MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Mike Graham suicide leaves family, friends searching for answers
The recent passing of Florida wrestling star Mike Graham has left family, friends and fans wondering why.
How could a personable, athletic, fun-loving man make the tragic decision to take his own life?
Graham, 61, real name Edward Michael Gossett, was found dead on the night of Oct. 18 while on a trip to Daytona Beach where he and his wife were attending an annual event for motorcycle enthusiasts.
The cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
It was at the same event where their son, Stephen Edward Gossett, committed suicide on Dec. 15, 2010. He was 37.
The answer to the question “why” may be found in some disturbing and heart-wrenching family history.
Graham’s father, legendary wrestler and promoter Eddie Graham, also took his own life 27 years ago.
Eddie Graham (Gossett) had been one of the most powerful and influential men in wrestling during the ‘70s and was largely responsible for the phenomenal success of Championship Wrestling from Florida during that era.
The perennial blond-haired babyface also provided a fertile training ground for a number of future stars and bookers that included the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Jack Brisco, Kevin Sullivan, Gary Hart and Cowboy Bill Watts.
But Eddie, whose numerous civic and charitable duties outside the squared circle made him a local celebrity and one of Florida’s favorite citizens, engaged in a torturous battle with his own personal demons. Graham was an alcoholic who friends say led a double life. Some questionable dealings in real estate had put him on shaky financial ground, and there were reports that jail could have been his next stop.
Before that happened, however, Graham put a 38- caliber, blue-steel Smith & Wesson revolver to his right temple and pulled the trigger on the day of the 1985 Super Bowl, choosing that day to draw the least amount of attention to a grieving family.
Three days before his death, Graham had called his son, who was leaving with his wife for the Super Bowl in San Francisco.
“’He said, ‘Mike, I love you.’ I said, ‘Dad, I know that,”’ Mike Graham related at the time. “We weren’t real mushy, but there was never any doubt as regards to love. It struck me funny. I said, ‘Dad, what’s wrong?’ He said, ‘I just never told you before, and I wanted you to know.’’’
Three days later, in the middle of the pre-game show at the Super Bowl, Mike Graham heard himself being paged. ‘’I thought it was a joke.’’ He went to the phone. It was his mother-in-law. His father had shot himself. He flew home that day.
Eddie Graham’s death, five days after his 55th birthday, left a void in Florida wrestling that would never be filled.
Mike, only 33 at the time and reeling from the sudden death of his father, could not combat the ever-increasing presence of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation and preserve the once-thriving territory. The departure of top star Dusty Rhodes to Jim Crockett Promotions eventually sealed the fate of the Florida promotion.
Graham sold the foundering business to Crockett in 1987 and later worked as an agent and trainer for World Championship Wrestling.
“When Eddie passed away, took his life, it was a very difficult time for Mike,” wrestling great and WWE agent Jerry Brisco told the Miami Herald. “Mike tried to take over (CWF) at a time when Vince was expanding. It was a tough time in the business. It was very hard on Mike. He was very disappointed. It was a time that was almost impossible for anyone to make it.”
While his father’s suicide plagued Graham for years, it was the death of his own son two years ago that pushed him into a state of depression and despondency.
Haunting words from Mike’s widow, Diane Marie Hamilton, help explain why Graham decided to follow in the tragic footsteps of his father and his son.
“When Stephen took his life Mike said, ‘I must’ve been a bad son for my dad to do this and I must’ve been a bad father for my son to do this.’ And he took it so personal that he felt guilty that he didn’t do it,” she told a Tampa news station.
Even so, she added, there had been no indication that he was actually going to take his own life.
“There were no signs leading up to it, no warnings, my job was to protect him.”
His wife told authorities that she found him with a gunshot wound to the head. According to the report, she told officers she had left after having a fight with him, and heard a shot.
She still doesn’t believe her husband’s suicide was planned.
“I know in my heart it was just a spur of the moment decision, and if he could’ve turned around and looked at himself and saw what he did, that he would’ve said, ‘Oops, I didn’t mean to do that.’”
The incident report, however, stated that, according to his wife, Graham “had threatened to commit suicide frequently ever since (his) son committed suicide two years prior during Biketoberfest.”
Hall of Fame wrestler and promoter Cowboy Bill Watts was one of Graham’s many friends who was shocked by the news.
“It (suicide) was more understandable with Eddie because of the things he was doing,” he said. “But with Mike ... you just never saw it coming. There was no premonition of it.”
California-based psychiatrist Dr. David Reiss, CEO of Beyond Wellness Talent Protection, addressed the tragedy of multi-generational suicide.
“While it is fairly common knowledge that depression can ‘run in a family,’ to have suicides of men in three successive generations is unusually and horribly tragic,” said Reiss. “In Mike Graham’s case, from his wife’s statement — and basic common sense — it certainly appears that the most compelling contributory factor was the suicide of his son, Steve, in 2010.”
Mike was wearing his son’s old work boots at the time of his death.
