The Man of the Hour: The Life of ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham

Photo Courtesy: WWE

“The reward was so good using steroids that it certainly set me aside and made an everlasting impact on the business. The reward was fantastic in and out of the ring. Even physically, with the problems I’ve had, I still probably would have traded that for that instant reward where I was on top of the business – except for the fact, I became sterile from steroids and my wife, therefore, couldn’t conceive children and that was the big penalty that I paid but I think other than that, I would have still done the same thing all over again.”

Superstar Billy Graham, 2006

How does one begin to encapsulate the life of Superstar Billy Graham?

A natural showman that can legitimately lay claim to changing the parameters in which his peers were judged from a physical and verbal aesthetic. For ten months, he was the kingpin of the largest territory in the United States and his blueprint set in the ‘70s was the jet fuel that propelled the WWF in the ensuing decade.

It’s a far more difficult task to unpack the life of Eldridge Wayne Coleman and find the line of demarcation between the two.

Often, when a controversial figure dies, we tiptoe around the bad parts with language like ‘a complicated history’ or ‘controversial’ and opt to glean from the positives while ignoring the negatives. For Graham, his life was more than April 30, 1977, it was also more than an appearance on the Phil Donahue Show in March 1992 but all of it contributes to the story of Eldridge Wayne Coleman.

Coleman was born June 7, 1943 (the generally accepted birth year, although was disputed at points) to Eldridge John Coleman and Juanita Bingaman and was one of four children with two older sisters, Annette and Joyce, and half-brother Vance.

While attending Phoenix North High School, Coleman emerged as a competitive discus thrower and shotput thrower with dreams of making the U.S. Olympic dream as a decathlete. Those dreams would be dashed when he fell in with the wrong crowd during high school, missed classes, and his grades suffered and thus, impacted his sporting ventures at the school.

While Coleman would eventually be married five times, his first love was bodybuilding and falling into the competitive scene with contemporaries Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Dave Draper, and others at the original Gold’s Gym in the bodybuilding hotbed of Venice Beach, California. It was in 1961, that Graham won the Western version of Mr. Teenage America (Zane won on the east coast).

The relationship with Schwarzenegger began in 1969 right when the future Governor of California arrived in the country and lasted throughout their lives. Schwarzenegger would be named the godfather of Coleman’s first child, Capela.

An interesting but important period of Coleman’s early years centered around his fixation with religion and televangelism. Coleman became a mentee of an evangelist Jerry Russell with the two hitting the road as Russell would deliver over-the-top sermons while Coleman would perform feats of strength for the public. There is no doubt that Coleman would rely on the same salesmanship skills he bore witness to in one industry and apply it to his own years later when it came to learning how to engross the public through his words and delivery and seeing the link between evangelism and pro wrestling and their goals of separating people from their money. While influential in his early years, Graham was eventually turned off by the evangelists with the over-the-top nature even though he saw how profitable it was but placing false hope among impressionable believers.

It was around 1965 that Coleman was introduced to the most influential substance of his life – steroids. This preceded his time in professional wrestling, which would be key in the timeline when Coleman launched a lawsuit decades later against multiple parties including the WWF.

After a pursuit of boxing, he attempted a career in football including in the CFL where he tried out for the Calgary Stampeders as a defensive lineman and was traded to the Montreal Alouettes, who cut Coleman, who never had the true aptitude for the sport nor played competitively in his younger years.

Coleman’s bridge to professional wrestling was Arizona State alumnus and CFL player Bob Lueck, who convinced the future ‘Superstar’ to give professional wrestling a try. Lueck was in the middle of his tenure with the Calgary Stampeders when he recommended the services of Stu Hart, who was the wrestling promoter of note in the city.

Coleman, used to the balmy weather, uprooted himself and moved to Calgary in the dead of winter and found himself making his professional debut on January 16, 1970, against Dan Kroffat.

