Superstar Billy Graham is a Pro Wrestling legend for many reasons. A noted rulebreaker for much of his career, the muscleman was a former bodybuilding champion and brought with him to the Ring the strut and arrogance that many today seek to emulate. Hulk Hogan has stated that much of his persona was based on the Superstar.
Superstar Billy Graham
Real Name: Wayne Coleman
Stats:6′ 4″ 275 lbs.
Born: September 10, 1943
By Steve Slagle
” I am the man of the hour, the one with the power, too sweet to be sour…” So went one of Billy Graham’s favorite interview quotes. A revolutionary champion who was way ahead of his time, this hated villain was one of the most colorful personalities (and later, one its most tragic stories) in the history of wrestling. He was also one of the biggest box-office attractions ever, and a true legend who has been imitated and copied often through the years.
Standing 6’4 and weighing 275 lbs., with long blonde hair, psychedelic tie-dyed trunks, a deep bronze tan, and a body absolutely rippling with power, the arrogant braggart from Paradise Valley, AZ. created a look and character that would go on to influence — either directly or indirectly — virtually everyone in pro wrestling that came after him.
Wayne Coleman, after playing football and winning numerous bodybuilding titles as an amateur, entered the sport via Stu Hart’s Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling promotion. Wrestling under his given name, the rookie Coleman learned and improved, to the point where he returned to America, where he was promoted as the youngest “brother” in the famous Graham wrestling “family.” Almost instantly, “Superstar” Billy Graham made a huge impact on the sport, and after only a couple of years in the business, Graham was involved in main-event matches, giving Verne Gagne a serious run for the A.W.A. World title while drawing sold-out crowds all across the multi-state territory.
Billy Graham, oozing with charisma, was the consummate showman from the start of his career. And while he relied mainly on an unstoppable “power attack” approach to the sport, Graham was, at times, a surprisingly efficient mat wrestler, more than able to carry his end of the load inside the ring with superior technical wrestlers like Gagne, Race, Brisco and Backlund. But clearly, what made Billy Graham such a star from the beginning was not his wrestling prowess, or even a lack of it, but rather, that he made the fans notice him. Sure, wrestling had featured muscular, blonde braggarts before…but no one like “Superstar” Billy Graham. A master of “wrestling psychology,” every move he made seemed to mean something, and the fans — although most hated him with a true passion — could not get enough of the young, brash, egotistical muscleman. Graham was also among the first so-called “tweeners”, or wrestlers who also have a large group of highly vocal, loyal fans that continue to support that wrestler despite his frequent acts of cowardice, cheating, and egotism. But more importantly to Graham, very early in his career it became obvious to promoters across the country that The Superstar invariably packed `em in…
He won, among other championships, the N.W.A. Hawaiian Heavyweight title in 1974. Graham followed that achievement up with an even more prestigous victory when he won the IWA Heavyweight title (by defeating Billy Robinson) later that same year. Graham also won the N.W.A.’s valuable Florida Heavyweight title on two occasions (defeating Dusty Rhodes in 1976 and Billy Jack Haynes in 1984), the Florida Tag Team title (w/Ox Baker), as well as the prestigious N.W.A. Southern Heavyweight championship (defeating Dusty Rhodes) in 1977. However, “Superstar” Graham will forever be remembered for one title victory in particular…
In the spring of 1977 in Baltimore, MD., Graham, in one of his very first matches since returning to the WWWF after a successful stint in the N.W.A.’s Florida territory, met and defeated his hated, longtime arch-rival Bruno Sammartino for the World Wide Wrestling Federation Heavyweight title. It was Graham’s only WWF championship, and the match will go down as a true classic.
Although it was a pro-Bruno crowd, Graham once again had his fair share of the crowd…and when he cheated to beat Bruno, gaining “extra leverage” by having two feet on the ropes when he made the pin, it just added to his heel persona. Try as he might, Bruno could never regain the WWWF title from the powerful “Superstar.”
With the evil genius of The Grand Wizard of Wrestling guiding him, “Superstar” Billy Graham went on to hold the WWWF championship for nearly a full year — something unheard of for a “heel” WWWF champion of that era. Both Ivan Koloff and Stan Stasiak, the only two other “bad guy” WWWF titleholders, were used as transition champions and had fleeting reigns as the champ. In fact, during the following a decade and a half, Graham was the only “heel” WW(W)F champion to have lasted longer than a few days.
