Superstar Billy Graham Death – Heart Failure

1943-2023 (Age 79)

superstar billy graham death
The death of Superstar Billy Graham will forever be eclipsed by his remarkable life. Graham revolutionized the wrestling world. Indeed, few men transformed professional wrestling in the last fifty years as much.

Graham, a charismatic smooth-talker with the physique of a Greek god inspired countless individuals to become professional wrestlers. Despite a relatively short run on top of the wrestling mountain, Graham’s influence remains strong.

A Muscleman with a Purpose

The future “Superstar” was born  Eldridge Wayne Coleman on June 7, 1943, in Phoenix, Arizona. Coleman began weight-lifting at a young age and became known for his powerful physique and incredible feats of strength.

Coleman incorporated his feats of strength into religious revival shows where he learned to preach, a skill that would come in handy later in life. His gift of gab would be matched by few if any peers during his heyday.

As Coleman grew older, he worked various jobs while also competing in bodybuilding events. He played professional football briefly for the Canadian Football League before a potential run in the NFL’s Oakland Raiders ended after Coleman tore his Achilles tendon. Coleman broke into professional wrestling after a friend suggested he try it out.

Exit Eldridge Coleman, Enter Billy Graham

Calgary Stampede Wrestling promoter Stu Hart trained Coleman in 1970 and before long, Coleman was making waves. Veteran wrestler Jerry Graham rechristened Coleman as Billy Graham, his kayfabe brother. According to Billy Graham, his career was beginning to show some of the larger-than-life elements that made him stand out.

Billy Graham’s career took off when he entered Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association, adding “Superstar” to his name in honor of the popular musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Graham worked a violent program against Wahoo McDaniel in the AWA before heading to Florida.

The Man of The Hour

Graham’s days working with evangelicals undoubtedly influenced his talking skills and he also emulated the trash-talking of boxing great Muhammad Ali (who ironically, was inspired by the trash-talking of professional wrestler Gorgeous George).

The Superstar would cut many fantastic promos but one of his classic lines was “I’m the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour!”

“The Superstar” was already larger than life but there were no wrestlers with a physique as impressive as his or a wardrobe as wild as his—wildly colored tie-dyed shirts, equally wildly colored hair, and more. Now it was time to capitalize on this one-of-a-kind wrestler.

The Superstar Strikes Gold

On April 30, 1977, Graham dethroned WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With manager The Grand Wizard guiding him, Graham held the belt for almost ten months, an incredible feat for the time as WWWF owner Vince McMahon Sr. typically treated heel champions as transitional champions who held the belt for weeks at best.

Working at a time when the WWWF worked with other promotions, the Superstar defended his championship against some of the biggest names in and out of the WWWF. Graham wrestled NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race to a draw.

Perhaps his greatest opponent outside the WWWF was “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. The two men worked classic bouts in the WWWF’s home base of Madison Square Garden as well as Dusty’s home territory of Championship Wrestling from Florida.

The WWWF’s babyfaces chased Graham for the belt, but it seemed as if no one could capture the gold, despite spirited efforts from men including Ivan Putski, High Chief Peter Maivia, and Mil Mascaras.

Why Can’t You Be More of a Heel?

While he was booed in the WWWF, The Superstar’s engaging promos kept the fans listening to his every word. While there have always been a small percentage of fans who rooted for wrestling villains, “The Superstar” began winning over more fans as his title reign progressed. Like the legendary heel wrestler “Gorgeous” George, Graham was too entertaining for fans not to admire him.

In the book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, Graham recalled Vince McMahon Sr. admonishing him “You’re too entertaining. Why can’t you be more of a heel?”

Graham refused to do things any other way and continued his flashy act.

Wrestling legend has it that Graham’s fellow heel suggested to Vince McMahon Sr. that Graham turn babyface after Koloff turned on him. McMahon refused as he had already decided to book babyface Bob Backlund as his next world champion. While Backlund’s title reign was a success, some fans and historians still debate whether the WWWF left money on the table by not turning Graham babyface.

The Superstar Vanishes

On February 28, 1978, Bob Backlund defeated “Superstar” for the WWWF Championship but the win was not without controversy. The match mirrored Graham’s win over Bruno Sammartino for the belt. Sammartino’s leg was on the rope when Graham pinned him but the referee didn’t see it. Graham found the roles reversed as his leg was on the rope when Backlund pinned him.

Things went downhill for Graham as he was disgusted by his loss. He disappeared from wrestling for years until returning with a shaved head and a new gimmick of a martial arts master. Graham challenged Backlund unsuccessfully for the WWF Championship but vented his frustration when he destroyed the title belt.

Graham would work in Championship Wrestling from Florida and Jim Crockett Promotions before returning to the WWF in the persona he’d ruled the roost with during the mid-70s. Working as a babyface, Graham was ready to take on the WWF’s most hated heels.

Unfortunately, Graham’s health was already deteriorating and he was forced to undergo hip surgery. Before long, it was clear his body could no longer withstand the wear and tear of the ring and he retired, with the WWF writing him out by having the One Man Gang take him out with a storyline injury.

Often Imitated but Never Duplicated

Not surprisingly, Billy Graham’s unique look, both in terms of physique and attire captured the imagination of fans and wrestlers alike. Graham’s two biggest emulators were Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Hulk Hogan.

Like many aspiring wrestlers, both men copied Graham’s style and look as best as they could. They, wisely used it as a template, modifying it by infusing their own unique elements to make themselves stand out.

Graham’s uniqueness calls back to Rudyard Kipling’s famous verse, “They copied all they could copy, But they couldn’t copy my mind; And I left them sweatin’ and stealin’, A year and a half behind.”

While many wrestlers emulated Graham, there was and always will be one Superstar Billy Graham.

A Love/Hate Relationship with Vince McMahon

Despite his close ties to the WWF, Graham had a contentious relationship with the WWF, railing against the company for its wrestlers using steroids and many other allegations that estranged him from the promotion.

“Superstar” Billy Graham was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. Eventually, he sold his induction ring to defray the cost of medical expenses. He later asked to be removed from the hall after wrestler Abdullah the Butcher was inducted.

Chronic Health Woes

Billy Graham’s health woes were well-known and troubled him for much of his life. According to FOX News:

Health issues had plagued Graham for years – he received a liver transplant in 2002, but in 2012, he was diagnosed with third-stage liver disease and cirrhosis. He had his toes amputated in August…

The “Superstar” refused to quit and his wife Valerie stood by his side, praying for a miracle. Regrettably, that miracle did not happen.

The Death of “Superstar” Billy Graham

Graham spent his final years in and out of medical facilities. 2023 was a difficult year for Graham, with Sports Illustrated noting:

He was initially hospitalized in January with an infection in his ears that spread to his ear bones and skull. Graham was battling numerous health issues that included acute kidney failure, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and hearing loss.

On May 17, 2023, “Superstar” Billy Graham died at age 79 after he was removed from life support. He is survived by his wife and two children from a previous marriage.

Other pro wrestlers who died in 2023 include Jay Briscoe, Jerry Jarrett, Butch Miller Death, and “Leaping” Lanny Poffo.

What are your favorite memories of Superstar Billy Graham? Let us know in the comments below.