Name: Billy Graham
Year Inducted: 2009
Induction Category: Modern Era

"Superstar" Billy Graham

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 opponents.

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 Wayne Coleman.

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

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