He helped set attendance records at Madison Square Garden during his epic battles with Bruno, Rhodes, and Backlund. As the WWWF Heavyweight titleholder, he faced every worthy challenger in the Federation during his reign as champion, cleanly (and sometimes not so cleanly) defeating the likes of Sammartino, Rhodes, Ivan Putski, Chief Jay Strongbow, Gorilla Monsoon, Larry Zbysko, “High Chief” Peter Maivia, Tony Garea, Dean Ho, and Mil Mascaras among many others.
He also made wrestling history in 1977 by being one of the two World Champions (the other being Harley Race) who put their respective World titles on the line in the first ever N.W.A. vs. W.W.W.F. World Title Unification match. The match was held in the heart of one of the N.W.A.’s top territories — Miami, FL. The two proud champions, with the eyes of the wrestling world upon them, wrestled to a bloody 1 hour draw. No titles were won or lost, but mutual respect (as well as a very profitable gate receipt) was surely gained…
It was the unsuspecting Backlund, though, who would eventually cause Billy Graham’s championship downfall. On February 2, 1978, 10 months after Graham’s W.W.W.F. reign first started, Backlund defeated the Superstar in front of a wild, sold-out M.S.G. capacity crowd. Ironically, (and completely non-coincidentally) Backlund scored the victory while Graham’s foot was draped over the rope…making him the only WWF champion to both win and lose the title with his feet on the ropes. Regardless of the circumstances, and despite Graham’s vociferous outcry over Backlund’s “tainted” win, Bob Backlund’s 1978 victory forever ended Graham’s reign as WWF champion.
The two diametrically opposed rivals would then engage in a series of 3 classic, brutal matches. In the first of the trilogy, Graham lost the W.W.W.F. title. The rematch, again at the Garden and in front of over 22,000 fans, Graham pummeled, battered, and bloodied the new champion so badly that the referee called the match due to Backlund’s excessive cuts. Graham won, but the gold title belt he craved so deeply stayed with Backlund. The 3rd, deciding match, was again held at the Garden, but this time it was within the deadly confines of a 15 foot steel cage. The match was brutal, bloody, and hard-fought…with Graham controlling the majority of the match. But after dominating Backlund for nearly 30 minutes, Graham missed a running knee into the corner…and instead got his foot tangled in the wire of the cage. Trapped and unable to free himself in time, he watched helplessly as Backlund crawled outside of the cage for the victory.
After losing his feud with Backlund, Graham teamed successfully, if only briefly, with his “half-brother” Crazy Luke Graham, and also longtime partner/enemy Ivan Koloff. Graham also continued to wage war (and set attendance records) with “Stardust” Dusty Rhodes. The two battled many times throughout the W.W.W.F., and engaged in a legendary Texas Bullrope Match held in Madison Square Garden to cap off the feud. Graham won, barely, and soon left the W.W.W.F. completely…
Between 1980-1982, little was seen or heard from the famous Graham. Other than a high-profile appearance and respectable placing (along with Ken Patera, Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbo and other famous athletes) on C.B.S.’s The Worlds Strongest Man Competition (pictured, above right) and a few scattered appearances in the Memphis territory to face Jerry Lawler, Billy Graham all but disappeared from the wrestling world. Rumors even spread among fans that Graham was dead. However, that couldn’t have been further from the truth…
In 1982, on the first day of Backlund’s fourth year as WWF champion, “Superstar” Billy Graham reappeared on WWF television and confronted Bob Backlund, reminding him and everyone watching that Backlund never cleanly defeated him. He then, in one of wrestling’s most dramatic and impressive moments, proceeded to attack Backlund and his manager Arnold Skoaland, and then took the leather and gold WWF title belt and literally tore it in half.
The new, intense, focused and determined “Superstar” Graham was no longer the colorful blonde muscleman from the 1970’s. Visually, this Billy Graham was quite different than the one WWF fans had jeered (and cheered) so passionately just a few years earlier. His golden locks were gone, his head completely bald, and he had added a dark mustache. Additionally, Graham sported a new, formidable karate arsenal and wardrobe. He was all business this time…and it was obvious to fans that Backlund’s hands would be more than full with this “new” Billy Graham. The two arch-rivals once again engaged in a series of matches to determine who was the better man. After some very controversial endings that often saw Graham get the best of the babyface champ, but not his WWF championship, Backlund once again managed to keep his grasp on the (newly made) W.W.F. title belt and win his second feud with The Superstar..
