During the broadcast of this week’s AEW Dynamite on TBS, it was announced during the Chris Jericho vs. Rodrick Strong match that Hall of Famer and former WWWF champion, “Superstar” Billy Graham passed away at the age of 79. Sadly, the news was expected, as the colorful grappler was on life support after a lengthy hospital stay for a myriad of health problems.
Of course, and rightfully so, tributes from around the sports entertainment world flooded social media as those at the highest levels gave their recognition to “Superstar” for his innovation promo style and flamboyant appearance that essentially created the blue print for what sports entertainment superstars were thought to be in the years that followed. Make no mistake about it, without Graham in the tye dye in the 70s, Hulk Hogan wouldn’t have sported the red and yellow in the 80s, or the facial hair style as a heel in the late-90s. Much of the same can be said for Scott Steiner, who arguably found his greatest success as a main eventer in the latter years of WCW as he borrowed a page from the Superstar playbook. Even Austin Idol, who probably could’ve had an even bigger run if he worked different territories in his heyday, was basically a Memphis version of Billy Graham.
It’s ironic how things can go full circle as far as influences go and there ripple effect that can result from it. “Superstar” Graham credits the legendary Muhammad Ali for his interview style, while Ali, who was a big wrestling fan himself, cited another legend, “Classy” Freddie Blassie as one of the entertainers that inspired the boxer during his career.
While the accolades and recognition are certainly well-deserved, the story of Billy Graham, both the performer and the man, can’t be accurately told without the acknowledgement of the precautionary tales that come along with it.
The real-life Wayne Coleman trained under Stu Hart in Calgary, and got his first major break working for Mike LeBell in California, where he was teamed with Jerry Graham, who gave Coleman the famous Graham name. Prior to his start in pro wrestling, Coleman trained extensively in body building, working out with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and other fitness luminaries of that period. With his massive physique, Coleman spotlighted muscle mass before it was the standard in the pro wrestling genre. He spent the early-1970s working for Verne Gange’s American Wrestling Association, which was still in its heyday based on Verne’s stardom from his time on the DuMont Network years earlier. Despite the solid business, Graham, a legitimate native of Phoenix, Arizona, explained in a WWE DVD release years later that he left the AWA in 1975 because of the harsh winters in the territory.
By the time he landed in the WWWF in 1975, “Superstar” had fully developed his Ali-inspired persona and his colorful attire was a contrast that made him standout, as much of the McMahon territory during the era was based on blue collar baby faces or the foreign villains. In many ways, Graham was the first cool heel, which added another layer to the pro wrestling narrative. He wasn’t technically skilled in the ring, but his charisma and promos were more than enough to draw fans to the box office. In 1977, the iconic Bruno Sammartino, who carried the territory on his back for years as the dominate champion, insisted that he drop the WWWF belt to take a break from such a demanding schedule. The New York-based organization was a baby face territory, a strategy that was used largely because of how immensely popular Bruno was, so the draw of the promotion was to see the over hero battle against the dastardly villains to see if they could retain the title. The concept of the babyface chasing the title wasn’t common place in the WWWF so naturally, heels often had shorter title reigns to transition to the next top baby face champion. Stan Stasiak, Ivan Koloff, and The Iron Sheik were all used in this role. With the legendary Ernie Roth, known as The Grand Wizard, by his side, Superstar Graham dethroned the Italian strongman for the championship in Baltimore in 1977. According to The Wrestling Obsever’s Dave Meltzer, the title switch was booked for Baltimore instead of Madison Square Garden because the WWWF office didn’t want to risk a riot from the New York fans.
Roth’s trademark turban and futuristic sun glasses complimented Graham’s psychedelic style well, and the villain looked so cool that some fans just had to cheer for him. Sammartino and Graham worked rematches around the loop, but it was clear that Bruno wanted to wind down his full-time career, which he concluded in 1981. With Bruno’s exit from the ring on the horizon, McMahon Sr. needed a new top baby face to take the traditional spot in the territory. Bob Backlund, who spent his formative years as a pro in the AWA after an accomplished amateur career, was chosen to be the All-American “good guy” as the next WWWF champion. If the mid-west athlete translated to the blue collar audience is a different discussion for a different time, but still, Graham won the championship in 1977 with the knowledge that he would be asked to lose the title Backlund at some point. Considering how revolutionary his character was, McMahon Sr. probably didn’t expect him to get such a major reaction despite being a heel, and there was definitely an argument to be made that Graham could’ve been turned baby face for another reign, but the old school Capital Sports promoter wanted to stay the path of the original plan for the title. Despite tremendous popularity and memorable matches, including a few WWF vs. NWA championship bouts against Dusty Rhodes, “Superstar” lost the title to Backlund as scheduled in 1978.