‘Tough as they come’
At 5-7 and 210 pounds, Mike Graham might have been small in stature for the wrestling business, but his athletic ability more than made up for his lack of size. Like his dad, Graham exuded toughness.
A three-time state AAU champion, he excelled on the mat at Tampa’s Robinson High, a school whose wrestling program was jump-started by Graham’s father and would produce such future stars as Dick Slater, Steve Keirn, Austin Idol (Mike McCord) and Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea).
Graham was a state champion in the 154-pound weight class and, as a sophomore, defeated a senior named Richard Blood (later to become Ricky Steamboat) in the finals of a district meet.
Graham also was an accomplished power lifter who possessed exceptional strength and set state records in the bench press
Moreover, Graham was a legit tough guy, a technically skilled shooter who could more than handle things inside and outside of the ring.
“Mike Graham was as tough as they come. His reputation was legit for his size. He was very tough,” said 16-time world champion Ric Flair.
Former NWA world champ Dory Funk Jr. recalled Mike as a youngster eager to learn the ropes and follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I knew Mike Graham as a young boy who loved wrestling and weight training. At the age of 11, Mike was an accomplished scuba diver and amateur wrestler. Young Mike Graham would take on all comers to see if they had the skill and credibility to become a professional wrestler.”
But, like many children of famous parents, Mike also had the daunting responsibility of living up to the Graham name.
He had left the University of Tampa to turn pro — against the wishes of his mother Lucy. “It’s a rough life, I knew; it’s no fun to see your husband come home bleeding, and I didn’t want Mike’s wife to put up with that,” she told a Florida newspaper in 1985.
Although his career was successful by most standards, Mike never became a major star and would achieve nowhere near the level of success his father had in the business.
“He had a lot to deal with in his growing up years, and he had to try and follow in his father’s footsteps,” said Dotty Curtis, widow of wrestling great Don Curtis and a longtime Graham family friend. “Sometimes they didn’t take him down a pretty path. Being an only child must have been rough because he didn’t have any siblings to fall back on. His mother adored him and tried to give him a normal childhood. He in turn tried to protect her.”
Suicide, notes Reiss, is a complex subject. But speaking from a statistical standpoint, the psychological impact of substance abuse on a child also must be considered.
A 2001 California study found that individuals who grew up with substance abuse in the home had a seven percent chance of making a suicide attempt, while with no substance abuse in the home, the risk was only 2.6 percent.
On a biochemical basis, says Reiss, recent studies have found that the stress of any type of childhood trauma causes subtle chemical changes in the brain that are associated with a risk of depression and suicide.
“In Mike’s case,” notes Reiss, “not only did his father eventually kill himself (when Mike was 33 years old) but also when Mike was 17, his father suffered a severe head injury when a steel window fell on his head, detaching both retinas and leading to an extended period of disability.”
An accident involving Graham at Tampa’s Fort Hesterly Armory in 1968 gained widespread attention and took Graham out of wrestling for 15 months. A 75-pound steel window fell on Graham’s head while he was putting on his shoes in the dressing room.
Graham, already blind in one eye from birth, suffered torn retinas in both eyes and such severe injuries otherwise he needed 300 stitches around his head and face.
“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,” added Reiss. “We can only speculate how these factors affected Eddie’s behavior and relationship with Mike, but there had to have been a significant negative impact.”
“Looking back it is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and see the handwriting on the wall,” said Curtis. “His father was an alcoholic, and Mike battled demons. His father and his only son committed suicide. Mike must have been battling those demons as well, since I now have found out that both of those problems are hereditary. His mother passed away, thank goodness, before Mike’s son died, because either of these two tragedies would have surely broken her heart and probably killed her. She was a beautiful, gentle, Southern lady.”
Graham, who was selected as Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Rookie of The Year in 1972, was a mainstay on the Florida circuit during the ‘70s and early 80’s and was a favorite of famed wrestling announcer Gordon Solie.
“He’d go toe-to-toe with a buzz saw and give it the first two rounds,” Solie would say of the gutsy Graham, one of the top babyfaces in the territory.
He often teamed with his famous father, and the two won a number of tag-team titles, including the Georgia and Florida tag-team championships. It was his pairing with childhood friend Keirn, though, that catapulted him to the top of the tag-team rankings.
Graham was a two-time AWA world light heavyweight champion and holder of numerous other titles including the Florida heavyweight title, the Florida TV title, the NWA U.S. junior heavyweight title, the NWA International junior heavyweight title, NWA Georgia tag-team title (with Eddie Graham), NWA world tag-team title (with Kevin Sullivan), and the North American and U.S. tag-team titles with Keirn.
He held the NWA tag-team title on 16 occasions (nine times with Keirn, three times with Sullivan and with Eddie Graham, Ken Lucas, Ray Stevens and Barry Windham).
Ric Flair, who spent much of this year’s Wrestlemania weekend in Miami Beach with Graham, said his friend was one of his favorite opponents during his many tours of Florida defending the title.
