411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2007: “Superstar” Billy Graham
“Superstar.” It’s a word that is carelessly thrown around far too frequently these days, especially in the world of professional wrestling. In recent years it seems as though anyone with the ability to lace up a pair of boots has been automatically labeled a “superstar,” but this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the word actually meant something. There was a time when a professional wrestler had to be regarded as one of the greatest in the world in order to be referred to as a “superstar.” And then there was a time when the word was synonymous with just one man. He was a man whose style and charisma so outshone the other stars of his day that the only possible way to describe him was to call him the “Superstar.” He was “Superstar” Billy Graham, and today we proudly induct him into the 411 Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“Superstar” Billy Graham was born Eldridge Wayne Coleman on September 10, 1943 in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Coleman’s father suffered from multiple sclerosis, and money was extremely tight in the Coleman household. When Coleman was in fifth grade his older brother introduced him to weight lifting, and Coleman instantly fell in love with the sport. Coleman was too poor to join a gym, so he worked out at home with barbells of his own design using concrete plates he had poured himself. Coleman continued to lift weights throughout his teenage years and blossomed into a track and field star in high school. Coleman became a stand-out in both the shot put and discus throw and was poised to earn a full athletic scholarship to college and possibly even a spot on the United States Olympic Team. Unfortunately, those opportunities vanished when Coleman dropped out of high school after falling in with the wrong crowd. Coleman’s once bright future seemed to have been derailed far too soon, but he would find a new calling when he became a born again Christian. Coleman joined the ministry and pursued his new evangelistic mission with a passion rivaled only by his continued love of weight lifting. Coleman’s faith would prove to play a key role at many pivotal moments throughout his life. In 1968, Coleman moved to Los Angeles, California and found a new weight training partner in a young Austrian immigrant named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Coleman and Schwarzenegger became close friends and together rose to fame within the body building community.
Coleman first became interested in professional wrestling when a friend told him that it was an easy way to earn quick money. Coleman traveled to Calgary, Alberta Canada and was trained by the legendary Stu Hart in the equally legendary Hart Family Dungeon. Coleman then began working for Hart’s Stampede Wrestling by traveling throughout the territory and challenging fans to arm wrestling matches. The heat that Coleman garnered during these arm wrestling matches made him a natural heel when he later began to wrestle within the territory. Coleman then left wrestling to play in the Canadian Football League before eventually moving back to Phoenix, Arizona. Coleman was working as a bouncer at a local club when he met professional wrestler Dr. Jerry Graham. Coleman told Graham that he had been trained as a professional wrestler, and Graham agreed to book Coleman in various local shows that he would be promoting. It was decided that Coleman’s ring character would be a part of the kayfabed Graham wrestling family, so Coleman paid tribute to his Christian faith by adopting the ring name Billy Graham in honor of the famous evangelist of the same name. Billy Graham and Dr. Jerry Graham worked various small shows throughout Arizona including many shows on the nearby Apache Indian Reservations. Later they moved to Los Angeles and worked as a tag team. In 1970 the musical Jesus Christ Superstar debuted, and Billy Graham again paid tribute to his Christian faith by lengthening his ring name to “Superstar” Billy Graham. The Superstar had been born, and he was now poised to forever change the world of professional wrestling.
