He won the title, and he lost the title in the same manner: with his leg on the ropes. Billy Graham’s WWF (then the WWWF) World title reign might have started and ended in controversial manner, but his reign and effect in wrestling is still relevant today.
Scott Steiner, Hulk Hogan and even Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura have mentioned Billy Graham, nicknamed Superstar, as a major influence in their wrestling persona.
He is not an evangelist, but he chose his name based on the famed religious television evangelist, Billy Graham.
He recently has spoken out against steroid use in sports based on his own experiences. Numerous surgeries, two artificial hips, a fused ankle and living his life in constant pain has brought him into a new knowledge of the drug he used to use to get ahead, to a drug that ultimately led him to money, fame and the world title.
Billy Graham, who grew up Wayne Coleman in Arizona, was not an amateur wrestler. He was a track and field star in high school, and he was training for the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. He threw shot-put, discus and developed his awesome physique early in his life.
He had no real goals out of high school. He moved to Los Angeles, but he could never find a steady job.
“I worked as a bouncer and other odd jobs,” Graham recalled for SLAM! Wrestling.
He was never a real fan of wrestling. He watched it back in the 1950s, but he never thought of getting involved in the sport.
He remembered Sky High Lee when he was growing up. Lee used to take darts to his back on television. “Long before Mick Foley,” Billy Graham said.
He found out after he met his wife, Valerie, in 1976 that Lee was Valerie’s second cousin.
His first connection to wrestling came, though, while he was working in California during late 1969. Bob Lueck who played for the Calgary Stampeders asked Graham to come with him back to Calgary and give wrestling a try.
Graham had no idea who he was getting involved with when Stu Hart invited him to train in the infamous Dungeon.
“He had no fat and looked like he was holding regulation footballs in his arms,” Stu Hart recalled to SLAM! Wrestling. “He was the most impressive specimen I’ve seen in my life.”
“I felt this was for me,” Graham recalled about his first days there.
His first gimmick was more of a toughman. Coming from a weightlifting background, Graham was thrown into challenge fans in an arm-wrestling match. Anyone who could beat the Superstar would win $1,000.
Graham was honoured to have started with Stu Hart, whom Graham still stays in contact with.
“I saw the bloodstains on the walls and the mats when I walked in,” Graham said about his first look at the Dungeon.
Hart knew Graham had a future. “I’ve wrestled with a lot of strong fellows and never seen a fellow that muscular and that strong. I was impressed with his strength,” Hart recalled of his brush with the Superstar. “He was officially the strongest man in the world at the time. He could benchpress 650 pounds and could lie on a bench and (lift) 350 pounds over his head. That was almost unheard of, no question about it.”
When it was time from Graham to head into the ring for action, he started under his real name Wayne Coleman.
It was the summer of 1970 that he met a wrestler named Dr. Jerry Graham.
Graham, who was an established wrestler across the world, asked Coleman to become “a brother.” Wayne Coleman then took the name Billy Graham based off Jerry Graham’s last name and the famous evangelist Billy Graham.
The nickname Superstar came in 1972 based from the rock opera that was really huge at the time, Jesus Christ Superstar.
Fans watch Pat Patterson every week on WWF RAW, but too few know Patterson’s rich wrestling history that dates back to the 1960s. Graham and Patterson teamed to defeat Ray Stevens and Peter Maivia (The Rock’s grandfather) for the NWA Tag Team titles in July of 1971 in San Francisco.
That match was the first turning point in Graham’s career and it really changed Graham’s career.
“Patterson was my mentor,” Graham said about his tag team partner. Graham learned a lot during his early days from the in-ring knowledge of stars such as Patterson, Stevens and eventually The Rock’s father, Rocky Johnson.
Verne Gagne saw the power and ability of Graham and decided to get Graham to work for the AWA out of Minneapolis.
“I hated working against Verne Gagne because of his old school style of wrestling, and I was not a wrestler,” Graham said about his stay with the AWA. “I was more methodical. It was physically difficult.”
Graham did not complain about the crowds and money that came with his stay, but the coldness of the north really got to the Arizona native. He left the AWA for one reason — the cold.
Verne Gagne expressed his displeasure and amazement in Graham’s decision to leave. The choice was a wise one because an even bigger call came.
Vince McMahon Sr. called Graham up in 1975, and Graham was anxious to work for the WWWF. He was quickly accepted by the fans and by the wrestlers.
Bruno Sammartino had ruled the WWWF for fifteen years, and McMahon Sr. was looking for a man to give him a run for his money. Graham was his choice.
“It was the easiest match I could have,” Graham said about his legendary bouts with Sammartino. Sammartino’s strength and similar style really helped Graham-Sammartino matches go very smoothly.
March 30, 1977, McMahon Sr. has made the decision to give Graham the World title from Sammartino. The Baltimore crowd was split on who their favourite was, and a lot of confusion came when Graham used the ropes to pin Sammartino.
It was over. Billy Graham had become the WWWF World champion. But it was the interesting way in which the crowd reacted that made Graham an innovator. Graham become the first major “tweener” for the WWWF, and his model was the same way in which stars like Steve Austin and Degeneration X were split. No matter how evil, how much of a rulebreaker he was, the crowds were booing and cheering him at the same time.
Graham remembered getting motivation to carry this split fan reaction to a new gimmick. He wanted to have a feud with Ivan Koloff, the WWWF’s biggest heel wrestler, and Graham believed that would get him over greatly with the fans. He was hoping for a long run as champion.
McMahon Sr. had a different idea. At the same time a young amateur wrestler was being pushed by the name of Bob Backlund. McMahon Sr. planned two years ahead to eventually give the title to Backlund.
