Theories behind the deaths of Eddie and Mike Graham abound to this day. Learn about the legacy and tragedy that befell this father and son.
Pro Wrestling is a sporting spectacle ripe with stories of over the top triumphs of wrestlers battling adversities and winning championships. It also has its share of jaw-dropping tragedies such as the Von Erich’s, the Benoit family, and The Grahams.
You’ve probably heard the saying: “There’s always two sides to a story, and somewhere in the middle lies the truth.” I dare say that there seems to be not just two but multiple sides to each story in pro wrestling. And even when you search somewhere in the middle, the whole truth many times remains elusive. The wrestling world is filled with people who are gone that can no longer defend themselves from criticism and allegations, and the ones that are still around often take advantage of this by trying to put themselves over while they can. This is the story of the various theories surrounding the deaths of Eddie and his son Mike Graham.
Eddie Graham (real name Edward Gossett) became known in the northeast in the late ’50s as part of a top-rated tag team with Dr. Jerry Graham, known as “The Golden Grahams” or “The Graham Brothers.” They found huge success in Boston, New York, and Washington D.C., and the other territories of Capitol Wrestling, which was the precursor to the WWF.
Did you know? Dr. Jerry Graham was Vincent K. McMahon’s favorite wrestler. As a teenager in the late ’50s, McMahon would dye his hair blond to emulate Graham and even dressed like him. Jerry Graham, wielding a hunting knife and sawed-off shotgun, would later attempt to steal his dead mother’s body from the hospital shortly after she passed away.
The coveted and very prestigious U.S. Tag Titles became theirs on several occasions until 1960 when Eddie left for Florida. Other members of this kayfabe family included “Crazy” Luke and later “Superstar” Billy Graham. When Eddie was in the New York area, he became one of the most popular and wealthiest wrestlers of that era.
“The Graham Brothers” Dr. Jerry and Eddie Graham try to stave off Antonino Rocca and Miguel Perez during wrestling’s Golden Era:
“Anytime anybody talked about wrestling,” Bill Apter once said, “Eddie Graham’s name always came up. If you came to New York and talked about wrestling in the ’50s or ’60s, The Graham Brothers were the first names they mentioned.”
In Florida, Eddie’s further success in tag team wrestling was obtained with partners Sam Steamboat, Bob Orton Sr., and “Big” Ike Eakins. Eddie also became a two-time Southern Heavyweight champion for the NWA in 1962 and ‘63.
In 1968, Eddie Graham, who was already blind in one eye since birth, just barely escaped death in a locker room when a 75-lb steel window fell on his head at Tampa’s Fort Hesterly Armory, causing both his retinas to be torn (other sources claim they became detached). The injury necessitated him to get 300 stitches on his face and head. He was ultimately awarded $23,000 by the Florida State Legislature for the damages caused and was out of action for 15 months.
In the early ’70s, he became a majority owner and bought into the Florida territory, formerly owned by his trainer “Cowboy” Bob Luttrall. There he took charge of the promoting and booking. He did bring in others to help with the booking from time to time, but Eddie always had the final say.
Eddie Graham developed professional and amateur wrestling in the sunshine state like nobody before and nobody since by generously donating vast sums of money for amateur wrestling camps, youth organizations, and various scholarships for universities in the Tampa, Florida area.
Eddie saw how important little things could change the lives of youths in the community from a very young age. As a young kid growing up in Chatanooga, Tennessee, he would sell newspapers and the newspaper, in turn, gave them all free memberships to the YMCA as a gift. Without that help, he never would have been able to afford it. This is also how he began to lift weights and was exposed to wrestling where at age 14, he met “Cowboy” Bob Luttrall. His first match was at age 17, and Eddie got paid not with money, but with a turkey. His father was not supportive of wrestling because he didn’t believe there was any money in it, but his mother backed him up wholeheartedly.
With his wrestling career winding down, he teamed with his son Mike and together, they won the Florida and Georgia versions of the Tag Titles, while he himself stayed active until 1980.
The father and son team of Eddie and Mike Graham battle Dick Slater and Pak Song in 1974:
Eddie Graham’s colleagues demonstrated how much they respected his mind for the business by electing him president of the NWA from 1976-78. With the territories thriving during his tenure, he was also instrumental in the historic unification title bout between WWWF World Champion “Superstar” Billy Graham and NWA World Champion Harley Race. At the time, the event held at The Orange Bowl in Miami was called “The Super Bowl of Wrestling,” and after a 60-minute bout, it ended in a controversial draw in front of a reported 12,000 fans under stormy conditions.
