The professional wrestling and bodybuilding world is mourning the loss of one of its most influential ‘superstars’ with the news that Eldridge Wayne Coleman, known to millions around the world as the ‘superstar’ Billy Graham, has died aged 79. From his colorful ring attire to his larger-than-life work behind a microphone, Graham was close friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger and influenced countless future wrestling stars, including Hulk Hogan.
Born in 1943, in Phoenix, AZ, Graham will be missed by fans and peers alike. M&F looks 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 left his mark, Vincent Kennedy McMahon said everyone would be a WWE Superstar.” It’s the kind of mark on an entire industry that very few athletes can hope to achieve. In bodybuilding, he was also a superstar.
‘Superstar’ Billy Graham was a very successful bodybuilder
In 1961, a decade before adopting his famous ring name, Coleman won the West Coast division of the Mr. Teenage America bodybuilding contest. 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 patron of the original Gold’s Gym in Santa Monica, where he trained and befriended bodybuilding giants like Dave Draper, Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also appeared in Muscle & Fitness magazine, in a shoot alongside Arnie. In the 2017 book by Keith Elliot Greenberg; “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 harder than ever in the gym. He was there, with Franco Colombu, who spotted me when I bench-pressed 605 pounds The world record at the time was 616, held by my friend Pat Casey.
Two incredible physical specimens and good friends: Arnold Schwarzenegger and superstar Billy Graham pic.twitter.com/i5BN4CnnEZ
— Rasslin’s Story 101 (@WrestlingIsKing) January 16, 2020
In 1975, then five years into his professional wrestling career, Graham entered the 1975 Pro Mr. America contest promoted by the Bodybuilding Guild. He won in the “Best Developed Weapons” division, with 22-inch biceps.
‘Superstar’ Billy Graham set the blueprint for professional wrestlers
After training at the Hart Dungeon in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Coleman made his professional wrestling debut in 1970 for Stampede Wrestling under his real name. He later changed his name to “Superstar” Billy Graham as a tribute to the famous evangelist. A quick learner in professional wrestling, Graham adopted a strong preaching style mixed with Muhammad Ali’s self-confidence, delivering his verbal promos with great charisma in order to captivate his enthralled wrestling fans. He also became iconic for his colorful wardrobe and frequently used the tie to stand out against the muted tones professional wrestlers tended to use at the time.
In the 2017 book by Keith Elliot Greenberg; ‘Superstar Billy Graham: Tangled Ropes’, former pro wrestler and current WWE chief Triple H explained the impact the man who called himself ‘the pet of women and the regret of men’ had had on the business. “If I had to pick a wrestler and say, ‘He’s the most copied guy in the industry,’ I’d pick superstar Billy Graham,” he told Greenberg. “He’s the one who broke the wall in entertainment. He paved the way for Hulkamania. He paved the way for all of us.
While Graham would have an on-and-off relationship with WWE later in life, due to his criticism of storylines and his displeasure at seeing those with lacking physique getting airtime, among other gripes, he accepted his invitation to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, and although he later asked to be removed from the WWE HOF, his is still very much a member and had signed a new five-year contract with the legends with WWE in 2021.
Graham retired from the ring in 1988, claiming a storied career that made him a three-time world heavyweight champion, including the WWWF title, which he held from 1977 to 1978. However, after Suffering from addiction and substance abuse for much of his professional career, Graham would need a liver transplant in 2022, and although it was a successful operation, he faced other health issues. In 2012, he was diagnosed with stage 3 liver disease and cirrhosis and he has been hospitalized several times in recent years, finally passing away in May. 17, just three weeks shy of his 80th birthday.
There will never be another like the self-proclaimed “Man of the Hour, Man in Power, Too Sweet to Be Sour!” Rest in peace Superstar.