“Mike Graham was one of the classiest guys I’ve ever known in my life. He was a phenomenal performer that never got the recognition he deserved because he was considered too small to be a championship contender. He was the last member of one of the greatest legacies in the history of wrestling — The Grahams.”
The Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., resident had begun hosting a weekly radio show in June called Talking Wrestling with Mike Graham.
Watts, who had appeared on the show, continues to grapple with Graham’s death.
“Mike’s passing just blew me away,” he said. “We had talked a lot, reminisced and laughed. We had such great times. And then bam!”
Watts, like many other Graham friends, didn’t see it coming.
“There was no hint at all. It was almost like he planned it.”
Acquaintances say Graham, more than anyone, was well aware of the tragic effects suicide had on surviving family members. They wonder how he could put a surviving daughter and granddaughter through such an ordeal.
“He told us his daughter rejected him, blaming him for the deaths in some part for his mother and his son,” lamented Curtis.
A disagreement between Graham and his son reportedly had led to Graham asking him to leave the house.
Reiss says exactly what caused Mike Graham to take his life will probably never be known.
“But while the horrible loss of his son is the most obvious and probably powerful contributory factors,” says Reiss, “Mike was battling an enemy which used powerful weapons on every level — biochemical, cognitive, psychological, interpersonal and practical — an enemy which can only be roughly approximated and actually under-appreciated even by facing the most fearful opponent or storyline that may occur within the squared circle.”
Curtis says the last time she saw Graham was in February when she and daughter Lisa attended a luncheon in Tampa.
“There were quite a few people there, and Mike and Lisa sat at a table with Louie and Judy (Tillet) Michaud, and I was at another table. At the end of the luncheon, everyone left except for my daughter, Mike and me. Lisa and Mike (like brother and sister in younger years) had a lot to catch up on, and when I came to their table, they were deep in conversation. My daughter was voicing concerns about how Mike was doing after Stephen’s death, and he opened up to her and told her he was handling it, but concerned about his daughter’s separation from him.”
“The smile was there, and he was a great, warm human being,” said Curtis. “Lisa and he shared a beer together, and then we hugged and left, never knowing the torments in his life were still there. It has been hard to deal with.”
“While I was shocked, I wasn’t surprised to hear how he died,” Dr. Tom Prichard posted on his blog. “No one can judge a person’s actions or state of mind unless they’ve been where they’ve been. It’s not easy to say goodbye.”
“Losing Mike was such a shock. I have known him since he was a cute little kid with that great winning smile,” said Curtis. “He was like a big brother to my girls, and they had many good times together at the Gossett home in Tampa when they were growing up.”
She says Graham’s suicide has left questions that may never be answered.
“Truly this is one of the saddest, tragic stories that our family has had to deal with, other than the loss of Don. Mike was part of our extended family, and all we are left with is tears and a ‘Why?’”
Flair says he prefers to remember Mike Graham as the fun-loving guy with that all-too-familiar Hawaiian shirt who spent many happy times with Flair and his family.
“We’d get drunk in his boat all afternoon and then go wrestle for an hour somewhere. I never drank before I wrestled until I was with him,” he joked. “I loved Mike to death. He was such a great guy.”
A celebration of life for Graham — not a funeral — was held in Largo, Fla. Nearly 500 people, including a number of retired professional wrestlers, attended.
Graham’s widow told Tampa’s Bay News 9 station that she had found comfort in knowing she was truly loved for 23 years.
“Nobody has ever or will ever love me the way that Mike loved me. And that I loved him in a way that I never loved anybody before. And that is something that I get to take with me for the rest of my life.”
— Former WWE CEO Linda McMahon’s tab for her two failed Senate bids (2010 and 2012) in Connecticut: $90 million.
WWE Hall of Famer Roddy Piper offered a suggestion on Twitter how that sizable sum could have been better spent.
Posted the Rowdy One: “Linda McMahon can spend 90 million on a losing election but won’t give the people that earned that money for them medical or retirement help of any kind.”
To her credit, though, she got her voice heard and contributed to the national political discussion. And, as one reporter noted, she proved that wealth doesn’t always buy political office.
— Newest members of the GeorgiaWrestlingHistory.com Hall of Fame include The Armstrongs (Bob, Brad, Scott and Steve), Ray Gunkel, Buddy Fuller, Nick Bockwinkel and Dick Slater.
— Old School Championship Wrestling will present its final card of the year with an event today at the Hanahan Rec Center.
Former WWE star Gangrel will team with Dr. Creo to meet Michael Frehley and Steven Walters in a match to determine the No. 1 contender for the OSCW tag title.
Bell time is 5 p.m.
— The first local WWE TV taping in several years will be held Dec. 4 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The Smackdown double main event features Big Show defending his world heavyweight title against former champ Sheamus, and a challenge match between Randy Orton and Alberto Del Rio.
Ticket prices are $95 $50, $35, $25 and $15.