“Superstar” Billy Graham parted ways with his kayfabed brother Dr. Jerry Graham and began to wrestle in San Francisco alongside other wrestling legends such as Pat Patterson, Ray Stevens, “High Chief” Peter Maivia, and Rocky Johnson. Graham formed a tag team with Patterson and had a lengthy feud with Maivia and Johnson during which time Graham gained much of his practical knowledge of the wrestling business. Patterson mentored Graham and taught him the basics of ring psychology, timing, and how to effectively work a crowd. Ray Stevens would later leave San Francisco and begin working for Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Stevens had been impressed with Graham’s work back in San Francisco and convinced Gagne to recruit Graham for the AWA. Graham accepted Gagne’s offer and soon began wrestling for the AWA. It was during his time with the AWA that Graham truly began to differentiate himself from the other wresters of his day. The most striking contrast between Graham and all the other wresters was his massive, chiseled physique. Graham was the first highly developed body builder to enter professional wrestling, and compared to the other wrestlers of the day he looked as though he had been chiseled from granite. His was a body unlike any other in the history of the industry, and fans were immediately fascinated by the muscular marvel that appeared before them. Graham’s physique alone would have made him a stand-out in the industry, but he then went on to add other elements to his persona in an effort to become truly unforgettable. Graham began to wear bright, multi-colored, tie-died shirts, tights, and bandanas that vividly stood out compared to the drab, monochromatic garb favored by many other wrestlers. Graham’s garish hues made him instantly recognizable among a sea of wrestlers clad in muted tones. Graham surely looked different than any other wrestler in the industry, but he also wanted to sound different than all of his peers. Graham began to use a promo style adapted from Muhammad Ali’s interview style. Graham’s promos had a rhythmic, lyrical quality to them and made use of the still developing style of hip-hop and rap. Graham coined a myriad of catch phrases for himself that would become ingrained in the very fabric of professional wrestling. Most other wresters used promos as a way of building interest in a match while always assuming that the in-ring action of the match itself was the only real way to entertain the fans. Graham had never been the most talented in-ring performer, but what he began discovering during this time was that his promos could be entertaining in and of themselves. Graham was essentially becoming one of the first wrestlers to consciously work at entertaining the fans both in and out of the ring, and in the process he was forever changing the way in which a wrestler could become popular with the fans.
In 1975 Graham left Verne Gagne’s AWA and began working for Vince McMahon Sr.’s World Wide Wrestling Federation in New York City, New York. Graham worked as a heel in the territory but continued to gain popularity through his immense charisma and entertaining promos. On April 30, 1977, Graham defeated Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF Championship at the Baltimore Civic Center in Baltimore, Maryland. At that time Sammartino had held the WWWF Championship for more than three years and was by far the most beloved wrestler in the history of the territory. The transition from Sammartino to Graham marked a turning point in the history of the industry. It was an acknowledgement that Graham’s approach to professional wrestling could be not only viable but indeed highly successful. Graham would go on to defend the title against wrestling legends such as Sammartino and Ivan Putski, but Graham’s most famous feud as WWWF Champion would be against “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. Rhodes was a major star for Eddie Graham’s Championship Wrestling from Florida and employed a rhythmic, lyrical promo style similar to “Superstar” Billy Graham’s. Graham defended the title against Rhodes in both New York and Florida, but their most famous matches were held in Madison Square Garden. Rhodes first challenged Graham for the title in the Garden on September 26, 1977. The New York crowd was firmly behind Rhodes, and Rhodes eventually won the match by count-out. Rhodes grabbed the championship belt and celebrated in the ring while the elated crowd nearly blew the roof off the Garden. However, the ring announcer then clarified that Rhodes had won the match but not the championship, because the championship could only change hands by pin-fall or submission. Rhodes, along with the entire crowd, was crestfallen, and this match served as one of the earliest prototypes of the legendary “Dusty finish.” One month later, Rhodes would again challenge Graham for the title in the Garden in a return match on October 24, 1977. This time the match would be a no-disqualification Texas Death Match, and the New York crowd waited in breathless anticipation to see just how for Graham and Rhodes would go for the championship. The ensuing match was a blood-bath the likes of which the Garden had never seen, and in the end Graham pinned Rhodes to retain his title. Graham went on to defend the title against other challengers, but the Garden had not yet seen the end of the Graham / Rhodes feud.
