Former WWE Heavyweight Champion “Superstar” Billy Graham has died at the age of 79. The WWE Hall of Famer’s death was reported on Twitter on Wednesday, May 17, by professional wrestler Ric Flair, and confirmed shortly after in a Facebook post by Graham’s wife Valerie.
According to Graham’s GoFundMe page, he had been placed on life support after suffering a range of “very serious health issues” including “a major infection in his ears and skull” that had been undergoing treatment since January, as well as “congestive heart failure, diabetes, [and] hearing loss as a result of the infection.” Graham’s previous health problems had included a liver transplant, cirrhosis, and liver disease.
Prior to becoming a wrestler, Graham was a boxer, shot putter, bodybuilder and strength athlete, appearing in Muscle & Fitness alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, placing in physique shows, and finishing seventh in the 1980 World’s Strongest Man competition.
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He began his professional wrestling career in the 1970s under his own name, Eldridge Wayne Coleman, before assuming the ring name Billy Graham, after the famous evangelist, as well as the nickname “Superstar.” It was then, while winning titles in the National Wrestling Alliance, American Wrestling Association, and World Wide Wrestling Federation (now known as the WWE) that he began to craft the larger-than-life image and persona for which he is now known. He was inducted into the WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2004.
“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,” said the WWE in a statement released following his death.
“Graham began emulating boxing icon Muhammad Ali in his interviews, coining the iconic line, ‘I’m the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour.’ Graham spouted that kind of poetic prose weekly on television, using his gift of gab to make himself a box-office attraction who would sell out every arena he main-evented.”
Tributes to Graham have poured in from his peers and admirers in the world of pro wrestling, with his influence on Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Triple H, Steve Austin and others being noted. As Dave Meltzer told Wrestling Observer Radio: “If it wasn’t for Billy Graham, this industry would be so much different than it is.”
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the United Kingdom covering pop culture, relationships and LGBTQ+ issues. His work has appeared in GQ, Teen Vogue, Man Repeller and MTV.
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