Billy Graham Signs His Book “Tangled Ropes” at Borders in Princeton, New Jersey, on Feb. 21, 2006.
WWE Hall of Famer Billy Graham, who took the name of the famous evangelist in a wrestling career powered by bodybuilding brawn and oratory passion, has died at age 79.
Graham’s death on Wednesday, first reported by TMZ, was followed by tributes to the former athlete, whose real name was Eldridge Wayne Coleman, from fellow wrestlers like Ric Flair and The Iron Sheik. The decorated wrestler, whose name in the ring was Superstar, was surrounded by wife Valerie Graham and daughter Capella when he was ultimately taken off life support.
“Please urgent prayers needed for my husband,” Valerie Graham wrote in a Facebook statement Monday. “The doctors wanted to remove him from life support tonight, I refused. He’s a fighter and his will is strong even if his body isn’t. God is our hope.”
A GoFundMe campaign attached to the post said Graham experienced “very serious health issues,” including diabetes, congestive heart failure and “a major infection in his ears and skull” that took six months to heal and caused hearing loss.
The fundraising campaign, which reached less than half of its goal of $50,000, previously told donors that Graham had lost 80 pounds and “continues to struggle with extreme weakness.
Graham was open about his health problems and his history of steroid abuse in his 2006 autobiography, per USA Today. He had a liver transplant in 2002, but continued to have serious liver issues.
Graham published a tell-all autobiography, “Tangled Ropes,” in 2006.
The muscle-bound high school dropout took his name as a tribute to the famed preacher Billy Graham and rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” per The Washington Post.
The Phoenix, Arizona, native was subjected to vicious physical abuse by his parents as a youngster and began lifting weights. Early bodybuilding competiton success led to a speaking invitation at a Christian revival tent meeting, where Graham realized he could fuse his brawn and passion for oration. The formula would later inspire the likes of Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura.
WWE told People in a statement Wednesday that Graham emulated Muhammad Ali when boasting about his talents to the press and used that “gift of gab” to sell out arenas.
“I took some old stuff and made it new,” Graham told the New York Daily News in an interview cited by The Washington Post. “I wasn’t some big old wrestler. I was the first guy to look and pose like a bodybuilder, dropping to one knee and do a bicep shot, showing off those 22-inch pythons.”
Graham made his WWE debut in 1975, when the group was known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation. He won three world titles during his 15-year career and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. He became a manager and commentator after he retired from the ring.
Graham’s death inspired solemn tributes on social media.