E. Wayne Coleman, better known to the wrestling world as “Superstar” Billy Graham, has died. He was 79.
Coleman was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1943. As a kid, he got into weightlifting and bodybuilding, but also became a devout Christian, often using his power to help emphasize the sermon being given. In high school, he was both a champion amateur boxer and a shot put expert on the track team. He and future Mr. Olympia, Frank Zane, were winners of the Mr. Teenage America bodybuilding contest in 1961.
When it came time to enter the ring, he went to the Hart Dungeon to learn the business. His first match in Stampede, as it turns out, was against Dan Kroffat, the man who invented the ladder match. Soon, though, he returned to the states and was taken under the wing of Dr. Jerry Graham, where he was introduced as the youngest brother in the “family” alongside Jerry, Eddie, and Luke. (None of them were really related, and only Jerry was actually a Graham.) It was during a stint on the Pacific coast that he hooked up with Peter Maivia, who invited him back to the islands. While there, Coleman introduced a new facet to his persona: the strongest arms in wrestling. He would often win arm wrestling battles before the match began.
Billy Graham didn’t become “Superstar” until 1972 in the AWA, with the moniker bestowed on him by Verne Gagne. During his tenure in the AWA in the early to mid 1970s, he was engaged in a rather successful feud with Wahoo McDaniel, which culminated in Indian Strap matches around the horn. Their feud also incorporated tag team matches, with Ivan Koloff joining Graham while The Crusher joined McDaniel.
Graham didn’t let his physique dwindle, either; indeed, his strength remained his calling card. This bled into another successful feud he had, this time with former Olympic weightlifter Ken Patera. The feud gained Graham enough notoriety to travel to Japan, where he wrestled for SWS and took on Mighty Inoue and Rusher Kimura. His time there was brief, as in October of 1975, he was signed by Mid-Atlantic to fill in for the injured Ric Flair (whose injuries from a plane crash were considered career-threatening).
In 1976, Graham and Koloff went on another tour of Japan, this time fighting Antonio Inoki himself. Graham’s rising stock meant that now the NWA was considering him for a big run, and Dusty Rhodes facilitated it by losing the Florida heavyweight title to him soon after. In early 1977, Graham was invited to Saint Louis for an ultimately unseccessful challenge of NWA World Champion Harley Race.
But the writing was on the wall, and Vincent J. McMahon knew Graham’s counter-cultural image and microphone braggadocio would make an incredible villain. Within weeks of his arrival in the WWWF, he defeated Bruno Sammartino in Baltimore to become the champion. His reign lasted almost 10 months, at the time the longest unbroken reign in the WWWF/WWF/WWE for someone the fans despised. (This record would be tied by JBL in 2004-05, and needless to say has long since been surpassed by Roman Reigns’ current run.)
Graham’s chemistry with Dusty during their feud in Florida had been noted by promoters, and Vince swung a deal to bring the American Dream up for a New York run. He and Graham immediately recaptured the magic they had, beginning a wild and violent feud ending in Graham retaining the title in a blowoff Texas Bullrope match. The feud would continue even after Graham was no longer champion, and Dusty himself would cite them as some of his favorite matches.
During his title reign, Graham could tell his character was beginning to get popular with fans in New York and came to Vince McMahon with an unusual suggestion: that he turn face after an attack by former partner Koloff. McMahon shot down the idea, in large part because he had already told Bob Backlund he’d be the next champion, and in no small part due to the thought of someone counter-cultural being difficult for promoters to make into a hero. (Interestingly, the crowd took his side when he battled Harley Race at a WWWF/NWA supercard in Miami; the match was a one-hour draw.) On February 20, 1978, Backlund atomic dropped Graham halfway across the ring and pinned him to begin his own long reign atop the WWWF.
After the defeat, Graham went on a downturn in his career. He still did work in Japan and for Paul Boesch in Houston, but by 1980 he was out of the business altogether, somewhat disillusioned by the fact his biggest moment was so out of his control. His fall off the map was so great that, in 1981, no less than Gorilla Monsoon told reporters Graham was dead.
