Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Ultimate Warrior: A Reporter’s Delight, A Kid’s Hero

As a 9 year old, the Ultimate Warrior was my favorite wrestler.

As a 22 year old, the Ultimate Warrior was my favorite story to cover.

ultimate warrior running
Needless to say, I was shocked and saddened by the heart-breaking news that he had died Tuesday night. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on Saturday. He made his first WrestleMania appearance in nearly two decades on Sunday. He returned to Raw for the first time in ages. He appeared to have made peace with Vince McMahon and the company behind one of the slimiest DVD productions in history – the Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior – that sold like crazy and revealed, deep down, we all liked the Warrior.

I know I did. I came to pro wrestling in the early 1990s, which meant I came at the tail-end of Hulkamania. Sure, I liked Hogan but that wasn’t what drew me to watch every Saturday morning. No, I watched because of the Ultimate Warrior.

Even if you didn’t watch wrestling, you knew who the Ultimate Warrior was if you were between the ages of, oh 6 and 20, in 1990. Why? Because invariably there was someone somewhere – in the classroom, on the playground, on the school bus – busting out their Ultimate Warrior impression.

It was the way he breathed so deeply he snorted. The way he said, “HOOLK HOOGAN,” over and over. The way he ran to the ring and shook the ropes like a lunatic. The face paint. The genetically altered body. He was a real-life superhero – the Hulk Hogan formula turned up to 11. It was impossible, especially as an impressionable fourth-grader, to not be mesmerized.

But the Ultimate Warrior was too much, of everything, to be sustained long-term. It didn’t help that the Feds were starting to breathe down Vince McMahon’s neck about steroids and the Ultimate Warrior in 1991 was a walking billboard for steroid use.

He returned to the WWF in 1996. It wasn’t the same. He went to WCW in 1998 for a supposed “money match” rematch against Hulk Hogan. It didn’t work.

And if that was the end of my story, I wouldn’t still be writing – there are millions of fans who loved the Warrior for his wrestling.

But I had the additional joy of being at the epicenter when the Ultimate Warrior made national news for all the wrong reasons.

In April 2005, I was a 22-year old daily newspaper reporter for the Willimantic Chronicle. Our top beat was Willimantic/Windham, our second top beat was Mansfield and the University of Connecticut. Just shy of my second anniversary at the paper, I got promoted to the second beat in March 2005. It was exciting. It was a lot of work.

Starting a beat, especially in a long-ego era when people still used fax machines, meant a lot of leg work. It meant attending a lot of meetings that were time-consuming but allowed me to shake hands, with UConn trustees, Mansfield town officials, and so on.

It also meant that when the Ultimate Warrior was on the docket to speak at UConn, they were not going to pay the overtime for me to cover it. I viewed it as a puff piece – former WWF champion speaks to college students. I’d get to meet one of my heroes and we’d have something light for the weekend paper.

ultimate warrior hof
To this day, it angers me that I wasn’t there. Since I wasn’t covering it, I decided against going. I had spent three straight nights at the UConn campus for work – I wanted a break. Besides, what was he going to say? I had some beers with some buddies, showed up to work Friday morning with a slight hangover and prepared for another day at the newspaper.

“Holy shit Sean!” my editor bellowed as I walked it. “He went fucking crazy!”

He plopped down the front page of UConn’s Daily Campus – then, printed at the Chronicle, maybe not still so today – and pointed to the article, “Warrior Attacks.”

It included the now infamous quote, “Queering don't make the world work.”

I missed it, dammit, I missed it. That’s all I thought. But then I realized opportunity had arrived. The Daily Campus article – thank you pre-social media – had not hit the mainstream yet. Only UConn students and myself really knew what had happened. As an afternoon newspaper, I had about four hours to pump out the first story on this and I knew, oh I knew, that it would be big. I was a wrestling fanatic. I knew what sites to email. I had it all lined up.

There was just one itsy, bitsy problem – I needed to interview the Ultimate Warrior. The UConn College Republicans, who were mortified and in pure crisis mode, declined to give me his information and only repeated what they said the night prior.

The UConn police, likewise, repeated almost verbatim a quote from the Daily Campus story: “How do you think, I feel I have to protect him.”

I tried the WWE first – they basically laughed me off the phone as Warrior was persona non grata. I sent an email to the info@ or webmaster@ of several different Warrior websites that may or may not be associated with him. I emailed wrestling reporters, guys like Dave Meltzer, that may have info as they were “inside” the business but didn’t want to tip my hand, so I gave a generic reason why.

Nothing was happening until I got a response from someone who claimed to be the Warrior’s manager.

“Is this a big deal?”

That was the response. I told him, indeed it was, and I need to speak with him. We spoke on the phone for a few moments and he concluded with, “Okay, I don’t know if Warrior will call you, but we’ll have something to calm this down.”

I waited. I waited. Then 20 minutes to press, the most glorious statement of my life arrived. Here is the full thing. It literally made my heart jump for joy – it was the sort of gold you dream about as a reporter. Some of the choicest quotes:

“To top it all off, this World Class Crew of Crybabies is now attempting to have the UConn administration punish the [College Republicans] for words that Warrior spoke.”

“Yet, it now seems that the CRs have collectively decided to bow down and beg forgiveness from various extremist, anti-American, left-wing groups who infest the UConn campus.”

And by far my favorite:

“That his words have been mischaracterized and that the speech was occasionally interrupted by a relative handful of students (who, for some reason, all seemed to smell like patchouli oil and burnt flag) does not detract from the fact that the overwhelming majority of those in attendance had a wonderful time and agreed with most of Warrior’s points – a fact that is corroborated by dozens upon dozens of emails that Warrior has thus far received from attendants.”

Patchouli oil and burnt flag! The Warrior story made it to Page 1. I still have several copies of it in my childhood’s home. Though now lost to the Chronicle’s archives, it was linked to from several wrestling sites and it got a lot of attention.

From that story, the AP and Reuters ran with it. Seemingly every other paper in the state had something on it Saturday, a full day after we did. Sometimes, writing a great story is all about luck.

While the Warrior was roasted in the press, I thought he was unfairly railroaded. Sure, he started a mini-riot on the UConn campus, but that’s like a weekly occurrence in Storrs. He was asked to speak his views – as he said in his statement – and no one agreed with him. Those college kids did learn a valuable lesson in the First Amendment that night.

The Warrior turned that night into a bit of a cottage industry, being a go-to whenever a group wanted a whacked out speaker to draw some attention. He was a pro wrestler, through and through, and he knew how to work a crowd into a frenzy to make some money. It was essentially his heel turn.

I’ve watched a lot of Ultimate Warrior matches in the past 10 years as the WWE embraces its history and I still love the guy. It is very readily apparent why he was my first favorite wrestler.

It is also very readily apparent why the news of his passing caused a sleepless night. He was one of a kind, in more ways than one.

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