We’re always taken aback when a celebrity dies young, but it’s almost always more jolting when that celebrity is an athlete – especially one whose profession requires a high level of fitness. That was certainly the case in the shocking death of Rick McGraw in 1985, shortly after a brutal match with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
‘Quickdraw’ Rick McGraw could have been the next Bob Backlund
Rick McGraw possessed good looks and athleticism that were perfect for the “babyface” role in the world of professional wrestling in the 1980s. He turned pro shortly after a brief amateur career at Elon College and soon found himself in the World Wrestling Federation, the precursor to the WWE.
McGraw left briefly to work in the National Wrestling Alliance, forming a tag team with Troy Graham that was managed by Jimmy Hart. He was ready for prime time and returned to the WWF first as a dynamic, 5-foot-7 tag team partner and then as a featured individual. It was during that time that he was managed by Arnold Skaaland, whose stable of stars was led by the legendary Bob Backlund.
With his good looks and strong wrestling fundamentals, McGraw was thought of as someone who could be the eventual successor to Backlund, who had two lengthy runs as the WWF titleholder, and the foil to heels such as ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and The Iron Sheik. By the time of his death, however, McGraw looked to be out of shape and had become a reliable loser against big-name villains.
The brutal match with ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper
In case there’s any confusion, now is a good time to remember that pro wrestling is entertainment rather than sport. The participants are most definitely athletic even though results in the ring are pre-determined. That being said, some of the stunts, particularly leaps from the top ropes into the mat or even to the floor outside the ring, are dangerous. Miscalculations are sometimes made, resulting in real punches or knees landing on the opponent.
On a show aired on TV on Oct. 26, 1985, Rick McGraw and ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper set the stage for a match that spun out of control. McGraw was a guest on Piper’s interview segment and challenged him to a match that would take place on the following week’s show.
What viewers saw on the show that aired on Nov. 2 was by no means gruesome, but it was apparent that McGraw was taking a pounding. Piper threw McGraw out of the ring early on. When the match resumed inside the ropes, Piper was largely in command. Just-for-show stomps and punches were interspersed with power moves including a swinging neck-breaker and two DDTs, moves the begin as headlocks and give the appearance of the victim’s head being driven hard into the mat.
Ordinarily, such moves have the potential to knock the wind out of a wrestler, but McGraw was struggling more than expected less than five minutes into the match. With McGraw on his back, the referee sensed that something was wrong and stopped the bout, declaring Piper the winner. McGraw was attended to in the ring and had to be carried out of the ring.
No, ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper did not kill Rick McGraw
News traveled in a much different fashion in 1985, when television and newspapers ruled a decade before the arrival of the commercial internet. That contributed to confusion and misguided assumptions around Rick McGraw’s shocking death on Nov. 1, 1985.
The match against “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was taped Oct. 22and aired on TV on Nov. 2. The timeline was confusing and concerning to fans, who assumed that Piper had inflicted a fatal beating. In truth, Piper may have hurt McGraw, who died on Nov. 1, but not killed him.
Three days after losing to Piper, McGraw was defeated by The Spoiler in St. Louis. In the next few days, he would also take on Randy Savage, Mike Sharpe, and A.J. Petrucci on arena cards. But only the fans who actually attended the shows would have known that McGraw fought again after losing to Piper.
The truth about his death was even more tragic. An autopsy determined the cause of McGraw’s Nov. 1 death to be a heart attack, virtually unheard of for a 30-year-old athlete. However, fellow wrestler Bret Hart’s 2009 book claimed that McGraw might have abused Placidyl, which was commonly prescribed as a treatment for insomnia by means of slowing the heart rate and inducing drowsiness.