After the usual series of rematches against Backlund, Graham left the WWWF and for a few years more or less disappeared from the national scene. It wasn’t until mid-1982 that he returned to the WWF for a brief stint with a new look, which was the facial hair style that Hulk Hogan and Scott Scott Steiner borrowed years later. However, the flashy tye dye was replaced with karate pants and a very clumsy karate style in the ring. He made appearances in the NWA throughout the mid-80s, but it was clear that the spark was gone from the “Superstar” presentation. Many pundits have cited that Graham went into a deep depression after he was asked to lose the WWWF champion, and the argument could be made that he was never the same, inside or outside of the ring, after he couldn’t recapture the fame.
Unfortunately, years of steroid abuse from his body building days and drug use during his wrestling career took a massive toll on his body. He needed a hip replacement in 1986 upon his return to the WWF and that was actually used in the angle for his comeback to television, but it was a short experiment as when he got back in the ring the following year, he couldn’t physically compete so he retired to work as an announcer before he was released from the company in 1988.
Billy Graham was very bitter about his exit from the McMahon organization, and appeared on the infamous episode of the Phil Donohue show in 1992 in the midst of the steroid scandal that caused a wave of negative press toward the industry at the time. Graham accused McMahon of knowing about the distribution of steroids. As we know, McMahon went to trial during the scandal, but was acquitted in 1994. After Graham was brought back to the WWE in 2004 for a Hall of Fame induction, which also included a book deal and DVD on his career as a part of a new contract, he admitted during the documentary that he lied about the steroid accusations against McMahon. So, either Graham fabricated the original accusations because he was bitter that he was released from a WWE contract in 1988 or he was willing to lie to clear McMahon’s name during the DVD in exchange for the new contract in 2004.
Either way, it’s tough to tell the story of how revolutionary he was without recognizing that hypocrisy was another major aspect of his career. In fact, Graham had several disputes with the WWE over the past two decades and his stance on things changed, depending on if he was on the payroll or not. For example, he was released in 2009 from a “consulting job,” which was probably just a nice way of sending him a pay check for the previous five years, and that prompted criticism from him toward the company. In 2015, he infamously campaigned to get Dusty Rhodes’ job in NXT just days after Dusty passed away. In 2019, he went as far as to suggest that Adam Cole should use steroids and that Triple H, the COO of a publicly-traded company, could show him how to use them properly. The whole situation was ridiculous, especially considering that steroids destroyed Graham’s body and thus ended his career. Over the years, Billy Graham claimed several times that he didn’t have long to live, which could’ve been accurate, but more often than not, it was associated with a Go Fund Me campaign for him.
The point being, Billy Graham was a complicated man, which isn’t to say that he was a bad guy, but rather that he was often financially desperate after the end of his wrestling career because of the health problems that resulted from his own decisions to use steroids or drugs. Maybe he changed his story or his stance on things over the years because he simply needed the money. On the other hand, maybe Graham thought he was owed a living by the WWE? In a previous era, guys were quietly taken care of because of their tenure or importance to the company. Lou Albano, Gorilla Monsoon, and Freddie Blassie were among those that were kept under the WWE banner, but it’s a different time and a publicly-traded corporation can’t necessarily keep too many favors jobs on the payroll during budget cuts because there are stockholders invested in the company. Originally, Graham got a favor job for five years, but still struggled financially after that.
Thankfully, it seemed like Billy Graham and the WWE were on good terms in more recent years as he signed a legends contract with the company in 2021. Graham was undoubtedly a complex man that had his share of problems, but much of his legacy will be that he was the prototype for the role of sports entertainer that eventually yielded the WWE the major success.
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