All little boys have heroes. Ultimate Warrior was one of mine. He died tonight and I will miss him.
Growing up, traditional sports were never a part of my life. I didn’t inherit my dad’s favorite baseball team or hear stories about grandpa’s glory days as an All-American. For all the first generation immigrant moxie my parents handed down, I missed out on the library of life lessons most kids get by watching sports in this country.
What I did have, however, was wrestling.
Saturday afternoons with the WWF. I’d go to my cousins’ house after church every week and wait for my aunt and uncle to take their post-church naps before turning on the TV (a forbidden activity on Sabbath). We had to keep the volume low and restrain ourselves from getting too riled up, but you can imagine how successful three boys ages 6, 9, and 10 would be at such a thing. We stomped around the living room like Bushwhackers and put on sunglasses like Macho Man. We’d wear white trash bags as shirts and rip them off like Hulk Hogan. We each had our heroes and they were almost always babyfaces (good guys) - we were nice little Christian boys after all. But for me, Ultimate Warrior was it. THE guy.
Warrior was intense. Intense in a way that felt real. Yes, he had a ridiculous body and an unreal poof of hair and bright neon face paint, but he always felt honest to me. There was something in his brand of crazy that passed my eyeball test: this guy means it. I don’t know what “it” is, but he is 100% it. He was a good guy, but not like the other good guys. He didn’t smile all the time like Hulk Hogan or bleed chivalry like Macho Man. Warrior just sprinted down the platform, restored justice in the ring and sprinted back from whence he came. No speech. No pandering. No “Look at me! Love me!” Everyone thought he was crazy and he didn’t care. He didn’t embrace or run from himself. He was always just the Warrior. And I remember wanting to be that.
I know wrestling is fake or pre-determined or fixed or whatever you want to call it. And I get that it’s easy to dismiss as terrible. But just remember: all little boys have heroes. And at six years old, most of us can’t grasp the nuances of “greatness” and “character” exemplified in a person like Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter or whatever “real” athlete Nike is selling on TV. Sometimes the best hero is the guy who looks nothing like anything or anyone you’ve ever seen in real life but uses everything he’s got to sprint towards the ring and do the right thing. That’s what the WWF did for me. It taught me about everyday life with a cast of characters who were bigger than everyday life. In wrestling, the good guy doesn’t always win, but what’s important is that he’s the good guy. And in wrestling, good guys come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and 80’s hairstyles. In wrestling, if you try hard enough, you can body slam Andre the Giant. In wrestling, sometimes your friend will betray you and try to steal your girlfriend, the most beautiful woman in your six year old world, Miss Elizabeth, but then you move on with your head held high and become the “heavyweight champion of the woooorld!” What wrestling taught me, is still real to me dammit. To this day, my first and most lasting image of sportsmanship is Warrior and Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI. Ultimate Warrior, the beast from Parts Unknown, embracing the most known All-American Good Guy ever made. Warrior taught me about tenacity and getting back up even when all your facepaint has rubbed off and you’re dry heaving from exhaustion. “Get up. Please get up,” I’d say. And you know what? He would. Every time. The Warrior was unstoppable and true to himself. I can’t think of a better pair of values to teach a six year old - from a guy in a neon speedo, no less.
So, when I found out Ultimate Warrior died tonight, my inner six year old believed he’d get back up again. He’s the Warrior. Ultimate Warrior always gets back up. I believed that then and maybe a part of me still does now.