Professional wrestling is full of larger than life, colorful and entertaining characters. Some we like to cheer, others we love to hate, but the crazy over the top personas of these individuals can often be what brings us back for more. However, it is far from a secret that this crazy world we adore also has more than its fair share of darkness. One such tragic tale is that of former WCW Television Champion, The Renegade. This is the story of his meteoric rise, equally quick fall, and the sad ending to his young life.
Entering the Business and Work in Japan
The Renegade was born Richard Wilson on October 16, 1965, in Marietta, Georgia. Before entering the business of professional wrestling, Wilson worked as an exotic dancer. Under the legendary tutelage of Killer Kowalski, the Georgia native made his pro wrestling debut in 1992 after a short period of training. Using the name “Rio, Lord of the Jungle” and working a Tarzan-esque wildman gimmick, Wilson would fit well into this new role with long crazy hair and high energy performances. After spending time on the U.S. indie scene, Rio would find work in Japan for the WAR promotion ran by Genichiro Tenryu in 1993, where he would wrestle various known names such as Meng and John “Earthquake” Tenta.
While working the “Lord of the Jungle” character, Wilson would wear loincloths and beat his chest. Also noticeable at this early stage in his career were the tassels hanging from his boots and arms, quite reminiscent to the Ultimate Warrior. The similarities with Jim Hellwig’s “Warrior” creation did not end there, as Wilson sported a very muscular physique alongside an almost duplicated hairstyle. In-ring mannerisms did not appear that different either as the “Lord of the Jungle” character shook excitedly and, maybe due to his inexperience, displayed a reasonably simple move set.
WCW, and the Arrival of The Renegade
In early 1995, the still very inexperienced Wilson signed for World Championship Wrestling. At this point, WCW was heavily promoting the showdown between Hulk Hogan and super-sized villain Vader at the upcoming Uncensored pay-per-view. This was part of an ongoing main-event level tale, also involving Randy Savage and Ric Flair.
In the build-up to this match, Hogan would appear on episodes of WCW Saturday Night declaring he has an “Ultimate surprise” to assist Savage and himself in this ongoing feud. While making these claims alongside Jimmy Hart (displaying his usual levels of over-excited enthusiasm), an unknown individual with long hair and tassels would be visible. To many, this surprise’s hidden identity was unnecessary, as it appeared to be a long time Hogan foe and ally, The Ultimate Warrior.
Similarities Between The Renegade and The Ultimate Warrior
At this stage in 1995, “The Ultimate Warrior” Jim Hellwig was again at odds with the WWF and its owner, Vince McMahon. Often being cited as challenging to work with, the abrasive Warrior was no longer under contract in McMahon’s promotion and effectively a free agent. For a long time, it was widely believed that contact was made with Hellwig by WCW to strike a deal, but the asking price was deemed far too high even for the deep pockets of Ted Turner and WCW head “ATM” Eric Bischoff. Instead, Wilson was signed and bought to the Atlanta promotion to assist Savage and Hogan at a much lower pay rate. On his 83 Weeks podcast, Bischoff denied any conversations with The Ultimate Warrior took place during this time.
The similarities in appearance between The Renegade and Ultimate Warrior, at first glance, especially, could not be ignored. Add Hogan’s claims of the “Ultimate surprise” to the mix, and it is easy to see how wrestling fans in 1995 may have thought that Hellwig’s popular character was following that of Savage, “The Hulkster,” and many others to WCW. The hype around this debut ended up so misleading that WCW decided to be more transparent before the Uncensored show. Perhaps fearing a backlash from fans when Hellwig did not show up, World Championship Wrestling let it be known that it was The Renegade debuting, and not the Warrior.
However, this potential disappointment did not hinder the night’s crowd reaction, as Wilson made his first appearance. With Tony Schiavone instilling as much excitement as he could muster, The Renegade ran to the ring just before the start of the Hogan vs. Vader main event. As fast-paced rock music blared, the similarities between Wilson and The Ultimate Warrior were even more apparent. The Renegade still sported the incredible physique and tassels, but there was added growling and snarling with Warrior-Esque face paint on display. The Mississippi crowd lapped it up and cheered the high energy entrance of this eye-catching character. The positive reaction continued as Hogan defeated Vader and attacked Flair, and he, Savage, and The Renegade then saw off the villainous opponents.
The Renegade Strikes Gold
After his impressive debut and experiencing the star rub of standing shoulder to shoulder with Hulk Hogan, The Renegade worked a few short television matches. Always winning, The Renegade found himself very quickly in line for a shot at the WCW Television Title, held at this time by the ever-impressive Arn Anderson. Working with Jimmy Hart as his manager, and still sporting the many Warrior likenesses, The Renegade would defeat “The Enforcer” to win his only WCW title at the 1995 Great American Bash.
While the match was not completely terrible, alarm bells must have been ringing backstage as Wilson’s inexperience in the ring came to the forefront on a few occasions. Having a few in-ring issues when working with lower-caliber talent can possibly be overlooked, but when working with someone of the stature of Arn Anderson, questions may have started to be asked.
The Renegade continued to be undefeated in the coming weeks, again working relatively quick matches. The next big name challenge for the TV Title came in the form of “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff at the Bash at the Beach ’95 pay-per-view, where more signs for concern arose.