With Gorilla Monsoon and Don Curtis as the referees, the third fall began with the bout tied one fall apiece. “Superstar” Graham, with his shoulders pinned on the mat and clearly not responding due to Race’s sleeper hold, was literally saved by the bell after Curtis counted to only “one” before the time limit expired.
Once his in-ring career was over, Eddie Graham focused on his charitable organizations, real estate deals, and the Florida territory’s continual promotion. In terms of population, the whole state was going through a growth spurt.
This is when, according to his son Mike, his father saw the writing on the wall that spelled doom for the territory and the business he loved.
The ’80s is when the continuous squabbling and backstabbing amongst the power-hungry owners of the different NWA territories finally caught up to them. A young upstart by the name of Vincent K. McMahon in 1982 acquired Capitol Wrestling Co. from his father and split from the NWA. He decided to take his product national while disregarding the regional agreements held by the NWA owners since 1948.
With the various territories collapsing and closing operations, one of the final strongholds of the weakened NWA became the Carolinas under Jim Crockett Promotions, led by Jim Crockett Jr. or “Jimmy” as he was referred to by Mike Graham. He also had a vision of a national product but at the expense of using surviving territories like Florida as an unofficial “farm system” where he would lure Dusty Rhodes, Barry Windham, Lex Luger, and Ron Bass to his promotion in Charlotte. By now, he was refereeing and promoting it as the NWA as if his partners didn’t exist. Magnum T.A. was also a key star that left Florida, but he had a brief but memorable stint in Bill Watt’s Mid-South before heading to Charlotte.
According to Mike Graham, in this Kayfabe Commentary shoot interview, Dusty Rhodes leaving Florida may have been the territory’s deathblow.
Meanwhile, the WWF continued to purge the NWA and AWA of its stars to stem the tide in its favor further. On July 14th, 1984, to the horror of many fans and what would later be called “Black Saturday,” the WWF took over the time slot on Superstation WTBS that once belonged to Georgia Championship Wrestling. By all accounts, Georgia was easily one of the top territories of the NWA.
A now megastar named Hulk Hogan began to run wild in arenas and television screens across the country. This made-for-TV muscleman, who urged the chants of the fans while ripping his t-shirt off to the theme of “Eye of The Tiger,” seemingly threatened the other wrestling companies with his leg drop finisher as if to put an end to their futile attempts of recovering their once-dominant form. The WWF was moving at breakneck speed and permanently sprinting ahead of this wrestling race as if it were between a tortoise and a hare. With no respect for the old guard, Vince McMahon was destined to end the territory system.
The Death of Eddie Graham
Amidst all this, Eddie Graham took his own life at the age of 55 on January 20th, 1985, with a self-inflicted gunshot to the temple using a large caliber revolver. In a shoot interview conducted by Kayfabe Memories, his son believed that various factors, including financial, personal troubles, his girlfriend, and his long struggle with alcohol, may have led to his father taking his own life.
After his father’s passing and the circumstances wrestling was in, it would have been almost impossible for anybody to keep CWF afloat. He wound up selling his interests to Jim Crockett Jr. in 1987 and later got hired as a trainer and booker for WCW.
Bill Apter, who met Graham in 1971, says that Graham killed himself “in a period of change that I don’t think he would have been happy to live through. I think he would believe there’s too much of this show-biz entertainment. Graham always sold wrestling.”
In wrestling business terms, Mike’s father seemed to have seen the writing on the wall and foresaw the continued crumbling and eventual sinking of the NWA at the hands of the future juggernaut of wrestling, the WWF. Now a global corporation that goes by the name of “World Wrestling Entertainment,” this monster of sports entertainment had over 930 million dollars in revenue in 2018.
Terry Funk recalls Eddie not having a lot of formal education, but became a self-made individual who learned to fly planes and captain boats. A person that saw Dory Funk in Amarillo become heavily involved in the community, and in turn, many opportunities in business opened for him. In his book, he further states Terry Funk: More Than Just Hardcore, “Eddie had a great mind for the business and a great feel for the fans. He had a great mind for the manipulation and continuation of what you would call storylines today. He was very ahead of his time in terms of how he promoted.”
