The Ethos of the Ultimate Warrior

Christian Sager

New York, NY- April 8: The Ultimate Warrior, who was just inducted into the 2014 WWE Hall of Fame class, passed away on April 8, 2014 in Arizona. © George Napolitano/Retna Ltd./Corbis

If you grew up watching Wrestlemania on pay-per-view television like I did, the Ultimate Warrior was an icon of hyperbole and testosterone, mixed with a heavy hand of absurdity. But, as an adult I barely paid attention to him until he died earlier this week. The only time he's been on my radar recently was when Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel did a farcical re-enactment of his 1990 appearance on the "Arsenio Hall Show." Let's compare that "Arsenio" performance to a lively public speaking engagement he had at the University of Connecticut in 2005.

In the years following his departure from wrestling, Warrior remade himself into a gym owner, a comic book writer and more notably a motivational speaker. Primarily his "motivating" took the form of lecturing others on his love of America's founding fathers and his personal definition of conservatism. It's interesting to consider the two different versions of Warrior, fifteen years apart. Whether he was threatening to pound Hulk Hogan to a pulp, or pontificating on living your life according to Ayn Rand's principles, Warrior stuck to the same rhetorical strategy. He wasn't big on logical arguments or emotional pleas to his audience. No, he relied heavily on his ethos, the quality of his character... or at least the character he was playing. Whatever you think about his politics, as both an entertainer and a orator, Warrior was always performing. He described this himself in the "Bio" section on his blog:

Ultimate Warrior ran because I was running him. He was intense because I already was. So mind your manners and be thankful that I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy who believes there are some traditions better left unchanged. My natural personal intensity is one. It never will. Whatever I am doing -- wrestling, writing, working out, speaking, even weaving pot holders -- I am going to do it with action and intensity.

The proximity of wrestling and politics has always been close. As Scott Lucas points out in a 2000 article for "New Statesman," the sport rose to prominence in the United States side-by-side with the Cold War, establishing good guys and bad guys with political roles. For instance, a week before the start of 1991's Desert Storm strike on Iraq, Hulk Hogan represented America by battling Sergeant Slaughter for betraying his country to faux Iraqi manager Colonel Mustafa. Wrestling peaked in the late 1990s with 35 million television viewers. If they couldn't go into reality television or professional politics, those independent contractors who worked in the wrestling industry as "talent" often ended up with significant health issues or drug addictions because of the physical injuries they sustained. Warrior showed contempt for his former peers, calling it a result of "their refusal to mature as real men and grow up and act their age."

Other wrestlers weren't the only targets of his scorn. In that UCONN presentation he derided politicians from both sides of the aisle. He also dismissed homosexuality with the mantra, "Queering doesn't work." Before lighting those fires though, he went at length to explain to the audience that public speaking was his "destiny" so that he could mentor others on the great books of the western world. He spends significant parts of his presentation establishing himself as a simple guy who's self-motivation and hard work is how he always perseveres.

I would be remiss if I didn't also point you to the art pieces he sold through his site called "Weapons of Warrior Wisdom." They were usually ink and watercolor drawings of inspirational figures accompanied by a quote Warrior found thought-provoking. He then added "a few blunt, bold and no BS thoughts of my OWN alongside theirs." The drawings include figures as diverse as George Washington, GK Chesterton, Walt Disney, Nietzsche, Goethe and Frederick Douglas. Warrior stated that the drawings were part of his "daily self-study and prep to inspire myself into a positive, ass-kicking frame of mind for the day."

Socrates would have probably have classified Warrior as a Sophist, a sort of ancient Greek snake-oil salesman, who purported to teach their audience how to be virtuous so long as they received a hefty speaker's fee. However, even if the students who brought him to campus were looking for quotes like "Power in your life comes from your mind, not your muscle," Warrior ended up losing his 2005 audience by delivering his ideas too angrily. He himself said that wrestlers are an amped up version of who they are outside the ring. The same can be said of most public speakers... and it seems that the intensity Warrior put into his wrestling persona bled through his later rhetoric.

Warrior performed that intense "mentor" ethos right to the very end, like a furious, exasperated Mister Miyagi. During his acceptance to the WWE Hall of Fame Induction, he said:

Every man's heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe a final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, and makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized.