In an industry purposely mired in mystery, it's no surprise that professional wrestling has its share of mysteries that continue to puzzle its fans. Even with the explosion of shoot videos and tell-all books, fans still talk about some of wrestling's unexplained happenings, wondering what really happened. Join me now as I explore wrestling's unsolved mysteries, legends, and conventional wisdom to uncover the truth. Today, we'll look at a death that some attribute to a savage beating that supposedly took place in the ring and try to solve the question-did Roddy Piper kill Rick McGraw?
The scene was the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) during the waning months of 1985. Wrestlemania had come and gone and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper was riding high as the promotion's top heel (some would argue the top heel at the time in all of wrestling). Despite his status as the promotion's number one villain, Piper rarely wrestled on weekly television. Like Hulk Hogan, the WWF limited Piper's in-ring appearances, making them something they would have to pay to see. However while WWF fans didn't see Piper wrestle on tv, that didn't mean they didn't get to see the Rowdy Scot.
Every week, fans tuned in to WWF Championship Wrestling to watch Piper's Pit, the hottest talk segment in wrestling. Joined by his bodyguard "Cowboy" Bob Orton, Piper's segment on Championship Wrestling was usually the best part of the one hour wrestling show, serving as a showcase for Piper's incredible skills as a talker. The weekly interview featured "Rowdy" Roddy Piper doing what he did best-using his ability on the mic to drive the crowd into a frenzy. Piper's Pit served as a way for Piper to get over as a heel while furthering angles between various wrestlers. One week it might feature Piper harassing a babyface involved in a feud with one of Piper's fellow heels; another it might show Piper laying out a babyface (as he infamously did when he blasted "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka with a coconut). Wrestling fans quickly came to expect the unexpected on Piper's Pit.
One such incident involved a wrestler by the name of "Quick Draw" Rick McGraw appearing on the Pit. McGraw began his career in 1976, working various territories such as Memphis, Southwest Championship Wrestling, Montreal, Jim Crockett Promotions, and the World Wrestling Federation. McGraw won several regional championships and worked one of the WWF's historic Showdown at Shea supercards (losing to Greg Gagne during the days when the promotion was still known as the WWWF) and battling the Fabulous Ones as one half of the heel tag team known as the New York Dolls (with tag partner Troy Graham). McGraw, no stranger to the WWF, returned to the company in the mid 1980's as enhancement talent. He was what some fans referred to as a "jobber to the stars", an enhancement wrestler who got in his fair share of blows against his opponents but eventually lost nonetheless. McGraw was a good worker who could sell and make his opponents look like dynamite. While he won matches against preliminary guys, his win-loss record against name talent was miniscule.
In the fall of 1985, McGraw appeared on an episode of "Piper's Pit". Unlike most of Piper's guests, McGraw had a lot of questions to ask. The spirited wrestler wanted to know why Roddy Piper never wrestled on television, why he needed a bodyguard, and why he wore a dress (referring to Piper's kilt). McGraw taunted Piper, accusing him of talking trash but failing to back it up in the ring. McGraw's tactics infuriated Piper to the point where the usually silver-tongued devil tripped over his words. Enraged, Piper agreed to face McGraw the following week on Championship Wrestling. The crowd cheered as McGraw gave Piper something to think about for the next week-a wicked slap to the face!
Following up on the success of the previous week, McGraw taunted the Rowdy Scot further by wearing one of Piper's trademark "Hot Rod" t-shirts into the ring. McGraw's antics continued as he blew his nose into the t-shirt and threw it at his opponent. Piper left the ring and told the fans "I'm going to show you why they don't let me wrestle on television." Piper returned to the ring only to be ambushed by McGraw. Wasting no time, McGraw attacked Piper while he took off his t-shirt, gaining an early advantage. However Piper mounted a comeback, sending McGraw out of the ring and slamming him into the security rail not once but twice. Just when things looked to be over for McGraw, he mounted a comeback, firing off punches at Piper. McGraw's comeback was short-lived though and the "Hot Rod" went to work, brutalizing McGraw with a neckbreaker, a suplex, and even a DDT(An interesting aside-Piper used the DDT twice during the match with color commentator Bruno Sammartino referring to the move as "some kind of piledriver"). Finally, the referee stopped the match after it was clear McGraw could not continue the match.
After the brutal encounter, Piper taunted his opponent, shouting "Now you know why they don't let me wrestle on television". The violent match served two purposes. Not only was it an entertaining match for the fans but it also reinforced Piper's image as a cocky heel who could back up his talk in the ring. McGraw suffered what looked like a savage beating, adding to Piper's reputation as a guy you didn't want to anger.
What happened next changed the match from a highly entertaining one into something of a mystery for many fans. Not long after the match aired in syndication, Rick McGraw passed away unexpectedly at the age of just thirty. To some fans, it was clear what had happened-Rick McGraw had been beat to death by Roddy Piper. In their mind, the injuries McGraw suffered at the hands of Piper led to his young death. With kayfabe in full effect, some fans couldn't help but speculate that Piper had killed McGraw.
But what really happened? Did Roddy Piper beat McGraw to death? Did he somehow hurt McGraw, triggering a heart attack? McGraw's death wouldn't be the first death that occurred in the ring. Wrestler Ox Baker was credited with killing not one, but two opponents in the ring with his devastating "Heart Punch" (the Ox Baker story will be discussed in a future column). Did a similar event take place here between McGraw and Piper? Let's review the possibilities:
1. Roddy Piper beat Rick McGraw to death: While discussing this theory, it's important to remember that the Piper/McGraw match occurred prior to Vince McMahon destroying kayfabe by announcing that matches were worked. When you consider that some fans at the time believed that wrestling was a legitimate sporting event, it's no surprise then that some people believed McGraw's beating in the ring caused his death. When you also factor in McGraw's impressive bump-taking ability, there's little doubt why some people thought the young star suffered a tremendous beatown.
The reality however was much different. While McGraw did a great job selling for Piper, he sustained no damage in the ring. However is it possible that McGraw suffered a heart attack due to an accidental blow? Possible but unlikely.
2. McGraw died due to performance enhancing substances: The Rick McGraw who wrestled in the WWF shortly before his death looked different than the Rick McGraw who worked elsewhere before. Like many wrestlers who entered the WWF from another territory, McGraw seemed to have added a good amount of muscle to his physique. While McGraw always kept himself in good shape, he appeared bigger than ever. He also had the puffed up face that steroid users sometimes had, leading to natural speculation. To my knowledge, there was no toxicology report done on McGraw so speculation is all we have to go on for this theory.
3. McGraw died due to drug abuse: This theory has grown in prominence thanks to Bret Hart's autobiography Hitman where he discusses seeing McGraw completely wasted on drugs during his stint in the WWF. From what Hart saw, McGraw's body just couldn't cope with all of the Placidyls Hart believed McGraw was taking.
Regardless of the cause of death, the passing of Rick McGraw was just one of many tragic deaths that cut a promising wrestler's life way too short. It's possible that McGraw was one of those people who had a heart which was a ticking time bomb. It's also possible that steroid and/or drug abuse contributed to his untimely demise. Without knowing McGraw's family medical history, it's impossible to rule out a pre-existing condition that could have caused his death.
Mike Rickard II is the author of Wrestling's Greatest Moments (published by ECW Press), a look back at the greatest matches, angles, and feuds of the last thirty years. The book is now availble for pre-order through amazon.com