Like many wrestlers of his day, “Superstar” Graham was very well-traveled, and competed in virtually every noteworthy regional promotion at one point or another, as well as establishing himself as a big draw in Japan. Whether guided by the twisted genius of his Grand Wizard (WWWF), the cunning Bobby “The Brain” Heenan (AWA) or on his own (NWA), “Superstar” Billy Graham’s legendary feuds and matches with Backlund, Gagne, Sammartino, Rhodes (pictured, left), Jack Brisco, Pat Patterson, Antonio Inoki, Ivan Koloff, Paul Jones, “Chief” Wahoo McDaniel, Dick The Bruiser & The Crusher, Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd, “Chief” Jay Strongbow, Harley Race, Andre The Giant, Mil Mascaras, “The World’s Strongest Man” Ken Patera, Gorilla Monsoon, Peter Maivia, John Tolos, Ivan Putski and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine (among many others) drew sell-out crowds for promotions across the country.
Although professional wrestling during the 1970’s was still very much an “underground” form of entertainment (with its programming often relegated to less-than-desirable timeslots on small independent TV stations) during a time when there were very few wrestlers who were able to garner “mainstream” fame, “Superstar” Billy Graham was a guest on highly-rated network shows such as NBC’s Tomorrow w/Tom Snyder, and did cross-over publicity in the body building world, with the likes of Arnold Schwartzeneger and Lou Ferrigno. In his day, be it for the NWA, WWWF, or AWA, Billy Graham was truly a “superstar” unlike any other!
“The Superstar” was also a huge influence on the professional wrestling business as a whole. The fast-talking, incredibly egomaniacal and arrogant “Superstar” Billy Graham was the prototype for champion wrestlers to come. His massively muscled, deeply tanned body and long blond hair combined with his uniquely colorful ring attire created a wrestling persona imitated by numerous wrestlers, both during his era and after he retired. Among others “Big Poppa Pump” Scott Steiner, “The Universal Heart Throb” Austin Idol (pictured, left), “Superstar” Steve Strong, Jesse The Body Ventura (pictured, right), and Hulk Hogan come to mind. Many other professional wrestlers were also indirectly influenced by Graham, men like Lex Luger, the USWA-era “Stunning” Steve Austin, Sting, and other colorful blond musclemen that came after “The Superstar.” Even The Rock, the self proclaimed “most electrifying athlete in sports entertainment” owes a raising of the People’s Eyebrow to “The Superstar,” as he was the first WWF wrestler to regularly incorporate an overuse of the technique of referring to himself in the 3rd person during his colorful promos.
Terry Bollea — Hulk Hogan — himself has stated that he “borrowed” much of Billy Graham’s ring persona and characteristics when creating his own Hulk Hogan, and later, Hollywood Hogan characters. Hogan duplicated many aspects of Graham’s gimmick, right down to referring to his massive moneymakers as the “largest arms in the world” and the “24 inch pythons”, tearing off his t-shirt before each match, and posing for the crowd after each victory, all of which Graham did years before Hogan came along. Wrestling’s other icon of the late 20th century — Ric Flair — also owes of good deal of his character, particularly during the early years, to “The Superstar.” As seen in the picture to the left (taken in 1976) Billy Graham was arguably a bigger influence on the future “Nature Boy” than Buddy Rogers himself…at least visually.
But Graham’s biggest influence would come in the form of his massive, bulging steroid-enhanced muscles. Others saw the interest that Graham’s look caused in the fans, and they emulated it. When Graham wrestled, he was unique. There were no wrestlers — no matter how muscular they may have been — who looked like Superstar Graham. After Graham, the heavily muscled, massive wrestler became the norm…taken to the top by a self professed Superstar Graham wannabe. Billy Graham is by no means responsible for steroids in wrestling, but he was really the first wrestler to gain huge stardom as a result of using them.
However, Graham is now paying the price for those years of steroid abuse. The drugs have ravaged his once perfect body, leaving him with a multitude of physical ailments. Parts of his skeletal structure have actually died, and Graham has been forced to undergo several hip replacement surgeries as a direct result of using steroids.
He is now involved in religion, and often speaks to young athletes about his days as World Champion and the dangerous side effects of steroids. If ever there was a case study of the rewards and subsequent harmful ramifications of steroid abuse, it’s Billy Graham.
Truly an unsung legend of pro wrestling, we at The Ring Chronicle are proud to induct the inventive, talented, and revolutionary champion “Superstar” Billy Graham into T.R.C.’s Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame…