Former professional wrestler and WWE Hall of Famer “Superstar” Billy Graham has died aged 79.
Fellow wrestling Hall of Famer Ric Flair broke the news on Twitter.
“The Superstar Billy Graham just left us. Thank you for all your influence on my career!” he tweeted, sharing a photo of Graham in his younger years.
Earlier this week, Graham had been placed on life support ahead of what would have been his 80th birthday on June 7. He had spent most of this year in hospital after battling numerous health issues including congestive heart failure, diabetes and hearing loss.
Graham, real name Eldridge Wayne Coleman, was a bodybuilder and Canadian football player before he became a professional wrestler in the 1960s. He made his debut in the then-World Wide Wrestling Federation (or WWE as it is known today) in 1975 and became one of the company’s biggest stars. He also inspired Hulk Hogan to become a wrestler.
“Superstar Billy Graham is the reason I wanted to become a wrestler,” Hogan wrote in 2017. “I remember my dad taking me to see him wrestle as a kid at the Armory in Tampa and I remember pointing at Superstar and telling my dad I want to be just like him.”
Graham defeated Bruno Sammartino for the WWF Heavyweight Championship in 1977 and wrestled across America and Japan during his title reign. He also competed in the National Wrestling Alliance, American Wrestling Association and Continental Wrestling Association before returning to the WWE.
In 1996, he was part of the inaugural class of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by then-world heavyweight champion Triple H, who was also inspired by Graham to become a professional wrestler.
Graham is survived by his second wife Valerie and two children Capella and Joey from a previous relationship.
Tributes to 'Superstar' Billy Graham
A number of former and current pro wrestlers have taken to social media to pay tribute to Graham.
The WWE said it was saddened by his death and extended their “condolences to Graham’s family, friends, and fans”. Wrestling manager and promoter Paul Heyman tweeted “a most heartfelt RIP” to Graham and shared a photo of the wrestler in his younger days.
Fellow WWE Hall of Famer the Iron Sheikh said together they “hit the gym and shock the earth”. He continued: “I love you forever brother. RIP”, while sharing two photos including one of the pair together.
Former wrestler Sean Waltman, who also lost his close friend Scott Hall last year, tweeted his condolences. “RIP to the most copied man ever in Pro Wrestling,” he wrote.
WWE's Zelina Vega shared a photo of when she met Graham in 2011 and recalled how sweet he had been.
Former wrestling writer Vince Russo praised how ahead of his time Graham was. “There was no wrestler in the history of the business that was so far ahead of his time than 'SuperStar' Billy Graham,” he wrote. “If you weren't around to see him – you really missed something. He was it, man. He was it.”
Former wrestler The Honky Tonk Man sent his condolences to Graham's family and friends while saying how nice he was to be around.
Current Impact Wrestling star Frankie Kazarian tweeted: “RIP Superstar Billy Graham. Your influence on our industry will be felt forever. Literally forever. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us. Fans and wrestlers alike.”
Former wrestler Jesse Ventura, who competed in the WWE in the 1970s and 80s, also said Graham had inspired him.
“There wouldn't be a Jesse 'The Body' Ventura without the in-ring success and trailblazing showmanship of Superstar Billy Graham. One of my proudest wrestling memories was having the honor of being inducted into the same WWE Hall of Fame class as Graham. Rest In Power Superstar.”