Coleman would joke that Hart never taught him how to wrestle properly but beat the hell out of him in the Dungeon and compare Hart House to the home of the Munsters. Coleman had endless respect for Hart and one of his deep regrets was never reconnecting with Stu prior to his death in October 2003. After Stu’s passing, he did connect with Nattie Neidhart prior to her joining the WWE around 2006 and was appreciative of having a link to the family.

Coleman left the territory and he didn’t have a compass for his future in the industry until running into Dr. Jerry Graham, one of the most unhinged and reckless figures of the time, who found the newest ‘Graham’.

This was when Coleman adopted the new name – with ‘Superstar’ to come later after the rock musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ premiered.

Jerry & Billy began wrestling for Mike LeBell in Los Angeles, but it would be short-lived as Jerry, predictably, became unreliable and a mess on the road due to his alcoholism and LeBell cut ties but held on to Coleman.

Graham migrated to San Francisco in January 1971 and wrestled for Roy Shire and linked up with a key person in his career, Pat Patterson. Graham and Patterson would eventually have a falling out that was never remedied but Graham learned tremendously from Patterson – one of the top workers of his era.

The pair worked main events and won the area’s tag titles from Peter Maivia & Ray Stevens and dropped them to Pepper Gomez & Rocky Johnson in September of 1971.

Coleman continued to travel with stints in Hawaii for Ed Francis and returning to L.A. but his next major stop was among the most important of his career when he landed in the AWA in October 1972.

Graham would reflect on his career calling the AWA and WWWF the best territories he worked in and where he felt most comfortable. In the AWA, while it was a heavy work rate promotion, which was anathema to Graham’s style, it was also a territory that thrived on great promo men from Nick Bockwinkel, Bobby Heenan, Mad Dog Vachon, and The Crusher among others.

It was in 1972 that ‘Superstar’ entered Graham’s lexicon after the musical came out and was a natural extension given Graham’s religious roots and became the stand-in for ‘professional wrestler’ when Vince McMahon rebranded his performers.

Armed with his gift of gab, Graham became among the top heels in the country and feuded with Verne Gagne, Wahoo McDaniel, and The Crusher during his two years in the territory. He also teamed with Ivan Koloff with the pair holding the distinction as the two men to dethrone Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF Championship, albeit Graham would get an actual run with the belt while Koloff was a quick transition from Sammartino to Pedro Morales.

There were stints in Texas and Jim Crockett Promotions for Graham before receiving the call from Vince McMahon Sr. to come to New York and made his debut for the WWWF in 1975.

By this time, Graham estimated in his biography that he was taking around thirty Dianabol pills per day and regardless of whether was legitimate or exaggerated, he was heavy on the gas and bursting at the seams and defying the imagination of fans regarding how a pro wrestler could look.

His first appearance at the venue he would sell out twenty times throughout his career – Madison Square Garden – occurred on December 15, 1975, beating Dominic DeNucci on a card headlined by Bruno Sammartino beating his rival Ivan Koloff in a steel cage match, which was the first cage match in Garden history with a reported crowd of 26,350 including the adjacent Felt Forum.

Graham had his first main event on January 12, 1976, against Sammartino which saw Graham get a count-out victory and a two-match program with the champion, who beat Graham the next month in front of another sell-out to retain the title.

Graham was phased out of the title picture and teamed with Ivan Koloff over the next several months before leaving the territory.

While Sammartino was still drawing well, the mental strain as champion was intensifying, and like a hamster on an endless wheel, he wanted out. McMahon Sr. had to seek out his new champion and arrived at NCAA Division II wrestler Bob Backlund and mapped out an elaborate two-year plan to get Backlund to a position where he could carry the load in the lucrative territory.

The bridge was going to be Graham with a meeting involving the future champion with Vince McMahon Sr. and Eddie Graham on a yacht in 1976 that outlined the plan.

Graham would return to New York with a location to be determined where Sammartino would drop the title. While it was a range of potential options, McMahon Sr. settled on Baltimore as the location for fear of the New York crowd rioting after their hero lost. Graham would become WWWF Champion on April 30, 1977, and one of the few champions to know the exact date he was losing the title when the referee’s hand hit the mat for the third time.