So imagine his and everyone else’s surprise when Graham returned, sporting a more slimmed-down look with a bald head and in karate gear, but clearly very much alive. In October 1982, he attacked Bob Backlund and destroyed the championship belt Backlund was carrying. His challenge for the title being unsuccessful, Graham did not stick around long.
After a quick stop in the AWA, he went back to Florida to join Kevin Sullivan’s Army of Darkness. As he began to put his bodybuilding weight back on, bigger promotions took notice of him, and Jim Crockett gave him a run managed by Paul Jones. When his bodybuilding physique fully rounded out, and with it the dyed mustache and goatee look, Vince K. McMahon gave him one more run in 1986.
Unfortunately, a lifetime of hard work and likely some artificial help for his muscles overcame his bones. He needed hip replacement surgery in late 1986, but the WWF was optimistic he could make a comeback. He tried in 1987, but wrestling a full-time schedule on an artificial hip was always a recipe for disaster. Eventually, his time in the ring had to end, and young up-and-comer One Man Gang was given the honor of “retiring” him. Graham became the manager for Don Muraco and a broadcaster, calling the inaugural SummerSlam alongside Gorilla Monsoon.
Graham’s legacy in WWE was secure. When the Hall of Fame re-opened in 2004, Graham was among those inducted. He was on television on occasion through 2004 to 2005 interacting with (read: beating up) Jonathan Coachman, but most notably he interrupted Randy Orton while the latter was trying to make sense of a recent World Title loss. Graham advised the young gun to do something spectacular so the fans would never forget him. In story, this is what gave Orton the idea to challenge the Undertaker at WrestleMania, a challenge that first established Taker’s Streak as an end unto itself.
Of course, in between 1988 and 2004, there were a few rocky patches. In 1992, he falsely accused members of the WWF of sexual abuse in an attempt to get money out of Vince McMahon. When that didn’t work, he sued the WWF and Dr. George Zahorian, claiming they made him take steroids to stay on top of the company. (This charge didn’t stick, either, as steroids were something Graham was using back in his bodybuilding days.) He was essentially blackballed from the company until 2002, when the years of drug use necessitated a liver transplant. A desperate Graham made amends with Vince.
While the liver transplant prolonged Graham’s life, it didn’t last; in 2010, his cirrhosis returned. Graham was prepared for death, even reserving a plot in an Arizona cemetery near where Eddie Guerrero had been buried. Interferon prevented death this time, but for the rest of his life, Graham would be in and out of hospitals.
Graham’s career includes a litany of awards and titles. In addition to the WWWF title, he was a five-time territorial champion. He was the Texas Brass Knucks champion on four occasions, and was a tag team champion twice, once with Pat Patterson and again with Ox Baker. In 1973, PWI named him the Villain of the Year, and the matches he had to bookend his title run were both named Match of the Year by the magazine. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, the Pro Wrestling Museum Hall of Fame in 2009, and was part of the inaugural crew of Observer Hall of Famers in 1996. His 2006 book, “Tangled Ropes”, was honored by the Observer as well.
More than any titles, though, Graham was defined by his influence. The tie-dyed shirt was borrowed by many, and wearing a shirt so small he couldn’t pull it off over his head became a trope borrowed by Jesse Ventura. While on the evangelical circuit, Graham picked up the habit of calling people brother (as in “my brother in Christ”), which later became one of Hulk Hogan’s most famous verbal tics. The multi-colored goatee and emphasis on playing up his muscles would influence Scott Steiner’s solo work. And of course, a counter-cultural icon who developed a cult following with fans would eventually become a fan favorite in the WWF when Stone Cold Steve Austin took off.
Graham’s behavior at his lowest was one of his greatest regrets and something he talked about in “Tangled Ropes”. He also knew that his steroid use likely led to his liver failure, and he would be invited to wrestling schools all over to tell future prospects to get muscular the right way. He lived the rockstar life, introducing flash and sizzle at a time when telling the story through actions outweighed doing it through words. As the title of a WWE DVD noted, he may have been 20 years too soon… but he still had a hell of a run when he was there.
Rest in peace to the tower of power, the man of the hour, too sweet to be sour, who eats T-Bone steaks, lifts barbell weights, and is sweeter than a German chocolate cake… the Superstar Billy Graham.