“Superstar” Billy Graham, one of the most influential pro wrestling stars of his generation, has died at 79.
A Hall of Fame wrestler and former Heavyweight Champion, Graham was known both for his impressive physique and his charismatic, flamboyant style that had a huge influence on wrestlers who followed.
“WWE is saddened to learn that WWE Hall of Famer ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham has passed away,” WWE said in a statement. “A former WWE Champion, Graham’s flashy fashion style, over-the-top interviews and bodybuilder physique created the archetype for a generation of Superstars that followed in his footsteps.”
Graham had been in the hospital for over four months, battling an infection in his ears, skull and sinus cavity, his family said. On Monday, doctors wanted to remove him from life support, though his wife refused.
“He’s a fighter and his will is strong even if his body isn’t. God is our hope,” Graham’s wife Valerie wrote. Graham died two days later, on May 17.
Graham, real name Eldridge Wayne Coleman, was born on June 7, 1943 in Phoenix Arizona. He got his start as a professional bodybuilder, becoming a close friend and training partner of future movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He achieved fame as a professional wrestler, developing the flamboyant and charismatic persona of “Superstar” Billy Graham. His chiseled bodybuilder physique and flamboyant costumes made him stand out, and he was also known for his handlebar mustache.
Graham achieved fame in the late 1970s in the WWWF (now the WWE). In 1977, he defeated Bruno Sammartino to become the federation’s Heavyweight Champion, a title he held for 9 months.
But Graham’s most lasting legacy was his charismatic personality: he was known for giving colorful interviews, full of bombastic trash talk and catchphrases, which made him a fan favorite.
He pioneered a lot of the flamboyance and personal showmanship that is now common amongst professional wrestlers: for instance, he is known for using the term “brother” in his promos, which has since been used by many wrestlers, most notably Hulk Hogan.
“If it wasn’t for Billy Graham, this industry would be so much different than it is,” said Dave Meltzer of Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “He became the prototype of what people thought could be the charismatic superstar.”
Wrestling superstars who have been influenced by Graham include Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Jesse Ventura and Ric Flair.
Pro wrestling took a toll on Graham’s health — he had to undergo a hip replacement — and he retired in 1987. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, and returned to the WWE in 2015 with a Legends Contract.
Over his career Graham had frequent disputes with WWE executive chairman Vince McMahon, and warned other wrestlers about the dangers of steroid use.
After his death, many pro wrestlers shared their condolences, remembering Graham as a legend and influence on those who came after him.
“The Superstar Billy Graham Just Left Us 🙏🏻 THANK YOU FOR ALL YOUR INFLUENCE On My Career!” wrote Vic Flair.
“I am so sad. My entire life, and tons of others from Flair to Hogan to Jesse to tons you wouldn’t know and tons you would changed because of him,” wrote wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer. “Valerie, I just wish you the best, you’re a saint and more people than you know are aware of it.”
“SUPERSTAR BILLY GRAHAM. ONE OF MY FIRST TEACHERS OF THE HEAT. THE REAL LEGEND BUBBA,” wrote retired wrestler The Iron Sheik. “HE LOVE ME I LOVE HIM. TOGETHER WE HIT THE GYM AND SHOCK THE EARTH. I LOVE YOU FOREVER BROTHER. RIP”
Rest in peace to the iconic Superstar Billy Graham, a huge influence on all the wrestlers who came after him 💔
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