Eldridge Wayne Coleman, known to generations of pro wrestling fans as “Superstar” Billy Graham, died last week at the age of 79. Graham, whose steroid-enhanced physique and grandiose soliloquies established a template later followed by Hulk Hogan, Jesse “the Body” Ventura, Big Poppa Pump–era Scott Steiner, and many others, had spent the past 30 years of his life dealing with health problems. Yet, Graham spent countless hours perpetually recounting the tale of a man whose short-lived stint as a “Superstar”—now WWE’s official descriptor for all of its wrestlers—was succeeded by an array of personal trials. These included career setbacks, as well as enduring the long, painful toll of his physical health deteriorating, leading to the systemic collapse of his body that ultimately signaled his demise.
Though he was only a megastar for a five-year period starting in the mid-1970s, everything about the performance and pageantry of pro wrestling from the 1980s to the present is tied to him in some form or fashion. “Superstar” Graham, channeling Muhammad Ali’s self-aggrandizing post-fight rants (and Ali, in turn, was channeling wrestling great “Gorgeous George” Wagner), had his slick style of boasting borrowed by all of the top stars that followed in his wake, from Dusty Rhodes to Ric Flair. Perhaps one of Graham’s most enduring contributions is his characteristic use of the word “brother” in his promos—a nod to his evangelical origins, where fellow congregants are “brothers in Christ,” much like how his ring name is a nod to the famed evangelist he outlived by a half-decade—a practice that has since been widely adopted by other wrestlers.
There was nothing quite like Graham’s routine—he could fill 15 minutes of a 20-minute main event with posing, boasting, and preliminary challenges like arm wrestling or weightlifting, activities which might seem like superfluous time-wasters but had capacity crowds hanging on his every gesture and utterance. He was, in other words, the first great sports entertainer, with everything that came before and after his matches far more impressive than what happened during them. In the ring, he preferred to let his opponents get much of the offense, merely selling for them as needed—an approach followed by both Hogan and Ventura, who each spent a good deal of time in their matches writhing in pain or outside the ring. Because of this surprisingly light touch, writes Steve Keirn in his recent autobiography, “[Graham] wasn’t the type of wrestler that most guys relished the idea of working with. His style was so loose, and you couldn’t feel anything he did in the ring.” But that didn’t matter; Graham was there to perform, not to wrestle.
The performer who became a Superstar grew up in a working-class family in Arizona and—inspired by famed early bodybuilders John Grimek and Steve Reeves—would build his identity around weight training. The strength he developed made him a high-level track and field thrower. But most of his early forays into sports were busts. At age 23, he was knocked out by Willis Miles in the first round of his pro boxing debut. He also competed for roster spots with the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders and Montreal Alouettes.
Only in bodybuilding and powerlifting did he find any sustained success. His first bodybuilding triumph came in 1961 when he won the West Coast division of the Mr. Teenage America bodybuilding contest. He further honed his bodybuilding skills at Gold’s Gym in Santa Monica in 1968, training alongside other renowned bodybuilders like his longtime friend Arnold Schwarzenegger. His blend of wrestling and bodybuilding saw him win the Best Developed Arms division in the World Bodybuilding Guild’s Pro Mr. America contest in 1975—though he was already deep into his pro wrestling career by that point, and his body lacked the symmetry of top pro bodybuilders like Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane.
For Graham, wrestling was where his future resided. In December 1969, as he recalled in his autobiography Tangled Ropes, “I received the phone call that changed my life forever.” On the other end of the line was Bob Lueck, who had recommended Graham for the CFL, and he was telling Graham there was some easy money to be made in Calgary working for legendary tough-guy promoter Stu Hart. “I’d already been an evangelist, boxer, and professional football player,” Graham explained, “[so] why not make one more critical life decision on an impulse?” When he finally got there, Graham reports that Hart—a noted lover of big, burly specimens—was “salivating” over Graham’s arms and the prospect of torturing him in various submission holds, which he began doing almost immediately.
After cutting his teeth under Hart, Graham joined forces in 1972 with another old-school promoter, Verne Gagne, where he assumed the Billy Graham ring name both as a tribute to the preacher and as a nod to his position in the legendary (fictional) Graham fraternity of wrestlers that included 245-pound “Dr.” Jerry Graham (who taught him how to cut himself with a razor blade, a staple of Billy’s future matches) and Florida promoter Eddie Graham. There, his performances were not just wrestling matches; they were spectacles that included his posing routines and weightlifting challenges.
