By Rich Twilling
WrestleMania has always been the WWE's biggest show of the year, and over the years, it has grown from one big show, to a weekend full of events, to a week full of festivities commemorating the "showcase of the immortals."
On the night before WrestleMania, a tradition began years ago that, to some, has even surpassed Mania itself. Of course, I am speaking about the WWE Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. Over this past weekend, Jerry Lawler and Linda McMahon (and others) stated that the Hall of Fame ceremony was their favorite night of the year. As a lifelong fan and student of professional wrestling, past and present, it has been a pleasure to see many of the all-time greats take their rightful place amongst the best ever, and tell their stories of how they arrived there.
Over the years, as the WWE Hall of Fame gained more steam, some of the biggest names in WWE history were inducted. Andre the Giant was the first inductee many years ago (although he went in posthumously and without a ceremony), but Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, the Junkyard Dog, and Steve Austin, among others, have gone in as well. However, despite who has gone in, oftentimes, more has been made about those who had yet to be inducted.
For years, I read countless times that the WWE Hall of Fame would never be a "real Hall of Fame" if Bruno Sammartino was not in it. Sammartino had a public stance for many years that he would not do business with Vince McMahon and turned down being inducted more than once. Fortunately, fences were mended, and last year, Sammartino took his rightful spot in the WWE Hall of Fame.
In the recent past, Sammartino, along with Bret Hart, Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior, were all deserving names, yet not expected to go into the Hall of Fame, for various reasons. Sammartino went in last year and was long overdue. Bret Hart went in in 2006, before WrestleMania 22, but he did not even appear on the show the next night. He did not return to WWE until a few years later, and wrestled once again at WrestleMania 26. Savage, my favorite of all time, has yet to be inducted.
That leaves The Ultimate Warrior, who legally changed his name to "Warrior," so I will refer to him as that going forward. Warrior last appeared in WWE in 1996. We all remember WrestleMania 12 and his match against Triple H. Many of us know the story regarding SummerSlam 1991. We all know the reasoning behind the first DVD WWE produced of him. I'm sure many old and new wrestling fans alike have seen his many YouTube videos. It was a pretty safe bet that he would never again appear on WWE TV.
If this past weekend taught us anything, it would be to never say never. Warrior was back with WWE and on television for three straight nights. He said it himself. His Hall of Fame speech would be the "most anticipated Hall of Fame speech in WWE history. It lived up to the hype. Personally, one of my favorite moments of WrestleMania weekend was seeing Warrior walk out to the podium with his two daughters by his side. Take away the face paint, tassels, and mullet, and Warrior was simply a middle-aged husband and father.
For a man that used to give nearly incoherent promos (not all of them, but some were), he had me glued to my seat during his entire speech. I was not waiting for him to say something crazy. I was not waiting for him to self-destruct (no pun intended). I just enjoyed hearing what he had to say. I enjoyed seeing him back in the WWE family. I enjoyed seeing him happy in his life after a wrestling career. He seemed healthy to me (mentally and physically). He looked fantastic.
I enjoyed seeing the way his wife and his children looked at him with unconditional love and admiration. Sure, he may have been difficult to work with in the past. There are other WWE Hall of Famers who fit that description as well, and we celebrate them. Warrior deserves celebrating as well. It was nice to see the hatchet buried. It was nice to see bygones be bygones.
Warrior appeared at WrestleMania (which was expected), and again at Raw (which was not expected at the time). As I write this, Warrior was on live television about 30 hours ago. Now, he is gone. Just as fans of TV shows (and particular actors) develop a distant rapport with them, wrestling fans and wrestlers are the same. It has always bothered me when a wrestler dies. This one shocked me because <i>he was just on TV</i>.
While (to me) it is nearly impossible to let go of everything negative from our past, it seemed as though WWE and Warrior were able to put enough aside to appreciate one another and move forward, and together apparently, as Warrior stated he had a "multi-year contract" as an ambassador for the company. Warrior mentioned there will someday be a WrestleMania 75. He would have been 99 years old the year of that event.
It is almost fitting, in a way, that this written piece coincides a bit with Randy Savage. I mentioned him earlier as someone who is deserving, but not yet in the WWE Hall of Fame. Warrior frequently spoke fondly of Randy, as a man, friend, and performer. Randy is tragically no longer with us, just like Warrior. Warrior's best match was against Randy at WrestleMania 7.
On top of that, some of you may recall me writing a blog regarding my mother meeting and talking with Randy Savage. That same weekend, I met Warrior. I recall he did not say much, but he did sign my book, and that of everyone else waiting. With the kids, he was a class act, and like the rest of that time, I'll never forget it. Trust me, if a celebrity hero treats you like crap, you never forget it.
As a wrestling fan, I was really hoping that Warrior would mention Hulk Hogan in his speech (I know he mentioned him by name referring to Mania 6, but I mean on a personal note), and when that did not happen, I was hoping they would do a segment in the ring together on Raw. Hey, we can dream, right? We got Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, so I was disappointed when it did not happen.
Nonetheless, Warrior was back with WWE. Given that he is no longer with us, I'm hoping he passed on with very few regrets. This past weekend proved that it is never too late to bury things, patch them up, and appreciate what was once so powerful. I am not a soapbox guy, but I hope the shock of Warrior's passing is met with the same facets his family showed for him at the Hall of Fame; love, admiration, and endless appreciation.
This is truly a loss for the wrestling community and its fans, but I feel most for his immediate family. To his wife and two young daughters, I offer the utmost condolences. They are who I feel for most during this time. Also, as someone who was so explicit with his thoughts, to the point where it sometimes seemed like a struggle for him (remember, he always said he was his character), I hope he experienced as much peace as possible when he passed, and is resting in unconditional peace now.
RIP, Warrior. Thank you for the memories.