George "The Animal" Steele, a pro wrestling icon and WWE Hall of Famer, has died at 79. WWE confirmed the news Friday.
Steele turned pro in 1967 and was best known for his run as a comical babyface attraction in the final years before his 1988 retirement. With his hairy upper body, bald head and green tongue, Steele became one of the most recognizable characters for the WWE -- then known as WWF -- during its national expansion in the mid-1980s, thanks to his penchant for biting open and chewing on the turnbuckle pads.
Steele spent his final years in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He revealed in his 2013 autobiography "Animal" that he suffered near-fatal bouts with Crohn's disease -- which affects the digestive tract -- throughout his retirement and had his colon removed in 2002. He began to share publicly about his declining health on his social media accounts, beginning last May.
"The Animal," who spoke in grunts on camera while portraying an imbecile during his final years, was long a paradox of the man outside the ring. Born William James Myers in Detroit, he moonlighted throughout his 21-year pro wrestling career as a teacher and coach at Madison High School in Madison Heights, Michigan.
Steele, who had dyslexia, earned a master's degree from Central Michigan University.
He coached football for 25 years at Madison and started the school's amateur wrestling program. He was inducted to the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2012, Steele was honored by his alma mater when Madison renamed its football field Jim Myers Stadium.
In the 1970s, Steele largely performed as a diabolical wrestling heel, memorably feuding with champion Bruno Sammartino in high-profile main events at New York's Madison Square Garden. Steele's character became a "good guy" in May 1985 when he turned on heel partners Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Shiek during a six-man tag team match on WWE's first "Saturday Night's Main Event" card on NBC.
Steele's most popular feud during the WrestleMania era came in 1986 against WWE Intercontinental champion Randy "Macho Man" Savage, focused on The Animal's obsession with Savage's wife and manager, Miss Elizabeth. The feud, which included a match at WrestleMania II, led to Steele's most iconic WrestleMania moment the following year.
In front of a then-WWE record 93,000-plus fans at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan at WrestleMania III, Steele was in the corner of Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, who challenged for Savage's title. Late in the match, with the referee down, Steele pushed Savage from the top rope to prevent him from reinjuring Steamboat's throat illegally, leading directly to the finish.
Steele took part in a Battle Royal at WrestleMania IV in 1988, but remained outside the ring due the entire time due to a knee injury. He retired later that year after being diagnosed with Crohn's disease.