Graham’s reign as WWWF Champion lasted for nearly ten months, and during this time he sold out nineteen of his twenty main even title defenses at Madison Square Garden. To this day no heel has held the WWWF Championship longer than Graham, and no WWWF Champion has sold out a higher percentage of his main event title defenses than Graham. Graham worked as a heel throughout his tenure as champion, but his colorful persona and entertaining promos made him the prototypical heel that fans “love to hate.” Most heels at the time gained heat by antagonizing the fans through dirty tactics and inflammatory messages. On the other hand, Graham was a heel that still managed to truly entertain the fans, and in the process he became one of the industry’s first true “tweeners.” Some fans would still boo Graham because he was a heel, but many fans began to cheer Graham due to his skill as an entertainer. This split reaction from the fans was completely unprecedented in wrestling history and is one of the most amazing testaments to Graham’s skill as a performer. Week after week, more and more fans started to cheer for Graham, and for the first time, it became hip and cool to cheer for a villain. The fans were turning Graham into a face, and this was something that Vince McMahon Sr. was not prepared to accept. McMahon Sr. was a proponent of traditional, clear-cut faces and heels and was uneasy about the fans’ rather unexpected reaction to his heel champion. Graham proposed a complete face turn for his character, but McMahon Sr. instead decided to have Graham drop the belt to a fresh-faced, all-American boy, Bob Backlund. Many within the WWWF, including McMahon Sr.’s own son Vince McMahon Jr., were skeptical of this decision, but McMahon Sr. was resolute in his conviction. Graham lost the WWWF Championship to Bob Backlund in Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1978. Graham was devastated by the loss of the title, and the pain of that loss would continue to haunt him for more than twenty years. Many still feel that Graham would have become wrestling’s first true cross-over pop culture star if he had been allowed to continue his title reign as a face. Though frustrated by the loss of his title, Graham stayed with the WWWF for several more months and even capped off his feud with Dusty Rhodes in a Texas Bull Rope Match in Madison Square Garden on August 28, 1978. This match allowed Graham and Rhodes to electrify the Garden one last time, but the loss of the title still weighed heavy on Graham. He left the promotion and went into seclusion back in Phoenix, Arizona soon thereafter. The wrestling world would never again see “Superstar” Billy Graham as they had known him, and the industry lost the man who easily could have been its biggest star of all time.
Graham sank deep into despair and turned to drugs as the only way to ease his pain. He lost nearly two years of his life in a drug induced stupor but eventually decided that it was time to return to wrestling. He set his sights on the northeast and the newly renamed WWF, but he vowed to himself that he would not return to the spotlight as the same “Superstar” that the wrestling world had known and loved during the nineteen seventies. Graham still felt as though he had been betrayed when his championship run was ended prematurely, and he had no intention of reemerging with the same gimmick and acting as though nothing had ever happened. Instead, Graham adopted a new karate master gimmick vastly different from the “Superstar” of the past. He shaved his head, grew a mustache, and abandoned his trademark flamboyant wardrobe in favor of simple black pants and boots. However, the most drastic difference in Graham’s appearance was the toll that two years of drug abuse had taken on his once Herculean physique. Gone were the massive, toned muscles that had defined Graham years ago, replaced by a sagging, flaccid body that stood as a mockery of its former glory. Graham was barely recognizable as the same man who had taken the world of professional wrestling by storm. He had undergone one of the most startling and alarming gimmick overhauls in the history of professional wrestling. Also gone was Graham’s status as a popular heel, the man that the fans loved to hate. The fans seemed angry, even hurt, by the fact that Graham would leave behind everything that they had loved about him. Graham was now a pure heel, and he entered into a program with the very man that had defeated him for the title, Bob Backlund. Graham and Backlund sold out Madison Square Garden three more times, but Graham was in no condition to be wrestling. He was still heavily addicted to drugs, and it was clear that he was no longer a viable main event contender. Graham soon once again left the WWF.
Graham spent a brief period of time in Eddie Graham’s Championship Wrestling from Florida working alongside Kevin Sullivan in the Army of Darkness. This new gimmick had strong satanic overtones and clashed with Graham’s Christian beliefs, so Graham soon left Florida to work for Jim Crockett Promotions in North Carolina. It was there that Graham decided to return to his roots and attempted to rebuild the “Superstar” Billy Graham persona of old. Graham once again began sporting his tie-dyed attire and brandishing his trademark catch phrases. He continued to shave his head, but he grew a full goatee and dyed the mustache blonde. He began training more rigorously and improved his physical condition, but his body would never again be as impressive as it was in the nineteen seventies. Graham entered into something of a career revitalization under his classic gimmick, and eventually he returned once more to the WWF. However, Graham’s body had begun to break down after years of abuse, and Graham was wrestling in intense pain. He needed to have a hip replacement but couldn’t afford the operation. He tried to hide his pain from those around him, but eventually his problems became common knowledge. Vince McMahon Jr., now the owner of the WWF, had always been a huge fan of Graham’s and offered to pay for Graham’s hip replacement operation. Graham had the operation and returned to the ring, but even then his body was in no condition to withstand the rigors of in-ring competition. McMahon next offered Graham a position as a manager for wrestlers such as Don Muraco. Graham worked as a manager for a brief period of time before transitioning to a position as an announcer. McMahon had done all that he could to find a place for Graham within the WWF family, but eventually there was nothing left for Graham to do. Graham left the WWF for a third time and once again sank into a deep depression.