Graham knew the day would come 10 months later to lose the title, but Graham had a very successful run. He sold out 19 of 20 New York City’s Madison Square Garden main events he headlined, a percentage not met by any other wrestler in WWWF or WWF history.
Graham, along with many other wrestlers, was not sure if giving the title to Backlund so soon was the right decision. McMahon Sr. made what some say was a mistake. He had told Backlund and others of the decision to give Backlund the title. He could not back out.
When Graham did lose the title to Backlund eventually in early 1978, Graham was very discouraged with the sport. He had a bloody feud with Dusty Rhodes, but then Graham was gone.
“I got burnt out. I went back to Phoenix and I became a recluse.”
His absence started rumours in the Philadelphia Enquirer that he had passed away. Graham admitted that Dusty Rhodes started that rumour as a joke.
Graham rejoined the renamed WWF in 1982 with a new look. He had a shaved head and martial arts pants. He immediately was thrown into a feud with Backlund, but the World title that Backlund held was never to come back to him.
“I shouldn’t have used that (martial arts) gimmick,” Graham said. The Graham name helped sell out arenas still, but Graham was sitting on a gimmick that was not working for him.
His own personal problems with his life and steroids were the main reason for the absence of another World title reign.
Graham moved to Florida to work for Kevin Sullivan, and then moved onto work for the NWA and the Crocketts.
Dusty Rhodes was the booker for the NWA at the time, and he invited Graham to work for them for a while. Graham worked huge stadium shows with the group, but he never got the push he felt he deserved.
It was when he was with the NWA that he dumped the martial arts gimmicks, bleached his beard, put on the tie-dye and felt pain.
THE END OF A CAREER
“I was starting to have trouble with my hip in 1985,” Graham said.
He called Vince McMahon Jr., who had taken over as the head of the WWF during Graham’s absence with the WWF, and offered his abilities for the WWF once again. McMahon liked the idea, and Graham was scheduled for his first match back with the WWF in Baltimore.
“I walked into the building limping,” Graham said about his match back. McMahon Jr. saw this, and questioned if Graham was even in shape to wrestle. Graham said he was fine, and took some cortisone shots to get through the match.
The medicine wore off, and Graham knew it was not just a pulled muscle that was giving him pain. His hip socket was in amazing pain forcing Graham to undergo a $30,000 operation for the hip injury.
The WWF used the real surgery and recovery in an angle. The surgery was real. Graham had a titanium hip placed on his right hip.
Graham wanted back in the ring, mainly for the money.
“It was a big mistake.”
He blames steroids. “Steroids made you both psychologically and emotionally intense. They make you feel you can never be hurt.”
Managing Don Muraco, commentating and wrestling a few matches was all that was left in wrestling for Graham.
The last match was with Butch Reed in Madison Square Garden. The sell-out crowd saw a legend wrestle a bloody cage match.
Vince McMahon Jr. promised Billy Graham that there was always a job for him with the WWF. Graham’s hip surgery and 1990 ankle fusing injury forced Graham off the road, and it also forced Graham out of his job with the WWF.
“I became bitter at that point, and after the ankle surgery,” Graham said. “I began to tell the world about the dangers of steroids, the pain, suffering I was having because of use and talking about the people who use it.”
Graham started a smear campaign against the WWF. He ridiculed Vince McMahon for allowing Dr. George T. Zahorian to sell steroids to wrestlers. He ridiculed Hulk Hogan following Hogan’s infamous Arsenio Hall Show appearance where Hogan dismissed allegations he took steroids (something Hogan would contradict that statement in a 1984 trial).
“I was such in a state of rage,” Graham said after watching Hogan’s appearance. “I said, ‘He is lying.'”
Steroids were part of Graham’s life for over two decades. It was around 1965 that Graham was first introduced to steroids. The drugs were legal at the time.
The dangers were not very well known at the time. Graham knew of some dangers, but not all of the future complications were portrayed to him.
He followed with some unsuccessful lawsuits with steroids distributors and the WWF that he later called mistakes.
He has not talked to Vince McMahon or Hulk Hogan since his campaign against them almost 10 years ago. He wrote them both letters, and he hopes his upcoming autobiography will help.
Superstar Billy Graham made an incredible impression on the wrestling world.
“I was a prototype for Hulk and Jesse Ventura and even today Scott Steiner.”
His autobiography is set to be released in November or December of this year. He is currently working on his beginnings with Pat Patterson and the NWA during 1971.
He hopes to tell it like it is. A pen and paper is all he needs. Valerie, his wife, types up the wording for the editors at the publishing company. He really enjoyed Mick Foley and Dynamite Kid’s autobiographies and hopes to be as full and thorough with his book.
The Internet is a great source for publicity, especially with a person trying to sell his new book. Billy Graham was interested in creating a web page to help with the promotion of his book when he discovered a fan page. Steve Slagle’s fan page is now the official page because he was so amazed by the thoroughness and look of the page.
The Official Superstar Billy Graham Home Page (www.SuperstarBillyGraham.com) has everything you can possibly know about the legendary wrestler. Graham even puts his own pictures, notes, interviews (including an upcoming Terry Funk interview) and commentating (his take on Scott Steiner was recently uploaded).
Graham has had numerous surgeries in the last few years to the point where there seems no end. Two artificial hips and a fused ankle might be all Graham will take. He recently passed on the recommendation to have his other ankle fused.
Steroids may have killed his health, but his memory in wrestling will be immortal.
— with files from Nadia Moharib, Calgary Sun