The mid-’70s saw Graham wrestling in what was then the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), where he defeated Bruno Sammartino for the heavyweight championship in 1977. There, he wasn’t a transitional heel champion like Ivan Koloff (whose title reign in 1971 lasted 21 days, beginning with a pinfall win over Sammartino and ending with a loss to Pedro Morales) and Stan Stasiak (nine days in 1973, starting with a victory over Morales and ending when Bruno reclaimed the belt). No, Graham—managed by the Grand Wizard—held the strap for over nine months, with memorable defenses against NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race and a bloody feud with Dusty Rhodes that ended with Graham retaining the belt (a feud referenced when Cody Rhodes began his own pursuit of the WWE belt last year).
Although Graham was admired by the younger Vince McMahon—himself into bodybuilding training and a frequent interviewer of Graham at ringside—the future billionaire’s father, Vince Sr., wanted the title on a babyface. In a recent podcast interview, Tangled Ropes co-author Keith Elliott Greenberg remarked that, “Vince McMahon Jr. had told me that had he been in charge and not his father in 1978, he would have acquiesced to a demand from ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham. And in Vince McMahon Jr.’s words, ‘He would’ve been my Hulk Hogan.’ So it was that close.”
Close enough, one supposes, though McMahon wouldn’t accede to the company’s top post until 1982, four years later—by which time the Superstar had entered a steep decline. Of his 1977 peak, Graham wrote, “I thought I was indestructible, a concept enhanced by my gluttonous consumption of anabolic steroids.” Thirty years later, however, “ingesting reckless amounts of Delatestryl, Winstrol, and Deca Durabolin had eroded away my joints—my ankle was fused with bone from my pelvic area, both of my hips had been replaced, and my spine was collapsing. Hepatitis C had decayed my liver to the point of failure. My mind was confused because of the release of ammonia into my brain.” And this process of decline started not long after Bob Backlund, a well-built and tough but—at least in Graham’s estimation—uncharismatic babyface took the championship from him in 1978 (the Hogan era wouldn’t start until early 1984, six years later).
After leaving the WWWF in 1978, Graham spent time wrestling in Houston, Texas, and Japan, trying to hide his physical and mental descent by claiming he had lost weight and was adopting martial arts techniques—this meant, besides sporting a mustache, he could limit his in-ring offense to some fake-looking “karate chops.” He returned to the now-renamed World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in 1982, introducing an entirely new look and attacking Backlund, marking the start of another feud. Graham wrestled in various other promotions over the next few years, returning to WWF multiple times, until deteriorating health required a hip replacement and subsequently brought his active wrestling career to a close.
The Superstar’s last real chance for one final shining moment came at the 1980 World’s Strongest Man contest. That competition was still in its infancy at the time, and even though men like Bruce Wilhelm, Don Reinhoudt, and Bill Kazmaier had emerged as leading contenders, it was still a sort of all-comers invitational featuring loads of pro footballers, arm wrestlers, pro wrestlers, bodybuilders, and other assorted performers. Superstar, who’d attended many of those events, figured his odds were as good as anyone else’s. After all, Olympic weightlifting champion and fellow pro wrestler Ken Patera had finished a close third in the inaugural competition.
“I thought the World’s Strongest Man contest might help me turn the corner,” he explains in Tangled Ropes. “And despite [my wife’s] protests, I sold our furniture to subsidize my training, which was highlighted by taking as many steroids as I could obtain … [and drinking] three gallons of raw milk each day.” This wouldn’t be the last time that Superstar dug into his reserves to subsidize the prodigious consumption of drugs needed to power his comeback—that would be during his 1986 WWF comeback before a hip injury in 1987 relegated him to managing the similarly built Don “The Rock” Muraco, and later to the commentary booth. But this strongman contest would prove the last time that his once-magnificent body could even partially withstand the tremendous strain.