When someone becomes very powerful and influential, they will always have defenders and detractors. Former NWA World Champion “Rugged” Ronnie Garvin agreed that Eddie had an excellent business mind. However, in a shoot interview with Hannibal TV, he stated, “Eddie Graham, as a human being, was a piece of shit. He’d pilot his plane while drunk.”
Garvin would speculate about Eddie’s suicide and mentioned that he had a girlfriend at the time, even though he was married.
Five or six years after Eddie’s death, his son Mike showed Garvin a check for $600,000 after selling land for The Florida Sheriff’s Boy’s Ranch his father had owned. Ronnie further stated, “Even with all that money, [Mike] still wasn’t happy.”
“The Assassin” Jody Hamilton remembers a time when Eddie Graham didn’t do so well in business, and troubles were starting to brew. He recounts from his book, Assassin, “Shortly after I took over the book (in Florida), Eddie Graham and Buddy Fuller went to Australia and took their girlfriends with them. They had bought the promotion in Australia from Jim Barnett and were convinced they would take the country by storm. Eddie told us, ‘We’re going to quadruple the business that Barnett did.’ Of course, history shows that they failed and lost their entire investment.”
Hamilton further states, “There was a lot of bickering going on in the office between the partners. While I was trying to conduct business, the partners would all be in Eddie’s office — hollering, screaming, yelling, and arguing.
“When times were good, and business was booming, there were no problems. But when business slowed down, Eddie would go to them and say, ‘The partners all need to cough up some money to get us through this slump. You have to come up with [a specific amount of money], which is based on your percentage of the towns you own.'”
Jody Hamilton also admits that Eddie made huge contributions to Florida, amateur wrestling, and the youth. Still, even though he was knowledgeable and had great ideas, the alcohol could often cloud his judgment.
In a shoot interview with Hannibal TV, Kevin Sullivan admitted, “He got caught up with the wrong people. With so many stories on Eddie’s death, there’s a little truth in all of them.”
Sullivan agrees with Jody that Eddie had a brilliant mind for the business, but alcoholism was one of his demons that sometimes led him to make bad decisions. He claims that Eddie had been sober for 13 years, but maybe fell off the wagon while on a fishing trip with himself and son Mike. He further states that since Eddie believed he was smart, he never thought that he could be conned. Eddie supposedly knew a person in the political scene who was also part of the planning department. Rumors are that he invested a lot of money based on illegal inside information from this person. Once fired, there was fear that he’d be exposed. It would have been an embarrassing situation for him in the community, add to this the problems of him having a girlfriend while being married.
This theory about a real estate deal gone wrong is one that “Superstar” Billy Graham also believes had something to do with Eddie’s suicide. Eddie had worked his whole life to portray a decent image of a respected person in the community. This alleged fraud would’ve been the end of him, and he was facing probable jail time if convicted according to “Superstar” Graham.
Kevin Sullivan further speculates that maybe Eddie had health issues because his body changed. He doesn’t toss out the possibility that the alcohol had something to do with it.
Dutch Mantell, who was hired to book Florida in 1984, recalls Eddie always “tense and troubled.” He remembers not talking to Eddie to “pick his brain” because he was always on the phone with someone at the office. He, too, believed in the rumor of “real estate with a shady background to it,” as one of the main catalysts of Eddie deciding to take his life, along with business being down in Florida with all the talent that had gone to the Carolinas.
California-based psychiatrist Dr. David Reiss, CEO of Beyond Wellness Talent Protection, comments, “Theoretically, many factors may have contributed to Eddie’s suicide, including chronic depression, alcoholism, long-term effects of the acute head injury as well as possible chronic pain or the additional cumulative effects of minor head injuries related to Eddie’s wrestling career. We can only speculate how these factors affected Eddie’s behavior and relationship with Mike, but there had to have been a significant impact.”
The Death of Mike Graham
On October 18th, 2012, at the age of 61, Mike Graham (real name Edward Michael Gossett) committed suicide, just like his father, by way of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in Daytona Beach, Florida, while attending an annual event for motorcycle enthusiasts called Biketoberfest.
Mike’s son Stephen Edward Gossett at the age of 37, also took his own life the same way, at the same event two years earlier on December 15th, 2010.
Kevin Sullivan claims that after all these deaths, he found out that Eddie’s father (Mike’s grandfather) also committed suicide, and Eddie had a brother with terminal cancer who also decided to take his own life.