February 20, 1978.

It was the date that hung above Graham like a cloud and as it got closer, Graham treated it as his own funeral.

There was no argument that Graham ran with the title and more than held his own with ten title defenses at Madison Square Garden including two with Sammartino, two against Dusty Rhodes, two with Mil Mascaras, one against Gorilla Monsoon, and individual defenses against Peter Maivia and Ivan Putski.

The only ones that did not sell out were the matches with Monsoon on May 16, 1977, on a card that included Sammartino vs. George Steele, and November 21, 1977, against Maivia. Despite not selling out the building, both shows still topped 17,000 and hardly bombed.

Even more impressive, is that the period where Graham was champion was when children under the age of fourteen could not attend shows at The Garden. Not only did that cut into the ability to sell tickets to children, but adults paid to take their children to the shows. This restriction was lifted on the night Backlund won the title.

Graham also worked outside the territory taking the belt to St. Louis and held a famous battle of the champions with his NWA counterpart Harley Race at the Orange Bowl in 1978 where the two wrestled to a one-hour draw in the rain.

As the end date drew closer, Graham was maneuvering himself for a babyface run with small hints from a change in the colors he wore, throwing out his bandana and angling for an extended run as a babyface. His belief was that you don’t upset the apple cart when things are working well, and business was great with Graham on top. It’s easy to look at Bob Backlund as the antithesis of a big drawing champion, especially shown side to side with Graham. History showed Backlund was a great drawing champion and while some of his cards had strong support, Backlund held his own through the end of 1983 and served as McMahon Sr’s final franchise player.

While the story has been told that Graham lost the title to Backlund and then, fell off the face of the earth, Graham did stick around in the WWWF. Backlund and Graham had MSG rematches on March 20, 1978, with Graham being awarded the match due to a cut above Backlund’s eye and came back with a steel cage match on April 24 with both rematches selling out.

Graham still had some big matches throughout the year including a two-match series with Dusty Rhodes in the summer that finished with Rhodes winning an Indian Bull Rope match and a rematch with Sammartino on October 23. It served as great assistance for Backlund in his first months as champion.

By the end of 1978, Graham was gone from the territory and wrestled around the country for various promoters. He was, essentially, out of wrestling by 1980 as he was performing manual labor in Arizona by installing sprinklers. This was where he entered his self-described depression as he was removed from the stage while he felt the audience was still clapping and felt his time was cut short.

Years later, Vince McMahon Jr. would acknowledge it was a mistake to cut Graham’s title run short and it doesn’t take a ton of analysis to determine what McMahon Jr. saw in Graham compared to Backlund. But, for Vince Sr., he stuck with his plan and it wasn’t a case of Backlund dying as champion and was an incredibly strong babyface draw – who was closer to Georges St. Pierre while Graham was Quinton Jackson or Conor McGregor.

During his time away, rumors circulated that Graham died. The rumor was mentioned by Gorilla Monsoon in his Philadelphia column. Graham called Monsoon to confirm he was alive, but Monsoon never printed a retraction, although it was noted on the local Philadelphia television that Graham was alive.

He resurfaced in 1982 for a series of rematches with Bob Backlund but the WWWF audience was not getting the ‘Superstar’. Instead, it was a bizarre Kung-Fu version of Graham with a Fu-Manchu mustache and so offbeat, it only fueled rumors that someone new was cast as Billy Graham.

Despite the horrible gimmick that Graham called a terrible move, he did business with Backlund as the Graham name still meant something in New York.

Their first match on October 4, 1982, sold out The Garden with Graham winning by disqualification to set up a November 22 rematch, which ended in a double count-out.

The blowoff was on December 28 with Backlund winning a Lumberjack Match and would be Graham’s last main event at the arena until a final one in 1987.

The Kung-Fu character fizzled out in early 1983 with Garden matches against Rocky Johnson, Jules Strongbow, and Jimmy Snuka before Graham’s next exit.

