship in front of 67,678 fans at Toronto’s SkyDome in a match billed as “The Ultimate Challenge.”
The Ultimate Warrior would defeat Randy “Macho Man” Savage the next year at WrestleMania. Savage, who died in 2011, Hogan and Warrior were all enormous personalities with gaudy costumes and memorable catchphrases. They led the WWE’s transformation from a promotion running weekend arena shows and Saturday morning TV into one booking events at the largest stadiums around the world with millions watching every Monday night. More than 5.1 million viewers watched Warrior’s final appearance Monday night on “Raw.”
The Ultimate Warrior had a falling out with the WWE and did not appear on its TV shows after July 8, 1996, until last weekend. He reconciled with McMahon and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He also made an appearance on “Raw” and shook the ropes one final time in front of another crowd that went wild for the Warrior.
“Speak to me, Warriors!” he bellowed, as the New Orleans crowd chanted his name.
Warrior put on a mask that resembled his famous face paint and cut a promo about 24 hours before his death that seems eerie now.
“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own,” Warrior said. “Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, it makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized.”