The Ultimate Warrior put on his signature airbrushed trench coat, shook the white ring ropes, and, for a few fleeting minutes, the wrestler billed as hailing from Parts Unknown was back home in the wrestling ring.
“Speak to me, Warriors!” he bellowed on Monday night’s “Raw", back on TV after an 18-year absence.
He soaked up the applause from a New Orleans crowd chanting his name, pulled out a neon mask that replicated the face paint he wore in the ring for every main event battle with Hulk Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage in the 1990s. Warrior cut a promo to show how much he appreciated his return to the WWE.
Less than 24 hours later, Warrior, one of the most colorful stars in pro wrestling history, was dead. He was 54.
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.”
After ending his estrangement with the company, Warrior was in the spotlight again earlier this week, making appearances at WrestleMania 30 and on “Monday Night Raw,” and he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
His last promo on WWE’s flagship show seems almost eerie now with his triumphant return overshadowed by his sudden death.
“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.”
The Ultimate Warrior personified the larger-than-life cartoon characters who helped skyrocket the WWE into a mainstream phenomenon 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 music hit. He’d shake the ropes, grunt and howl, and thump his chest while the crowd went wild for the popular good guy.
In an era when the WWE targeted kids as its primary audience, Warrior was a perfect fit with a spastic entrance, blood-pumping music, flowing locks and always dressed in electric colors from head to boots.
His rambling, incoherent promos both energized and confused fans, and Warrior would often stare down at his hands as he spoke, as if he was summoning magical powers out of his fingertips.
He made his debut with the promotion when it was known as the World Wrestling Federation in 1987 and wrestled on and off for the sports entertainment empire until 1996.
The Ultimate Warrior became the first wrestler to defeat Hogan in a WrestleMania match in 1990 when he used his finishing running 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.”
“It’s one of the great WrestleMania main events ever,” former WWE star Sean “X-Pac” Waltman said Wednesday.
The Ultimate Warrior would defeat 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 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.
There were no signs of foul play, Clark said. The Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office will conduct an autopsy Thursday, county spokeswoman Cari Gerchick said.
“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.”
Waltman attended the Hall of Fame ceremony and saw Warrior before he went on the stage to make his speech.
“I got a sense he wasn’t well,” Waltman said. “It was sad to me. He was kind of hunched over. He used to have such great posture. You just had this sense that he wasn’t well. But he was in great spirits. He came up to (other wrestlers) and gave them hugs.”
The Ultimate Warrior had a falling out with the WWE over money and did not appear on its TV shows after July 8, 1996, until last weekend.
He reconciled with McMahon and was inducted Saturday night into the Hall of Fame. He headlined a class that included former stars from his era, Razor Ramon and Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and was the only one feted with his own moment on Monday.
Warrior’s final words to the crowd are ones wrestling’s fanatics will surely take to heart.
“The spirit of The Ultimate Warrior will run forever,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.