He tried to resurrect himself in the following years by going back to the AWA, to Florida for Eddie Graham, and to Jim Crockett Promotions where he spent nearly two years and was his last significant run as an in-ring performer. Graham shared the financials of these years in his book claiming he made $23,883 in 1984 and $22,902 in 1985.

His final in-ring run came in 1986 with a return to the WWF under Vince McMahon Jr. and a return to the ‘Superstar’ character. Unfortunately, a life’s worth of steroid abuse in a demanding industry forced the cheque to come due and his body was the one to pay the price as he was physically breaking down.

Almost immediately, the 42-year-old needed a hip replacement with McMahon stating he paid for the surgery but Graham would claim that the amount was taken out of future pay. The company documented the hip replacement surgery and his training for a comeback on its television.

 

Graham returned to the ring in July 1987 and would get four months out of his new hip before his in-ring days were done. The highlight of this last run was his final main event at Madison Square Garden where he beat Butch Reed in a steel cage match. It was Graham’s last sell-out and is a percentage no one has hit even though there are wrestlers that have sold the arena out more times and are led by Sammartino.

McMahon tried him out as a babyface manager for Don Muraco, which was a tough role for Graham and didn’t click and was a short-term solution. In 1988, they tested him out as a color commentator with the idea of it being a natural transition for one of the great promo men of all time. He was famously on the call for the first SummerSlam show in August 1988 and to put to put it mildly, he was not cut out for it. The broadcast contained more ‘brothers’ than a wrestling reunion and Graham’s attempt at commentary could best be remembered as a template for a deadly drinking game.

Graham was cut by the WWE in early 1990 and relations soured. Graham believed he was a pillar of the company’s history and it was so much of his character that was obviously ripped from when Hulk Hogan found his rhythm as the company’s top draw.

It would be very hard to turn on a WWF program in the mid-’80s and not see the impact of Graham from the company’s top draw, the voice on commentary in Jesse Ventura, and the massive bodies populating the screen with Vince McMahon’s vision coming to life from his own impressions of Graham.

His health deterioration increased as Graham was dealing with avascular necrosis – a deadening of the bone with Graham constantly linking his steroid use as the culprit. A month after his WWF release, he underwent ankle fusion surgery, with his doctor in shock at how mangled his ankle was. He had existing hip issues that would persist throughout the decade and was diagnosed with severe spinal stenosis.

Out of work, Graham also needed to find a way to make money and his story had all the trappings of a tragic tale for the once-headlining attraction in the country’s biggest market.

Graham resurfaced as a public figure during the trial of Dr. George Zahorian in 1991, offering his testimony against the man he grouped as guilty of contributing to his problems and equating Zahorian to a drug pusher. Zahorian was the doctor assigned by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission to oversee the WWF’s shows in the state and quickly gained a reputation as a ‘go-to’ for whatever the talent was seeking to ease the pain or any other requests he could fulfill.

Zahorian was found guilty of illegally distributing steroids, but Graham’s fight did not end with Zahorian.

Graham went public as the living example of the ‘canary in the coal mine’ to the ills of steroid abuse as his body was crumbling. He was also a mesmerizing presence when speaking and was an easy interview and quote for the media to latch onto – traits that Graham took great advantage of and was not shy about bending or outright breaking the truth to provide the largest headline that could be attributed to him.

Among the ammunition behind Graham’s public attack, were comments made by Hulk Hogan during his appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show. Hogan claimed to have only used steroids three times, which drew universal eye-rolling including from Graham. As well, Hogan referred to the use and abuse of steroids by Graham and included his name.

The WWF was besieged in scandals by 1992 on both the steroid front and the shocking revelations of alleged abuse of ring boys that was painting an ugly picture of the internal culture that juxtaposed the ‘family friendly’ entertainment they were selling.

Graham became the most outspoken and was part of a major panel on the Phil Donahue Show in March 1992 that included Vince McMahon, Bruno Sammartino, Barry Orton, Murray Hodgson, Dave Meltzer, and John Arezzi.

