Superstar Billy Graham

Superstar Billy Graham

By Mike Mooneyham

Nov. 3, 2002

Superstar Billy Graham, one of pro wrestling’s most enduring legends, received countless calls from well-wishers leading up to his live-saving liver transplant two weeks ago. Many of his former wrestling and bodybuilding colleagues simply called to convey their thoughts, while others held the former WWWF heavyweight champion up in prayer.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger had kept in touch with his ex-Mr. Olympia training partner, as had Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. WWE agent Terry Taylor had even offered to be a living donor (his blood type didn’t match). Other born-again Christian wrestlers such as Sting (Steve Borden) and Road Warriors Hawk and Animal (Mike Hegstrand and Joe Laurinaitis) held prayerful conversations with the man once considered one of the strongest in the world.

“It was so wonderful to know that I had so many in my corner pulling for me and praying for me,” said Graham (real name Wayne Coleman). “I tell everybody that this liver will never see any anabolic steroids or any drugs or substances associated with pro wrestling or bodybuilding. This will be the cleanest liver that a pro wrestler has ever had.”

Ironically, the most comforting and unexpected call came from Vince McMahon, whose recent past with Graham had been clouded by a decade-old dispute.

Graham, whose steroid-enhanced physique had served as a prototype for such figures as Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Hulk Hogan, had once been described by the WWE owner as “the innovator of steroids,” the man who bridged the gap in wrestling from relatively normal looking big men to cut-up, bodybuilder physiques. But comments Graham made in the midst of the steroid controversy during the early ‘90s soured relations between the two.

[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Graham would later renounce the charges, admitting that he made the claims as a result of bitterness over being released by McMahon several years earlier. Dealing with his own failing health, Graham admitted it wasn’t until he got back on his feet spiritually that he was able to write McMahon a letter of apology in 1996. He had not received a reply until several months ago when McMahon contacted Graham prior to a Raw that was held in Graham’s hometown of Phoenix.

“Vince gave me a call, we talked and had a great visit,” said Graham. “I asked him to forgive me for all the false statements that I had made. Everything was a result of bitterness. We really came to a great new friendship. I told him that I’d love to come see him at the America West Arena here in Phoenix, but I just wasn’t feeling up to it. He said, ‘Well, if you came down here, I’d have to put you in the main event.’ That was nice to hear. I told him maybe I’d be back in the ring for him someday making an appearance, but I joked that I wasn’t doing a (three-minute) squash job for The Samoans. No, no, no. I’m not getting near that deal. He just laughed.”

McMahon later asked Valerie Coleman, Graham’s wife of 25 years, to keep him informed of her husband’s health.

“Vince told him how much he loved him,” said Valerie. “He asked me to keep him updated.”

McMahon was one of the last people Graham talked to before undergoing his transplant surgery.

“He told me that all of that (bitterness) was so far behind us, it wasn’t even on the chart anymore,” Graham said. “(Before the surgery) he told me that ‘We’re going in for the main event now.’ Everything we do is obviously showbiz and a work, but this was like the main event. This was winner-take-all.”

Graham said that even though he doesn’t agree “with a lot of the mechanics of what we see and the (WWE) crossing the line,” he is thankful that his relationship with McMahon has been restored.

“Jesse (Ventura) gave me a call the other day and I was mentioning my relationship with Vince, and he said his relationship had gotten better as well. It was friendlier. He said that Triple H was a big mark for me. I told Vince and he said, ‘Superstar, I’ve always been the No. 1 mark for you.’ I really appreciated that. I’m very grateful that we’ve mended our fences and rebuilt our relationship. I don’t have that cloud hanging over me. You only get one run-through in this life.”

Graham, who spent a week in the hospital, said from his home last week that his recovery was going well.

“I’ve been given the gift of life. It really puts wrestling and bodybuilding and everything else you do into perspective. It’s a matter of living. I’m very appreciative and grateful for the accomplishments I’ve done in wrestling and weightlifting, but all that’s trivial compared to having your life on Earth extended.”

- Southern Wrestling Federation will present a show at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Northwoods Gym on Greenridge Road. The lineup: Krash The Milkman vs. Tank Lewis for the SWF heavyweight title; Susan Green and Solitude vs. The Foundation; Krazy K vs. Jess Bradley for the SWF cruiserweight title; Michael Devine vs. Scar Stevens; Talon vs. Zero; TZK vs. Vordell Walker; Reginald Vanderhoff vs. Jasmine Bradley; and Blake Cannon vs. Tommi Feathers. Tickets are available at the gym. For more information, call 863-9401.

- Universal Wrestling Council and East Carolina University fraternity Chi Phi will present “”Fight for a Cure” to benefit the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life on Saturday at the Sports Connection in Greenville, N.C. Doors open at 7 p.m., with bell time set for 7:30. Bobby Eaton will meet Bad Brad Hunter in the main event. A ladder match is also on the bill. For more information, visit www.theuwc.com.

- “Nature Boy” Ric Flair’s daughter, Ashley Fliehr, led Charlotte’s Providence High School into the North Carolina 4-A state championships in volleyball. The 31-4 Panthers advanced to the finals with a 15-12, 15-10, 13-15, 9-15, 15-6 victory against previously unbeaten Riverside High in Tuesday’s 4-A playoff semifinal. Ashley, a 5-10 sophomore, registered 20 kills and 10 blocks to send Providence, which has won 15 straight games, into a scheduled Saturday state championship contest in Raleigh against Wilmington-Hoggard (32-4).

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Flair’s 14-year-old son, Reid, began high school wrestling practice last week. His junior high football squad recently won the conference title with a 28-22 victory. The 190-pound eighth-grader, a seven-time state champion in wrestling, played nose guard, tackle and offensive right guard in football.

- Edward “Moose” Cholak, a former IWA world champion and an icon in his native Chicago, passed away at the age of 72 Thursday in Hammond, Ind. Cholak, whose pro career spanned from 1953-87, had developed pneumonia after suffering a stroke on Oct. 22.

The 6-4, 400-pound Cholak, an All-Navy heavyweight champion in both boxing and wrestling and an AAU champion and all-city wrestling champion in high school, won the International Wrestling Association heavyweight championship by defeating the legendary Rikidozan in Japan.

The former University of Wisconsin tackle, who was billed as being from the fictional town of Mooseville, Maine, and often wore an oversized moose head into the ring, also worked for 20 years for the city of Chicago as an engineer. When he wasn’t wrestling on the road, he also worked nights and weekends at the family bar until he sold it in 1980. The Calumet Beach Inn tavern he inherited from his father was a neighborhood fixture on Chicago’s Southeast Side, where he was born.

Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected] He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” published by Crown.