WWE Hall of Famer George “The Animal” Steele, known for his green tongue and eating turnbuckle pads, has died, the WWE announced Friday. He was 79.
Steele, whose real name was William James Myers, had spent time in hospice care for parts of the last nine months, announcing on Twitter last spring that he was dealing with “serious health issues.”
Despite his in-character vocabulary being limited to a handful of one syllable words, Steele had a master’s degree from Central Michigan. Before he became a full-time wrestler, he was a teacher and wrestling coach at a high school Madison Heights, Mich. He was later inducted into the Michigan Coaches Hall of Fame.
He briefly played football as an undergraduate at Michigan State before knee issues ended his career.
Steele, inducted in the third WWE Hall of Fame class in 1995, has a unique place in the industry, depending on the era.
For nearly 20 years from his debut in 1967, he was a hated villain, dueling with the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund and Pedro Morales and being managed by heel managers such as The Grand Wizard, Classy Freddie Blassie and Captain Lou Albano. His wild act included tearing apart the turnbuckles with his teeth and then using the stuffing to blind an opponent, and using other foreign objects during matches. He was bald, but his posture and the hair on his back helped reinforce “The Animal” character.
In 1987, he became a fan favorite after being abandoned in a match against the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff and reunited with Albano, then a fan favorite. Steele played a key role in the feud between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat that culminated in their classic bout at WrestleMania 3 in Steele’s hometown of Detroit.
The change from heel to babyface was probably no better reflected than a stuffed animal developed by WWE in the mid-1980s era as part of the organization’s reliance on cartoonish characters. The stuffed animal, which looked like Steele with a green tongue, was known as “Mine.” Anytime an official would try to take the stuffed animal away from him, Steele would reply with “Mine.”
He retired in 1988 after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, although he made a number of appearances since then.
Condolences poured in from wrestling superstars on social media:
I feared him as a kid.— Tommy Dreamer (@THETOMMYDREAMER) February 17, 2017
I cheered him as a teenager
I became friends w/him as an adult
Never be another like
George the Animal Steele pic.twitter.com/TdrIfod68i
George"the Animal"Steel,RIP my brother,only love,only grateful. HH— Hulk Hogan (@HulkHogan) February 17, 2017
The wrestling world lost one of the best today and I lost a good friend. RIP George"the animal" Steele. My prayers are with his family. pic.twitter.com/2b5ITY5Q7l— Ted DiBiase (@MDMTedDiBiase) February 17, 2017