The professional wrestling and bodybuilding world mourns the loss of one of its most influential "superstars" with the news that Eldridge Wayne Coleman, known to millions around the world as "superstar" Billy Graham, has passed away at the age of 79. From his colorful ring attire to his larger-than-life work behind a microphone, Graham was a close friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger and influenced countless future wrestling stars, including Hulk Hogan.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1943, Graham will be missed by fans and like-minded people alike. M&F takes a look at the legacy of a legend.
"Before Billy Graham, those who worked in the WWWF/WWF/WWE were known as professional wrestlers," promoter and manager Paul Heyman said in a Twitter post upon hearing the news of Graham's death. "After Billy Graham made his mark, Vincent Kennedy McMahon declared that anyone would be a WWE Superstar." It's the kind of mark for an entire industry that very few athletes get to hope for. He was also a superstar in bodybuilding.
"Superstar" Billy Graham was an extremely successful bodybuilder
In 1961, a decade before taking on his famous ring name, Coleman won the West Coast division of the Mr. Teenage America bodybuilding competition. This sparked media interest and he soon found himself on the cover of Bob Hoffman's Strength and Fitness magazine. The young gym-goer became a regular at the original Gold's Gym in Santa Monica, where he trained with and befriended bodybuilding giants like Dave Draper, Franco Columbu, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also appeared in a shoot alongside Arnie in Muscle & Fitness magazine. In Keith Elliot Greenberg's 2017 book; "Superstar Billy Graham: Tangled Ropes", Graham said of his friendship with the Austrian Oak: "We became training partners and Arnold motivated me to push myself even harder in the gym than ever before." He was there with Franco Colombu and discovered me, when I bench pressed 605 pounds. The world record at the time was 616 and was held by my friend Pat Casey.”
Two amazing physical specimens and good friends: Arnold Schwarzenegger and superstar Billy Graham pic.twitter.com/i5BN4CnnEZ
— Rasslin' History 101 (@WrestlingIsKing) January 16, 2020
In 1975, then five years into his professional wrestling career, Graham entered the 1975 Pro Mr. America competition sponsored by the Bodybuilding Guild. He won the Best Developed Arms category with 22-inch biceps.
"Superstar" Billy Graham laid the foundation for professional wrestlers
After training at the Hart Dungeon in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Coleman made his pro wrestling debut for Stampede Wrestling under his real name in 1970. He later changed his name to "Superstar" Billy Graham in homage to the well-known evangelist. A quick learner in professional wrestling, Graham adopted a loud preaching style coupled with Muhammad Ali's confidence and delivered his verbal promos with great charisma to captivate his adoring wrestling fans. He also became iconic for his colorful wardrobe, often using tie-dye patterns to contrast with the muted tones that pro wrestlers tended to wear at the time.
In Keith Elliot Greenberg's 2017 book; "Superstar Billy Graham: Tangled Ropes," former pro wrestler and current WWE boss Triple H explained the impact the man, who described himself as "the woman's pet and the man's regret," has had on the business . "If I had to pick a wrestler and say, 'This is the most copied guy in the business,' I would pick superstar Billy Graham," he told Greenberg. "He was the guy who broke the wall when it came to entertainment. He paved the way for Hulkamania. He paved the way for all of us.”
While Graham had an irregular relationship with WWE in later life, he accepted his invitation to the WWE Hall of Fame in part because of his criticism of storylines and displeasure with people with poor physique getting airtime in 2004, despite later asking for it After being removed from WWE's HOF, he is still a permanent member and had signed a new five-year contract with WWE in 2021.
Graham retired from the ring in 1988 and had a storied career that saw him become a three-time world heavyweight champion, including the WWWF title, which he held in 1977-1978. However, having suffered from addiction and substance abuse for much of his professional career, Graham would require a liver transplant in 2022, and while the surgery was successful, he continued to struggle with other health issues. He was diagnosed with stage three liver disease and cirrhosis in 2012 and had to be hospitalized several times over the past few years, eventually dying in May. 17, just three weeks before his 80th birthday.
There will never be another like the self-proclaimed "man of the hour, the man with the power, too cute to be pissed!" Rest in peace superstar.