Graham claimed he stopped his steroid use around 1989 but the damage was done. While he was not the first pro wrestler to use steroids, he was a neon sign for usage and even cut promos dropping steroid references and becoming the poster boy for them.

It was on the Donahue Show, that Graham made a scathing allegation regarding Pat Patterson inappropriately grabbing a ring boy – an allegation that Graham later recanted and apologized for, but for obvious reasons, would never be accepted by Patterson and never wanted anything to do with Graham after this statement was made.

While former ring boy Tom Cole was most outspoken about his treatment and did state in a 1999 interview that Patterson once grabbed his ass, he downplayed Patterson’s acts when compared to ring announcer Mel Phillips and executive Terry Garvin, who both left the company during this scandal and never returned. Those that have defended Patterson have stated it was ribbing but Cole’s allegation goes beyond ribbing and the fact Patterson was in a position of power made it even more problematic regardless of the era you want to adjudicate those actions.

However, Patterson was also wrongfully accused in two instances. One, by Graham on Donahue, and by Murray Hodgson, who turned out to be a fraud with his lawyer stating as much when his case fell apart.

Years later, when back in the good graces of WWE, Graham derided this period as one of anger and depression and openly lied about the company. He absolutely made up lies and it killed his credibility, which is unfortunate because the steroid abuse in the industry was real and he was as knowledgeable and credible on that topic as any wrestler given his lifetime of usage – but, at his core, he was a showman and the truth dies from a lack of oxygen with that approach.

In March 1992, Graham sued the WWF, Titan Sports, Dr. George Zahorian, and seven drug manufacturers over the impact of steroids on his health. Graham’s side did go to the WWF and was willing to drop the suit for a large settlement, which set the table for WWF to come back in a combative stance by believing this was all about money.

WWF’s lead counsel Jerry McDevitt went to war with Graham in his deposition but the two did emerge with a mutual respect for one another. One story Graham shared was going to the bathroom during the deposition when McDevitt pulled up next to him with Graham laughing and remarking, ‘You’re killing me out there’.

It was a nasty fight and ultimately, the suit couldn’t go anywhere due to the statute of limitations and the gaping hole that Graham’s steroid use began in around 1965 and didn’t come to New York for another decade and didn’t work for Vince McMahon Jr. until the decade after that. It was impossible to solely pin McMahon as the one responsible for the ills of Graham’s steroid use – not to mention, Graham hardly needed any motivation to maintain that lifestyle.

The WWF even used its in-house magazine to paint a negative portrait of Graham in its September 1993 issue with a column titled Now It’s Our Turn. It was a rundown of Graham using answers from his deposition and painting him as a fraud and one of questionable character. The company stated it would continue to profile different people attacking the company, but it ended with the Graham piece.

As the WWF launched its Hall of Fame in 1993 with subsequent classes over the next several years, Graham was never honored and it was believed that he and Bruno Sammartino never would be due to each’s grudge against the company.

In 2002, Graham was desperately in need of a liver transplant and received a miracle through a donor named Katie Gilroy, who died at the age of 26 in a car accident. The transplant gave new life to Graham, who almost certainly would be on death’s door had he not received it. There was a second life saved during this crisis when Graham’s long-time friend and former football player Ron Pritchard offered to donate a portion of his liver to his friend. Pritchard went through the testing and doctors discovered he had liver cancer, but due to his willingness to donate, they found it early enough and Pritchard recovered from the cancer.

In the ‘never say never’ department, Graham returned to the good graces of WWE by attending the SummerSlam event in his hometown of Phoenix in the summer of 2003 and was now recognized as a company legend. The next year, WWE brought back the Hall of Fame of several absent years with Graham being the headliner and inducted by Paul Levesque.

Part of his return included a three-part sit-down interview that aired on WWE’s ‘Confidential’ program where Graham took full blame for the early ‘90s criticisms with Vince McMahon painted as the bigger man that let bygones being bygones and forgiving Graham. The truth is more complicated but doing business is not.