The match itself was abysmal, with timing issues between the competitors along with a very odd finish. Granted, Orndorff was no longer in his more youthful prime, but other “Mr. Wonderful” matches from around this period would show he could not be considered the main issue. Another potential problem for WCW and The Renegade himself was that the timid yet mainly positive crowd reactions were waning further. The Renegade’s win here, only one month into his title reign, was greeted negatively by some of the WCW faithful. Perhaps even worse, Orndorff’s post-match attack on his victorious opponent was welcomed with some audible cheers. The wheels were already coming off for The Renegade, and things were to get much worse very quickly.
The Burial of The Renegade
The Renegade would defeat “Mr. Wonderful” again a month after Bash at the Beach at Clash of the Champions 31 to little fanfare.
Around this time, another nail was added to The Renegade career coffin. The Ultimate Warrior would take to wrestling magazines and publicly state that the WCW character was nothing to do with him. The timing of these statements coincided with The Renegade losing more popularity with the paying audience, and a few weeks later, Wilson would drop his championship to Diamond Dallas Page.
Whether The Warriors’ comments contributed to this fan disinterest or it was just the lackluster matches and character direction of The Renegade at this time is open for debate. However, one thing was blatantly apparent to the WCW office: the bloom was off the rose for Richard Wilson.
Having been undefeated since his debut, The Renegade followed his title loss up with losing to Paul Orndorff on WCW Saturday Night in less than two minutes. Dropping championships to other wrestlers is, of course, part of the business. To then so quickly face defeat again in such a comprehensive manner shows that the Atlanta promotions booking team had no real plans for Wilson going forward.
On the November 6th, 1995 episode of Monday Nitro, another step in the perceived burial of The Renegade took place. Upon losing a short contest to Kevin Sullivan, Wilson’s former manager Jimmy Hart attacked The Renegade. Pouring a drink in his face and wiping off his face-paint, Hart yelled: “You’re nothing! You’re not a Renegade! You’re just plain old Rick! A nobody!”
Jimmy Hart would carry on his tirade by shouting how his former charge should have listened to him and that he could have been as big as Hulk Hogan. Very noticeable in this segment is the absence of anyone coming to The Renegades aid. No Hogan, no Savage, no main event talent The Renegade stood alongside only a few short months previously. Obviously, no help for Wilson’s character and the harsh words spoken by Hart was the scripted conclusion to this televised segment. However, somewhat ironically, it mirrored some backstage thoughts on The Renegade experiment.
At the time, the dirt sheets had mentioned some professional jealousy backstage, as Wilson was perceived to have had this tremendous opportunity he did not deserve. He had not “paid his dues in the eyes of some,” while other WCW talent that had served a long tenure within the company were not offered such prominent (and higher-paying) chances on the bigger shows. Adding further fuel to this fire, The Wrestling Observer Newsletter declared The Renegade the “Worst Wrestler of 1995” in their end-of-year awards.
A Lackluster Return
The Renegade would spend several months off television after this attack. Upon his return, on February 26, 1996’s episode of Monday Nitro, there were a few surprises. The Renegade emerged without his Ultimate Warrior rip-off face paint. Wilson was also sporting trunks and armbands, as opposed to his previous singlet and tassels. However, the most significant happening to note was the absence of any reference at all to the incident with Hart and Sullivan.
The returning babyface, coming back to the world in which he suffered a vast (if scripted) injustice, made no impression of wanting revenge. The outcome of The Renegade’s return match was also disappointing, considering the position on the card he had been in previously, as Wilson lost via submission to Lex Luger. Any hope Wilson may have had in re-building his character, and minimal momentum he possessed, disappeared instantly.
The Renegade never rose above this level again for the duration of his WCW run. Firmly relegated to “enhancement talent” status, Wilson regularly lost on Nitro, Thunder, and WCW Saturday Night. In quite an ironic twist, Wilson was used as a stunt double for The Ultimate Warrior when he finally signed for the company in 1998.
Richard Wilson, as The Renegade, wrestled the final match of his career on December 7, 1998’s episode of Monday Nitro. After losing to the former “Adam Bomb” Bryan Clark, here working under the name “Wrath,” Wilson was released.
The Tragic Death of The Renegade
Wilson, still wanting to work in the wrestling business, struggled as he failed to find work. Following his WCW release and with no offers from any other wrestling company forthcoming, the Georgia native slipped further and further into a deep depression.
On February 23rd, 1999, Richard Wilson took his own life. He was 33 years old.
When looking back on his life, many former colleagues agree that he was pleasant, if a touch quiet. Former WCW Tag Team Champion Stevie Ray of Harlem Heat spoke of Wilson in 2017. Ray stated that Rick Wilson was “his buddy,” explaining “[you’re] the guy beating and going over on top guys, then all of a sudden you are just a guy that’s just there. I know that can be disheartening for a young man that got that push so quick. God rest his soul, man. Rick was a good dude.”
The Renegade’s opponent in his only title win for WCW, Arn Anderson, spoke of Wilson on his podcast. Anderson would say, “Once you get the whole story about The Renegade and find out the guy was bought in [to WCW] under the illusion he was going to be The Ultimate Warrior, with the promises he was probably made, all the things he was told. Then, everything caved in on him and he just had to be himself… He wasn’t ready for that spot. He was very green. It was really just a cavalcade of misdirections and stumbled steps and just a bad idea, I think.”
Anderson would also say that Wilson may not have had enough time in the business at this stage, but was not a bad guy and that he had no attitude.
The story of The Renegade is one of an enthusiastic individual, maybe handed too much too soon. Richard Wilson was just following instructions in WCW — an opportunity no wrestler, regardless of experience, would have turned down.
A very tragic ending to a young life.
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