In professional sport, the term "superstar" is reserved for those
athletes who achieve excellence above and beyond their peers. After two
decades on the mat, Billy Graham achieved that status. From Stu Hart's
Calgary dungeon to Madison Square Garden, Graham's journey was sprinkled
with victory, defeat, and a healthy measure of controversy.
Graham was born Eldridge Wayne Coleman in Arizona in 1943. When he
arrived on the Calgary scene in the late 1960s, Stu Hart turned him into
a heel under the influence of Abdullah the Butcher. The pair terrorized
opponents in Western Canada.
When he left Calgary, Coleman continued to receive his baptism
under fire when he befriended Dr. Jerry Graham in Arizona. He became the
good doctor's ring brother "Billy Graham", out of respect for the famous
evangelist. Influenced by the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, he
further expanded his name to "Superstar" Billy Graham.
Spiritual in nature, he became a preacher at a very young age. It
was perhaps pre-ordained that he would become the modern day messiah who
came out of the desert to take professional wrestling to a new level not
seen since the Gorgeous George era. Graham was quickly embraced by
fans. Never regarding himself as a hardcore heel, he shaped a new type
of villain that was more of a popular anti-hero. He adopted a flashy
dress style, jive talk and a bulked up steroid physique. He was a "cool"
heel. Hulk Hogan and Jesse "The Body" Ventura would be influenced by
Graham's ring persona.
While some cast doubt on his wrestling skills, no one could deny
his flair for showmanship. Terry Funk once summed up Graham's
contribution to the game:
"Billy Graham had a presence about him," Funk stated. "He still does,
you know. It's not a demanding thing it's a presence whenever he comes
around. You look at him and listen to what he says."
The list of titles the Superstar held is as impressive. Among his
string of championships were the IWA World Heavyweight Championship, the
NWA Florida Heavyweight Championship and the Continental Wrestling
Association World Heavyweight Championship. In San Francisco, he held
the NWA World Tag Team Championship with Pat Patterson, another early
mentor in mayhem.
Graham reached the top of the mountain in 1977 when he wrested the WWWF
World Heavyweight Championship from Bruno Sammartino. Less than a year
later, he dropped the prestigious belt to Bob Backlund. He became a
member of the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.
But if his battles in the ring were of epic proportions, so too
were his struggles outside the ropes as he attempted to purge his demons
at various stages of his life. His dependence on drugs and steroids
eventually penetrated the tough veneer. He paid dearly for the sins of
steroids. An artificial hip, a fused ankle, a liver transplant and
constant pain from steroid abuse became his new and ever threatening
Author Keith Elliot Greenberg, who helped Graham to write his
autobiography Tangled Ropes, offered this insightful look at the man -
not the wrestler. "He's an intelligent guy, he's a funny guy and he kind
of speaks in a way that he reaches out to people..he likes people and he
connects with people. He's very curious about people." Greenberg
discovered that his subject did not want to tell the story of Superstar
Graham. "He wanted to tell the story of Wayne Coleman. He really let me
know who Wayne Coleman was." He was more than "the man of the hour, the
man with power, too sweet to be sour."
In retirement, Graham returned to preaching and lecturing on the
dangers of steroid use, all the while battling health problems. Today,
he spends his time in Arizona's Paradise Valley, where it all began for
From coast to coast, the Superstar has soared, leaving a trail of
memories and mixed emotions. But he can be secure in the knowledge that
he has not been forgotten for his life's work.
It is all a man can ever hope to achieve.
- Gary Howard