Graham released his book ‘Tangled Ropes’ with Keith Elliot Greenberg, which was a multi-year passion project for Graham and was an excellent book where Graham toned down the hyperbole to tell his legitimate story and Greenberg grew up a huge fan in New York, so knew the subject inside and out, which made for a great pairing.

WWE also released a DVD for Graham and presented him as one of its on-screen legends, complete with a legends’ contract.

It did place Graham in a tough spot at times as someone with deep faith and was promoting his book and DVD while Vince McMahon was doing an angle promoting ‘God’ wrestling at a pay-per-view. Graham had issues with the religious overtones and didn’t care for the angle where Lita was pregnant and then lost her baby in the storyline with Kane.

The up-and-down relationship saw another decline in 2009 when his deal was not renewed and Graham would emerge publicly on the attack, yet again. Money problems continued and sadly, sold his Hall of Fame ring with his public story over being insulted that there wasn’t a physical Hall of Fame to honor the wrestlers.

During this period, he was coming up with various ways to make money whether it be promoting his ‘final autograph appearance’ in a part of the country due to travel difficulties or calling up his agent and looking for potential lawsuits to file.

It was believed that Graham received a new WWE Legends deal around 2015.

He had a more private life over his final years with rare interviews here and there.

Earlier this year, he was admitted to the hospital and it was a horrible year for him. Graham was dealt a blow of acute kidney problems, an infection that took away his hearing and entered his skull, severe weight loss, a bout of COVID, his wife Valerie contracting long COVID, and compounded by financial stresses that his mounting hospital bills were accruing.

Earlier this week, doctors advised Valerie that Graham should be taken off life support. After dozens of kick outs from near-death experiences, Graham wasn’t making another comeback. Valerie refused, how could she not hold out for another miracle for a man that produced one after another over the past three decades of health ailments?

On Wednesday, May 17, Eldridge Wayne Coleman died at the age of 79.

Was it all worth it?

In a 2006 interview, Coleman said it was.

For his wife Valerie, she endured plenty of heartache over the years by his side. The couple were separated for a period in the late 2000s, although got back together, but essentially Valerie had been there at his side since she was nineteen years old. From those that knew both, the word ‘saint’ is immediately assigned to Valerie through what she endured.

Graham noted one regret that he believed his inability to have children was a result of steroids and very tough for Valerie, but ultimately, Graham accepted the price.

In a previous marriage, Graham did have two children – Capella and Joey. He was estranged from his children at various points because of the demands of his profession. In the end, Graham’s Facebook account displayed a photo of Joey with his father while he was in hospital over the past few months and a subsequent report by the Wrestling Observer that Capella was with him when he died.

There are many lessons to learn from the body of work that Coleman left for us to deserve, but there are also consequences.

Fame is fleeting. The hot trend today is the forgotten fad tomorrow. Graham lived and chased this. There is no better high than the next one. The last is a reminder of what was, not what is.

While it’s easy to glean through promos, championship wins, and sell-out records, they mean very little and that’s the tragic part of Superstar Billy Graham, who often defined himself by those markers.

His life was not a reflection of perfection, what you saw is not what you always got, and what you didn’t wasn’t always better yet.

In his final weeks and months, Valerie, Capella & Joey were the ones to visit and care for him and forced him to question, what is all worth it?

Additional reading & listening
:
Tangled Ropes by Billy Graham & Keith Elliot Greenberg
MSG record
Wrestling Observer Newsletter – Jan. 10, 1992 (Subscription required)
Wrestling Observer Newsletter – Aug. 9, 1993
Between the Sheets: Superstar Billy Graham vs. The WWF (Patreon)
Superstar Billy Graham Made It Big in Wrestling – Phoenix New Times (March 31, 2011)

About John Pollock 5524 Articles
Born on a Friday, John Pollock is a reporter, editor & podcaster at POST Wrestling. He runs and owns POST Wrestling alongside Wai Ting.