Superstar Billy Graham, Influential Pro Wrestler, Dies at 79

Superstar Billy Graham, the professional wrestler whose larger-than-life ring persona and charismatic style was hugely influential on the likes of Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Jesse Ventura and Ric Flair, has died. He was 79.

In a tweet, Flair confirmed that Graham had died. “The Superstar Billy Graham just left us. Thank you for all your influence on my career!” Flair tweeted. No cause of death was provided but Graham had been suffering poor health for a number of years and was hospitalized in February.

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Born Eldridge Wayne Coleman in Phoenix, Arizona in 1943, Graham began bodybuilding at an early age. After dabbling in boxing and pro football, he had his first taste of notoriety when he was featured in a Muscle and Fitness magazine spread with then-fellow bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 1969, he decided to enter the world of professional wrestling, and adopted the ring name Billy Graham, as a tribute to the famous evangelist of the same name. He worked first with Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling promotion and then in 1972 adopted the “Superstar” moniker and joined Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association.

Graham quickly became a standout talent with his bodybuilder physique, flashy almost gaudy fashion sense, dyed hair and beard and charisma with the mic. Drawing heavily on Muhammad Ali’s quick-witted style on the mic, Graham became must-see TV as much for his interviews and promos as he was for his ring work.

By the late 70s, Graham was one of the leading names in wrestling and his greatest success came in Vince McMahon Sr’s WWWF when he defeated Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF Heavyweight Championship on April 30, 1977. Graham held the title for nine and a half months, defeating the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Gorilla Monsoon and Dwayne Johnson’s grandfather “High Chief” Peter Maivia. He eventually lost the title to Bob Backlund.

Graham’s star began to wane in the 1980s as he hit his 40s and a new generation of stars who had co-opted his style, ring persona and mic work came to prominence. He quit wrestling for good in 1987 and became a color commentator and a manager in Vince McMahon Jr’s WWF.

He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004 by Triple H, one of the many wrestlers who had been inspired by Graham.

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