Graham gradually become more and more envious of the fame and success other wrestlers were garnering during the wrestling boom of the mid to late nineteen eighties. His bitterness towards the WWF festered within him while his years of steroid abuse continued to wreck havoc upon his body. In the early nineteen nineties, Graham went public with allegations that Vince McMahon Jr. was responsible for his steroid abuse and deteriorating health. These allegations eventually led to federal prosecution against McMahon, and Graham gladly testified for the prosecution during the trial. McMahon was later acquitted of all charges, but he was furious over Graham’s role in the scandal. Graham and McMahon did not speak again for nearly ten years. Graham resigned himself to the fact that he would never again be part of the WWF family, but all of that changed in 2002 when he found himself in need of a liver transplant. Fearing that his time was limited, Graham put aside years of envy and bitterness and asked forgiveness from Vince McMahon. McMahon, realizing that Graham held a special place in wrestling history regardless of his actions outside the ring, gladly forgave Graham and welcomed him back into the WWE family. Graham’s liver transplant was a success, and he later attended his first WWE show in more than ten years when he was a special guest at SummerSlam 2003 in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. The following March, Graham was the first man inducted into the newly reinvigorated WWE Hall of Fame. Graham appeared at WrestleMania XX alongside his fellow inductees and claimed his place as a true WWE legend. Today, Graham continues his ministry, speaks to young athletes about the dangers of steroid abuse, and serves as an advocate for organ donation.
Why “Superstar” Billy Graham was selected…
Graham’s influence on professional wrestling is monumental. It has become commonplace to say that Hulk Hogan, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and Scott Steiner all modeled themselves after Graham, but Graham’s true influence reaches far beyond those three men. Graham broke the mold of what a professional wrestler was expected to be and in the process became the very first sports entertainer. He was the first wrestler to rise to stardom based not solely on his in-ring performances but also on his appearance, style, and charisma. Graham’s time in the spotlight preceded the wrestling boom of the nineteen eighties, but that boom very well may not have been possible without Graham. The two most central figures in the growth of professional wrestling were Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon Jr. It is a matter of common knowledge that Hogan greatly respected Graham and based much of his gimmick around Graham’s in-ring persona. In fact, Hogan’s initial drive to become a professional wrestler began when he saw Graham compete in Florida. The biggest star in the history of the professional wrestling may have never even entered the industry had it not been for “Superstar” Billy Graham. However, Graham’s influence on the most influential promoter in the history of the industry, Vince McMahon Jr., may have been just as great as his influence on Hogan. McMahon’s childhood wrestling hero was Dr. Jerry Graham. McMahon loved Jerry Graham’s bleached blonde hair and flamboyant style. Years later, McMahon would see much of what he loved about Dr. Jerry Graham in “Superstar” Billy Graham. McMahon saw “Superstar” Billy Graham as the first step in the natural evolution of the industry and disagreed with his father’s decision to move the title from Graham to the much more traditional Bob Backlund. When McMahon later took control of the WWF in the nineteen eighties, it was his intent to promote wresters like Graham over more traditional wresters such as Backlund. Hulk Hogan, himself very much a clone of Graham, fit McMahon’s image perfectly, and together they took the wrestling industry to previously unprecedented heights, both guided by their respect and admiration for Graham. Graham may not have been an active participant in the meteoric rise of professional wrestling into mainstream pop culture, but it was his contributions to the industry that made that ascent possible.
It is almost impossible to imagine what professional wrestling would be like if not for the career of “Superstar” Billy Graham. Without Graham’s chiseled physique, we would never have marveled at Brock Lesnar, Batista, or Bobby Lashley. Without Graham’s flamboyant style, we would never have seen Shawn Michael break hearts while covered in sequins and rhinestones or watched the Rock show the world how a real corporate champion should dress. Without Graham’s charismatic promos and marvelous catchphrases, we would have never heard the bottom line from Stone Cold Steve Austin, been told to have a nice day by Mick Foley, or had John Cena let us know that we can’t see him. Today, “Superstar” Billy Graham’s legacy can be seen in almost every professional wrestler. We even pay tribute to Graham every time we refer to a professional wrestler as a “superstar,” for in that one word we acknowledge that Graham himself is the rock upon which sports entertainment is built. Today we have an industry full of superstars thanks to the fact that thirty years ago one man had the vision to make himself into the first, and possibly greatest, Superstar of all time.