Sullivan remembers Mike saying once to him, Jerry Brisco, and a couple of other friends after both his father and later his son had passed away, “I must have been a horrible son and a horrible father.” Sullivan continued, “Mike went downhill after his son died. He wasted away to nothing.”
Sullivan also recalls a chilling phone call after being Mike’s final ever guest on his radio show “Talking Wrestling With Mike Graham,” Afterward, he was strangely emotional and told Kevin that he loved him. Six days later, Mike had killed himself.
According to The Post Courier, in an eerily similar phone call from Eddie Graham to his son, before killing himself on Super Bowl Sunday in 1985, he also called his son Mike to remind him that he loved him. Could he have picked this day in order not to garner too much attention?
Although it can be said that Mike Graham had success in pro wrestling compared to so many that have laced up boots and entered the squared circle, he never became a major star and certainly didn’t reach the heights that his father Eddie did. Mike entered the sport against his mother Lucy’s wishes as she did not want Mike’s wife to go through what she did during Eddie Graham’s career in which many times he’d be injured or come home bloodied.
She was also aware of the dismaying task Mike would have, trying to live up to the Graham family name his father had established. In the long run, it seems like his height also became a huge obstacle in getting the big push he needed in wrestling. So much so, that Dusty Rhodes, in a shoot interview with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, says that he became Eddie’s “wrestling son” because of certain limitations Mike had, such as his height.
The 16-time world champion “Nature Boy” Ric Flair is quick to defend his former friend, “Mike Graham was as tough as they come, a phenomenal performer who never got the recognition he deserved because he was considered too small be a championship contender. His reputation was legit for his size. He was very tough.”
Famed play-by-play announcer Gordon Solie respected Mike’s gutsiness and fortitude in the ring. “He’d go toe-to-toe with a buzz saw and give it the first two rounds.”
Before wrestling professionally, Mike was a three-time state AAU collegiate wrestling champion and state champion at the 154-pound weight class. As a sophomore, he defeated a senior named Richard Blood, who later became Ricky Steamboat. Mike was also an accomplished powerlifter who set state records in the bench press.
Former NWA world champ Dory Funk Jr recalls, “Young Mike Graham would take on all comers to see if they had the skill and credibility to become a pro wrestler.”
At the time of Mike’s death, he was wearing his son’s old work boots.
“In Mike’s case,” comments Dr. Reiss, “it appears that the most compelling contributory factor was the suicide of his son in 2010. But Mike was battling an enemy who used powerful weapons on every level- biochemical, cognitive, psychological, interpersonal, and practical.”
In the incident report, his wife comments that after the suicide of their son, Mike threatened to commit suicide on several occasions.
Studies now also show that parents’ behavioral traits can pass to their children is a predisposition toward alcohol abuse and addiction.
In a Kayfabe Commentaries shoot interview with Jim Cornette, Kevin Sullivan says that Eddie told him that he got divorced in Amarillo, Texas, from his wife Lucy when Mike was around two or three years old. But because he loved his boy so much, he stuck with her. He says that a couple of years after Eddie died, Mike found out and confronted Sullivan on why he didn’t tell him he had known. Now things started to fall in place for Mike, and he realized that maybe he had been too hard on his father. There were times when he didn’t get along with him, but Eddie usually got along fine with Kevin.
Bill Watts offered, “The suicide was more understandable with Eddie because of the things he was doing, but with Mike, you never saw it coming. There was no premonition of it.”
“On a biochemical basis,” says Dr. Reiss, “recent studies have found that the stress of any childhood trauma causes subtle chemical changes in the brain that are associated with a risk of depression and suicide.”
Remembering Eddie and Mike Graham
Eddie and Mike Graham should be remembered first and foremost for their contributions to wrestling and how they left the sport better than how they entered it through their high standards in the ring. Through his civic work, Eddie Graham left behind a better world and helped shape many youths that now as adults appreciate all that he did. But sadly, the tragic way their lives ended will certainly be talked about for generations to come by fans and non-followers of the grappling game alike.
Eddie Graham was inducted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame in 1996 and the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008. In the latter, he was inducted posthumously by Dusty Rhodes with his son Mike Graham accepting the honor on his father’s behalf.
Mike Graham was a 16-time NWA Florida Tag Team Champion with various partners. He was awarded the Pro Wrestling Illustrated Rookie of The Year award in 1972. He was also ranked #100 in the PWI 500 for 1992.
Mike Graham utilizing his father’s death for an angle that turns violent!
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