Essay By Al Castle

IT’S A QUESTION you’ve probably asked, and answered, countless times:

Who is your favorite wrestler?

It sounds simple enough. But as I came of age in the wrestling business as a journalist and self-styled student of the business, it’s one I found myself eluding more and more.

“Well, nobody has a body of work like Shawn Michaels,” I might have replied. “Objectively speaking, Ric Flair has to be considered the greatest of all-time,” I’d say, continuing to dance around a straight answer.

But if you asked a 12-year-old Al Castle, he probably wouldn’t have let you finish the question before loudly proclaiming, “The Ultimate Warrior!” There’s a better than average chance he would have added a Warrioresque snort at the end of his reply for good measure.

That’s because long before I became versed in terms like “workrate” and “locker room politics” or learned to distinguish between a 3½-star match and a four-star match, the only thing I wanted out of my wrestling was fun. And wrestlers didn’t come any more fun than The Ultimate Warrior.

And so, it’s fair to say a little piece of my childhood died when I awoke one morning in April to find out that the Warrior had died at the age of 54—just 24 hours after reprising his legendary persona in a WWE ring for the first time in 18 years, and three nights after taking his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame.

And although the sadness that enveloped me surely could not compare to that felt by his mother, his wife, or his two young daughters—all of whom beamed with pride from the front row as they watched Warrior being honored days earlier—it is no less real. As legions of his fans similarly expressed after his death, Warrior had an immeasurable impact on my life, both personally and professionally.

There’s a direct line to be drawn from my boyhood fascination with the Ultimate Warrior to my subsequent interest in the business of pro wrestling to my pursuit of a journalism career to so many of the blessings I have in my life today.

For me, it began in April 1990. Like so many children of the ’80s, I grew up watching wrestling. But by 1990, Hulkamania had begun to wear out its welcome, and I had largely checked out. Then, my sixth-grade teacher lent me a VHS copy of WrestleMania 6. That night, I watched the Warrior and Hulk Hogan, before a record-setting 68,000 fans in the Toronto SkyDome, teach me the most important lesson I’d ever learn about the wrestling business: It’s all about telling a story.

And no more epic a tale had I ever seen told than in “The Ultimate Challenge,” when the Warrior, youthful and energetic, dethroned the longtime king of the WWF. Hogan, with tears in his eyes, retrieved the WWF championship belt from ringside, returned to the ring, and presented it to the Warrior with an emotional embrace. Warrior, who entered the match as the Intercontinental champion, stood on the second rope, holding aloft his two championship belts. His signature face paint a casualty of the war he had just survived, the only thing the Warrior wore on his face was pride. A signed, framed copy of the August 1990 issue of Pro Wrestling Illustrated, featuring that iconic image, remains one of my most cherished possessions.

That match, more than anything else, is what made me fall in love with wrestling. The Ultimate Warrior was unlike any wrestler, or person for that matter, that I had ever seen before. Although the description of “real life super hero” may sound cliché, it applied almost literally for the Warrior—a character that was as well suited for the cover of a Marvel comic book as it was a wrestling ring.

His interviews were mesmerizing. Even when I didn’t totally understand what the Warrior was talking about, this much was clear: He was unbendingly determined to destroy anything in his path. And he did just that, time and time again—often in matches that were far better than historians give them credit for. In addition to his all-time classic bout with Randy Savage at WrestleMania 7, Warrior had memorable encounters with the likes of Rick Rude, The Honky Tonk Man, Ted DiBiase, Sgt. Slaughter, and Mr. Perfect. Yes, the Warrior sometimes benefited from working with opponents more fundamentally skilled than he was, but it was his star power and intensity that elevated those matches to another level.

The Warrior’s offense may have been raw, but nobody should have mistaken his lack of finesse for a lack of effort. He knew what fans wanted out of his character and he provided it. Whether it was his sound barrier-breaking sprints to the ring, his meticulously designed face paint and ring gear, or the sacrifices that were necessary to keep his body looking superhuman and keep his opponents held up high over his head, the Warrior’s dedication to the enigmatic character he created was unmatched.

And like few other wrestling characters in history, The Ultimate Warrior not only entertained fans, he inspired them. As kooky as the Warrior’s cosmic philosophizing sometimes seemed, the message, at its core, was one of self-empowerment, of approaching your goals with the kind of forward momentum with which the Warrior approached the ring.

The Warrior’s deep commitment to those beliefs and intense focus often manifested in social awkwardness. I witnessed that first-hand when I interviewed him in person six years ago. He was gracious and kind, but also ornery. Some of his peers found him aloof and disrespectful. As unapologetic as he was for his personality, Warrior made it clear in his Hall of  Fame speech that his bad reputation in some circles sat heavy on his shoulders. He did sincerely appreciate all that wrestling gave him, and felt a deep bond with his brothers in the locker room. He was just wired differently than most of them.

Criticisms of the Warrior as a “bad wrestler” failed to acknowledge, or understand, what exactly wrestling is. The indestructible, unstoppable powerhouse is one of wrestling’s oldest, and most effective, paradigms. It’s been replicated time and again by everyone from The Road Warriors to Goldberg to Ryback. And the Ultimate Warrior was one of the best. As such, several current WWE stars, including Batista, Sheamus, and even Daniel Bryan, to name a few, count him as one of their biggest influences.

But, ultimately, like many eccentric artists, the Warrior worked not for the appreciation of critics or colleagues, but of his audience—an audience that erupted in cheers every time that thumping bassline tore through the arena speakers. Whatever you thought of The Ultimate Warrior’s act, it worked.

And so, for all his motivational speeches and teachings on the finer points of “destrucity,” the most important lesson The Ultimate Warrior may have ever imparted to the wrestling world is this: It’s okay to like what you like. If you believe in “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect,” then pay no mind to the “Cena sucks!” chants around you. If you think The Great Khali is awesome, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Cheer wildly for the good guys. Boo vehemently for the villains. In the end, wrestling is supposed to be fun.

And when somebody asks you, “Who is your favorite wrestler?,” don’t think about it too much. In your heart, you know who that is. It’s whoever inspires you the most, brings you to your feet, and leaves with you memories you will cherish forever.

For me, the answer is simple. My favorite wrestler is The Ultimate Warrior. He always has been. He always will be.

© Kappa Publishing Group, Inc. “Pro Wrestling Illustrated,” “PWI,” “The Wrestler,” and “Inside Wrestling” are registered trademarks of Kappa Publishing Group, Inc. Privacy policy and terms of use.