For his trouble, Superstar received $3,350, or slightly less than he had made from selling all of his belongings to prepare for the event. This last go-round on a heavy-duty steroid regimen further compromised his ailing health, and by the time I first encountered him during the mid-1980s, his wrestling repertoire was limited to kicks, punches, and very safe, slow bumps. He could barely perform one of his signature holds—a bearhug in which he hoisted his opponent off the ground—and when he did attempt it, he kept it on for only a few seconds. By the time he had left Jim Crockett Promotions and reappeared in all his tie-dyed glory in the WWF, his body was so brittle that he wound up requiring surgery on his ankles, hips, and knees after only a handful of matches against “Hacksaw” Butch Reed.
During his Crockett Promotions run, the “Superstar on the TBS SuperStation” was a bald, muscular, and weirdly-bearded character who dressed like a hippie and spoke like Ali. His monologues always devolved into rambling, rhyming delusions of grandeur, with him reminding us that he was the “man with the biggest arms and the man who does the most harm,” one who “ate T-bone steaks and lifted barbell plates.”
It was interesting to watch the Superstar fail during his last run in WWE because it was clear to me even then that Vince McMahon admired the faded main-eventer. Yet Superstar had a long history of substance use; he was a man who was always falling apart and coming back, and his receding years have been marked by numerous heel turns. Graham tried to destroy McMahon’s business by filing a lawsuit (which was unsuccessful) against the WWF and Dr. George Zahorian pressuring him into using steroids to maintain his status within the company, then he made nice with McMahon so he could be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and sell his WWE-approved book. He later hocked his WWE Hall of Fame ring to help pay mounting medical bills before embarking on another round of interviews criticizing McMahon and many of his former coworkers.
In that last respect, Superstar occupied a privileged position. He and WWE contemporary “Honky Tonk Man” Wayne Farris both spent the past 30 years of their lives recording interviews about their wrestling days, arguably producing more combined hours of oral history than any other pair of wrestlers who have ever lived. In Farris’s case, though his accounts might be inaccurate, they’re intended to put him over and sell whatever version of himself he’s currently peddling on the open market for wrestling appearances. Graham, meanwhile, spoke in grandiose tones, cutting nonstop promos without regard for truth or falsity. The great things he actually accomplished are always leavened with outright lies or distortions. Even in Tangled Ropes, the ostensibly authoritative account of his life to the point of its publication, he’s frequently wrong. “I came in fifth in a field of ten at the World’s Strongest Man,” he wrote. “Not bad, considering my injury.” In reality, he finished seventh, an easily verifiable fact.
It was always hard to tell where Graham stood on any particular issue. He was both an outspoken critic of steroids and someone who would take to his popular Facebook page to advise notably slight (albeit very athletic) then-WWE champion Kofi Kingston to take steroids. He alternately seemed to love and hate the McMahons, working with Vince in the 2000s following his 2002 liver transplant, then campaigning against Linda McMahon when she ran for the Senate in Connecticut in 2010. With the late-life Graham—whose mood swings were surely influenced by an endless host of health conditions, ranging from cirrhosis of his new liver to hepatitis C tied to years of bleeding in the ring—one could expect fireworks, but nothing akin to intellectual consistency. As he entered his seventh decade in 2013, his continued existence was one of endless hospitalizations and the accompanying crowdfunding needed to support these procedures. Although other wrestlers have since turned to crowdfunding to deal with problems in what should be their golden years, Graham’s most devoted fans still went out of their way to send him funds, right up until the end.
These diehards knew, as all of us who followed his ups and downs know, that he was “too much, too soon,” that he “missed it by that much,” as Maxwell Smart would say. The very elements that fashioned this new era of wrestling—the use of performance-enhancing chemicals he alternately criticized and championed—would ultimately ravage the body that had catalyzed the revolution. Despite repeated opportunities that could have seen him reap the rewards of his groundbreaking influence, Graham was perpetually sidelined by his declining health. Men who began their careers as imitators eventually surpassed him in notoriety; Hogan reveled in prolonged fame and infamy, while Ventura diversified into third-party politics, crackpot conspiracy-theory punditry, and B-movie entertainment. Graham’s light, meanwhile, dimmed prematurely. But even though his contemporaries may have outshined him in their time, Billy Graham’s influence will remain eternal. For while all WWE wrestlers may today bear the title “superstar,” he will forever be the original one.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter (@MoustacheClubUS) and read more of his work at oliverbateman.com. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work.