TERRE HAUTE — Editor’s note — Amid national media reports that retired pro wrestler The Ultimate Warrior (formerly known in real life as Jim Hellwig) died late Tuesday night at the age of 54, here is a column that David Hughes completed about the man Tuesday afternoon, not realizing Warrior would be dead within 12 hours.
I realize some of you will cringe or perhaps shift your attention to a different story if I mention “pro wrestling” in this column.
But give this stroll down memory lane a chance before you bolt, because I think it’s interesting.
If I’m wrong, feel free to put me in a headlock. Gently, please.
Every year since 1993, the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) has conducted a serious ceremony to induct former wrestlers, managers and unique characters into its Hall of Fame. This past Saturday, the night before its big Wrestlemania XXX show, this year’s inductions took place in New Orleans.
Among the seven inductees in the WWE’s class of 2014 was a popular, muscular wrestler named The Ultimate Warrior, who performed in the old World Wrestling Federation (WWF) from 1987 to 1991 before returning for short stints in 1992 and 1996. His trademarks included wearing multi-colored face paint, sprinting to the ring before his matches and violently shaking the ring ropes with both hands when he got excited.
When I heard last month that The Ultimate Warrior would be inducted, it brought back memories of when I did a little pre-Internet investigative reporting on him in April 1992 after I attended Wrestlemania VIII inside the old Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.
Having obtained a press-box credential for that Wrestlemania, which featured The Ultimate Warrior as a surprise participant in the main event (running to the ring to “save” Hulk Hogan from a two-on-one beatdown), I was invited to join other reporters from newspapers and magazines to take part in a post-event news conference. Two wrestlers were present to answer questions as real people and not as their hyperactive television characters.
One of them was the late Randy Savage (real name Randy Poffo) and the other was The Ultimate Warrior (real name Jim Hellwig at the time).
Just so you know, Hellwig has since legally changed his name to Warrior and that’s what he goes by in real life now.
Anyway, while interacting with Warrior/Hellwig in 1992, I learned that he grew up in Crawfordsville, Ind. I also found out that he graduated from Fountain Central High School in nearby Veedersburg in 1977, the same year I graduated from Terre Haute South, and he attended Indiana State University for one year (1977-78).
Then it clicked in my head that I remembered this dude using the ISU Arena basement weightroom (aka “the dungeon”) when I started hardcore weight training in the fall of ’77.
Hellwig was solidly built back then, but nothing like how he debuted in the WWF roughly 10 years later. And I don’t recall him ever wearing face paint in the ISU Arena, so I didn’t recognize him when he became a TV star.
Small world, huh?
Back to 1992 … when I figured out these Indiana tidbits about Warrior/Hellwig during and following the news conference, I called a few Fountain Central folks who knew him from the 1970s and wrote a column about what they revealed. It ran in this newspaper April 11, 1992.
Fast forward to 2014.
Two days ago, I used the Tribune-Star’s high-tech microfilm machine to re-read that column because it cannot be found on the Internet.
In it, Steve Welchans — a science teacher and assistant coach for football and track at Fountain Central in the mid-70s — remembered Hellwig weighing about 135 pounds as an underclassman (compared to the 275 pounds Hellwig weighed in the old WWF). Welchans mentioned that Hellwig ran middle distances for the Mustangs’ track team and left the football team before its season started one year.
“He had muscular definition,” Welchans said of Hellwig’s physique in high school. “But he wasn’t muscular.”
Welchans described him as a “semi-introvert.”
Then there was Gary Pate, another Fountain Central football assistant in the ’70s. Pate said he persuaded Hellwig to start lifting weights as a junior. Pate estimated that Hellwig “bulked up” to 160 pounds by the end of his senior year.
After Hellwig graduated from Fountain Central, Pate recalled, the two lived together for about two months. By the summer of ’77, Hellwig had developed an insatiable appetite for weightlifting and frequently perused bodybuilding magazines.
“He was looking at some pictures [in a magazine] and he said to me: ‘I can’t wait until I get that big,’ “ Pate relayed to me in 1992. “He meant it too.”
Fountain Central grad Kenny Corey, a co-owner of Corey Brothers Sawmill in Kingman when I interviewed him in 1992, offered his recollections of a young Hellwig.
“In football, he wasn’t very big,” Corey said. “But he started lifting weights and he got big. He was the kind of guy who when he set his mind to do something, he did it.
“I’m tickled to death to see him do good.”
My favorite part of that 1992 column, after re-reading it this week, was Corey’s reply to whether he had ever witnessed Hellwig engage in real fights.
The answer was two.
The first occurred when both were Fountain Central students. Nothing special happened then, but a lightweight Hellwig evidently held his own.
The more entertaining incident went down after Corey visited Hellwig in Florida after Hellwig had grown into a 250-pound national-caliber bodybuilder (but before his WWF days). Apparently a motorist who drove too close to Corey and Hellwig while they were walking down a street returned and threatened an irate Hellwig with karate. After Hellwig shrugged off a few kicks, he put the guy in a headlock and could only be persuaded to let go when a police officer placed a night stick under Hellwig’s chin.
In hindsight, I guess my 1992 column wasn’t much of an investigative reporting piece. But I did what I could without being able to Google anything.
Congratulations on the induction, Warrior. I wish we could credit ISU for helping you reach Hall of Fame status, but I doubt that would be accurate.
For as much as I loved the old dungeon in my college days, it was a dump.
David Hughes can be reached by phone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at 812-231-4224; by email at email@example.com; or by fax at 812-231-4321. Follow TribStarDavid on Twitter.
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